Sometimes a place functions like a character in fiction. It has a kind of personality other characters have to navigate. Its presence shapes the story. Consider how in Prince of Tides, the opening sequence is a kind of tour of the coastal backwaters that sets a certain tone, but is not just a verbal photo album of tidewater swampery. Or the house of Usher. Or Gormeghast. Houses know when they are lived in and though near ruin will still hold together as long as they can if occupied. I suspect communities, forests and countrysides have a simlar dynamic. They have/are a kind hypostatis…of something. We see this in a number of stories, but trying to write place as character easily decends into travelog, and the sence of character gets lost. So, any pointers?
That’s such a perceptive question, and I think any author who can accomplish this really establishes himself/herself as a next level writer.
When I teach this, one of my go-to texts is The Pearl by John Steinbeck. He does such a fabulous job of really emphasizing place, and he sometimes takes a long time to do it, but it doesn’t stand out awkwardly from the text.
I think two important keys are to make sure that the place as character integrates with the larger story and does work.
Authors fail at this when we get distracted by the cool factor. Yes, that idea you want to develop for place as character is really neat, but does it fold into and elevate the primary story arc? Is it thematically congruent with the story you’re already telling? If it does, it’s going to bring exponential value to the text, but if it doesn’t, it will be clutter, or at worst, distracting.
Your reader has invested in a particular story, so all of the elements should support that story arc. As an example, the place should not only develop itself as a cool element, but it should contribute to the reader’s intuitive understanding of the narrator’s POV. It should contribute to our understanding of the stakes for the protagonist and the protagonist’s relationship to the universe of the story.
The thing about place development is that it often slows down the pace of a story. In order to compensate for that, we have to be super intentional and do it really well.
Great question, Robert! Thanks for asking.