Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Weather in Fiction
By Karen Pon
2001, By Karen Pon
“It was a dark and stormy night...”
Weather affects nearly every aspect of our lives.
Different groups will place a different importance on the weather.
For the city executive in her climate-controlled office, a shower of rain
may just mean putting up her umbrella when she ventures outside. For the farmer in a drought-stricken area it may mean
survival for another year. The army
general may have to rethink strategy when his tanks become bogged, and thousands
of plants and animals take the rare opportunity to reproduce in a normally dry
salt lake in the desert.
In fiction, the weather can have two functions.
There can be a significant weather event (a storm or a drought, for
example), which has a major effect on your story, or the weather can be in the
background, providing depth and ambience to your setting.
What will the weather be doing in your story?
Weather as an event
Weather can and has played a decisive role in history.
Erik Durschmied, in his book The
Weather Factor: How nature has changed history, describes the defeat of
three Roman legions by the vastly outnumbered northern Germanic tribes united
under the leadership of Arminius of the Cherusci.
While much of the credit must go to Arminius for his brilliant leadership
and tactical skills, he was assisted at a crucial point of the battle by a
timely thunderstorm. Durschmied
goes on to describe a number of other events in which the weather has played a
When you use weather to turn the tide of your story,
there are a few things to keep in mind.
There is a lot of energy involved in meteorology.
This is one reason I personally dislike 'weather magic'.
To create a storm out of nothing requires an enormous amount of energy,
and if magicians have that much power at their disposal they could blast the
enemy off the face of the planet a hundred times and still have plenty left
over. If you must use magic to
manipulate the weather, you can nudge already existing or threatening storms a
kilometre or so to the left, or make them start half an hour sooner or later.
Many stories have used the idea that a magician can
only manipulate the weather, or one aspect of it. This would explain why they can’t just annihilate the
opposition, and gives you plenty of scope for making your magicians useless at a
crucial point of the battle.
Even if your weather magician has access to a
sufficient energy source, there are still other factors that need to be taken
into account. If your magician
creates rain, the water has to come from somewhere.
If it’s humid, there may be sufficient water in the atmosphere.
If not, your magician will need to find a water source, preferably
nearby. Perhaps the spell takes
water from the nearest sources, which will include all the people in the area,
and all other living organisms. Your
characters will need to protect themselves from being water sources or redirect
the spell to obtain water from a particular source.
Likewise, if you want to create a drought or stop a storm, the water
needs somewhere to go. Do you dump
it in the next valley, or try to spread it across the country?
Also, the weather is a deterministic chaotic system.
That is, it is wholly reliant on previous events but still impossible to
predict completely, since every tiny movement of air will have an effect.
Therefore, invoking weather magic will have huge consequences.
If you’ve heard about how the butterfly flapping its wings in South
America can cause a typhoon in Japan, imagine what moving a storm one kilometre
left might do. This will also make
weather magic highly unreliable. An attempt to nudge a storm over the opposing
army could backfire and result in the storm being directly overhead your own
soldiers. Turn this around and have
the weather magician on the opposing side, and you can allow your ragged and
weary band of soldiers to overcome overwhelming odds.
For the same reasons, weather-altering or controlling
technology is highly suspect. The
only significant weather-altering technology currently developed that I am aware
of is cloud-seeding, which is not incredibly reliable and is dependent on clouds
already being present. More
realistic would be better methods of observing and forecasting the weather, and
better methods of coping with the effects of severe weather.
Serendipity can be much more useful than magic for that
convenient storm. Try to stack the
odds in your favour. A huge
downpour in the middle of a tropical Dry season will need some extremely fast
talking to be accepted by your readers, but a winter storm in the midlatitudes
would not be out of place.
Rain in the Dry season can happen, though.
The region in which I live has had a cyclone form one week into the Dry,
and thunderstorms a couple of months ago, right in the middle of the Dry.
If you want to write unusual weather into your story, pave the way by
having some indication that the weather is changing.
That unseasonal storm can be foreshadowed by having the humidity increase
and clouds build up a few days beforehand, perhaps with a wind direction change
or an increase in the wind strength.
Weather “magicians” may just be very good
forecasters, claiming the approaching storms as their own doing.
All cultures will have some techniques for forecasting
weather. These may involve throwing
bones into a fire or axioms like 'Red sky at night / Shepherd’s delight'.
These have come from generations of weather observation and often there
will be a scientific connection between the two effects.
Remember, storms are not the only severe weather event
that might affect your characters. Droughts,
floods, fire and snow, all of these can be obstacles for your characters to
Turning all this around, consider also how different
weather conditions might affect magic or new technologies.
How will your new stealth bomber cope with 60kt crosswinds, clear air
turbulence and avoid producing contrails? Will
a thunderstorm five kilometres away make it dangerous to work magic?
The effect of weather on magic will largely be
determined by the type of magic on your world.
Current technology is often subject to weather conditions.
High humidity and moisture can damage electronics and cause short
circuits. Vehicles struggle in wet
weather, in cold weather and in hot weather.
Infrared sensors struggle at times of thermal crossover, when land and
air temperatures are close to equal. Planes
have to deal with crosswinds, turbulence, icing, jet streams, storms, low cloud
- it’s amazing they can fly at all!
Weather as background
Wherever they are, whenever
they are, the weather will always have an impact on the activities of your
characters. Whether it’s fine or
it’s raining, hot or cold, realistic descriptions of the weather can add depth
to your setting. It can be used to
show the passage of time, or unseasonal weather.
Remember that there are many different climates in even
our own world, and that summer is not always fine sunny days, that winter is not
always cold and rainy, and not everyone recognises four seasons.
I live in the tropics, and we have two recognised seasons, as well as
another somewhat unofficial season. There
is the Dry season during the calendar summer, in which very little, if any, rain
falls. Towards the end of the Dry it can get extremely humid, as
more moisture enters the atmosphere, however it does not rain.
Locally this is known as the Buildup, or colloquially, Mango Madness
Season (because people can go a little crazy in the heat and humidity).
Once the first rains come, it is the Wet season, or the monsoon. Learn about the climates in different parts of the world to
get an idea of the possibilities.
A brief description of the current weather can provide
ambience, reflecting the mood of your characters. 'Only a few fluffy white clouds interrupted the endless blue
of the sky. It was the epitome of
spring, the perfect day as Jenny started out on her Great Adventure'.
The weather can also act as a counterpoint to a character’s moods.
“It should have been a dark and stormy night.
The clear blue sky she could see from her office window did nothing to
improve Jenny’s mood.”
One last note...
Avoid technical jargon unless you are sure of your
facts and terminology. While not
many readers will be meteorologists, there are a lot of weather enthusiasts out
there. I have read too many stories
in which clouds, storms and other meteorological phenomena are described or
explained completely wrong. There
are books aplenty to help you write the weather right, and even more websites.
There are links at the end of this article to some useful websites; also
check out the bibliography.
Bureau of Meteorology
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Erik. 2000. The Weather Factor: How
nature has changed history, Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain.
ISBN 0 340 76805 3
Richard (ed.). 1997.
An Australian Geographic Guide to
Weather, Australian Geographic, Australia.
ISBN 1 86276 032 2