For those in the Northern Hemisphere, Jack Frost has settled in once again. And just like many uninvited holiday visitors tend to do this time of year, he’s probably going to overstay his welcome. Thankfully, winter weather can be the perfect excuse to put the kettle on, cozy up by the fire, and immerse yourself in your story instead of braving the cold.
At least, that’s true for you—but your characters won’t always get that choice when unforgiving conditions arise.
“Weather is one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s toolbox,” writes Kyle A. Massa, a speculative fiction author and guest blogger for ProWritingAid, in his 2019 article for the editing program’s website. Beyond serving as a dynamic element in a story’s setting, the weather, and snowy weather especially, can set the tone in a scene and become as symbolic a challenge for your heroes as any other antagonists they face.
But that means tossing out those snow-day clichés and paying attention to how the cold and snow would actually affect them.
Weathering the Storm
“Survival in winter is a matter of skill and instinct,” writes author and BBC Culture columnist Jane Ciabattari, and it takes preparation from both character and author to believably achieve it. Characters who are going to brave the cold need to wear several layers of clothing—simply throwing on a jacket or scarf before venturing outside won’t protect them from the chill. Be aware too of how long your characters will be exposed to the cold and how susceptible they could become to frostbite or hypothermia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even when dressed warmly, people will first become cold in their extremities—think fingers, toes, ears, and nose—and in any areas with exposed skin. Ironically, sweating can be just as bad, as clothing that becomes wet for any reason will cause a quick drop in body temperature. The time one can safely spend outside varies based on factors like temperature, cloud cover, and wind speed, but the National Weather Service Wind Chill Temperature index, which calculates the dangers of long-term exposure to cold, can be a useful place to start.
Snow and extreme cold don’t always need to go hand in hand, according to Scientific American; in fact, sometimes the lowest and most dangerous temperatures don’t have enough moisture to create many flakes at all. As for your character’s reactions to the cold, the CDC lists shivering as one of the first warning signs of hypothermia—so unless your character is consistently on the verge of life-threatening low body temperatures, it’s probably best to opt for more subtlety.
In The Bleak Midwinter
However you choose to incorporate winter weather, understand that it’s likely going to establish a scene’s mood quickly. “Human emotion and weather are interconnected, even within the foundation of our language itself,” Massa writes. Your descriptions of the weather are paramount to how readers interpret the tone of your story, so use this to your advantage. Let the wind whipping through the trees foreshadow your character’s turmoil, or let the tranquil snowfall in the moonlight contrast the chaos they’re facing in life at the moment.
Whether you opt for a blistering cold snap that leaves the questing party exposed to the elements, icy roads that trap the protagonist at a love interest’s house, or a Christmas Eve blizzard that threatens to make Santa’s journey too dangerous without the help of a certain red-nosed reindeer, wintertime offers countless opportunities to complicate your plot and challenge your characters. Just keep an eye out for accuracy, then let it snow.