Fiction writing deals with Characters. Normally we think of people immediately and then we put them into scenarios which suggest certain locations.
When we write about those locations they tend to be pushed to the back of a scene. Keep the location as backdrop, don’t blot out the character by writing too much about the city or town where the action is happening. A city has a character, it is full of personality and should be thought of as part of the cast of your novel.
Cities are fascinating. They exist because of people and therefore represent the actions and feelings of those who live there. The fascination of a City is it’s people.
When you think of a city that you have visited, and you thoughts are drawn to a certain part of that city, do you think of the Financial District or do you think about the area that is coolest? Madrid Pig, my novel, has a lot of scenes of the night life and areas of Madrid that are full of people relaxing and drinking and dancing . These are the places that it depicts most.
There is a lot of character and texture to be found in those places. People populate a neighbourhood and give it the dominating character and feel of the collective mind. In Madrid there is a barrio called Chueca, it is close to the centre, it’s known as the Gay Area of Madrid and offers a second to none nightlife and a slightly bohemian lifestyle atmosphere for artists and alternatives. Chueca is bordered by Malasaña which is a fantastic neighbourhood for eating, drinking and live music. There is a noticable contrast to the two barrios as you walk away from Chueca and into the dense nightlife of Malasaña. When we write about a city and its streets it should be easy for the reader to know where they are in that city. A little street walking at different hours and research into a few prominent buildings and businesses gives us enough background to begin to create a texture and atmosphere that will set the scene in a way, hopefully, make the reader feel as if he or she has actually experienced the neighbourhood.
I’ve read novels which were set in famous cities but I had no feeling or sense of the place after finishing the book. The writing gave me a strong impression that the author had done his research but didn’t describe the streets as an individual.
Every street has a smell and a sound that dominates. Sounds can be mixed to create chaos that hurts the ears and smells in the street often come from restaurants and houses. A densely populated area of the city may smell differently at lunch time than it would at night time.
If I walk around the centre of Madrid close to Gran Vía – the main drag – that leads down to Plaza de España – I am pounded by the roar of traffic, traffic that is stopping and starting at traffic lights. The cars accelerate forwards after getting the green light and then they come to halt at the next red light fifty meters down the road, brakes squealing and engines suddenly cutting from high revs to dead low humming sounds. Always the sound of one motorcycle that roars through the traffic – broken baffler rattling out at 90 decibels – then the hiss of bus brakes as big blue city buses negotiate tight corners. The wail of the police sirens which,these days, are more like disco sounds with wups! and Wap! Wap! sounds as the driver fiddles with the switch. It’s all grinding on the ears and brain, it’s running the nerves into shredded wires. Tourists pay good money to experience all of this. These are the sounds of Gran Vía. I think if I began to describe the smell I could write a symphonic piece that would encapsulate the heavy attack of foulness that you pass on the street to the wonderful and tempting scent of food that pulls you into the restaurants in the area. Even smells that you can’t place but remind you of years gone by are always present somewhere along the way.
Smells and Sounds of the city. That’s just two things to describe a city street, we can use it to describe a person as well and, as readers, we get it when an author tells us with description that a character is loud and probably never takes a shower or washes his clothes. Gran Vía only showers when it rains and as for the sounds, it only ebbs away a little at 5 in the morning and then you can hear the strange shouts and yells of weirdos and drunks coming across the houses from the back streets. Then, Gran Vía lets out its Mr Hide character.
I think that describing Cities and locations can be an integral part of a novel or story. We can approach it in the same way we do with characters in the book. Sometimes it will need to be a main character and sometimes it’s definetly a backdrop and shouldn’t interfere with the actions and dialogue of the novels’ Characters.
What’s your opinion? Tell us something about how you handle Character and location in your writing.