The world seems not the same, though I know nothing has changed.
~ Opening line of “Pale” by Within Temptation
I woke up this morning to a world gone freshly white. I’ve lived here (in Terrace, British Columbia, Canada) most of my life, but the abruptness and totality of our seasonal changes never fails to awe me. My perception of the lay of the land is always changing. What I think I see or know is constantly called into question—especially when it snows.
There are jokes about Canadian literary writers’ obsession with weather, but I think that realism (in any story) demands those details. The weather in most parts of Canada is extreme. Extreme snow. Extreme deluges. Extreme dry. Extreme humidity. And much of life here, despite modernity’s best attempts to make us feel we’re somehow above the elements of nature, is dictated by weather. Canada is not alone in that, however.
Weather and its cousins, Physical Geography, Seasons, and Climate, represent hundreds of characters—benevolent and life-giving rulers, cruel and exacting tyrants, warm and sexy seductresses, cold nasty sonofabitches . . . They shape our daily activities, whether we’re conscious of it or not, dictate a lot of our choices, thwart plans, complicate simple goals, and exacerbate struggle—and not in imagined ways. In real, practical, everyday ways.
You might have a character who consciously muses about the changing weather for symbolism’s sake (better not be every character though! Most people bundle up and peel off layers without ever noticing that the wind, warm earlier, had grown chilly ;-)). You might use seasons as metaphors, blah, blah, blah (Oh, wait, I’ve done that and liked the effect a lot . . .) You should always have characters affected by weather and seasons.
When Ed peals out of the driveway in a rage, what time of year is it? If it’s October – March here, you can safely (heh) have that simple action escalate into a terrible accident. He hits black ice and just like that his car is out of control. He takes out the family’s mailbox. Or the dog. Or his five-year-old daughter who’s just trudging back from her snow fort next door.
When Kelly, new to the North, tells her eight-year-old that he can go play at the nearby park as long as he’s home before dark, then loses track of time unpacking, it’s 11:00 p.m. before she realizes it’s just starting to get dark and there’s no sign of her son.
Weather and terrain affect how people view the world and their place in it, and shape personality, however subtly. Someone who chops wood everyday and has to make sure someone’s home regularly to keep the woodstove topped up so the pipes don’t freeze has a different way of perceiving life than someone who doesn’t own a winter jacket and depends on repairman to regulate his complex’s thermostats.
At the very least, individual responses to weather and landscape give hints to personality. I imagine (or not :D) fairies in flowerbeds, see wood nymphs in the falling leaves, and know that the crystal white winter world I dwell in is somehow mystical.
A person using descriptions like mine would contrast dramatically with one who’d make an observation like a friend of mine recently did, after driving back from Prince Rupert: “Did you know that for a big part of the year here, life is literally black and white? It explains a lot about Northerners.”
Her wording struck me. I was wowed. And she’s right. When the months are at their coldest and most snowy, the North is monochromatic—and much more seems black and white, than gray. That has to have some impact on those who live up here. The possible insight that comment might give into another individual’s approach to life was amazing to me!
Including sensory details about the landscape and what the elements are doing can be a powerful, visual way to give readers a sense of place, if not overdone, of course, but I challenge you (and myself!) to use the weather and geography in the best way—as they are in real life—as dynamic forces, slightly under the main action, supporting it and intensifying it.