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Creating a sense of place in fiction
Making unreal places feel real
Somewhere in the behind-the-scenes material of the first Black Panther film, director Ryan Coogler notes that he didn’t think people would believe in the fictional African nation of Wakanda until they shot a scene at a market, with people buying and eating food.
It wasn’t the visual effects, the towering vistas, the stunning scenery, the cool flying vehicles and amazing Afrofuturism design. It was seeing people sitting around having a meal. A completely normal, almost throwaway scene that anchors the entire experience.
Think of the market scene in Blade Runner, with atmosphere so thick you can taste it. It’s the food, again, though. The Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars isn’t exactly a meal, but it is normal(ish) people sitting around having a drink. Science fiction and fantasy universes that are too focused on plot often overlook those ordinary moments, and without them everything can start to feel a bit flat. It’s why Triverse opens with the detectives buying coffees from an old fashioned café.
Pity the superhero movie that forgets regular folk in favour of magic fisty-biffs.
I got thinking about this not due to a science ficion thing but the graphic novel Paris, by Andi Watson and Simon Gane. It’s the most gorgeous thing:
The book came to my attention via’s newsletter, which I highly recommend for anyone who likes comics (and especially if you also have younger kids).
Paris was originally published back in 2007, I think, but has recently had a re-release. I hope the authors won’t mind if I feature a couple of pages here, because the depiction of place in this thing is so vivid, so real, that it’s hard to describe otherwise. Gaze upon this:
As I read Paris, I was entirely transported. A comic does this in different ways to prose, of course, but the general concepts are similar. And something Paris does so well is to pay attention to those little things. The exhaust smoke of a vespa, or the way its tyres seem to barely touch the cobbles. Birds twittering away on rooftops. The period-accurate vehicles and architecture. A child carrying a small cuddly toy. Every window is a potential story. There’s a textural truth to the entire comic that took my breath away.
I could fill this entire post with images from the comic, but that would obviously be rude to the creators. Instead, please do grab a copy. It’s a lovely story and a beautifully produced book.
Reading it immediately made me question whether anything I’ve written has given such a strong impression of place. Paris is interesting because it’s a historical piece, so it not only has to evoke the city but also the time period. The creators do this in a way that engages every sense: my memory of reading the book is being there, smelling the hot summer, the sound of primitive cars bimbling about on ill-suited suspension, the bustle of markets, awkward streets that were never designed for the 20th century. I’ve been to Paris a couple of times, back in the 90s, and it brought those memories back vividly.
It does all of this without resorting to the usual stuff - oh look, it’s the Eiffel Tower! - which makes it all the more satisfying. It’s not a tourist’s guide to Paris, but the experience of living there.
The struggle I find with my own writing is judging how much I’ve revealed about a place, especially entirely fictional locations. How much is enough to bring it to life for the reader, without tipping into dull exposition and indulgent world building? Which I suppose relates back to last month’s piece:
Sometimes I use shorthand - drawing on real world locations to sketch in a fantastical place. The capital city in my fantasy The Mechanical Crown evokes Tuscany in its architecture, and Andalusia in its landscape. The city of Bruglia in Tales from the Triverse is referencing Marrakech, while its university is basically Fountains Abbey.
I never really know if I’m doing it right, if it’s lifting off the pages for the reader, but my general checklist goes something like this:
Engage all the senses: don’t forget about smell and sound
Block out the scene in an engaging way: have the characters move through the space, rather than being static
Avoid a big Scene Introduction at the beginning and instead drip-feed the environmental information throughout the scene
Reveal details of the location through character actions, not just passive observation
Use character personalities to provide context and reaction - filter the location through their experience, so that the reader is receiving their interpretation of the space
Remember that locals will find the place mundane: an inhabitant of future New York won’t find flying cars interesting; a time traveller from 1997 will
Scene description usually needs to be there for a reason, whether it’s required for the plot, needed for a character interaction, to create a specific atmosphere or to aid verisimilitude
The mundane is also important, if used right
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I’d love to know your favourite fictional places. Which locations feel like you were really there, be it in books, comics, film, games or anything else?
In other news.informs us that there is an annual thing called Mermay, a challenge to draw mermaids every day of May. Unsurprisingly, this appears to be something which grew out of lockdown madness.
I’ve been using Notes to do daily sketches, so this is going to be a really fun way to continue practising. Here’s a recent sketch:
I was rather pleased with that one. It’s all for a singular purpose, which is to enable me to write and illustrate a comic. I’ve always wanted to do so, but have never had the necessary skills. I’m a long way off, but I feel for the first time like I’m getting there.
If you’re an aspiring-but-not-quite-there artist do come join me on Notes! Here’s a gallery of some of my daily efforts:
Oh! Also, my book No Adults Allowed is on a $0.99 ebook deal on Amazon.com for US-based readers. Check it out. People seem to like it!
Lastly, it’s the final week for most of these nice ebook promos which I’m taking part in: