Friday, January 8, 2010
Weather in fantasy
Weather is a good way to flesh out fantasy worlds and complicate matters for characters. Here are a few ways to use it…
Weather control through magic
Given how much of the economy depends on the weather, people who can predict (or better yet, control it) have a great deal of power. In the Iliad, Agamemnon even sacrificed his daughter so that his army would have a safe passage home. That’s an interesting twist – you can control the weather, but only by giving up something of great value.
Such global or large-scale control could be too unbalancing, though. What about local or very small-scale control? Considering the average temperature here right now, I wouldn’t mind magic which kept a tiny, 25-degree-Celsius zone around me no matter where I went.
Maybe this could be governed by a small object like a miniature snow globe (or sun globe, depending on what weather is needed).
Negative effects of weather
Bad weather should cause problems for characters – problems ranging from inconvenience (rain results in a cold camp with no fire) to fatality (a blizzard kills most of the reinforcements sent to relieve the heroes) to disaster (an unseasonable ice storm ruins the harvest and means thousands of people will starve over the winter).
And that’s just in the colder areas. If the heroes are traveling through a desert, do they know what to do in a sandstorm? And maybe they’re prepared for desert heat, but are they also ready for desert rain? A group of teenagers in Dubai once drove out to a wadi and decided to swim. They were still in the water when a flash flood struck.
I wasn’t able to get very far into Steven Erickson’s Malazan
novels, but my favorite aspect of the worldbuilding is the Whirlwind in the Raraku Desert – a great sorcerous wall of wind and sand, constantly in motion. Try crossing that. I’d love to see more such phenomena – a permanent blizzard, maybe?
In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Long Rain”, a human crew survive a crash-landing on Venus, but the planet is a place of permanent rain.
…it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men's hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.
Permanent summer/winter (or fall or spring, more rarely seen) are possibilities too. So are seasons lasting for years or longer, as in Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Spring, where the planet revolves around a binary star system. Individual seasons stretch for centuries, affecting all life on Helliconia; humans are dominant in the summer and white-furred phagors in the winter.
Even under more normal conditions, people in a medieval world will have to make preparations for poor weather, especially if they can’t predict how long it might last. Gathering, hunting, preparing and stockpiling food, bringing in flocks, collecting fuel, reinforcing shelters… a heroine who returns to her snowbound village with gold and glory might be less welcome than one who simply comes home with some sacks of corn.
The weather is not a mirror
I’m guilty of this. At least thrice now, I’ve had a protagonist fight a climactic battle while a storm raged overhead. It’s dramatic and symbolic (and in one case, the storm played an unexpected role in the battle), but it has the potential to be abused.
The weather can too often be reflection of the characters’ moods – she’s grief-stricken, so the rain falls; he realizes she loved him all along, and the sun shines down from clouds drawing apart. Sometimes that works, as in Gone with the Wind, when Rhett walks away into a misty night to show the ambiguousity of the ending. That’s subtle.
What wouldn’t work is if the narrative explicitly underlined the symbolism, or worse, descended into anthropomorphism. Something like:
As she began to dig the grave, the skies wept above her.
Because the weather doesn’t care about the characters… unless it’s caused by a weather god, maybe.