Rant on creating a sense of place
1) Vary the levels of description. I know authors want to put me in their worlds. And believe me, I want to walk in those worlds, and believe in them as if they were real places. But it’s difficult when the authors smother me with such lush, thick description everywhere that I don’t know how to feel differently in relation to different places. Am I supposed to feel the exact same emotion about the antechamber where the hero waits to speak to the Prime Minister as I am about the mountain cliff where he’ll stand and look out on the first completed thauma-train? Most likely not, if the antechamber scene is a minor one halfway through and the cliff scene is the climax of the book. Yet a lot of authors give them the exact same level of description.
So. Before you drape everything with onyx and pearl and fretwork that gets a hundred words all to itself, consider:
-How you want the reader to feel about this place.
-How important the description actually is to the plot (see point 2).
-Whether the character is the kind of person who really would notice these details or not. The character who spends a lot of time admiring all the luxuries in the antechamber, but has to characterize every tree on the cliff as a “tree,” is a different person than the one who lets his eyes rest mostly on people’s faces.
While we want (well, I want) to see real places, we’re looking through an imperfect window. Emotions in these scenes will vary, not least if they vary in the mind of the character we’re looking through. So adjust the description to the window until we don’t notice that it’s imperfect, and be terse, overflowing, extravagant, disgusting, and pastel at need.
2) Features of the place important to the plot had better damn well be there. Or, as Chekhov said, “One must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
This applies to other plot features, too—such as the minor character who will be the main character’s salvation—but with place, it applies a bit differently. There can be tiny flourishes in the description of a place that add atmosphere and are there mostly for themselves (see point 3). However, the points at which the place comes alive and interacts with your characters need to be there for more than atmosphere. In particular, you need to put them there before the moment at which they come alive to save the hero’s ass.
Is there a pair of rapiers hanging on the wall? I bet you that someone will take one of them down and try to stab the hero through the heart with it. Or they could be there for atmosphere alone. But, either way, do not leave the impression that the walls are bare and undecorated until the point when “Suddenly, Harald the Hero looked up. On the far wall were a pair of rapiers! He dashed across the room and pulled one down, turning to defend himself.” Lazy, sloppy, silly, and the first breath of a deus ex machina that you should bribe to go give its halitosis to some other poor author’s story instead.
Does the city have a sewer system? Then the hero will probably need to escape through it by some point. (The fondness of fantasy authors for this particular plot point is odd). But there should be some evidence that there are sewers, hello, thank you, and goodbye. A city where the waste lies around in the streets even in the higher-class parts of town, and which has no water nearby, is not a good candidate for this.
This does mean that at some point you will need to shape your setting to suit your story. But so? I believe firmly that story comes alive through the interaction of all three of these: setting, characters, and plot. There’s also dozens of other minor things, like bits of exposition in the right place—and bits of description. Creating a plausible place through tricks like this might seem a bit crude and obvious, but those crude, obvious tricks are most often the ones that will not just seem clunky if you don’t attend to them, but act as gaping plot holes.
3) You can use place to add atmosphere. Places in fantasy worlds seem to be one of the few parts of a story which escape the otherwise black-hole-like tug of the hero. Every minor character may need to be related to him somehow, for good or ill; every prophecy may concern him; every country will ally with him or try to stop him or find out he’s its secret heir; but the setting existed before him and will exist after him. Most authors seem content to leave it at that.
You don’t have to. As well as describing parts of the city that the hero is not going to sleep in or trample through or eat in or hear a pages-long lecture about, you can also describe those parts in which people or animals or the forces of history or whatever are clearly pursuing a story of their own. Turn their otherwise neutral category into a positive one.
What are touches of atmosphere? I think of the blue flames swirling around the streets of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantium. They don’t take an active part in the story; the main character never encounters one and hears it speak to him in a sepulchral voice. They add to the eerie atmosphere of the city, but so do litters moving in absolute silence and mosaics on domes built bigger than any in the world and private rooms where the Empress lets down her hair. No, I suspect that they’re there mostly because Kay is doing a Yeats homage, and these lines occur in Yeats’s “Byzantium”:
At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame…
This doesn’t mean that the characters recite Yeats, either; Kay’s fantasy takes place in an Earth alternate with different names and histories, where people have never heard of Yeats. But they add something to the tale that he wanted. And since he doesn’t broadly hint about the flames and then never use them, nor suddenly spring a surprise revelation about them near the end, I think it works, and the “adding something” is a perfectly justifiable purpose.
