When Seasons Are Characters
A week or so ago, here in New Jersey, after a stretch of hot and humid days and warm rain, we had a couple of cooler days with no humidity, high temperatures in just the mid 70s Fahrenheit (about 20 Celsius) and nighttime lows at around 58F (9C). Really, it felt like fall, my favourite season, and it put me in such a good mood. I almost felt like it, the fall, was talking to me; telling me that the stress of the summer (I thought summers were supposed to be easy street for teachers) with its smaller pay cheques, chaotic (but enjoyable) trips to the beach, the crushing days of oppressive heat and humidity, etc were coming to a close and a new season, with its own set of challenges, is coming. I felt like an old friend, one I’d started to realise I was missing, had just rung me up and said she was coming for a visit and asked if I could put her up in the spare room or on the pullout sofa bed.
As people do nowadays with all sorts of social media - writers, especially - I posted on Facebook and Twitter how cool the weather was and how it offered a taste of autumn. One friend ‘liked’ my Facebook post. Two others commented. Both posted statements in an “Oh no!” sort of way stating that they didn’t want summer to go just yet. To one comment, I replied saying that I love the fall because out go the weeks of heat and humidity, in comes the cooler weather and the exciting feel of putting on that first sweatshirt, taking my son for pumpkin picking and pony rides, watching the leaves change colour and, of course, the lead up to the upcoming holiday season that begins in late autumn (Halloween) and runs into mid-winter (Valentine’s Day) with all of their sights, sounds and smells. I wouldn’t even mind a little snowfall either.
As I thought about this - and like I said, I felt like the hint of autumn was an old friend saying hello - I tried to create a list of books and movies in which the season the story is set plays a major role like it’s a character interacting with the protagonist and integral to the plot. Of course, in good stories the season or seasons have to be more than ornamental but, in many cases, once it’s established whether it’s spring or summer, winter or fall, there isn’t much to them. In a story, say, about a family going on Christmas holiday, there might be snow and a fireplace but they might just be there to establish that, yes, it is winter with the characters doing things that would be typically done in a winter holiday environment. Could that story - and I’m not thinking of any story in particular - be rewritten and be just as good if the family went on a summer beach resort instead?
Examples that popped into my head were The Body by Stephen King, Picnic by William Inge and Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing. For me, all of those stories couldn’t have been told in any other time of the year. Coincidentally, all of them are set in the summer but that, of course, doesn’t mean the summer is the best setting for novels and movies. That’s something to look at in another post. That all my examples are set in the summer is more likely an example of my laziness or my lack of exposure that I couldn’t immediately think of a book or movie I liked, that isn’t set in summer, whose seasonal setting made a major impact.
In The Body, which was adapted into the very successful and much loved movie Stand By Me in the mid-1980s, a group of four boys set out to find a missing body - presumed dead - of another boy. They tell their parents they’re going to camp out and, naturally, go through various adventures that betray inner fears, reveal new heroism and so on. It’s not just perfectly set for the summer because that is when they could camp out and go on an outdoor adventure. It’s perfectly set for the summer because that’s when kids are out of school and have all the time in the world to do whatever they want and that often comes with having the time for self-discovery whether brought about by looking for a missing boy, having a go at your best friend or something else.
In Picnic, it’s Labour Day and the town is gearing up for its annual town event - the picnic. There’s a stranger in town. Well, the stranger is Hal, an old college friend of Alan Seymour. Then, there are the Owens sisters - Madge and Millie. For those of you who haven’t read it or seen the film, I won’t give anything away. However, I’m sure you can imagine that there’s drama surrounding the ‘stranger’ and the two girls. Again, the season, which also happens to be summer - plays a major role. I don’t think the play would’ve worked if it were set around, say, a New Year’s Eve party; at least not in today’s world. Today, Christmas and New Year are such passing holidays. As much as people enjoy and love them, there’s almost a sense of relief when they’re done and over with. The summer, however, is something that people want to linger on. This is especially true of young people and young people who are unattached and have waited all summer for something big to happen. In the United States there’s the added pressure, if you will, of Labour Day, the social end of the summer season. So, it’s a perfect blend at this end of season town picnic that everything comes to a head for Hal and Madge.
Finally, there’s Do The Right Thing, set in a balmy New York. Spike Lee’s movie is set in Brooklyn - the beautiful ethnic blend that it is - and pits characters responding to their environment, physical and socioeconomic, in the midst of a heat wave. If a summer heat wave, with no breeze, rising temperatures and overwhelming humidity is not a perfect metaphor for uncomfortable neighbourhood tensions then I must’ve been watching a different movie. Like King’s novella and Inge’s play, summer is the only season that could’ve worked with Do The Right Thing. The spring and fall are too neutral. There are cool days, there are warmer days, there are humid days but these two seasons are too varied to serve as a viable parallel storyline. The winter, too, doesn’t work because even though there are ridiculously frigid days in New York people don’t complain about cold like they do heat and humidity. The characters in Do The Right Thing could simply bundle up and feel instant warmth. There’s only so much clothing one can remove to cool down.
So, what stories do you love that have as an unnamed character the season in which it is set? Do share. I’d love to know. And, please, for my own enlightenment, let me know of those that are set in the other three seasons. The super literary agent Donald Maass said in a conference I attended that the writer has to be detailed when writing Setting. It puts the reader into the book and gives it life. Setting, though, isn’t just the description of the landscape and physical surroundings, the sounds and smells. It’s also the unseen, but definitely, felt nuances of season.