As a genre writer and general fan of fantastical worlds built from the ground up it’s amazing to me just how many writers overlook the “ground” part of that expression. Some authors get so excited about the cool weapons and magic and exotic life forms of their world that they forget about the actual physical world that their creations must inhabit. While that kind of mistake might not necessarily ruin a good story it can lead to logical inconsistencies that take the reader out of the realm you’ve worked so hard to get them to inhabit. The thing is with a little bit of foresight and planning such mistakes can be avoided. What’s more that little bit of effort can pay big dividends in terms of both story and atmosphere, allowing your characters to inhabit a world that seems cohesive and natural rather than merely a hodgepodge of cool ideas and plot devices. In this edition of World Building 101 we tackle the most literal part of world building: Geography.
Here on planet Earth geography is traditionally divided into two disciplines: physical geography and human geography. We’ll address human geography in the History and Cultures posts somewhere down the line. For now, I’d like to focus on physical geography which deals with natural environments. To start with you need to decide your world’s place in its universe. If your world is just another Earth or Earth-like planet you can ignore this but if you plan on adjusting your world’s distance from its primary star or giving it extra moons or suns, then you need to do a little bit of research and figure out how your changes will affect your worlds length of day, length of year, seasons, average temperature, tides, gravity, etc. Once you understand those effects it’s important to spend a minute adjusting your world’s atmosphere to ensure that it can protect and sustain life. Also as far as aesthetics goes any adjustments made to your atmosphere might affect the color of your worlds sky which can be a pretty cool touch.
Next you’ll need to decide on the number of continents your world will have, their positioning, and what bodies of water separate them. This is important as it will influence the interconnectedness of your world’s population. Placed close together your peoples will likely have started interacting at a very early point in their history. If separated by vast oceans, then they will have been isolated until they’re technology had developed to the point of being capable of transoceanic travel. Also when forming your continents, you might want to consider the effects of costal erosion on your coast line, avoiding straight lines and giving your world a unique look.
Now you have a general sense of what your world will look like on a map but there is still a lot of work left to do. Most importantly you’ll need to decide on the location of your fresh water sources such as rivers and lakes. Access to fresh water is essential to any human civilization but this is genre fiction so If your characters drink lava or something more exotic you’ll need to focus on volcano placement I suppose. Aside from fresh water you’ll also need to concern yourself with the location of mountains, deserts, jungles, forests, and the like. Try to keep in mind that these formations don’t simply appear magically because the plot demands it; they are the natural result of environmental systems reacting to each other. For instance, the tectonic plates on your world may come together to form a massive mountain range which in turn blocks cloud moisture from reaching the lee side of the mountain range and creates a desert. Or maybe a series of humid deltas creates a dense jungle expanse. Also keep in mind latitude and longitude and all the work you’ve done up to this point. You can’t stick a frozen tundra on the equator of a planet featuring two yellow suns and expect no one to ask questions.
Obviously the subject of geography goes well beyond what I’ve covered here but hopefully this gives you a general idea as to the questions you should be asking when designing the physical features of your fictional world. Until next time this has been World Building 101 with The Eclectic Eccentric.