In part two of five, we’re moving on to how nature will shape society’s foundations. As a disclaimer, I’m no expert on this stuff and I recommend doing your own research, but I find taking a rough look at the geography in your world can help at the early inception stages.
You probably already have at least some idea of your civilisation you want to inhabit your world, right? So we start from there. And no, we won’t get ahead of ourselves here, but in order to place landmarks and boundaries we need to know a little about the people that live in the region. So, let’s take your main cities:
- Are they seafaring?
- Are they prosperous?
- Are they secluded? Or easily accessed on a trade route?
- What goods are they famed for?
- Are they famed for a particular type of battle? How has their environment evolved their warfare?
- How else has their environment moulded their culture? How have they survived?
- Anything else notable that characterises them?
- Do they have enemies?
All of the above are important questions in establishing the terrain around them. Enemies will likely need to be separated by some kind of natural boundary – impassable mountains or large bodies of water. Wealthy cities should normally be located along a river for easy trade, plus other harvestable resources. A nation famed for it’s battle horses will be situated in open plains or hills, rather than less horse-friendly rocky mountains or bog.
Think carefully about all of the above answers, and what environments would be required for it. If you have a society in a more inhabitable area, give an interesting backstory as to why they chose to settle there, this is a good opportunity for an unusual society.
We’re writers, not geographers, dammit! So here are a few basic but essential principles to be aware of when drawing up your map. Let’s start sketching it out.
Firstly, place your main cities and the landmarks you brainstormed in the previous exercise between them. You don’t need to draw them yet, just use placeholders. After this, you can sketch out:
- A rough coastline, the rougher and more jagged the better. Lots of coastline and islands mean lots of borders to defend, fish to feed on and pirates that dwell.
- Mountain ranges. Mountains tend to be in long thin lines as they form along the edges of tectonic plates. They often lie at coastlines as the plates pile up and sink old ones into the ocean. Mountains are perfect for offering natural boundaries and cave lairs.
- Rivers. Rivers will start at the top of mountain ranges and flow downhill to meet the ocean. They rarely run through deserts unless there is an unusually large water source. Rivers provide transportation, food and water for inhabitants.
- Terrain. Winds blow inland from the sea and pick up wet currents along the way. There will be rain on the side of the mountain that the winds hit – the ocean facing side. So commonly you’ll have one side that is lush and fertile, the other dry and barren. Forest will never border desert, always make sure to blend it realistically with scrubland between the two.
- Hills. Extend your mountain edges with hills and mines.
- Borders. Sketch your country’s borders, these will usually sit nicely along natural obstacles such as rivers and mountains.
- Wilderness. Add your untamed regions, large spaces for wildlife or even desolation.
- Cities. People should always live near food sources and other resources. Major cities will sit near rivers, particularly where rivers meets lakes or oceans, as strong traders. Think of the water source as proportional to the settlement size. Or they’ll be particularly defensible and resourceful. Fortresses will be best suited along coasts, borders and mountain passes to keep watch for enemies.
Look at google terrain to find inspiration in natural terrains from our own world
Now we starting drawing up a rough map of our planet:
- Draw a map and define its terrain – is it flat, vocanic, high in the clouds etc?
- Define it’s climate and weather system – is it comfortable, hot, wet, harsh, stormy etc?
- Does it have different biomes? Let’s sum up the main types to kickstart your creative juices:
- Tropical rainforest – Warm, wet, abundant in wildlife and overgrown plants.
- Boreal forest – Sub-arctic forest with long winters and coniferous pine trees.
- Grasslands – Moderate climate and very open with, yep, lots of grass and, with it, herbivores.
- Warm desert – Rocky/sandy. Scorching heat, arid. Low rain and resilient inhabitants.
- Cold desert – Rocky/sandy. Cold winters, arid, higher altitude. Low rain.
- Tundra – Treeless mountain tract. Coldest climate with dwarfed plants. Odd day cycles where there could be 24 hour sun during summer days.
A tip before we go further: You may have created an epic looking monster, but is it really coherent? Do some research on similar environments, for example a desert, and make a list of the native plants, creatures and their characteristics that help them survive. It’s okay to have extreme conditions on a planet, like no light, just make sure the inhabitants are adapted and evolved to survive there realistically.
Now lets take a look at the flora on this planet. Are there edible, medicinal, tall, dwarfed, carnivorous, or water retaining cactus type plants? If we go back to the biomes mentioned above, we can briefly reflect on the types that have adapted to their natural environments in our own world:
- Tropical rainforest – Plants grow quickly in this environment but they also have to compete for light. Typically they’re broad-leaved, tall, evergreen. We sometimes find bamboos, palms, ferns, parasitic orchids and low-growing vines, moss and roots on the ground.
- Boreal forest – Plants typically need to photosynthesize year round due to the low sunlight, they also need to retain their water in the dry climate. We’ll find small-leaved woody pines, firs, spruces and larches.
- Grasslands – Often has less large shrubs due to grazing animals and fires. Mostly thickets and clumped grasses. Woody, small-leaved, sometimes hairy leaved trees may also grow. Think Eucalyptus, oaks and willows.
- Desert – Due to the low rain, plants need to survive with deep roots, spiny leaves with less surface area or water retaining organs. Think cacti, succulents and brittle shrubs.
- Tundra – Low temperatures, strong winds and short growing seasons means dwarfed shrubs that grow close together, almost like a blanket; grasses, sedges, alpine and hairy or waxy leaved plants. Tundra plants will have some beautiful flowers.
We need to make sure creatures fit into our world realistically – never forget to maintain a balance in your ecosystem too! Sure, having lots of predators to attack the player is great fun but, wait – what the hell does this predator eat? Where’s all the prey? Imagine a food chain pyramid. For each predator, there are usually hundreds of prey for it to survive on. Keep your population proportions real, and make your more gargantuan creatures viable in what they can feed on. There are lots of cues to help us design interesting wildlife, but it’s important that we keep logical questions in mind.
- What are its traits and physical characteristics?
- What are these traits used for? E.g. bright colours for warning, claws for ripping.
- What abilities does it give them?
- Is it dangerous (even herbivores can be dangerous!)?
- How is its behaviour and its intelligence?
- Where do they nest?
- Do they live solo or in packs?
- What is its prey?
- Where is its water source?
- Are they domesticated?
- What is their role? E.g. Hunting, transport, guarding, pest control, food, clothing, warfare, companionship
- What products are they used for? E.g. Leather, wool…
- How is it treated within cultures? E.g. Deified, sacred, protected, befriended, hated, seen as a pest…
And once we’ve answered these questions, really ask yourself: Could it survive in its setting?