I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re wondering why I’m starting this whole series with geography. You might possibly be thinking “Yeah, it’s important and all, but magic is the real question in the world of fantasy.” Perhaps that’s even true. But before I get into the meat of my post, I’d like to note just how important geography is.
The goal of any good story is to immerse your readers in your fantasy world. Tolkien did it. George Martin does it. Robert Jordan (author of Wheel of Time) probably overdid it, but we’re not passing judgments here. The list goes on. So geography is more than just the setting. It’s not just where you plop your character down. The geography makes the world. It takes the story from just a story, and turns into an actual, living, breathing thing. You know how readers who really love a story can oftentimes write fanfiction? Readers being able to visualize your world so completely that they can set their own little stories inside of your world… That’s priceless, and it’s made possible because the authors drew up their world in a way that made it seem real, and made it seem as if other stories could be happening beyond the one that they told. That’s real magic, right there.
How Do Authors Use Geography to Better Their Story?
Naturally, the best way to know how to use geography to your advantage is to study other fantasy books you’ve read, and note how authors have used geography to their advantage. Authors who treat their novel’s world as just another character seem to do better on the market. From what I understand of Tolkien, he didn’t fit his languages and his world into his story. He built the languages, then he built a culture for those languages, and then he built the world for those cultures to live in, and then he pulled a story out of that.
That is admirable dedication, and also a bit cumbersome. You don’t have to follow Tolkien’s path, though. The important thing to pull out of this is that he wrote his stories as if his characters were real people walking on a real world, experiencing real, developed cultures. Which, I believe, is part of Martin’s appeal in A Song of Ice and Fire. The land is just as important to the story as the characters are.
Naturally, you don’t want to bog down your readers with info-dumps. However, as you write, it should be apparent that you’ve thought out your world’s cultures in relation to geography. In Westeros, the northern Winterfell breeds hardy people, ones who are accustomed to the cold. Their words? Winter is coming. The honorable, hardened Stark family are who they are because of growing up in this harsh environment. Casterly Rock, however, is in the southern region, surrounded by small mountains that produce the famed Lannister gold. Their famous motto? A Lannister always pays his debts. Indeed, the Lannister children have grown up on wealth, are obsessed with getting what is owed, and these traits visibly show. You see my point?
Geography is not just a focal point for plot development. It influences a character’s past, present, and future. Just something to consider when drawing out your map.
How Does Time Affect a World’s Geography?
This is a bit of a minor point, and it may seem obvious, but it’s something worth considering. Most (not all) fantasy novels are situated in a medieval-esque world. People associate medieval times with kings and kingdoms, plenty of warfare, etc. But the medieval period extends several hundred years. So take that into consideration.
If your world is the “classic medieval”, then it’s very probable that most (if not all) of the land is divied up between kings/lords etc. Everything belongs to somebody, unless it’s a thing that isn’t worth claiming. Things like mountains, rivers, oceans, lakes, deserts… These tend to act as some sort of boundary (although some people view these geographical features differently. One group might say a river divides two lands, another might say that it connects them), and so go unclaimed to a certain degree. With the rise of kingdoms also means that a lot of the land will be cleared of forests, to make way for cities and for farmlands, and just for resources in general.
A more pre-medieval (or early medieval, perhaps) approach will mean a lot of forests, although just because a land doesn’t have a whole bunch of cities doesn’t mean the whole thing is chock-full of trees. But it will be more untamed. Definitely more unclaimed. A group of nomadic, or even recently-settled, people might say ‘this expanse is our home’, but it wouldn’t be considered a boundary, technically, unless they have the manpower to defend it. In my own story, humanity is still in its fledgling stages, if you will, so that most of the land is not actually claimed by anyone except for whoever leads the settlements. It’s not a collection of towns grouped under one kingdom; the collection of towns may work together, but they are not ruled by any one person. Cities are far apart, roads are practically nonexistent except for the slightly-more-developed north, etc.
Your story doesn’t have to take place in a medieval-like period. It can, but it doesn’t have to. But as you plan out your story’s world, it’ll help to figure out what kind of time period you’re going for (especially for research purposes, when it comes to medicine and weaponry, but I’ll be touching on that in later posts).
What Should I Consider When Building my World?
Obviously, if you already have your story’s plot planned out, forcing the plot to fit to a certain map may not be feasible. Quite possibly, you’ll have to draw your map to conform to your plot. And that’s fine. It can give you the basic sketch of what your world needs to look like, and then you can go about filling in the rest. I would recommend, though, that you do this part as soon as possible.
Remember how I said Tolkien basically conformed his story around his world, and that’s what made it feel so real? Well, as you work on your story, you might find that a plot point conflicts with your geography. It’s always a good idea to try, if at all possible, to resolve that plot point dilemma by conforming it to fit your geography, instead of the other way around. Your reader might never actually know about the change, but it’ll still add spice, and give them that real-feel to it. It makes your characters look at the “real” world around them, to see a geographical dilemma and have them find a way to fix it, rather than have you whisk away their problems just so they can deal with the matter at hand. This tactic is not always feasible, but it’s a good idea to try to do it whenever possible.
When building your world, make sure it’s built logically. You don’t necessarily need to know elevations, but remember that water flows downhill. Mountains are formed whenever tectonic plates slam into each other. You’ll often find hills near mountains. But you don’t always find mountains near hills. Lakes tend to form in valleys, where water collects. Water erodes. Et cetera. Knowing this can have minor impacts on a scene – noting that a character is walking down a slight incline towards a pool of water makes it seem even more realistic.
Also consider where your character is from. What kind of geography they might have been surrounded by to create who they are? Mountains tend to breed isolation, and characters who appreciate solitude. Quiet, hardy folk. The people who live together will probably be very loyal to each other, because they need that loyalty to get by. Forests also create isolated characters, but they’re likely more connected to other people than mountain-dwellers, and they also likely have an appreciation for nature. Slightly more outgoing than mountain folk. Being near the sea will often lead to an open-mindedness about the rest of the world, as the sea will offer opportunities for characters to come into contact with diversity. On and on the list goes.
I’ll be talking more about culture in the next post, and things you want to consider when drawing up your cultures. But this just gives a basic idea of why geography is important and what you might want to consider as you throw your map together. Best of luck, and feel free to leave comments and questions below!