Jun
29
2015

The Face of a Place

Many people learning English as a second language struggle with the subtle, yet significant difference between a “house” and a “home.” A house is a place, a shelter, a pile of building materials. On the other hand, a home is a structure with significant emotional investment, a personal history, and an implication of safety and comfort beyond the physical. A house is built, but a home is made. As writers, we shouldn’t forget that these subtle, yet significant differences exist in our language. After all, a home is about the people and the experiences, not the structure itself, a sentiment that should translate into how we treat our worlds.

Though I think it is essential to devote time and words to describing setting, we must know what we are buying with the investment. We certainly need to spend time on the layout of a location to avoid confusing our readers. However, how long does it really take to provide a sense of scale and blocking? A couple hundred words? Other descriptive factors develop mood and tone. These descriptions, however, are like spices. They are best used lightly and with a specific “taste” in mind. Some writers, especially inexperienced ones, spend a great deal of time describing every detail. Show, don’t tell, right? However, like any other use of prose description suffers from steep diminishing returns. It is often best to pick a few key details that imply the rest of the setting. Additionally, no matter how much descriptive text we pour on the page, we will never build reader sympathy. To do that, we need to give the place a face, a character who projects their personality and traits on the location.

Since I learned this trick from Jim Butcher’s blog, I will use an illustrative example from his works. Harry Dresden often takes refuge at the Saint Mary of the Angels church in Chicago. For Harry, the church represents succor and comfort, a place that lacks judgment while simultaneously encouraging him to consider the morality behind his own actions, and most importantly a place where he can seek shelter from supernatural forces. However, Butcher didn’t create the emotional connection by describing the building. Instead, he created Father Anthony Forthill, Dresden’s contact at the church. Through Forthill’s characterization as a kind, just, nonjudgemental, and comforting ally, Butcher built sympathy with both Dresden and the reader while simultaneously bleeding those qualities onto the setting.

As a general rule, people don’t bond with buildings. Instead, we remember and react to the experiences and people we associate with them. I don’t feel a sense of nostalgia for the classrooms of my high school, but rather miss the friends and teachers that made a difference. When I tell stories, I don’t describe the buildings and grounds, but rather what happened in those spaces. In writing and in real life, it’s the people that bring the significance to the place and not vice versa.

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