The experience of having Alma Alexander as an editor on ‘River’ was one of the most uplifting I’ve known. She warned me at the outset that she would be completely honest about my writing – and she was. She never failed to point out any flaws, but when she praised something, I knew I was getting somewhere! I can’t wait to read her new title, ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens’.
Here’s her take on Place as Person.
Some places simply have magic. Some don’t.
It’s an alchemy of geography and of worldbuilding, sometimes separately, sometimes in tandem. In fiction, it’s the places you as the author build up in the reader’s mind and imagination that are so essential to a story’s identity and sense of self – and while it frequently depends on places that have had some kind of intense personal meaning for you yourself, it may not always be so.
There is a thin line between what works, and what doesn’t – and the line is not (alas for aspiring authors who want Rules To Follow) necessarily always drawn in the same place. Sometimes it is a fine line indeed, and at least once it broke a book – or in this case a series – for me. I am speaking of Narnia.
As a young reader, I loved Narnia – the magical, wonderful, chaotic dream of it all. I was not alone in this – no less a luminary than Neil Gaiman is aware enough of the iconic power of that place that he placed a solitary lantern in the woods near his home. In snowy winters, he can probably step through the bare trees and come upon this odd lantern pole, and just KNOW that he is standing in the Lantern Waste and that at any moment a Mr Tumnus might come stepping lightly around the nearest snow-dusted tree trunk. And somehow it is this strangeness, this tickling of a sense of wonder, that gives Narnia its power to enchant.
As the series wove on and developed its storylines, we were introduced to another place, a place called Aslan’s Country. A place supposedly above and beyond Narnia. But… see… here it fractured for me.
Narnia… was a “real place” for me, just one that didn’t (quite) exist in our world. But the more I heard about Aslan’s Country, the more disillusioned I got – this was something I’d heard of before, something that had been pushed in our world; this… this was just… another name for “heaven”, the place where (in other incarnations) choirs of angels stood around singing praises to God. This didn’t interest me. This wasn’t fantasy. This was wish fulfillment. This was smugness and sanctimoniousness, this was a “look at the grand place that *I* am going to and *YOU* are not because I am so good and you are undeserving”. I became disappointed in Aslan, after this business of Aslan’s Country. I wanted him to be exactly what he had been described as – “ he was not a TAME lion.” I did not want him to be God.
Setting can do this – make or break a story.
Setting can be any number of things.
It can be the kind of place which qualifies as just another protagonist of the story you are telling, because there is simply no way that the story can take place in any other setting but the one that you are describing. Somehow the setting and your characters get tangled and twinned and you cannot imagine one without the other or separate them in your head, and the landscape draws a deep breath and starts breathing independently of the story. There are dangers in this because it can take over a story and you wind up writing about nothing EXCEPT the place, just trying to stitch on enough of a human-drama story to sell it as a novel and not as a loving paean to the setting itself.
It can be – on the other extreme – no more than a generic backdrop, something slotted in behind the action like a green screen, and it’s completely irrelevant what that backdrop is, you could really not care less, there are details that don’t match and it’s all completely shallow and there is no depth to it at all but it doesn’t MATTER because you aren’t writing about that place at all, it’s just mentioned in passing so that the reader doesn’t think that they’re floating in vacuum. There are dangers here, too, fairly obvious ones – because if it doesn’t matter to you it is going to not matter to your readers. And this can be a bad thing to go into a story with from the outset, because you’re already losing a layer of interest.
It can ride the middle road – it can be the place where your action takes place, you can make certain that your details are right and your setting is immersive, and yet you can still pay the biggest share of attention to the storyline that is unfolding within this setting and not the setting itself. This might be a hard thing to achieve, because it’s a tightrope and you are balancing those two very different things with very different weights, setting and plot, and hoping that you’ll get across the chasm of the suspension of disbelief simply by dint of luck, passion, and perseverance.
I’ll give you examples of all three – but first, let me give you a theme, and introduce it by a real-life example: “Lawrence of Arabia”.
I tried to find a video of that opening sequence, of that sweeping piece of theme music opening up to open sand dunes. I couldn’t, quite. But here’s something almost like what I wanted – it’s the music, with some scenes from the film. You’ll get the idea.
