Buildings As Characters In Fiction

the house of the seven gables

Sometimes in literature you’ll hear a setting interpreted in the same way as a character. What does this mean? When should you do this?

Most stories: Storyworld affects character. 

In some stories: Storyworld interacts with the characters.

The way in which place interacts with human beings is one of the focal points in philosophy, so if you want to know more about that, philosophy is the place to go. For example, Heidegger coined the phrase Dasein to describe the state of ‘being-in-the-world’.

Look especially closely at stories set onboard ships. Ships are often treated as characters. In sci-fi, it’ll be a spaceship. (Outer space is metaphorically the same as the ocean., just a different genre.)

from The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
from The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Is This A Type Of Metaphor?

Related: Symbolism of the Dream House, from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. Bachelard questions whether the personified building in literature truly counts as ‘metaphor’. He instead wonders if it should be simply referred to as ‘linguistic imagery’, since ‘house as person’ seems like a bit of a stretch.

On the other hand, a positivist psychologist would immediately reduce this language to the psychological reality of the [hero].

The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

Genius Loci: A location’s distinctive atmosphere

When talking about places as characters in literature, the term Genius loci is related. It’s Latin, of course. In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. If you ever come across a picture of a figure holding a bowl or a snake, that’s probably an ornament of the genius loci. (The plural is genii, by the way.)

If you go to somewhere like Japan, or watch Japanese anime, you’ll see the Eastern equivalent, for example the butsudan in traditional Japanese homes. (A corner of a room where you put photos of dead loved ones and incense and food offerings.)

But here in the West we simply refer to ‘the spirit of the place’ rather than something that’s actively guarding. Light is important here. The genius loci is powered by the sun.

The term used to be used only in reference to gardens, but now can describe the spirit of any kind of place.


Drama, Mystery, Romance

Atonement house

However elegant the old Adam-style building had been, however beautifully it once commanded the parkland, the walls could not have been as sturdy as those of the baronical structure that replaced it, and its rooms could never have possessed the same quality of stubborn silence that occasionally smothered the Tallis home. Emily felt its squat presence now as she closed the front door on the search parties and turned to cross the hallway.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

Young Adult Novel, Drama

The House In Norham Gardens cover

Belbroughton Road. Linton Road. Bardwell Road. The houses there are quite normal. They are ordinary sizes and have ordinary chimneys and roofs and gardens with labournum and flowering cherry. Park Town. As you go south they are growing. Getting higher and odder. By the time you get to Norham Gardens they have tottered over the edge into madness: these are not houses but flights of fancy. They are three stories high and disguise themselves as churches. They have ecclesiastical porches instead of front doors and round norman windows or printed gothic ones, neatly grouped in threes with flaring brick to set them off. They reek of hymns and the Empire, Mafeking and the Khyber Pass, Mr Gladstone and Our Dear Queen. They have nineteen rooms and half a dozen chimneys and iron fire escapes. A bomb couldn’t blow them up, and the privet in their gardens has survived two World Wars.

The House In Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively


he Shipping News house

She ran with Sunshine up and down the curve or rock. The house threw their voices back at them, hollow and unfamiliar.

The gaunt building stood on rock. The distinctive feature was a window flanked by two smaller ones, as an adult might stand with protective arms around children’s shoulders. Fan lights over the door. Quoyle noticed half the panes were gone. Paint flaked from wood. Holes in the roof. The bay rolled and rolled.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature

Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered symbolically similar:

  1. floating — e.g. by holding onto helium balloons, levitating by magic or by supernatural means
  2. going up onto a high place, such as a roof or a tree(house) — Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s tree house series are mega bestsellers in Australia
  3. hovering — a subgenre in African American books
  4. leaping and jumping — In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fourth book for children, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary jump with unrestrained joy off a stack of hay (until they’re told not to by their father). This contrasts with later chapters in the book where the outdoorsy Laura finds it difficult to concentrate in class, where she is required to sit still, restrained like a caged creature.


Christopher Vogler has this to say about how flight doesn’t always mean actual flying:

Fairy tales include a chase that involves a whimsical transformation of objects, known as the magic flight motif. In a typical story a little girl escapes from the clutches of a witch with the help of gifts from animals she’s been kind to. The girl throws down the gifts one by one in the witch’s path and they magically transform into barriers that delay the witch. A comb becomes a thick forest that slows the witch while she gobbles it up. A scarf becomes a wide river which she has to drink.

Joseph Campbell gives several illustrations of magical flights, and suggests the motif stands for a hero’s attempts to stall the avenging forces in any way possible, by throwing down “protective interpretations, principles, symbols, rationalizations, anything…(to)…delay and absorb” their power.

What the hero throws down in a chase may also represent a sacrifice, the leaving behind of something of value. The little girl of the fairy tales may find it hard to part with the lovely scarf or comb given by the animals. Heroes of movie adventures sometimes have to decide what’s really important, and toss money out the window to slow their pursuers and save their lives. Campbell cites the extreme example of Medea. Escaping with Jason from her father, she had Jason cut up her own brother and toss his pieces into the sea to delay the pursuit.

– The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters


When considering flight as a metaphor, include floating. As John Truby writes in his review of Avatar, ‘In the history of utopias, the single most important quality is floating or flying. Think of the floating tea party in Mary Poppins, Harry Potter playing Quidditch on his broomstick, or the floating house in Up.’

A good picture book example of floating can be seen in Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, in which Ida floats backwards out the nursery window, then floats through the fantasy landscape as if she’s underwater. Gravity works differently in this imaginary world of hers, in which her little sister was kidnapped by goblins.

Truby points out that if a fantasy world is to be successful on a grand scale, it must have the qualities of a utopia.

In other words, a successful utopia requires flight. Continue reading “The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature”