Weather in Fiction

Weather in Fiction

By Karen Pon

© 2001, By Karen Pon

“It was a dark and stormy night...”

Weather affects nearly every aspect of our lives.  Different groups will place a different importance on the weather.  For the city executive in her climate-controlled office, a shower of rain may just mean putting up her umbrella when she ventures outside.  For the farmer in a drought-stricken area it may mean survival for another year.  The army general may have to rethink strategy when his tanks become bogged, and thousands of plants and animals take the rare opportunity to reproduce in a normally dry salt lake in the desert.

In fiction, the weather can have two functions.  There can be a significant weather event (a storm or a drought, for example), which has a major effect on your story, or the weather can be in the background, providing depth and ambience to your setting.  What will the weather be doing in your story?

Weather as an event

Weather can and has played a decisive role in history.  Erik Durschmied, in his book The Weather Factor: How nature has changed history, describes the defeat of three Roman legions by the vastly outnumbered northern Germanic tribes united under the leadership of Arminius of the Cherusci.  While much of the credit must go to Arminius for his brilliant leadership and tactical skills, he was assisted at a crucial point of the battle by a timely thunderstorm.  Durschmied goes on to describe a number of other events in which the weather has played a significant role.

When you use weather to turn the tide of your story, there are a few things to keep in mind.

There is a lot of energy involved in meteorology.  This is one reason I personally dislike 'weather magic'.  To create a storm out of nothing requires an enormous amount of energy, and if magicians have that much power at their disposal they could blast the enemy off the face of the planet a hundred times and still have plenty left over.  If you must use magic to manipulate the weather, you can nudge already existing or threatening storms a kilometre or so to the left, or make them start half an hour sooner or later.

Many stories have used the idea that a magician can only manipulate the weather, or one aspect of it.  This would explain why they can’t just annihilate the opposition, and gives you plenty of scope for making your magicians useless at a crucial point of the battle.

Even if your weather magician has access to a sufficient energy source, there are still other factors that need to be taken into account.  If your magician creates rain, the water has to come from somewhere.  If it’s humid, there may be sufficient water in the atmosphere.  If not, your magician will need to find a water source, preferably nearby.  Perhaps the spell takes water from the nearest sources, which will include all the people in the area, and all other living organisms.  Your characters will need to protect themselves from being water sources or redirect the spell to obtain water from a particular source.  Likewise, if you want to create a drought or stop a storm, the water needs somewhere to go.  Do you dump it in the next valley, or try to spread it across the country?

Also, the weather is a deterministic chaotic system.  That is, it is wholly reliant on previous events but still impossible to predict completely, since every tiny movement of air will have an effect.  Therefore, invoking weather magic will have huge consequences.  If you’ve heard about how the butterfly flapping its wings in South America can cause a typhoon in Japan, imagine what moving a storm one kilometre left might do.  This will also make weather magic highly unreliable. An attempt to nudge a storm over the opposing army could backfire and result in the storm being directly overhead your own soldiers.  Turn this around and have the weather magician on the opposing side, and you can allow your ragged and weary band of soldiers to overcome overwhelming odds.

For the same reasons, weather-altering or controlling technology is highly suspect.  The only significant weather-altering technology currently developed that I am aware of is cloud-seeding, which is not incredibly reliable and is dependent on clouds already being present.  More realistic would be better methods of observing and forecasting the weather, and better methods of coping with the effects of severe weather.

Serendipity can be much more useful than magic for that convenient storm.  Try to stack the odds in your favour.  A huge downpour in the middle of a tropical Dry season will need some extremely fast talking to be accepted by your readers, but a winter storm in the midlatitudes would not be out of place.

Rain in the Dry season can happen, though.  The region in which I live has had a cyclone form one week into the Dry, and thunderstorms a couple of months ago, right in the middle of the Dry.  If you want to write unusual weather into your story, pave the way by having some indication that the weather is changing.  That unseasonal storm can be foreshadowed by having the humidity increase and clouds build up a few days beforehand, perhaps with a wind direction change or an increase in the wind strength.

Weather “magicians” may just be very good forecasters, claiming the approaching storms as their own doing.

All cultures will have some techniques for forecasting weather.  These may involve throwing bones into a fire or axioms like 'Red sky at night / Shepherd’s delight'.  These have come from generations of weather observation and often there will be a scientific connection between the two effects.

Remember, storms are not the only severe weather event that might affect your characters.  Droughts, floods, fire and snow, all of these can be obstacles for your characters to overcome.

Turning all this around, consider also how different weather conditions might affect magic or new technologies.  How will your new stealth bomber cope with 60kt crosswinds, clear air turbulence and avoid producing contrails?  Will a thunderstorm five kilometres away make it dangerous to work magic?

The effect of weather on magic will largely be determined by the type of magic on your world.  Current technology is often subject to weather conditions.  High humidity and moisture can damage electronics and cause short circuits.  Vehicles struggle in wet weather, in cold weather and in hot weather.  Infrared sensors struggle at times of thermal crossover, when land and air temperatures are close to equal.  Planes have to deal with crosswinds, turbulence, icing, jet streams, storms, low cloud - it’s amazing they can fly at all!

Weather as background

Wherever they are, whenever they are, the weather will always have an impact on the activities of your characters.  Whether it’s fine or it’s raining, hot or cold, realistic descriptions of the weather can add depth to your setting.  It can be used to show the passage of time, or unseasonal weather.

Remember that there are many different climates in even our own world, and that summer is not always fine sunny days, that winter is not always cold and rainy, and not everyone recognises four seasons.  I live in the tropics, and we have two recognised seasons, as well as another somewhat unofficial season.  There is the Dry season during the calendar summer, in which very little, if any, rain falls.  Towards the end of the Dry it can get extremely humid, as more moisture enters the atmosphere, however it does not rain.  Locally this is known as the Buildup, or colloquially, Mango Madness Season (because people can go a little crazy in the heat and humidity).  Once the first rains come, it is the Wet season, or the monsoon.  Learn about the climates in different parts of the world to get an idea of the possibilities.

A brief description of the current weather can provide ambience, reflecting the mood of your characters.  'Only a few fluffy white clouds interrupted the endless blue of the sky.  It was the epitome of spring, the perfect day as Jenny started out on her Great Adventure'.  The weather can also act as a counterpoint to a character’s moods.  “It should have been a dark and stormy night.  The clear blue sky she could see from her office window did nothing to improve Jenny’s mood.”

One last note...

Avoid technical jargon unless you are sure of your facts and terminology.  While not many readers will be meteorologists, there are a lot of weather enthusiasts out there.  I have read too many stories in which clouds, storms and other meteorological phenomena are described or explained completely wrong.  There are books aplenty to help you write the weather right, and even more websites.  There are links at the end of this article to some useful websites; also check out the bibliography. 

Useful sites

World Meteorological Organization 

Australian Bureau of Meteorology 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 

UK Meteorological Office 

Bad Meteorology 


Durschmied, Erik.  2000.  The Weather Factor: How nature has changed history, Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain.  ISBN 0 340 76805 3 

Whitaker, Richard (ed.).  1997.  An Australian Geographic Guide to Weather, Australian Geographic, Australia.  ISBN 1 86276 032 2