Here’s the point, here. It’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. It is impossible to divorce the man – the “character” if you like – from that immense brooding backdrop. They are part of one another. They belong together. You think of Lawrence, and you think of sand dunes (no matter what else the man ever did or said or was). This is a perfect real-life example of what I meant when I said that the landscape becomes a character in its own right. Lawrence isn’t just Lawrence, or not merely Lawrence. He is Lawrence-who-carries-Arabia, and the Arabia part of him was a dark twin, his shadow, something that you could not cut out of him without destroying him first. Arabia is a madness in Lawrence’s eyes (and hey, if I may digress just a tad here, it helps that in the movie they were Peter O’Toole’s eyes, and there really IS a sort of madness in them. I know, I looked into them once, in real life. I saw this, for real. I think I glimpsed the personal Arabia that O’Toole the actor carried within himself, if not necessarily that of the character of T.E. Lawrence whom he portrayed with such frightening sincerity on the big screen).
The desert, then, is my theme, and you will probably guess what my first example is – I’ve already used the word, above, several times, and it is the ultimate in place-as-person writing – Herbert’s immortal “Dune”.
“Dune” stole my heart, my mind, and my imagination a very long time ago. I remember reading that book for the first time, and I remember that it left me breathless. The sheer depth of it gave it life – every detail of that world fit together, nothing could be omitted without marring the whole, everything was important and essential and interconnected like every good ecosystem should be. “Dune”… lived. The story that took place within the book of that name could not have taken place anywhere else, on any other world, in any other environment. Paul Atreides, Muad’dib, and the desert world which he strode and loved and ruled were one. He was Paul of Dune, like Lawrence was of Arabia – Dune was (heh, literally – the blue of spice) a madness in his eyes.
The dangers of this identification were made manifest as the series wore on – and the setting overwhelmed the storyline. It kind of got too tangled, too convoluted, it lost my interest as far as the STORY story was concerned, because it hung so desperately, so tightly, on the concept of Dune itself. It became the equivalent of a kudzu vine which was wrapping tighter and tighter around the great tree that supported it – and in the end the world of Dune became a dry and hollowed out husk for me, and the kudzu vine of the story ceased to hold any further interest.
It is possible for a setting to become so important, so central, so completely essential, to a story, that the story sucks the life from it and eventually there’s nothing left except a shell of its former self – and at this point even the stories that cling to it become fragile and breakable because the setting is no longer strong enough to support them. I quit reading the Dune series halfway into the fourth book; I’ve never felt the slightest urge to pick it up again. It was almost painful to watch the increasingly glassy-eyed zombie version of the original incandescent vision shamble off into the sunset, dead but not quite dead, prodded on for the purpose of… well, I am not certain for what purpose. That story, that setting, that has been told, and it is over. Perhaps it’s time to move on, here, and let the sands cover the last mortal remains of the place.
The example of the second type of setting – backdrop #417, Desert Scene – that I am going to put forward is Tatooine, from Star Wars. Tatooine is about as different as can be from the original magnificent Dune where every detail mattered and was deeply, deeply, completely right and proper. Tatooine, by contrast, was a cartoon desert, busy with details that were never explored beyond just tossing them at the consumer of the story. Who were the Jawas, and what did they eat when they couldn’t get hobbit… er… you know what I mean. Who were the Sand People, and what did they hunt, out there in the desert, exactly? What precisely was “farmed” in that desert (yeah, that was implied…)? Where the hell did all those critters in the cantina come from, and how come they could ALL just breathe that thin desert air? How expensive was it to live in a place like that where pretty damn near everything had to be imported? If it took a people like the Fremen to survive Dune, and even creatures like the Sand People to survive Tatooine, how come Luke and his family could just wander about in those “I’m just off to my karate class now” clothes and still be okay?
Star Wars, the franchise, was full of these monocultural worlds, This is what I mean by green-screen interchangeable settings – just pull one, replace with another, and the same set of characters play out their scenes in front of it all and it really doesn’t MATTER much what that backdrop is. Seeking Yoda? Insert jungle planet with dash of bayou. Secret base? Oh, let’s go with Ice Planet. Another secret base? How about the Forest Moon of Endor. You want to get off terra firma? Well, here’s a Death Star. See? It didn’t MATTER. Snow, jungle, the vacuum of space, or desert sand – so long as you had somebody in front of it with a light saber, things were fine. There was no particular sense of anything beyond that – for instance, what kind of geographical, physical, cultural or biological imperatives could produce a creature like Jar Jar Binks? (You want to go back and check? Meesa will wait…) Tatooine…it was all backdrop, only backdrop, nothing but backdrop, it was not a setting that you found particularly important or memorable at all. It was an Accidental Desert, no more, no less.
