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.

Unusual weather

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.


Randall said...

As much as I love Dragonquest 8, the only time it rains in the entire, long, epic storyline is during a funeral.

Linda Adams said...

A timely topic. I've been researching weather for my WIP. In this case, a weather phenomenon (this is going to be the word I'm going to have trouble spelling on this book!) is a sign the magic shield is failing, only everyone thinks it's aurora. I didn't know it, but auroras don't just happen in Alaska. There was one photographed in Maryland! Also a really weird spiral light in Norway in December that turned out to be the result of a failed missile test.

I had to pick a time of the year for the story so I would get the right type of weather I needed---a major storm with strong, damaging winds and lots of rain (particularly bad for an area that has had brush fires). There are some very good references for weather available!

Bekah said...

I'd not thought of this before, yet it is very true. Weather is a quite useful tool, but abused it becomes overdone. Thanks for sharing.

ralfast said...

So you had weather on your mind as well? Yeah, you got to watch out for stock weather scenarios (battle in the rain, overcast funerals, cemeteries in winter) or empathic weather (sunny when the MC is happy, rainy when she is sad). It can work, if you remember that it is the characters reacting to the weather and not the other way around (most of the time).

Angela said...

"The weather is not a mirror" So true! I have plans for a weather thesaurus, but i'll be prefacing it to USE IT CAREFULLY, lest I have agents and eds screaming at my door for putting the notion in people's heads that it's okay to mirror emotion to the point of distraction!

What I would like to see more of is weather that create effects we don't see in our world. Gases leeched from the a type of rock that causes sheets of fire? A heat from the sun that chemically alters cows to seek out flesh? Oh ya, the possibilities~!

Loren said...

On this subject, let's not forget how climates vary from place to place. This is a rather large subject, but I'll give a very simplified summary. The Earth has four climate belts. From the equator to the poles:

Tropical - wet
Subtropical - dry
Temperate - wet
Polar - dry

Many places also have localized distinctive climates or microclimates. Land areas, especially far inland areas, have greater extremes of temperature than watery areas; the water's thermal inertia makes the difference.

Marian said...

Loren - Oh yes, I think I read about the effects of thermal inertia in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. That's why England's winters are milder than Canada's, IIRC.

And Canada's winters... well, I feel like I'm on the set of Scott of the Antarctic.

Angela - That's a great suggestion, to let the weather have effects that we wouldn't see in our world. I do that with rain in a couple of manuscripts - when a silvery rain falls, it's sure to make people temporarily blind if it runs into their eyes.

Easy way to show how different and dangerous your world can be. Thanks for reminding me!

Marian said...

Randall : What kind of world is Dragonquest 8 set in? I used to live in the Middle East, and it rained maybe three times a year there, at most.

Linda : I also thought auroras were seen mostly in the far north and south - borealis and australis. Interesting to hear that they occur elsewhere as well.

There's something fascinating about major storms like the one you mentioned, even when they don't have magical side-effects. A force of nature that can't be controlled, only fled from.

Marian said...

Bekah - Glad you like it. :) Weather plays a major role in battles as well - IIRC, a significant number of ships in the Spanish Armada were lost to a storm.

ralfast - I went from one extreme of weather to another (the Middle East to the Great White North), so the topic is very much on my mind in winter.

Summer here is fine, but winter makes me think wistfully of some kind of huge underground complex where I could live for five months out of the year, traveling through tunnels to wherever I needed to go. Then once the snow melted, I could come back up like a groundhog.

Randall said...

Marian, it's a big world with four continents, lots of trees and grasslands, etc.

Mind you, the distance thing is a little screwy, though I'd always assumed the mileage was "scale mileage", so that the designers don't have to animate every boring mile of your journey, but if one goes by the figures given crossing all four continents takes you only a few hundred miles.

That's a huge run-on sentence and I'm not making any sense, am I?

Loren said...

That's right about Britain being warmer than Canada; Britain is in the path of the Gulf Stream ocean current.

Also, auroras are usually seen at high northern and southern latitudes, though magnetic storms can make them visible closer to the Equator.

Marian said...

Loren : magnetic storms sound like something I'll need to look up when I have a moment. There's something very "science meets drama" about them. :)

Though I once wrote a fanfic which featured a geomagnetic storm, even though I'm not sure those occur naturally on Earth.

Randall : I can understand the distance problem, because it always happens to me with fics. When I first started out, I had characters crossing continents on foot, in a couple of weeks.

Now I try to draw scale maps. And abide by them.