Fantasy World Building 101: A Course in Making It Up As You Go

Part 1: Over the River and Through the Woods

Show of hands—who’s seen a good example of a topographical map? A few of you? Okay, that’s better than none. Now, who’s seen a map in the first pages of a fantasy novel? Everyone? Good. Those of you who’ve seen both know what I’m up to here *cough* Tolkien’s square mountain ranges *cough*. What’s up with the extreme geological features?

All the mountain ranges resemble the Alps. The forests are all lowland, old growth, sprawling masses of trees. The farmland tends to the flatness of the Midwest, if there’s any at all. Deserts are vast, dune-covered affairs of blinding sun and wicked heat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these landscapes. They’re dramatic, challenging, easily recognizable, but they’re overused. And sometimes they simply don’t make sense. You aren’t going to have a generally stable landmass with an active volcano camped out in the middle, especially if it’s the only volcano around. Volcanoes tend to crop up at the edges of tectonic plates. Ditto for mountains. Continents drift over time. Newer mountain ranges are taller and sharper, old ranges are worn down and smoothed around the edges. Waterways flow to larger waterways, flow to lakes, seas, and oceans.

I recommend making Google Earth your friend. I also utilize Google Maps in Terrain mode. This gives me a clear idea of land formations without all the extra ‘noise’ (vegetation, roads, buildings) that occurs in a satellite image. Familiarize yourself with your region’s terrain and go out from there to wholly unfamiliar environments. Research unique geological features. What causes them? How do they affect the landscape? I live in a zone known for its glacial moraines. It’s the where the southernmost edge of the glaciers reached in North America during the last ice age. The glaciers scarred the land as they formed, leaving lakes and marshes. They left plenty of debris behind when receding, some of which piled up to form moraines. I live near a moraine valley, a glacial gorge, and an esker. Eskers are funny things, long, narrow hills consisting of whatever gravelly stone the glaciers pushed around, covered in a thin layer of dirt and vegetation. Northern England has drumlins, as does the upper Midwest, a different kind of glacial leaving due to the same recession process.

Geology is fascinating, and the little details of it can speak volumes about the world being presented in a work of fiction. Specifically, fantasy can benefit from strong world building as the world of the story tends to be completely made up, or turned on its head, or otherwise manipulated. The little details can make the world seem real. Find out about tectonic plates, volcanism, groundwater aquifers, river watersheds. These are the things that shape a landscape, whole regions of space marked by the geologic forces that move in and through them. The shape of the land can also influence a host of other factors in your story. A mountain range can signal a natural border between nations. Or a sea, or a marsh, or any impassable feature, or ‘waste’ land can do the same. Are there canyons? Is the place prone to earthquakes or flooding? Is it high desert or near the ocean? Is there a rich supply of precious metals? Gemstones? Are there granite quarries or limestone?

Speaking of natural resources, climate and weather can have an impact on that just as much as geology. Learning a bit about how the two interact to form and shape distinct regions of our earth can inform the creation of a fictional world. How do the seasons cycle? Is there wetland or rainforest? Some places are better for grain crops while others support fruit orchards. A warm, wet environment can foster exotic trees used for specialty hardwood. A sea bound society might provide fish to the market.

This actually leads into the topic I’ll cover next week, namely, the economic patterns of society and how that is an essential part of the world building process.

And yeah, sometimes drawing a map helps wrap your head around the place you’ve created.

Happy world building!

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