Landscapes as Characters

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Having just visited six national parks (Sequoia, Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon) I have a renewed appreciation for the power of landscape (and, I might add, an intimate knowledge of all their junior ranger programs!).

Using landscape and location is critical to my own work, but I think there is a fine line between setting an evocative scene and going over the top. I have no doubt many landscapes make powerful characters in their own right, but they should never be allowed to overwhelm the story. Readers want to know about people not about rocks and trees. For new writers I think using landscape effectively can be a challenge and, for what it’s worth, I have a few tips that I’d like to share…

First, I do not subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy. I believe you should write about any place you want to, whether or not you have been there. I would add the caveat, however, that if you do write about a place you have never been you must do your research very, very thoroughly. Readers need to be confident of the setting you have created, so misnamed places, inappropriate plants etc. will only undermine that confidence.

Secondly, use description sparingly. No one needs to read a travelogue and often I think it can be harder to write about a place you know intimately than one with which you have only a passing acquaintance. Sometimes it is, quite literally, too hard to tell the wood from the trees.

Thirdly, consider a new aspect or angle to your use of landscape. Use something about the place that is unusual or surprising, which illuminates something meaningful about the characters or plot. I try to make the landscape reflect mood, character or theme.

Finally, abandon the clichés as much as possible. Nothing is more yawn inducing than paragraphs filled with really obvious or trite descriptions. Keep it fresh.

Anyway, as I am still on the road, this post is another short one but I would like to hear your comments and thoughts on using landscape. What in your view are some of the most egregious mistakes made in terms of overdoing use of landscape?

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

8 thoughts on “Landscapes as Characters

  1. I realize I’m very much in the minority and that writing styles have changed, but Zane Grey, the master of setting, has always been my favorite novelist exactly because he did sweep me away with locale and description (lenghty ones. YAHOO!). And that was worth all the gold in the world to this little kid from the featureless ‘other’ shore of Maryland. And he made the locale work for him. And I never found it to be a hindrance to characterization.

    Of course everybody has attention deficit these days so what worked in 1927 won’t work now. But I still love to read his books.

  2. BK, I secretly enjoy lots of landscape descriptions too. That is why I love Thomas Hardy…but I know today that doesn’t fly (sadly in many respects) today…

  3. A friend of mine is writing a Fantasy novel, and I was telling her just this past saturday that her ‘world’ should be a character by itself. Funny timing!
    All that to say, I think it can be especially helpful in a world of magic, where the world can ‘interfere’ with the plot. I think that presents some fun things a writer can play with…
    For myself, I use setting to enhance the mood of what’s going on – at least as far as it fits – desolation, anger, peace. All of these emotions a character feels can be emphasized by the world they’re living in. Or the world can be at conflict with the character.
    Interesting things to contemplate… thanks for the posting!

  4. As I read your post, I thought of Zane Grey and Thomas Hardy, and when I got to the comments, there they were.

    If I could add one thing, it’s that nature can be an antagonist, too. That old ‘person vs person, person vs self, person vs nature’ thing we learned in high school English class.

    I think modern writers may consider saving the extensive descriptions of terrain and weather for the scenes where they really present a challenge to the protagonist.

  5. Good post, Clare. I think the key today is that the descriptions should in some way do “double duty” by affecting the plot, the character or both. Thus, being selective in the details is essential. I like to think of setting as another “character.”

  6. Great ideas. Conflict with the landscape and setting as an antagonist are great strategies. In fantasy world building is essential and more attention needs to be paid to the setti g but it still should not overwhelm the story. Double duty is a nice way of putting it, Jim – always important I think when it comes to setting.

  7. I live surrounded by national parks, My commute to work is a ten mile drive along the western boarder of the mountainous Chugach National Forest.

    Landscape and climate are two of the most important characters for books set, as some of mine are, in Alaska. Stories set in this place take on a considerably different aura for many readers since the landscape is so foreign, even mystical. That being said, I believe it is critical not to let the landscape butt in. Instead to let it float in on the peripheral vision and touch the senses as if it were a totally normal, everyday incredibly amazing experience.

    Of course that being said, it is still amazing to me how many people come up here and just sit and stare at stuff. I mean come on, it is just mountains, and rivers, and lakes and ocean and whales and eagles and glaciers and … …

    anyway, just let it be there.

  8. By the way, any temperature colder than -40 becomes a viable living entity.

    An evil, cruel, mean and otherwise very unpleasant antagonist indeed.

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