World Building Through Architecture
Ruth recently read a mystery in which the main character was staying in a room in a large, rectangular mansion. The room was described as a small bedroom but it had windows on three sides. Maybe the writer simply got involved in her story and didn’t bother to pay attention to the architecture.
The truth is most readers wouldn’t consciously notice something like that, either. But even if they didn’t, the physical impossibility of the space would probably nag at them at a subconscious level. This is why it’s important, among all the other details you need to juggle when creating your world, to make sure that the spaces you’re describing hold together physically.
Does your hero’s home contain two small rooms downstairs and three reasonably sized bedrooms upstairs? Or vice versa? Does an interior room have a window? Or too many doors? Or not enough? For locations where a lot of action takes place, it wouldn’t hurt to sketch out a diagram on graph paper to make sure all the details line up.
It’s probably not a good idea to include those diagrams in your novel. During the glory days of the puzzle mystery in the twenties, the solution to the puzzle often depended on the architecture – who had a line of sight where, whether one character could get from one part of the house to another unseen, how someone got in and out of a locked room. Mystery writers often shoehorned floor plans and diagrams into the story to get the precise details across. Agatha Christie included floor plans in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Murder on the Orient Express, and Dorothy Sayers included one in Clouds of Witnesses. Now that mysteries depend more on insight into the characters than cleverness in setting up a puzzle, those sorts of diagrams seem quaint and outdated.
But even if your plot doesn’t hinge on architectural details, don’t neglect the effect architecture can have on your locations and characters. Nothing says grim dystopia better than some Soviet Brutalist apartment blocks. There’s no better way to show fussiness and a little decadence than a lot of gingerbread, gables, and dowelwork. I’ve already written about how Galsworthy used the architecture of Robin Hill to affect all of the characters in the Forsyte Saga.
An even better example of architecture shaping a character is John Crowley’s wonderful, gentle science fiction novel, Engine Summer. It tells the story of Rush as he travels across a landscape some time after civilization has collapsed – though it is a much nicer place than the words “post-apocalyptic” conjure up.
Rush’s story is filled with wonderful incidents but no clear development toward a plot until the end, when a number of threads come together so beautifully that I cried when I first read it. But the sensibility of that story structure is built into Little Belaire, the communal home, with a central corridor called Path, where Rush grew up. Here’s Rush’s description.
Path is like a snake, it curls around the whole of Little Belaire with its head in the middle and the tip of its tail by Buckle cord’s door, but only someone who knows Little Belaire can see where it runs. To someone else, it would seem to run off in all directions. So when you run along Path, and here is something that looks to be Path, but you find it is only rooms interlocking in a little maze that has no exits but back to Path — that’s a snake’s-hand. It runs off the snake of Path like a set of little fingers. It’s also called a snake’s-hand because a snake has no hands, and likewise there is only one Path. But a snake’s-hand is also more: my story is a Path, too, I hope; and so it must have its snake’s-hands. Sometimes the snake’s-hands in a story are the best part, if the story is a long one.
So pay attention to architecture. It gives you another tool to shape your characters’ lives. They give you another way to set the mood of a setting – soaring or claustrophobic. And they are an effective way to create a sense of your fictional world. As the clothes they wear can show a characters’ personality, the buildings they build or choose to live in can reflect an entire culture.
What are your favorite examples — from your own or others’ work — of how writers have used architecture to shape their characters or build their world.
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About Dave King
Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.