A lot of fantasy books spend intense time developing the places anyway. Why not use it to create a world outside your hero’s head?
4) Link the places to your themes. The only way this is done with any regularity is to have a certain image recurring in the protagonist’s mind whenever he thinks of home. As this happens even when the story itself is more concerned with adventure than returning home, I think it’s more a general practice than a conscious effort to invoke that theme.
But what about others? What if, instead of having a repeating phrase show up when your character thinks about duty—which, as witness Jordan’s “Death is lighter than a feather, duty heavier than a mountain,” can be played to death—an image of the home he left shows up instead? It could be described different ways, in different lights and shadows and from different angles, depending on the way he thought of duty at the time. It’s a more malleable metaphor than most proverbs or other overused images (such as headstones). It has doors and halls and antechambers and windows and staircases. Work it out subtly enough, and you can have a house with each different facet representing a different facet of duty.
Of course, you don’t have to shove this in the reader’s face or reference it every ten pages. Overuse is the quickest way to get your audience noticing and feeling manipulated. Use it gently instead, as a leitmotif, and your readers might start associating the character’s duty with his home without even realizing they’ve done so, until a second reading.
5) Include some of the everyday. Good advice for characters, and good advice for places, especially since fantasy authors also tread too heavily here. If a place is unfamiliar, it gets infodumped about, as though the protagonist were seeing all the history and pageantry and glory at once (never mind that the author often snaps the constraint of the viewpoint he’s chosen in doing so). If a place is familiar, it…well, it gets infodumped about for pages, especially if the author is writing first-person. Extraordinary details are the norm, too, like the time that an enemy general besieged the city. By the end of the infodump, we may know a lot about the place’s past, but not so much what it’s like to live there from day to day.
So, as your character walks or rides or swims about, include some of those ordinary details. Let him kick a black rock and get scolded by the city Watch, because the street is so narrow that it’s liable to fly up and through someone’s window. Let him admire the nice, clean streets of an unfamiliar city, which are likely to indicate sewers and particularly efficient street-cleaners without a pause to tell us who built the sewers and founded the guild of street-cleaners. Let him start awake when a mamba slithers across his leg in the jungle, because he comes from a place that has no snakes, but plenty of biting insects and night noises; this is the first animal that’s disturbed his rest.
Places, like characters who have layers, can have time and space to grow, and be none the worse for it. By the time that we reach the end of your book, your city, which seemed insubstantial as a shadow for the first ten pages, is solid as lead. And that’s a good place.
6) Do a little research. This is the place to let it shine. Don’t go overboard, of course. (You’ll notice that that’s the theme of a lot of the advice here). You don’t want the reader to think your wrote this book just to show off how much you found out. Step slowly, step carefully, and display some details that are absolutely true of the kind of place that you’re writing about, but don’t fit the hazy first impression that springs into the audience’s mind when they hear the name of the place.
For example, “desert.” I’m really sick of reading about fantasy deserts that are no more than dunes, camels, and the occasional sandstorm. Other animals live there, damnit, and there are other kinds of terrain, and plants beyond cacti grow there. Do some research, and find out what kinds of animals and plants are appropriate. Is the party passing through a desert that’s just had rain, and so there are flash floods and big hopping frogs and flowers everywhere? Perhaps there are drum sands, dunes with grains that rub softly against each other when the wind blows to make noise. Perhaps the dunes are white instead of golden or ochre. Perhaps the desert is clay. Perhaps it’s hardpan, or salt. Lots and lots and lots of things to do here.
Have a southern city? Let’s try for something beyond fat merchants and lots of flowers and heat, ‘kay? I promise you can still have those things if you really need them. But go and look up what adaptations people made to the heat beyond the obvious—which usually consists of ice, however hard that would prove to get, and a few skimpy clothes—and what kinds of trees as well as flowers there are, and what kinds of animals. And not everyone needs to be fat, or keep slaves. Try describing “heat” without using the words “heat” or “hot.” It can be fun.
I suppose that’s all I have to really say on the subject.