I’ll bet you didn’t know your location is essentially a character. (Or maybe you did, and this is old hat—in which case, you get to contribute in the comments! Yay!)
So sure, sometimes planets or something are sentient in stories, but that’s not the kind of character I’m referring to. Your location affects your other characters and plot every bit as much as your protagonist, antagonist, awesome sidekicks, eponymous heroes, or sarcastic love-interests.
Your location is a crucial element in your story, and it’s my pleasure to tell you how.
How to Use Your Location
There are several things you need to know about your location because of how they’ll affect your story and characters.
- What is the weather like? Is your story taking place in a tropical zone? Moderate? Polar? Dry? A paranormal mystery, for example, set in Phoenix, AZ would have to function completely differently from one set in New York, NY. Phoenix gets insanely hot during the summer—hot enough to kill—and so any running-around or shenanigans would be much more likely to happen at night. If it took place in Seattle, however, one would have to consider that nine months out of the year, it’s gray and rainy. Not a good place to count on zapping demons with sunlight. The clothing your characters wear is affected, as is the food they eat, and how they view the outside (as a friend or an enemy). Set your story in Antarctica, and I promise your characters see the outside world as an enemy.
- What is the transportation system like? I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read without a sense of travel time. Travel time matters; if your Danish prince is going to be assassinated tomorrow night, and your characters are a three-day journey away, you have a problem; that distance is like a character who must be overcome. Are you writing a period mystery set in the days of steamships? Then your characters simply cannot sail from one side of the planet to the other in a few hours. Simply put, location literally determines what is and is not possible.
- What is the topography like? Does your character live on the high-point of the city, on a hill? High ground? Or do they live lower down, where all the runoff clogs the storm drains, and where regular flooding tends to make everything smell like mildew? Is your character allergic to mildew? For that matter, are the buildings made of stone or wood or metal or paper-mache? Do animals share space with humans? That leads to another issue…
- What technology exists, and how? Remember, all power requires resources. If your city is all futuristic and provides teleportation and laser-swords, great! But you, as the author, need to know something about where that power comes from, what its limitations are, and what the cost is of using it. The location in this case has a fiscal and practical impact on your characters and plot. If your story is in the era of horse-drawn carriages, then your characters have to deal with the limited endurance of horses, the waste that horses leave behind (pony-apples!), and the fact that horses need to eat, drink, and sleep. Also, horses have personalities. Stuff like that matters.
- What is the era? Believe it or not, era is part of location. Are you writing a Hercule Poirot-style mystery? Great! But if the gun goes off ten feet from your characters, they’ll hear it. No amount of feather pillows will hide that fact—a limitation based on the location of your story.
- What physics are involved? If you’re basing this in space (location), and the moon your enemy took aim at just blew up, nobody is going to hear it. (Hello, it’s space.) They may, however, feel the shock-waves; but any heat or other impact will be completely different than if this took place with gravity and an atmosphere.
- What obstacles does your location present? Think about the movie Die Hard. Bruce Willis’ primary enemy was not Hans Gruber and his flunkies, but the building itself. He had no way to get out easily; no way to signal for help; limited places to hide; and had to climb up and down an elevator shaft to find any ease of movement. At one point, the massive amounts of glass caused a huge problem, injuring him when broken and slowing him down. The location was a formidable nemesis.
Have a few more examples, on the house:
Lord of the Rings. Location provides numerous challenges; the mines of Moria alters the Fellowship’s mood and costs them a crucial member of their group; the Pass of Caradhras outright defeats them; the burned-out wasteland of Moria fries, starves, and dehydrates them; the Dead Marshes test character and sanity.
Twilight. (Not my favorite, but valid.) The rain and gloom of the Pacific Northwest are a key feature throughout the entire series. PNW-weather affects mood; the vast trees and natural rain forest of the Olympic peninsula provide shelter and support (like a sidekick!) for the supernatural beasties; the temperature even affects the clothing everyone wears, and how free they are to move around outside.
The Name of the Wind. The location in this trilogy (*coughs* only two books out right now, but it WILL be a trilogy) is absolutely crucial—from the university to the tiny and isolated town of Newarre to the magical realm of the Fae, each location provides Kvothe with character growth, fascinating obstacles, and special secrets.
The Sundered. The black water which covers the world defines Harry’s life completely. Deadly to the touch, it limits what he can do and where he can go, and also provides impetus for his entire journey: to “fix” the black water, he has to face it every day, even though he knows he may die.