World Building 101: Four Steps for Designing the Fantasy Landscape

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Whether you’re self-published, traditionally published, or just writing for yourself, all fantasy authors have one big thing in common: we all love being the omnipotent rulers of our own little worlds.  There is something immensely satisfying about imagining our brave adventurers hiking through treacherous mountains or galloping towards the enemy on the field of battle, stirring passions in our readers as we fling fictional men and women into deadly conflict, hopelessly tangled in a complex web of fears, loves, hatred, and desires as they risk their lives for some noble (or ignoble) cause.

The bulk of any fantasy should be driven by these characters and the decisions that they make.  But the bones of every good story will be rooted in the earth.  I’m talking world building in its most literal sense: the way the landscape shapes cultures, inhibits movements, presents perils, and contours the personality of its inhabitants.

If you tend to think of geography as nothing more than that easy class you took sophomore year of college, you might want to reconsider its place in your writing repertoire.   Here are four important steps to take when integrating the landscape into your basic story development.

Draw a world map

In my opinion this is the most critical (and most fun) part of the world building process.  It doesn’t matter if you have artistic talent or not: you have to have a visual overview of what you’re trying to achieve.  Whether you’re working in a pre-industrial landscape where the majority of people are still tied to the villages where they were born or a steampunk metropolis with rapid transit opportunities, you’ll never know where your characters are going until you can see it for yourself.

Where are the farmlands?  Where are your cities?  Where are the trade routes, and who has control of them?  How long will it take for people to travel from the capital city to the Haunted Cave of the Magic Thing?  What’s going to get in their way?  How will your giant armies maintain their supply lines through rough terrain perfect for hiding rebellious partisans?  How will a colder or warmer climate change a battle plan?

Sketching out the mountain ranges, lakes, oceans, islands, and rivers, as well as the boarders between countries and the major routes of travel, can be a quick and simple way to get a better idea of how your world is going to shake out.  It doesn’t have to be publication quality, but it should at least be a solid guide for your own edification.

Look at some real maps to get an idea of how land masses are formed.  Mountains don’t just stick up in the middle of nowhere, and rivers don’t just spring up for the heck of it and flow any which way they want.  Get a handle on the basic relation of geographical features if you want to add a rich, realistic dimension to your landscape.

And don’t forget to draw things to scale!  Journeys are big deal in fantasy writing, and if you have multiple plot threads with people moving across the landscape, you want to make sure they aren’t crossing entire continents at an improbably rate of speed.

Adapt and tailor your cultures

It’s easy for fantasy authors to take the pick-and-mix approach to cultural development, and say, “Well, I want an Arab-based culture here, and a Mongolian-type tribe over there, and a Spanish Conquistador-esque arrangement on the next continent over.”  We all do it to some extent, because it’s really hard not to draw from what we know when we try to think about how people behave.

I’m totally fine with that – as long as you put your cultures somewhere that makes sense.  What made the Mongols so effective at being a ravening horde?  Their wide open grassland habitat and subsequent mastery of horses.  So don’t put them on a tropical island chain and expect anyone to believe they can be successful nomadic herders.

Do make sure that the people on those islands do island-related things like eat a lot of fish and build good boats.  They might intermarry at a higher-than-average rate if they’re isolated from other cultures.  That might make their family alliances stronger – or it might fuel an ancient feud inflamed by outside exploration.

This might seem like basic stuff, but it’s important to really think about how being near a major river will affect a culture’s development differently than being next to the sea, or how a character raised on rich farmland will have a different perspective on the gods and fates of your universe than one who has lived with drought and famine because a city upstream is diverting water or hogging all the grain.

Environmental stressors make great conflict-builders, but you need to understand the mechanics behind them if you want your world to feel realistic.

Build tension through history

My love of history has always informed my love of fantasy, because they are largely the same thing.  Sure, there are fewer (provable) elves in Dark Ages Europe than there are in Middle Earth, but that’s just semantics.  The way people have interacted with each other throughout our real history – the way they trade goods and exchange ideas and explore strange religions – has always driven how the fantasy genre unfolds, and that history is a breeding ground for plot points that can engross your readers in your story.

