Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Worldbuilding 101: Geography

So, I’m struggling with a topic for today’s blog when I am reading a friend’s blog where he discusses his thought processes behind geography choices on the world he is creating. And while I’m reading it, I think, hey… this is a great topic. Geography. So, here I am, writing about geography for your fantasy world. Or, even, your sci-fi world/worlds.

Let’s cover the basics. Let’s assume for a minute here that you’re creating a world for your epic fantasy trilogy. You’re going to need a pretty big world, or at least a big area of it, so that your characters can tromp all over it in search of the big, magical treasures that will allow them to defeat the big bad guy in the denouement. And that means maps.

I don’t know about you, but I love maps. Being a huge fan of Dungeon’s and Dragons, the RPG, I have had a love affair with maps since before I started reading epic fantasy such as Tolkien or Jordan. And I love cracking open the cover of a hardback book with a full color map on the inside. They are beautiful.

But beyond that, maps serve you, the writer, a special purpose. They work as… well, a map, of the story. With a map, you can chart out the path your characters are going to take to find the magical artifacts. Place notes on the map of what dangers lurk in that section, mark dates, chapter numbers, book numbers, whatever, and the map becomes a visual outline of your book. I’ve done this before, it’s amazing how well this works.

So, lets talk about your map for a second. Where do you start? I mean, mapping out a whole world, or even a good sized portion of one, is pretty tough.

So, I’m going to again steal a page from Dungeons & Dragons, and say that you start small. Only map what you need, at least at first. So in your epic fantasy, start with the little town that your heroes come from. Is it a farm village miles away from the nearest city? Is it a remote mountain town where the people are miners and goat herders? Maybe it’s a little fishing village on the other side of the mountains from the rest of the world? Whatever it is, start with that. Map out the village and it’s surrounding territory. Don’t go more than what you need for your first few chapters, before the heroes start their real journey into the world. I would say stick to the village the heroes are from and add maybe one or two more.

Then, when your done with that and you know enough about the area from your map to have your characters talk about it like they’ve lived there their whole lives, move on to bigger areas. Map out the kingdom the characters live in. Give it a few neighbors, detail at least one major city that the characters will stop in and also details some important points in the kingdom where the characters will get into trouble.

Keep expanding on this until you have enough of a map detailed that you can tell your whole story. You might need to fill in some areas of the map with things that your characters will never see, but that’s okay. Fill those in last. The important part is that you know where your characters are going, and what those areas look like.

Now comes the part about geography. When drawing your maps, try to make the geography make some sense.

Note that I didn’t say realistic, but sense. Realistic isn’t really a part of the formula here. We’re talking about a world where wizards toss about fireballs, dragons eat princesses and hulking barbarians wield swords bigger than they are. So, don’t worry about realistic. But, it does need to make sense. And by this, I mean that for your reader to feel like they are a part of the world, it needs to at least resemble the world we know.

So, that means now swamps next to the big desert followed by arctic tundra. It means that the rivers should flow from the north to the south, and not the other way around. I know this sound suspiciously like realism, and it sort of is, but really, I’m just saying that it should make some kind of sense. What I am trying to avoid by following this rule of mine is this.

Here’s your reader, getting into your stories. The heroes have just fled the orcs that are attacking their home town, carrying the sacred treasure of the now destroyed town temple. They’re trying to get to the city the priest told them about to give the artifact to a priest there. But first, they have to get through the forest and over the mountains. As they’re going through the forest, the heroes come to a river, and it works best with tension, so the sounds of orc hunting horns are coming from the trees not a mile behind them. They get to the river and see… lava!

This is the point where the reader goes “Lava? What the hell?” and is yanked out of the story to realize he’s reading a novel. When this happens to me, I hate it.

So, unless you have a damn good magical explanation for this river of lava to exist in a forest, as well as a reason as to why the characters, natives to this area of the world, haven’t heard of it before, skip it and make it a normal river.

Now, I’m no geologist, and I expect that you are not as well. So this is where the internet comes in. Research is your friend. Look at maps of the real world. Check sites of geology and ask some basic questions. How many different types of trees can exist in one forest? When does a forest become a jungle? What’s the difference between a rain forest and a jungle? Get your answers to these questions before mapping, or while mapping, even. But definitely before writing.

Okay, I think that’s it for now. I like this topic, though, I may revisit it tomorrow.

Until then, keep writing!


  1. very good - one day I will make up a world for the moment I'm stuck with this one - in the future so I can change the climate a bit but not much else - erupting volcanose floods that kind of thing but still here - I am beginning to envy all the rest of you!!!

  2. This is a great post, Chris. One of the things I'm really picky about in others' worlds and afraid of doing in mine is making things a logical distance from each other. So if you can get between the capital cities of the warring countries in one easy day's ride on a horse, you'd better tell me why the cities are only 30 miles apart or how you got jet-powered horses.

  3. Good timing on this post for me. I am just starting the world building process and was getting a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. Starting out small and building the story from there seems like an excellent way to go. I think it helps focus the story on the people in it, and not just the places.