I know I just spent all of October talking about setting, but with the solstice coming up this week, the weather is heavy on my mind. Struggling as I do with SAD, I’m acutely aware of how dark it is and how cold it is and how maddeningly close we are to inching our way back to the light. (For context, daylight for today in Fairbanks Alaska is 3.6 hours total, and still shrinking. An emphatic boo to that.)
When I wrote in October, I mostly concentrated on the physical setting, and weather definitely falls within that realm. But today I’d like to elaborate more about the psychological and contextual aspects that they impart. (You may recall from October’s Setting the Scene that there are four primary aspects of setting: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.)
So first off, what is weather? Weather is the ever-changing state of the atmosphere that surrounds our fair planet. Humidity, daylight, temperature, cloud coverage, pollution levels, wind speed, moon phase, and a host of other qualities are all aspects of weather. As writers, we’ve got a lot of room to play here.
Books often start with a mention of the weather (the pollution in Sanderson’s Mistborn; the sunlight and temperature in Orwell’s 1984; the humidity in Plath’s The Bell Jar). (I’m not saying to do this; weather as an opener can get you an autoreject from agents, editors, and readers alike. That said, some writers do it very well.) Weather immediately tells us something about the world these characters live in and the kind of story this might be. Weather has long been known to play a role symbolically and foreshadowingly. (Yes, that’s a word, sh.) This affects the context of your story. So if a story starts with a dark and stormy night, expectations are already being set in place. Likewise, mentions of pollution, strong winds, extreme heat, etc, can all be used to symbolize larger and/or parallel problems within the story.
It doesn’t just have to be opening lines, though. Weather can, and ought to, be sprinkled throughout an entire story, because our atmosphere is ever present. Even its absence can be telling, or its artificial masking. Who doesn’t recognize the antiseptic smell of a hospital hall, the strangely perfumed stink of a public restroom? Use weather in your stories to help readers understand where they are and what’s going on, and to foreshadow where things might be going.
Similarly, weather can be notched up another power rung and take on the role of abstract antagonist, either as a secondary antagonist along with some other opponent, or directly, as is common in man v. nature stories. In books such as The Perfect Storm, 81 Days below Zero, and Endurance, each story pits its characters against merciless weather. As humans with thoughts and emotions and motives, we often anthropomorphize these features onto entities that don’t. When faced with the raw power of nature, it can be terrifying to realize that we are mere specks on the face of this earth, and the tornado picking up our car or the storm flooding the baby’s nursery or the cold slowly stealing the movement from our limbs doesn’t give a used fig about us. There’s no bargaining, no begging, no convincing. It simply is.
Weather can be akin to a character, so large and powerful that it shapes lives and landscapes. But consider also the many small ways in which weather affects our daily lives, even in temperate climates. It affects our health, our mood, and what sounds good to eat. Sure, we can become hypothermic in a spring rain or suffocate for want of oxygen in a closed room, but mostly we just want an ice cream when it’s hot, or steal an older sibling’s sweater when the house is cold, or become embarrassed when the wind messes up our hair on the way to the party, or when a storm kicks up and we’re the only dork who forgot an umbrella. Weather can be huge and scary, but it can also be small and annoying, perfect and inspiring, cozy and comforting. No matter where you are, weather is there, and it’s shaping your day.
Which brings me back to my original impetus for this post. I live in a nicely warmed box all winter, and day to day life is usually pretty tame. I have to bundle up to go outside, but mostly I stay in and bake and do laundry and other adult things. But I long for the kiss of dawn, for sun I can feel like baby’s breath warm on my skin. I daydream about putting in more windows. I scroll through pictures of blindingly green-and-gold summer. And in the middle of a cloudless day, those scant hours when the sun hangs low in the sky, I pause at the windows to stare through the skeletal boughs of aspen toward that southern horizon, forgetting my chores for just a little while. I ache for sunlight, and more than metaphorically. I have to take vitamin D tablets so that my bones and muscles don’t turn to jelly. I have to spend time in front of my happy light each day or I’m weepy and tired before the kids even get home from school. And this is just short-term stuff. A whole slew of physical and mental ailments can creep in over time, courtesy of the endless night.
You have these bits of weather that you live with, too, whether it’s staying parked in front of the AC from May through August, or constantly fighting black mold off your windowsills and out of your carpets, or wearing a mask at work to keep particulates out of your lungs, or never forgetting a rain jacket when you go out, because if you do you will always, always regret it. Weather is more than what it feels like or what it smells like. Weather changes our thoughts, changes our actions. Weather changes the game.
Think about where your story takes place. What’s the weather like? How will this affect the character’s wardrobe? The activities for the day? How do they live with their weather? What problems can the weather cause for your character? What havoc can the heavens rain down on your MC’s plans? What difficulties can arise in the plot?
Set fog around your fleet of warships. Let an arctic vortex freeze your plucky heroine in her tracks. Dawn the day of the funeral bright and glorious. Hail on weddings.
Weather is magnificent, merciless, and inescapable. Weather determines what we wear, how we travel, even the foods we eat and the pastimes we engage in. Making sure that it affects your characters in these ways too will add an immersive new layer of reality to your work.