It’s all about resources.  It always has been.  It’s why people conquer their neighbors and why cities fall to sieges.  Grain, meat, water, minerals, metals, and wood are what empires are built on, and the back-and-forth of armies and politicians crossing physical and social boundaries to grasp at them is why history and fantasy are both so fascinating.

Old wars and old wounds are sometimes even more interesting than new ones, and they can add a richness and depth to your characters’ allegiances.  Did someone kill someone else’s ancestor in the battle over a strategic bridge?  Did a legion starve to death in the mountains because a storm took out the ships promised by the king?  Did someone seize a village or a mine that they ought to have left alone and made your hero an orphan?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to create conflict through the things that are important to people who don’t have grocery stores and mega marts to shop in.  For agrarian societies, the land is life, and the land is death, and the land is where you can spark some of the most interesting struggles your world is going to see.

Stay consistent as the action unfolds

Above all, be sure that when you make a decision, you stick with it.  You might want to write a world where rivers really do flow upside down, cargo dragons make mountains irrelevant, and everything is grown hydroponically underground.  That’s great!  Be creative, but be consistent.

No matter how your world operates, figure out what can go wrong with the system and crack that sucker open as widely as you can.  It doesn’t take much to make a delicately balanced universe come tumbling to its knees, but it has to be believable.

Ensuring continuity and consistency with world building takes a little bit of background work, to be sure, but I can’t imagine any situation where it wouldn’t pay off.  This doesn’t mean that you need to devote 12,000 pages to talking about alluvial deposits and glacial erratics and drainage ditches, but a spoonful of detail can make a world of difference (pardon the pun) to readers looking for an immersive and engaging escape.

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X Marks the Spot

One of my favorite things about reading and writing fantasy is the cartography.  I’ve always loved maps.  As a curious but somewhat timid and terminally confused child, looking at the big world atlas for school or for fun, they seemed to represent the perfect balance between exotic places that were exciting and unknown to me, and the fact that someone had tamed them, charted them, and pinned them in a book for everyone to see.  Someone knew what was going on out there, where all the rivers led and how to get out of the mountains, even if I didn’t, and that was very comforting.

My love of history is also, of course, intimately entwined with geography, and since I’m a very visual learner, maps are sometimes the only way I can really understand what happened at a complicated battle or during a particularly convoluted treaty.

When I first wrote The Last Death of Tev Chrisini, I took a few hours out of my precious NaNoWriMo time to create a map for my nameless world.  I knew there would be a journey involved in my story, so it made sense to want to be able to see where my characters were gallivanting off to.  It also helped me clarify how much time it would take to get from place to place, even though the map I eventually came up with isn’t drawn to scale in the slightest.

I wanted to put it in the Kindle version of TLDTC, but the image wasn’t working for all formats and frankly, it was kind of amateurish and lackluster, as far as those things go.  You can’t talk about fantasy maps without hearkening back to the mother of them all, Tolkien’s gorgeous charts in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and my map looked like a three-year-old had gotten into the crayons again and decided to scribble with what she didn’t eat.

Because let’s face it, I’m not an artist.  I can kind of sort of draw simple things, and I can Photoshop fairly well, but I don’t have that innate talent that some people do, nor do I really have the interest and/or discipline to practice until I reach an acceptable level.  That’s fine by me.  We can’t all be good at everything, right?

Basically what I’m saying is please don’t criticize my stray pixels and squiggly lines.  I don’t have a tablet, which would have made the whole process so very much easier, and I drew the thing in pencil first before scanning it in and coloring it in GIMP, which means there’s a lot of information that doesn’t get transferred cleanly, due to the fact that graphite is smushy by nature.  So it’s not perfect, and it’ll never go on a gallery wall.  Oh well.

But I think it might be a good idea to publish it somewhere, if only to give people an idea of the geography.  It makes the story easier to read.  I’ll be keeping a copy of it on the TLDTC page, so just hover over it and a little drop down should say “world map”.

Comments, suggestions, etc. welcomed.  I hope it’s helpful.