Figures In A Landscape
Here's a good lesson in writing from Graham Greene's A Sort of Life:
Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn't be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. Action can only be expressed by a subject, a verb and an object, perhaps a rhythm - little else. Perhaps I should have turned to Stevenson to learn my lesson: 'It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and the sound of blows and someone crying as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw Mr Shaun in the doorway crossing blades with Alan.'There's another useful lesson in Kidnapped (from which Greene so approvingly quotes) - the way in which, as Margot Livesey puts it, Stevenson describes 'landscapes that both shape and reveal the actions of the characters.' This isn't about the way in which landscapes can reflect emotional weather or moral character. That can be useful, no doubt - especially in science fiction and fantasy, outwith the constraint of depicting real landscapes. But it can tend towards the pathetic fallacy: goodness inhabiting lovely woods of silver-leafed trees and evil lurking in lands ruined by dark satanic mills; the functional logic of future cities depicted by clean white towers linked by monorails. But I mean instead the ways in which characters can be shaped by the landscapes of their childhood, and how their responses to new landscapes can reveal their strengths and weaknesses.
To give a trivial example of the former, Yama, the main protagonist of the Confluence trilogy, is raised in a semi-military household sited in a vast and ancient necropolis. He values order and hierarchy, nurtures an ambition to become a soldier, and is steeped (more than he realises) in casual, everyday encounters with the past. All of this affects his ideas about the wider world, and influences his plans and the way he attempts to overcome the obstacles he encounters. The shape of his travels down the length of his world was already laid down in the bone-white paths between the tombs where he played as a child.
As for how landscape can reveal character, there's nothing better than those chapters of Kidnapped in which David Balfour and his friend Alan Breck (who crossed blades with Mr Shaun in the passage quoted by Greene) tramp across the heather of the Scottish Highlands after escaping a shipwreck. Stevenson's evocation of the spare, bleak nature of the landscape is masterly, as is his exploration of the different reactions of David, a Lowland Scot pitched headlong into this alien territory, and Alan, who was raised there. The hardships they endure expose their differences and test them to breaking point; yet each has qualities the other needs to survive their adventures.
Confluence is structured as the long journey of a young man searching for the truth of his life: who he is; where he came from; where he's going. Yama travels from his childhood home to the capital, and then doubles back and heads downriver towards the world's end. All the while I kept in mind lessons learned from Stevenson's use of landscape and character, especially in the passages in which Yama's self-appointed squire, Pandaras, searches for his master and helps him reach what they mistakenly believe will be the end of their journey. And I also kept in mind the plain fact that even the most hostile landscape is indifferent to human suffering. Surviving it is a hard test, but surviving the people encountered in it is even harder.