It’s the first weekend of spring! The sun shines longer each day, the birds wake up weary adventurers with their oh-so-cheerful predawn calls, the earth smells of rain and growth (or snow and slush, depending on the variable weather), the sun’s warmth provides a much-needed counter to the chill breezes that still blow crisply through the land, and the kings of the many realms begin their preparations to defend themselves against the hordes of the enemy who will no doubt be moving very soon to wreak chaos on the innocent of the earth.
How does seasonality affect a fantasy story and the writing thereof? As hinted above, different seasons lend themselves to different types of possible large plot events, small plot events, and written description that give life to a narrative.
Large Plot Events
Certain seasons tend to either enable or discourage characters from certain types of actions. Wars tend to be fought in spring: armies suffer a loss of morale and men if they are forced to fight, march, and sleep in snowy (or just below-freezing) conditions for too long. If kings wait for too long to begin their marching and attacks, however, their enemies have more time to prepare their own strategies and catch our heroes off guard. Similarly, spring is the ideal time to begin any journey or project that will take a long time to complete. The last thing that a reasonable character wants to have happen is to be stuck in a strange place, tired, with one’s resources drained, as winter begins to howl through one’s bones.
Of course, some activities that might occur in a plot occur specifically because it is a certain season. These include, for instance, holidays such as the winter or midsummer solstice, seasons of activity such as planting time, harvest, hunting season, or the beginning of a school year, and weather-driven tasks such as road repair, preparations for monsoon season, or migrating (as a tribe or on one’s own) to a summer or winter location. Your story, then, will depend as much on the natural environment of your characters’ society as it will on your characters’ own personality and goals. A tribe of hunter-gatherers will be far more affected by the changing seasons than will a colony of settlers under space-domes on a terraformed moon. (At the same time, if your terraformed moon suffers from regular seasons of dust-storms or intense solar flares, it could cause significant plot difficulties for your characters.)
Small Plot Events
How do the seasons affect your characters’ moods, clothing, daily activities, goals, and expectations? A knight will probably do many similar activities throughout the year, but may find that his winter clothing either restricts his movements as he rides and fights with the bandits who ambush him, or he might alternatively find that his thick winter clothing protects him from their first unexpected attack, giving him time to react and engage them in combat. A girl looking for a way to pass the time in between classes might go on a walk in the spring or fall, and in doing so might pick flowers or gather fallen leaves, while in the winter she might sit by the fire and read, sew, or stare out the window, frustrated at how confined she feels during the long season of cold. Any of these activities could serve to advance a plot, but incorporating season-specific activities into a plot helps ground the reader in a time and place of the author’s choosing, making the world and characters in question seem more real.
Finally, seasons give an author an opportunity to make their writing a full-sensory experience. Visual cues of the seasons are easy to incorporate into a scene – mentioning snow, bare trees, a pale sky, and seeing one’s breath in the air, for instance, are easy ways of cuing a reader to think of winter, while pale green shoots emerging from the ground, birds hopping in tree-branches, melting piles of snow, and flowering trees all tell readers that spring has arrived. Auditory cues similarly enhance the reality of a scene’s setting. Describing the lazy buzz of a mosquito in the summer, the rustling of dry leaves in an autumn wind, or the crunch of snow underfoot draws readers in to feel a scene more than they would if only visual elements were incorporated.
The other senses – taste, touch, and smell – are also useful for grounding readers in a world and a specific time of year. Snowflakes taste cold and clean on one’s tongue. Spring breezes are perfumed and pleasantly cool on the skin. Lips get chapped, skin cracks, and extremities tingle and eventually go numb when exposed to the cold. Summer thunderstorms bring warm rain that smells of electricity.
As you read stories, then, pay attention to the author’s use of seasons. Does the story happen during a specific time of year? Does the physical environment and weather matter to the plot? Do characters actually interact with the changing world around them? As you write your own stories, consider purposefully how you might use seasons to convey a more holistic, real setting to readers that will help them lose themselves in your world.