A Guide to World Building in Fantasy: Geography

The easiest way to approach geography in world building is to cut it down into three sections:

  1. The physical structure of the world,
  2. The climate,
  3. How the population affects and is affected by 1 and 2. 

You don’t need a geography degree to design a plausible landscape. By focusing on how your characters affect and are affected by the physical world and the climate, you can build a rich fantasy setting that makes sense and is believable to the reader. 

The Physical Structure of the World

You might instantly think, maps! I do. 

Making maps is the best kind of procrastination from doing any actual writing, but it has its merits. You are unlikely to consider taking an unfamiliar journey without a map. It is probable your characters will travel from A to B, and you need to know what lies in between. You don’t even need to be an artist. There is nothing wrong with some hastily drawn pyramid shapes for mountains, mounds for the hills and lollipop trees for the woodland. This is about helping you visualise the land. 

Consider the landscapes backstory

The world has slowly evolved over deep time. Some events, like a catastrophic volcanic eruption which plunged the world into a year long winter, may have happened in recent memory. The population could interpret immovable mountains which have remained the same over the millennia via science or superstition. For example, in my home county of Cornwall, giants are attributed to building many of our granite tors. How your characters perceive the land can help build upon other areas of world building, such as religion

What if I am terrible at geography? 

Looking at the mountain ranges on the map of Middle Earth, neither was Tolkien. Did it bother you when you read Lord of the Rings? I doubt it. Knowing the difference between igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks and how plate tectonics works won’t worry the reader. (Ok, perhaps some finicky geologists might frown at the map at the beginning of your book). Anything goes in fantasy. It is your job to convince the reader that it makes sense. 

The Climate

The climate will help and hinder your characters, so decide on the type of climate and general weather patterns at different times of the year. It may centre on a single location. Depending on how large or small your world building is, you may have multiple climates across entire regions or vast continents. 

Land and Sea

If your world building includes seas and oceans, do not treat them as static objects. Think about the wind and water currents and how they may affect the weather and trade/travel routes via the sea. 

The Population

The key to creating a physical world which is believable to the reader, the writer must show how the characters affect and are affected by it. In Game of Thrones, Westeros had crazy seasons that would have made no sense in reality. But readers accepted it because it affected the characters, and we all got to quote, ‘Winter is coming.’

Looking at the world you have created, ask yourself these questions: 

  1. How will my characters exploit it? (i.e. what are its resources)
    • What benefits will it bring?
    • What problems may ensue? 
  2. How could they adapt the landscape for their benefit? 
  3. What professions might become most prominent for the people working in this land?
  4. What are the benefits and drawbacks of the climate, and how must the population adapt to it?
  5. Are any areas sacred?
  6. How do they mark and measure time and the seasons?

Asking these questions allows you to piece together how people live and work the land.

For example, a peninsular that is rich in ore.

  • Offshore weather will make the peninsular damper and milder than their landlocked counterparts.
  • The population will enjoy milder winters but suffer more storms.
  • Fish and shellfish would be a prominent part of people’s diet.
  • The two dominant professions in the area would be fishing and mining.
  • Ore and other wears would be traded and transported from harbour towns further afield by ship,
  • Trade via the ocean would open the population up to different cultures and their wares.
  • A surge in demand for ore would cause a massive boost to the local economy, but,
  • If ore seams were to dry up, it would harm the local economy. 

To summarise

In noting key physical and atmospheric features in the surrounding landscape, we can create a vivid picture of the local population. This will even feed through into other areas of world building, such as the cultures one might come across. 

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  1. Pingback:A Guide to World Building in Fantasy – Travel – Emma Cox

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