“‘Place As Person’: What Does It Mean When Telling Story?”
Yesterday, my friend and fellow author, Mary Victoria, left New Zealand to return to the northern hemisphere—and in the short term, France—after twelve years of livng in New Zealand. She and her husband, Frank Victoria, came to New Zealand to work on The Lord of the Ring’s films with WETA and Frank has recently completed work on The Hobbit—which does rather round off their twelve years.
But I am terribly sad to see them go, as rather than ‘many meetings’ the last year or so seems to have become a time of ‘many partings’, yet the road, to continue with The Lord of the Ring’s quotology does indeed go ever on…
So as my personal salute and au revoir to Mary, I thought I would re-post the “Place As Person” guest post I did for her Chronicles of the Tree blog last year, when she was celebrating the launch of the “River” anthology, edited by Alma Alexander — perhaps because ‘place as person’ is very much a concept I associate with Mary’s “Tree” series.
“Place As Person: What Does It Mean When Telling Story?”
I first became consciously aware of the interface between place and character as an undergraduate, when writing an essay on the city in literature. As soon as I began researching the topic, I quickly realized that whether Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria or Italo Calvino’s invisible city, these places were so vital to the story being told that they were more than simply setting or backdrop—they were “characters” in their own right.
Of course, utilising the benefits of 20/20 hindsight, I can see that an unconscious awareness of place as character began a great deal earlier—with the snowy forest and lamp-post that was my first experience of Narnia, the encroaching darkness of Alan Garner’s Elidor, and the lonely reaches of Earthsea. Yet ‘place as character’ only implies that locale must be strongly enough drawn to pervade the unfolding story. I believe the premise of “place as person” takes both reader and writer a great deal further and that to realise it fully the place must have an actual personality, i.e. it must in some sense be sentient, or at very least a conscious player in the story’s game.
I wrestled with this premise when writing The Heir of Night and developing both the Wall of Night and wider Haarth world. I believe there is no question that the Wall of Night is “place as character”—its bleak, windblasted, and literally dark physical presence dominates The Heir of Night. But we get no sense that it is either sentient or conscious. On the contrary, its brutal physicality is almost the opposite, a monolithic indifference mirrored in the Derai people who garrison its keeps and holds. But toward the end of the book the world begins to open out for the central characters and they find themselves in a new place, known as Jaransor. Once again, I believe Jaransor exemplifies “place as character”—but if I have done my writer’s work well then the reader may begin to question whether there is not more to the matter: if it might, in fact, be possible that Jaransor is not just a chaotic force, but a personality, albeit a fractured one, that has consciously entered into the conflict being played out.
The Heir of Night ends with this question unanswered, but I pick it up again in The Gathering of the Lost when Malian, the central protagonist, is forced to ask herself whether not only Jaransor, but the world of Haarth itself, could be aware…
To say any more at this point would be a spoiler, and in fact the jury is still out on how Haarth’s role, if it is indeed a personality, could play out through the series. But I do feel that in order for either the world or a particular place within it, such as Jaransor, to be said to be “place as person” then it must be a conscious participant in the story. And even the possibility—but not necessarily the certainty, because that would be ‘telling’—of that being the case is an exciting notion, one that introduces a Gaian consciousness into my epic fantasy.”