When I wrote “Changer of Days”, the book that eventually made it into the world as the fantasy duology “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days”, I did not create a monothematic world. The primary world into which my heroine was born was a place called Roisinan, temperate and wooded and marginally Celtic if you wanted to look for clues. But then… then she crossed into something quite different. She crossed into a place called Kheldrin, shrouded in mystery and legend and shadow – and a desert.
ai’Jihaar ,one of my desert-born characters, says to my protagonist, the young exiled princess from the soft country where survival was easy and too many things were taken for granted,
Arad Khajir’i’id. The Southern Desert. This is Kheldrin, Land of Twilight, not seen by alien eyes for a thousand years.
This, after the protagonist in question catches her first glimpse of this strange and, for her, utterly otherworldly place:
Anghara had known it would be a flat and largely featureless ocean of sand, drifting and deadly. She had known that it would be overwhelming in its silence and its immensity. But she had not known that it could wring a heart, that it was beautiful.
The readers learn about this desert with the reader of this story. ai’Jihaar teaches her young charge how to live in this place that is so strange to her.
”There are few things in the desert,” ai’Jihaar said, “but what there is comes in many different guises. What you know as sand we might name soft sand, hard sand, dune sand, quicksand – and some are to be sought, some avoided. What you know as wind we may call iri’sah, or khai’san. And when you get caught in a soft sand desert with a khai’san wind blowing in your face, you die.” These were harsh words, but they were truth, and truth on which lives depended.
But even this is not THE desert, or the only desert.
A little while later they break off from their caravan and turn into another kind of desert – a black, rocky, waterless, almost airless wilderness called Khar’i’id.
“There is no cool in the Khari’i’id night. And no one walks the Stone Desert in darkness, Not when there is a choice.”
It hides a precious secret, this brooding and evil place seemingly intent only on killing. But it has to be endured for that secret to be given up because it lies in the heart of the Stone Desert – which takes everything, every last drop of courage or endurance or patience or passion. Nothing survives THIS desert except the molten core of a human heart.
And after this, when it is crossed, there is something else, again – Kadun Khajir’i’id. If the Arad had been yellow sand, and the Stone Desert had been black stone, this is the Red Desert, sculpted dunes of red sand, and after Khar’i’id the Kadun is almost… indulgent.
This is a complex desert world, with interweaving ecosystems, interweaving cultures (there is more, to come, later…) and yet integrated into something that is whole and seamless. This is not a generic backdrop, not something you can shuffle out and put something quite different in the background and expect to tell the same story. It is not, however, Dune, either. This is not the REASON for the story, merely something that is an important strand in the weaving of it, that adds a layer of verisimilitude and reality and solidity and depth to the storyline.
Ask me sometime, if you’ve read these books, if I had ever walked in any kind of desert before, personally. Go on, ask me. You might be surprised at the answer.
I like to think I walked that tightrope of which I spoke, earlier, with a degree of confidence and ability, perhaps even of a certain elegance at times. The reader will be a better judge of this than the author can ever be. But if we want to talk about the presence of a setting in a story, to the point that it shapes the story like a protagonist in its own right, like… like a PERSON… well, then, I give you Kheldrin. Because this was a place which rose up and inhabited that story which I wrote about the people who lived and moved within it… like a spirit. Like a soul.
And if your setting is the soul of your story… it can hardly be more of a “person” than that.
Look for this, in the novels and stories near you. It is a hard thing to quantify but you WILL know it when you see it – a deeper shadow beyond the surface interactions of your human characters – and the best thing I can wish for you, as readers, is that you are granted the joy, the wonder, of finding it, and of falling in love with it.
Alma Alexander was born in Yugoslavia, grew up in Africa, went to school in Wales, and lived in New Zealand before moving to the U.S. She has published more than a dozen books in the US and around the world. Alma is the author of the internationally acclaimed ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei’, on sale in 14 languages, and the young adult ‘Worldweavers’ series that VOYA suggested for readers suffering Harry Potter withdrawal.
Find out more about Alma on www.almaalexander.com