Birds flying over Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ray Bradbury once told me that everything in story is metaphor. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact. Metaphor is the subtext that provides subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.
Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.
When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge.
This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.
Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism that primarily comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms). Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into a lot of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “He took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country”; (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate.” (seventeen words).
Old yellow birch tree in Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Personification is powerful metaphor that gives nonhuman things human qualities. It personalizes, energizes and emotionalizes. Place described through personification can illuminate both characters and their environment in compelling ways. By giving an object, place, or animal the qualities of a person, personification provides subtle aspects of mood and links the reader to a cocktail subtext of human feelings and struggles. Personification can connect the reader to “lifeless” objects such as water, soil, rock, the sun, moon, planet, concrete, paper, etc., to map the larger meaning of the story. Putting a character’s feelings into the objects around her—as POV character—creates a subtle but deep connection with the reader: “The darkness embraced her”; “The open-throated roar of the river pulled her near.”
D.H. Lawrence’s creates strong personification of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath in Return of the Native:
…Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.
In The Handmaid’s Tale—a dystopian tale of oppression and intrigue—Margaret Atwood writes:
There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently … Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in.
Martin Nolan’s Still Point creates powerful imagery of a storm aftermath through an abandoned old shed and contrasts its loneliness to the half-wild woods nearby:
A deserted shed by the road, buckling under its roof, kneels into the tall grass. The woods beyond it hide the river … I turn back to the half-wild woods. These trees speak to each other, are wild enough for that. They live together, holding the riverbanks in place.
Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem—set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution—follows Wenji Ye, disillusioned by the massive environmental deforestation in the labour camps she is sent to work:
Her company wielded hundreds of chain saws like a swarm of steel locusts, and after they passed, only stumps were left. The fallen Dahurian larch, now bereft of branches, was ready to be taken away by tractor. Ye gently caressed the freshly exposed cross section of the felled trunk. She did this often, as though such surfaces were giant wounds, as though she could feel the tree’s pain …
Clearcut in Gordon Valley, British Columbia (photo by T.J. Watts)
In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.
Water is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us.
Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.
This article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” due in June 2019 by Pixl Press.
From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…
Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.
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” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.