…or it was a record-shattering heatwave, or it was a once-in-a-lifetime flood season, or it was a freak early-season blizzard, or…
For the past three days, and with another hot day ahead, I’ve been suffering through a short-term weather crisis, as we saw record high temperatures in the Seattle area. The outside air temperature hit 111° Fahrenheit yesterday afternoon, and the inside temperature in my living room was 95°. This effectively brought my life to a standstill as I concentrated on keeping my dogs as cool as possible, alternating with just sitting there staring off into space and trying to keep myself hydrated.
I know… if you live someplace like Phoenix or Las Vegas you’re laughing at me. “What’s the big deal?” I get it, just like I used to laugh at Seattleites panicking over an inch of snow, having just moved from Chicago, for you, that’s normal. You live in a place that has learned to deal with it, like Chicago has learned to deal with snow. But Seattle, known for it’s almost flat-curve moderate weather, isn’t equipped to deal with sharp spikes. For Seattle, especially in June, when the average high is 73°, triple-digits is not normal—at all. In fact, it’s so abnormal that less than half of the homes in the Seattle area have air conditioning. And I live in one of those homes, hence the interior 95°.
This short but intense heatwave was something that just happened, that I had no control over, and that I couldn’t even work through with my old laptop, which burned through cooling packs faster than I could refreeze them. And since it was 10° hotter upstairs, I left my shiny new computer in sleep mode and anyway, go ahead and try to concentrate at any effective level when it’s 95-105°.
But this post isn’t about me whining about being too hot. I’d like to think about weather like this in terms of storytelling and worldbuilding.
Good storytelling depends on us throwing obstacles in the way of our characters. These don’t all have to be massive, world-changing obstacles, but the harder it is for your hero to win the day, the more interesting the story.
The villain(s) can, and should, do all sorts of things to actively make the hero’s life miserable—or, anyway, to prevent the hero from screwing up their plans. You might have the equivalent of random monster encounters, or other things that show up in Dungeons & Dragons as “traps and tricks.” Love it!
But what if it’s so hot your hero has to take her armor off or risk literally dying of heat exhaustion? Now that character is more vulnerable, more miserable, more challenged. What if a freak snowstorm has made travel by horse-drawn wagon impossible, stranding either the hero or the villain in separate locales—or trapping them together in the same locale? Now the weather has forced decisions of your characters—demanded they stay put and risk defeat of some kind, or get creative and figure out how to get from here to there in three feet of snow.
And while I was roasting away in the unairconditioned Pacific Northwest, people across the Midwest were dealing with violent storms and significant flooding. Can your hero land a shuttlecraft and rescue the stranded scientists in a massive thunderstorm? Does your fantasy hero’s trip from one city to another, accompanying a trade caravan, turn into an opportunity for action and conflict when the road is washed out and part of the caravan goes with it, or they have to divert through umber hulk territory, or… you tell me.
A lot of people like me will advise you to avoid any sort of “coincidence.” We’ll tell you to keep your characters active, so if the hero is facing an obstacle it was put there by the villain, and vice versa. And that’s actually true—but not always. If your fantasy or science fiction story is happening in a world where, for lack of a better term, shit happens, and both hero and villain have to deal with that measure of shit, now you don’t just have active characters, but an active world as well.
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of the long-running weekly blog you’re reading right now!