by Janis Patterson
Lately we as a country have been having extreme weather – record snows, ice, drought, heat waves, all sometimes seemingly of Biblical proportion. Now I’m not going to get into the global warming hoax/fact discussion. I’m going to talk about the weather as a character.
Uh-oh, I can hear you saying, she’s totally lost it this time. I don’t think so. All day every day we are all affected by the weather in some way, from a sudden rainstorm simply ruining a outdoor gathering to the effects on our food supply by some far-away weather event. If the weather has this much effect on our real lives, affects events, our actions, and our thoughts and emotions, why should it do less for our characters?
Bulwyer-Litton, one of the more overwrought writers of the late 19th century, began one of his books with the immortal “It was a dark and stormy night…” Hackneyed and unacceptable to modern audiences (other than Snoopy the dog) it still sets an unmistakable tone and emotional image in just seven words. Not bad.
Good writers use weather as they use setting and personalities – as a part of a whole. The weather can be as much of a character as the hero and villain. Will the unprincipled villain catch the hero? Will the possibly traitorous sidekick help or betray the hero? Will the weather help or hinder the hero’s journey?
We’ve all been at some outdoor function when the heavens have opened and poured rain. We’ve all been at a solemn occasion such as a funeral where the sky is blue and the winds gentle, creating a merry atmosphere totally at odds with the sadness of the occasion. And, I dare say, the opposite is true. When the weather and the occasion are of equal stylistic weight, the emotional punch is doubled. Of course, a good writer can make opposing styles work, but it takes a great deal more effort (and skill) and can dilute the wanted reaction.
Unlike in real life, we can bend the weather to our desires, and that can make the weather a writer’s best friend.
Think of a romantic screwball comedy. Do you think it would read as profoundly, as lightheartedly in the middle of a destructive rainstorm and flood? Or the body-strewn climax of a dark noir thriller – would it have the same impact on a sunny afternoon in a daisy-strewn meadow as on a cold and snowy street?
If you want a tense scene where the hero/heroine is being stalked by an efficient killer intent on his destruction, which is more emotionally effective – a sweet garden, full of sunshine and pretty flowers or in the chiaroscuro shadows of a deserted shopping mall?
Now of course there have been very successful exceptions to my theorem, but not many. Some writers can take any so-called ‘rule’ and turn it on its head. I’m not one of them, so I go with the tried and true but put my own spin on it. First of all, it’s a lot more work to put (for example) a sweetly romantic scene in the middle of a violent hurricane. In such a situation the writer must work against type – which admittedly can be effective – but can also make a visceral connection with the desired feel of the scene more difficult for the writer.
Humans are hard-wired to connect with the weather. Writers should use this as a method of deep and emotional communication with the reader. Treat the weather like a character and make it serve your story.