How’s the Weather Out There? On Giving Your Setting a Climate

seasonality-copia-compressor‘Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.’ — John Ruskin

Mentally thumb through your latest work in progress and pick a scene. What’s the weather like? Is it sunny and bitterly cold, overcast and heavy with humidity, or battered by a blizzard?  If you don’t know the answer, you should probably give it some thought, since even subtle allusions to the climate of your real or imagined setting can give it a sense of realism and completeness, as well as enhancing the sensory descriptions of your scenes.

You don’t have to use the weather for ham-handed symbolism ; nor do you  have to stop to describe the weather in every scene. If your characters flick open parasols, wipe away sweat, shiver, pull up hoods, blink away snow, or feel rain trickling down their necks, and the reader can use their imagination to fill in the rest. Those details make your world feel more real, concrete, and immersive for the reader.

Everyone works in a slightly different way, but I find it useful to outline the important points about your setting’s climate ahead of time. Is it a year-round high-altitude desert?  A low-lying equatorial island with a ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ season? A Mediterranean climate? There are endless possibilities, especially if you’re working with a speculative fiction setting and can create totally alien geography.

If you’re constructing your setting from scratch, it’s a good idea to read up on Earth’s climate and why the weather exists the way it does. Then, when you’re building your fantasy planet, you can create a plausible, realistic environment that’s easier for your readers to accept and enjoy. It’s also a good decision-making tool for you as you break down the giant task of building a fictional planet. Think about the big picture– is this a polar setting? Temperate? Equatorial? High mountains?– and also the smaller picture of seasonality. The ‘season’ cycle and its indicators– rain, plankton blooms, ice forming or melting, sandstorms– will be unique to each area of your setting. Providing the reader with those specific details can really make your story come alive.

If you’re writing about a real setting, it’s time to do some research. Read or watch local accounts of the weather, and use this as an opportunity to see how the locals talk about it. Maybe they have developed an elaborate vocabulary to describe a particular weather  type (hallo, a-h Alba!) or maybe there’s a type of extreme weather that everyone accepts with a shrug because they’ve perfected ways to cope with it. Understand the typical weather season by season in your setting, and make sure you know when your scenes are set.

You can even leverage weather to create plot points or ratchet up the conflict levels. Need to prevent your characters from communicating? Try a hurricane or ice storm that traps them at home and knocks out power and cell reception. Character need to get somewhere in a hurry? It will be much harder in a sandstorm. (Like any other plot device, there should be some buildup, in the form of weather warnings, local gossip, or other hints so that the weather doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina).

We writers often forget about weather when we’re writing, but that doesn’t have to be the case. We can use its world-shaping forces to shape our fictional worlds and tell more vivid stories.

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