Today we have another post from Abbie Brubaker. This one is an interesting take on making a setting element into a character element:
My previous post began a series on faerie tale tropes with a deconstruction of the villainess – the evil witch, stepmother, or queen who appears in a number of time-honored stories and can be aptly appropriated for use in your own writing. This week’s focus switches from a character type to a setting: the woods. In faerie tales, the woods are literal forests, natural wildernesses of towering trees and shadowy undergrowth; such regions are somewhat removed from the modern, developed world we live in, but the significant timbre of “the woods” as a concept constitutes a setting in its own right, independent of an arboreal landscape.
Often, the woods act as a mysterious, ominous place, home to any number of bloodthirsty creatures or malevolent forces. Notably, Little Red Riding Hood’s trip through the woods brings her into contact with the wolf who attempts (and, in some versions, succeeds in) the consumption of Red and her grandmother. For Hansel and Gretel, the woods conceal a similarly-intentioned witch. In other cases, however, the woods offer shelter for characters fleeing domestic troubles. In the case of Snow White, the heroine finds sanctuary (however briefly) in the secluded home of the seven dwarves. The lesser-known story of “Brother and Sister” also portrays a forest setting as providing safety for the young protagonists.
The woods, then, can be described as a location with some element of danger and enigma, large enough to lose oneself in – for good or for bad. Evil may lie concealed here, but unexpected good as well; the woods are layered and deep, with niches for all manner of folk. Often a journey is associated with this place, a journey to it or through it, sometimes a flight from an abusive home life to anywhere which might be better. A life can be carved out in the woods, if you set your mind to it. There may be predators lurking around the corner, but for the savvy soul, the woods present a varied and vibrant setting to explore or settle into. The woods are not usually a permanent residence, however; they are a place for the young, the in-between, who eventually move on to build a new and happy domestic realm elsewhere.
Although “the woods” may be incarnated in any number of places, the most prominent correlation is to an urban setting, where a protagonist may encounter villains as menacing as any cannibalistic witch but also may find a safe haven amidst the bustle and daily rigmarole of the city denizens. The essence of the woods is their otherness – which can mean the threat of the unknown or the promise of a break from an unsatisfactory situation. This dichotomy can be written with equal emphasis on both aspects of the setting, or can be weighted in either direction to suit the nature of the story in which it is being employed. A coming-of-age narrative might feature “the woods” as downtown New York City where the hero rents a shoebox apartment to take time away from what seems an oppressive home environment; a thriller might show the opposite take on “the woods,” displaying the dark, crime-riddled underbelly of a futuristic metropolis.
For characters in a faerie tale, the woods are composed of firs and ferns, with perils as likely to be animal as human; the essence of that setting can be transplanted to a more modern story by playing with the elements of menace and refuge beneath the superseding sense of otherness.
Tobias say: Abbie isn’t familiar with this particular work, but I think an excellent practical example of this concept would be the Azath houses from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. The Azath are mysterious buildings that seem to connect all of the different realms of Erikson’s world, and perhaps even more beyond those realms. The houses clearly have a being and will all their own and are capable of making choices, and they can serve either as a prison: sometimes imprisoning, and sometimes possibly consuming, even the most powerful of gods. Or as a place of refuge: in Erikson’s world the Azath are possessed of immense, if possibly dormant, power and thus it is impossible to enter one unless the house chooses to allow a person entrance. It is also clear that within the Azath houses time/life/being doesn’t exactly work in the same way. It is apparently impossible for a person to die while inside an Azath house, which allows the houses’ chosen guardians to become effectively immortal. There are also a couple of instances where time is apparently stopped, though it is unclear if time is stopped only within the house, or if time is stopped everywhere, and it is also unclear if it is the house itself that stops time, or a particular character within the given house that stops time. Thus the Azath houses represent the concept of ‘the woods’ that Abbie addresses here quite well, and they also become one of the most interesting setting/character elements in Erikson’s novels.