TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER

Today, here in the Pacific Northwest, it is raining so hard it sounds as if a drum corps is practicing on my roof. I took Fresno Bob out for a walk and my cheap plastic poncho was blown up over my head almost the second I stepped outside. And it’s dark as can be. At 1:00 in the afternoon it looks like a normal day’s late dusk.

I won’t lie. This has an effect on me. I need extra caffeine and sugar to keep working today. But this isn’t going to be another Phil Laments His Busy Schedule post—we got that sorted last week (at least for now). Let’s ask this question in terms of the characters in our fiction:

How does weather affect the moods, functionality, and actions of your characters?

Here’s a quick example from H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Tomb

As the phantom of the burning house faded, I found myself screaming and struggling madly in the arms of two men, one of whom was the spy who had followed me to the tomb. Rain was pouring down in torrents, and upon the southern horizon were flashes of the lightning that had so lately passed over our heads. My father, his face lined with sorrow, stood by as I shouted my demands to be laid within the tomb; frequently admonishing my captors to treat me as gently as they could.

That’s one sentence that describes the weather, and looking at it out of context like this it almost doesn’t seem to fit. All the other sentences around it in this paragraph are about this poor disturbed guy being subdued by agents of his father. But that image, the thunderstorm, the gray feeling of pouring rain, lends an atmosphere to the scene because Lovecraft knew, as any good writer should, that we speak a certain common emotional language and there are simple keywords that can trigger a shared emotional experience like, for instance, the depressing feeling of a rainy day, or the dread of an approaching lightning storm.

Though John M. Grohol, Psy.D., in his PsychCentral article “Can Weather Affect Your Mood?” wanted to emphasize that, “the weather’s impact on our mood may not be as great as we sometimes believe it to be. A lot of the research in this area has found variable, sometimes-conflicting results. So broad, general take-aways are not always to be had.” Still, there’s real evidence linking weather and mood. Grohol went on:

“Hsiang et al. (2013) found a link between human aggression and higher temperatures. As temperatures rose, the researchers noted that intergroup conflicts also tended to jump—by 14 percent (a significant increase). The scientists also found interpersonal violence rose by 4 percent.

“These findings held true not only for higher temperatures, but also that wet stuff that falls from the sky—rain. The more it rained (especially in areas where high rainfall is not expected), the more aggressive people seemed to get. However, this research could only show a correlation between the two. It’s not at all clear that weather causes these things to happen.”

I think that last sentence is important. We don’t go insane just because it’s raining outside, but in extreme weather situations, do the insane go just a bit more insane? Insane enough to start murdering people?

Still, probably not, but our shared mythology that runs faster and with a wilder abandon alongside science says maybe it does. Anyway, we get that people are more short tempered when it’s 90 degrees outside, or more depressed when it’s cloudy and raining. So like Lovecraft, we can call up that knee-jerk response in our readers to add a little atmospheric weight to a scene, or even go farther with the aid of genres: the rain that causes everyone to try to kill themselves (with a nod to my least favorite M. Night Shyamalan movie), or a heat wave of science fictional proportions that drives people into a half-zombified murderous frenzy.

But back to a little real world science, there is more to this than just a kind of general feeling that the connection between mood and weather, weather and mood, might be for real.

In “Effects of Weather on Human Emotions” at HealthGuidance, Stanley C. Loewen wrote:

“The light triggers many chemical reactions in our brains that make us more alert and happy. For one the presence of light means that the brain ceases to produce melatonin—the sleep hormone that makes us tireder and less alert. Because light prevents melatonin production this in turn means that it also makes us more awake, switched on and alert and with more energy. At the same time light can also affect your mood (though this varies slightly from person to person). Sunlight also makes us produce more serotonin and this causes our brain to produce certain hormones and improve neurotransmission. Among the hormone produced as a result of sun exposure is serotonin—the feel good hormone that is used in many antidepressants. Anyone will get affected by this change in sunlight almost everyone should notice their mood is affected by amount of sunlight getting to their brain.”

Now that your web-based hypochondria (we all have that in the 21st century) has been triggered, check out the web site intellicast.com, which tracks the “Mood Index” for the United States. Make sure you check that before experiencing a feeling!

moodmap

As of this writing, the Puget Sound region, in which I reside, is pretty deep into the “negative” end of the scale. Not surprised. I couldn’t resist checking some more of the maps and was similarly unsurprised to find that the “impairment factor” on the map for “Aches & Pains” is a dull orange, putting us just into the high end of the scale. Being a folliclely-impaired American, I was less troubled by the moderate-to-high “frizz factor” on the “Bad Hair Day” map.

But all kidding aside, there is an actual psychological disorder associated with weather, especially in the absence of sunlight. Sharon K. Farber, Ph.D. writing at Psychology Today described this in her article “Brutal Weather, Depressed Mood, What We Can Do About It”:

“If you felt more depressed than usual, fatigued, irritable, were sleeping more, had little motivation to do things, and were turning to comfort food, you may well have been feeling the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The acronym SAD is an apt one. Usually the depression is within the mild to moderate range, but some people succumb to what is called major depression, in which the risk for suicide is greater. Those who suffer from non-seasonal depression or  Bipolar Disorder may find their illness exacerbated during these seasonal changes.

“For much of the 20th century, Sweden had one of the highest suicide rates in Europe. It may seem strange that countries such as Sweden and Denmark that consistently score high on measures of happiness and life satisfaction also have relatively high rates of suicide. It may well have something to do with the long dark winters.”

So then, what’s the weather like in any particular scene in your story? How does that affect the characters involved, if at all? It could be that too little sunlight triggers SAD in your characters or too much sunlight shuts them down, as Lord Dunsany explored in his story “The Fall of Babbulkund”:

But when the middle of the day draws near, the slaves run to the cool grooves that lie along the verandahs on the northern side of the palace, forsaking the sun, and as the heat overcomes the genius of the musicians, one by one their hands fall from their instruments, till at last all melody ceases. At this moment Nehemoth falls asleep, and the slaves put the palanquin down and lie down beside it. At this hour the city becomes quite still, and the palace of Nehemoth and the tombs of the Pharaohs of old face to the sunlight, all alike in silence. Even the jewellers in the market-place, selling gems to princes, cease from their bargaining and cease to sing; for in Babbulkund the vendor of rubies sings the song of the ruby, and the vendor of sapphires sings the song of the sapphire, and each stone hath its song, so that a man, by his song, proclaims and makes known his wares.

Let the sun shine in!

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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