Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu
I write mostly eco-fiction. Even before it was known as eco-fiction, I was writing it. My first book—Darwin’s Paradox—published in 2007 by Dragon Moon Press as science fiction, was also eco-fiction. It takes place in 2075 after climate change has turned southern Ontario into a heathland and Toronto into a self-enclosed city. My latest eco-fiction—A Diary in the Age of Water published in 2020 by Inanna Publications—is set mostly in Toronto from the near-future to 2065 and beyond.
As a writer of eco-fiction and climate fiction, I’m keenly aware of the role environment plays in story. Setting and place are often subtle yet integral aspects of story. In eco-fiction, they can even be a “character,” serve as archetypes and present metaphoric connections to characters on a journey (see my guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character published by Pixl Press for more discussion on all aspects of nature’s symbols in writing).
Things to consider about place as character begin with the POV character and how they interact with their environment and how they reflect their place. For instance, is that interaction obvious or subtle? Is that environment constant or changing, stable or unstable, predictable, or variable? Is the place controllable or not, understandable or not? Is the relationship emotional, connected to senses such as memory?
Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
Archetypes are ancient patterns of personality shared universally by humanity (e.g. the “mother” archetype is recognized by all cultures). When place or aspects of place act as an archetype or symbol in story—particularly when linked to theme—this provides a depth of meaning that resonates through many levels for the reader.
In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars symbolizes a new Eden. Like Bradbury’s aboriginal Martians—who are mostly invisible—the planet is a mirror that reflects humanity’s best and worst. Who we are, what we are, what we bring with us and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything.
“Nature’s symbols are powerful archetypes that reveal compelling story,” writes Donald Maass in Write the Breakout Novel Workbook.
Water has been used as a powerful archetype in many novels. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, water plays an important role through its unique metaphoric connection with each of the four main characters; how they relate to it and understand it, and act on its behalf. Water in A Diary in the Age of Water is often personified; water reflects various symbolic and allegorical interpretations and embraces several archetypes including herald-catalyst, trickster, shapeshifter, and shadow.
Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment).
In these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchel’s Gone With the Wind; the white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; The animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.
All characters—whether the main POV character, or a minor character or personified element of the environment—have a dramatic function in your story. In my writing courses at George Brown College and The University of Toronto and in my guidebook The Fiction Writer, I provide a list of questions you can ask your character to determine if they are functioning well in the story and if they should even stay in the story. I call it interviewing your character. You can interview any character in your story; it can provide incredible insight. And speaking of character…
I have of late been walking daily to a lovely meadow beside a stream and thicket where brilliant Bull thistles have burst into flower. I felt the need to research this beautiful yet dangerously prickly plant and why it peaked my interest…
Interview With the Bull Thistle
Nina: Pardon my saying, but you seem to scream paradox. You’re dangerously beautiful. Alluring yet aloof. Standoffish, even threatening. For instance, how is it that you have such a beautiful single purple-pink flower at the top of such a nasty prickly stem and leaves?
Bull Thistle: First of all, it isn’t just a flower at the top; it’s a flower head of over two hundred flowers called florets. Each flower head is a tight community of tube disk bisexual florets arranged in Fibonacci spirals and protected by a collection of spiked bracts called an involucre. And inside the protective outer shell, embedded in a fleshy domed receptacle, are the tiny ovaries, waiting patiently to be fertilized and grown into a seed or achene.
Nina: Ah, I beg your pardon. But you still have all those sharp spikes everywhere. I’m guessing they are to protect your developing young, the ovaries. But doesn’t that isolate you? Keep you from integrating in your ecosystem?
Bull Thistle: The bristles are specifically aimed at predators who wish to harm us, eat us, bore into us, pull us out of the earth. We have many friends—the pollinators, the bees, wasps, and butterflies that help us cross-pollinate from plant to plant. And the birds—particularly the goldfinches—also help.
Nina: Wait. Don’t goldfinches eat your babies—eh, seeds?
Bull Thistle: They do. But they also help disperse our children. They land on our dried involucres—now opened to reveal the seeds and their pappus. The birds pull the seeds out by the thistle down that rides the wind. The birds eat the seeds and also use the thistle down to make their nests. But—like the squirrels who love oak acorns—the birds miss as many as they eat. By carrying the down to their nests, they also help the seeds travel great distances farther than the wind would have carried them. By dislodging the seeds in bunches, they help the seeds break away from the receptacle and meet the wind. The pappus, which is branched and light like a billowing sail, carries the seed on the wind to germinate elsewhere to help us colonize.
Nina: So, your enemy is also your friend… The shadow character, who helps the hero on her journey by presenting a perilous aspect of enlightenment.
Bull Thistle: If you say so. What we understand is that Nature’s resilience derives from the balance of give and take over time. Prey and predator. Death, decay, transcendence. Destruction and creation. Ecological succession and change are a gestalt expression of Gaia wisdom as each individual fulfills its particular existential niche. Even if that is to die…for others to live.
Nina: Yes, the hero’s journey…But you’re not originally from here, are you? You were brought to North America from Eurasia. Some consider you an interloper, a disturbance. You could serve the shadow or trickster archetype yourself—outcompeting the native thistle, creating havoc with pasture crops. You can tolerate adverse environmental conditions and adapt to different habitats, letting you spread to new areas. Your high seed production, variation in dormancy, and vigorous growth makes you a serious invader. You cause wool fault and physical injury to animals. Storytellers might identify you metaphorically with the European settler in the colonialism of North America; bullying your way in and destroying the natives’ way of life.
Bull Thistle: We’re unaware of these negative things. We don’t judge. We don’t bully; we simply proliferate. We ensure the survival of our species through adaptation. Perhaps we do it better than others. You’ve lately discovered something we’ve felt and acted on for a long time. Climate is changing. We must keep up with the times… But to address your original challenge, if you did more research, you would find that we serve as superior nectar sources for honey bees (Apis spp.), bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and sweat bees (Anastogapus spp.) who thoroughly enjoy our nectar.
We’re considered a top producer of nectar sugar in Britain. Cirsium vulgare—our official name—has ranked in the top 10 for nectar production in a recent UK survey. The goldfinch relies on our seed and down. And we’ve provided food, tinder, paper, and medicine to humans for millennia. As some of your indigenous people point out, it’s a matter of attitude. Change is opportunity.
Nina: I guess that every weed was once a native somewhere. I also agree that times are changing—faster than many of us are ready for, humans included. If you were to identify with an archetype, which would you choose?
Bull Thistle: That would depend on the perceiver, we suppose. Some of us think of us as the hero, journeying through the change and struggling to survive; others see us as the herald, inciting movement and awareness by our very existence; some of us identify with the trickster, others with the shapeshifter—given how misunderstood we are. In the end, perhaps, we are the mentor, who provides direction through a shifting identity and pointing the way forward through the chaos of change toward enlightenment.
Nina: Yes, I suppose if someone stumbled into your nest of prickles, incredible awareness would result. Speaking of that very awareness, this brings me back to my original question: why are you so beautiful yet deadly?
Bull Thistle: We are the purest beauty—only attained through earnest and often painful awareness. We are the future.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.