Note the mountain range that looks like a giant two-pronged fork. That might be a problem for some people.

We all have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to world-building.  It’s generally best to focus on and develop our areas of strength.  For instance, a linguist (say J.R.R. Tolkien) will probably have a world with very well developed languages, but be weaker on the minute aspects of culture and religious practice (for instance, outside of the Silmirillion, it’s hard to figure out what or who the peoples of Middle Earth worship; much less what their rituals of worship look like).  On the other hand an anthropologist (say Steven Erikson) will have intricately detailed cultures, but will be more likely to be lax on languages (In 6000+ pages of reading I think the number of indigenous words, outside of names, in Erikson’s books amounts to maybe a sentence and a half).

I point this out to say that geography is one of my weaker areas.  I love maps, but often I don’t put a lot of coherent thought into what a world SHOULD look like over what I WANT it to look like.  As such I wind up with geographical features that don’t make any sense, like a world with no islands…anywhere…at all…or a world with lakes and oceans made in perfect circles…why…because that’s how I drew it.  I’m getting better about this, but mostly because I’ve had a lot of help.  I show my maps to people, I particularly love pilots because they see everything from a bird’s eye view and are very familiar with maps, and ask them to point out features that don’t make sense.  I actually have Brian to thank for pointing out that one of my mountain ranges (in an earlier version of Avnul) formed a perfect right angle.  It was convenient for me at the time…it has since been corrected.

I know that this map is harder to see; a link to the webpage is at the bottom. This is only one small part of Erikson's world. Generally Erikson does a good job with geography, although I think that his world has a little too much in and this makes belief a little more difficult.

Ultimately what our worlds look like will have an impact on their believability.  If, in the maps for my book, the world looks like something that I drew in my spare time then the book itself suffers because it immediately becomes less believable.  Don’t just draw a map and then walk away.  Keep working on what your world looks like, go back and make sure that the features still work, figure out distances (I had to do this for Among The Neshelim…oh…right…the launch for the book is going to be called Among the Neshelim), and decide how this geography has affected the cultures that live in it.  For instance, Japanese culture developed largely in isolation.  If the Japanese had not had long periods of isolation then their culture and history would be very different.  If you want to have culture in your world similar to the Japanese then you need to take this into account.

Do your people live on a large plain? If so, do they have access to wood? What do they make their fires out of?  How do your people get water?  Many ancient cities were built on or near rivers so you might want to consider this when placing your cities.  Are there any volcanoes in your mountain ranges? If not, why not? Volcanoes aren’t exactly rare in the world.  If there are volcanoes, then how does the local populace react to them?

Some basic geographical faux pas from my experience are:

Mountain ranges that don’t follow fault lines

Lakes and inland seas that have a perfectly circular coastline

Continents that have a straight coastline lacking in bays, inlets, fjords, etc

Large areas with no forests without explanation

A complete lack of volcanoes in the world

large, non-desert areas with no obvious water supply (rivers and lakes)

A complete lack of islands

Martin's continent always seemed too thin to me. Other than that the geography is actually very good, just...thin.

These are a few in my experience to watch out for.  However, remember that anything can be explained by the history of your world.  For instance, if your world has no islands then this is a problem.  However, if your world has no islands because seven hundred years ago an insane wizard cast a spell that made every island in the world sink into the ocean, then it is no longer a problem.  You can explain away just about anything, just make sure that your explanation fits within the scope of your world.

4 thoughts on “Landscaping

  1. Good points. It should be remarked, however, that Tolkien does have hints about religion in LOTR. There is the Standing Silence at meals in Gondor that left Frodo feeling rustic and uneducated, and the reverence of the Elves for Elbereth. We have to remember that this is a pre-Old Testament society, so things like the relationship between Iluvatar and the Valar probably had not been well worked out by a lot of peoples. Going into their rituals might have introduced more confusion than clarity–but, then, we all wish we knew more about Middle Earth and cling to every detail we can get.

    One reason for that is that the highly worked out languages do in fact have a lot to do with the richness of the cultures that spoke those languages. In fact, that is why those cultures exist: for the languages to seem real, they needed people to speak them and a world with history and culture to give meaning to the linguistic expressions. It was the languages that gave rise to everything in that world! That is why it seems more real than any other.

  2. On matters of geography, you offer some good tips. Here’s another. Planets, and sometimes different locations on planets, tend to have consistently prevailing upper-level winds (where the bg storms go). When these winds carry storms against mountains, they typically loose most to all of their water on the mountains. This usually leaves deserts on the opposite side of the mountains unless there’s another source of water. Keep this in mind when placing mountains and deserts. Connect these things to each other. Deserts don’t usually exist right next to oceans (the Sahara is an exception just due to it’s size, but most of it is a ways away from the Mediterranian), nor do they usually exist in the middle of flat plains. Likewise, if you want fertile plains sheltered between lots of mountains, make sure there are some rivers running into it from those mountains, or it’ll never get any water.

    Of course, in a fantasy world, magical and mystical exceptions are always acceptable. Maybe this portion of the wide, open plains was cursed in a terrible war, and that’s why it never gets rain and turned into a desert. Maybe that section of plains surrounded by mountains and with no rivers is protected by the blessings of a water deityor spirit, and that’s why it’s practically rainforest or swamp even though it never rains there.

  3. Good advice. Although the actual desert portion of the Sahara is far inland. Most of what we think of as the Sahara is dryish scrubland, not true desert, and some of it is actually fairly dense forest area on the northern and southern borders near the ocean.

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