Place as Person – Helen Lowe

I was interested to hear from Helen Lowe on Place as Person, as I’ve found we have more than a few SFF preoccupations in common… to say more would be to spoil! Keep an eye out for Helen’s wonderful ‘Wall of Night’ series.


Place As Person: What Does It Mean When Telling Story?


I first became consciously aware of the interface between place and character as an undergraduate, when writing an essay on the city in literature. As soon as I began researching the topic, I quickly realized that whether Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria or Italo Calvino’s invisible city, these places were so vital to the story being told that they were more than simply setting or backdrop—they were “characters” in their own right.

Of course, utilising the benefits of 20/20 hindsight, I can see that an unconscious awareness of place as character began a great deal earlier—with the snowy forest and lamp-post that was my first experience of Narnia, the encroaching darkness of Alan Garner’s Elidor, and the lonely reaches of Earthsea. Yet ‘place as character’ only implies that locale must be strongly enough drawn to pervade the unfolding story. I believe the premise of “place as person” takes both reader and writer a great deal further and that to realise it fully the place must have an actual personality, i.e. it must in some sense be sentient, or at very least a conscious player in the story’s game.

I wrestled with this premise when writing The Heir of Night and developing both the Wall of Night and wider Haarth world. I believe there is no question that the Wall of Night is “place as character”—its bleak, windblasted, and literally dark physical presence dominates The Heir of Night. But we get no sense that it is either sentient or conscious. On the contrary, its brutal physicality is almost the opposite, a monolithic indifference mirrored in the Derai people who garrison its keeps and holds. But toward the end of the book the world begins to open out for the central characters and they find themselves in a new place, known as Jaransor. Once again, I believe Jaransor exemplifies “place as character”—but if I have done my writer’s work well then the reader may begin to question whether there is not more to the matter:  if it might, in fact, be possible that Jaransor is not just a chaotic force, but a personality, albeit a fractured one, that has consciously entered into the conflict being played out.

The Heir of Night ends with this question unanswered, but I pick it up again in The Gathering of the Lost when Malian, the central protagonist, is forced to ask herself whether not only Jaransor, but the world of Haarth itself, could be aware… To say any more at this point would be a spoiler, and in fact the jury is still out on how Haarth’s role, if it is indeed a personality, could play out through the series. But I do feel that in order for either the world or a particular place within it, such as Jaransor, to be said to be “place as person” then it must be a conscious participant in the story. And even the possibility of that being the case is an exciting notion, one that introduces a Gaian consciousness into my epic fantasy.


Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. Her latest novel, The Heir of Night, the first of THE WALL OF NIGHT quartet, is published in the USA and now the UK. Helen has twice won New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award, for Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009 and The Heir of Night in 2011—and The Heir of Night has again just been nominated for the Gemmell Awards, in both the Legend and Morningstar categories.

Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on SF Signal. To read more about Helen and her writing, click here. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we


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11 Responses to Place as Person – Helen Lowe

  1. Kim Falconer says:

    Wonderful post, Helen! The question of sentience in things ‘inanimate’ is such an intriguing exploration!

    I can’t wait for The Gathering of the Lost to see how these questions are answered.

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  3. Helen Lowe says:

    Not yet answered in GATHERING but definitely explored further–a little of ‘the new’ perhaps in my classic epic fantasy … 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Kim.

  4. Gillian says:

    I love* the moment when I’m reading a book and I realise that the place has character and then that it’s more than that.

    *I’m full of love at the moment.

  5. Helen Lowe says:

    Full of love is a great way to be, Gillian. But I, too, adore that “a-ha” moment when you realise that something more is going on. And surprises: I “do” like to be surprised.:)

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  8. ashleycapes says:

    Hi Helen!

    I like this part of your post especially:

    “i.e. it must in some sense be sentient, or at very least a conscious player in the story’s game.”

    and wanted to ask whether you have any further thoughts on the difference between place as a ‘conscious player’ & as ‘sentient’?
    For instance, the way Jaransor actually acts and has a physical impact on the characters toward the end of the book is a great example of ‘conscious player.’ The towers too, seem to embody the ‘sentient’ side – and to go back to my ramblings on Tension at your blog – a ‘sentient’ place probably builds tension and when and if it acts (becomes ‘conscious player’), that’s a release of that tension. Ah, a new topic? Tension & Place? Hahaha

    And thank you, Mary – for organising these posts, enjoying them – keeps me thinking.

  9. Helen Lowe says:

    Hi Ashley,

    I wonder how fine the distinction between “conscious player” and “sentient” is, when the dictionary (Merriam Webster) describes “sentient” as “responsive to or conscious of sense impressions” which would cover most animals for example, whereas animals are generally regarded as conscious in the sense of rationally self aware. But I definitely think all the animals I have come in contact with have “personalities” and “distinct identities”, so a “place as person” could be sentient, ie responsive and conscious of sense impressions, and also have a distinct identity/personality, but not necessarily be self aware to the extent of rational cognitive thought. In terms of Jaransor, which may include the towers as part of the ‘whole’ (I think the “place” quote on my blog yesterday suggests this latter interpretation re the towers might be so), I believe it is fairly clear that it falls into the first category of sentient. Whether it is also a “conscious” player in the sense of rational cognitive thought remains to be explored …

  10. ashleycapes says:

    Ah! Jaransor is a fun mystery, and I like the speed with which it’s being revealed too so I’m keen for book two.

    Ah-ha, then by that distinction between the two terms, maybe I didn’t give too much agency to Jaransor in regard to events around the Night Mare scene – if sentient is ‘responsive’ then that fits very nicely. Now I’m going to be looking for hints of rational cognitive thought from places in the rest of the series!

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