Monday, October 7, 2013

World Building Basics: Architecture

I have taken a lot of classes on history and culture in my time as a student. So, I find it remarkable that the topic of architecture has been passed over, if not subtly marginalized for the sake of other topics. The way I look at it, culture is important, but the places that contain culture (ie. buildings and civic structures) are just as important, serving to emphasize worth and importance of what is inside these structures. I will state here that I am not an architecture student, but I know what the "building" does in the narrative.

It all begins with the atmosphere you are trying to convey. Obviously a story set in the apocalypse will feature many myriads of burnt, scarred structures, but what about a story set in modern day America? There are three dynamics here to consider.


The mood of a narrative can be expressed in many ways. Speaking characters, artwork, and settings all are explicit outlets for sharing the mood of the story with the reader. Architecture is more implicit. Buildings don't speak in stories but there can be subtle cues written in to the descriptions of buildings to help emphasize a certain characteristic of your story. Understand that I am not referring to sentences like, "The lonely house perched itself high above the treeline, obscured by the misty mountain air." This description focuses on the placement of the house, it's setting. The building instead should make a statement about the people that live inside it. What does the house smell like? How many people live inside it? What about the structure aides the perception that those who live there are snobby or pretentious? Here's an example:

"The grand patio's high walls obscured Main Street, allowing only those of lesser privileged classes to peer through the iron gates to observe the doings of Lord Wesley."

The description here brings the reader's attention to the reclusive and sectarian atmosphere provided by Lord Wesley's manor home. By adding little details like the placement of a fence outside of a populated area or the high walls encasing the patio the reader is aware that Lord Wesley's is exclusive and reserved. This is a place that entertains guests, but only in the context of special occasions.


For period setting stories considering the style of architecture is very important. When I researched my own novel I spent a while looking at homes in Norway. I was interested in their structure, the wood that was used for their construction, as well as how buildings were designed to help reduce damage against the elements. This is all rather technical but I actually found that researching helped me find some creative ways of integrating how the buildings were designed into the plot. For instance, almost every home in the rural areas of Norway have basements. This is to insure that the ground water below the structure doesn't freeze and cause damage to the home's foundation. Also a lot of the wood is chemically treated to resist the harsh weather conditions brought on by the snowy months. Newer homes in Norway are less susceptible to these kinds of hazards but older homes still find a vulnerability. Likewise, if a narrative took place in the Middle East, there would need to be elements of the story that help emphasize how the style of architecture matches the environment the story takes place in. Think about it like that perhaps.


Depending on whether or not the story takes place in a densely populated environment or an isolated wilderness, your story can emphasize the depth and space that the setting has to offer by the architecture of your structures. Large cities generally have many tight spaces and narrow streets which serve to maximize what little space the citizens have left to develop on. The sense of pressure and claustrophobia brought on by these constrictions feeds the state of mind of the characters. I found that studying architecture in the 80s was really interesting because it was during the era that some of the most ugly buildings were made. It wasn't intentional mind you. The architects back then were more utilitarian. The structure served to carry out a function, not have anything innately special about it. It wasn't until the late 90s and early 2000s that this changed and structures once more were designed to be aesthetically pleasing.

Isolated structures should convey open, unoccupied terrain to make the characters feel small. A large open tundra with a single solitary hut or circle of homes on a ridge shows the reader how massive and threatening the depth of your world is. Generally the buildings in open environments can be ornate if they are apart of a larger group of buildings, but less is better in this particular setting. A barren cabin emphasizes the open expanses of unoccupied land. If there are useful objects in a cabin they should be immediately useful to the protagonist. Consider that next time and it will definitely make your story more interesting during the during their out tings.


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