Geography Is Destiny (Worldbuilding Wednesday 8)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Few things throw me out of a story as much as physical geography that egregiously makes no sense. If a writer is going to set a story in a made up world, I think it behooves the writer to make the physical geography obey known and understood rules — unless the point of the story is that it specifically does not.

Physical geography looks the way it does for a reason. Do basic research. Consider wind patterns, ocean currents, plate tectonics, climate zones, types of vegetation.

For example, if there is a mountain range and prevailing winds, one side of the mountain range will likely have a rain shadow and be drier. Islands often have windward and leeward sides.

Our earth’s mantle is made up three general types of rock, each formed under different conditions: sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous. If your civilization is building great monuments out of stone, think about where that stone might be coming from.

I’m not saying you have to work this all out in detail. And if you do, you don’t have to put it all in the book. But don’t have people growing water intensive crops in a desert region, unless you have shown how this society has extensive irrigation systems and how they are getting and storing water. Don’t have people growing cold intolerant crops in an climate zone where it snows during the winter, unless you have greenhouses. Don’t drop a Cascades mountain range equivalent into the story and place a massive deciduous forest on either side.

What kinds of resources do different regions have? There’s a reason coal is found in certain areas and not in others. Limestone quarries don’t exist everywhere, nor does marble. Salt can be panned or mined but in different places. There’s a reason for all that.

If you have a moon equivalent to Earth’s moon, then you will have tides and these will affect shorelines and harbors. If you have multiple moons or no moon, consider the consequences.

Listen, I get things wrong, and I’m sloppy at times. If you don’t want to create a geography out of whole cloth, it is to my mind a totally acceptable short cut to use Earth’s actual geography as a template, lifting out pieces, altering shorelines (within reason), or moving things around in a logical way.

The importance of physical geography doesn’t stop with the map itself.

People in traditional societies really know and understand their local geography — they know the landmarks and how to get around — and they know their local ecology because their survival depends on it.

Farmers were not ignorant primitive people grubbing helplessly in the dirt. Famine and crop disease were real disasters, and all too common, but any cursory examination of horticultural and agricultural practices in ancient societies shows that people did their best with the knowledge they had, and were often ingenious in how they adapted the water and soil resources at hand.

Fantasy societies where there is no apparent food source except an unseen supermarket is a pet peeve of mine: agriculture is crucial. Even when the story isn’t about that, I think writers ought at the least to know where the food people eat comes from. Agriculture will be the subject of another post.

Don’t assume your every day locals are ignorant about the physical world around them just because they don’t have a university education. I once read the opening of a piece of fiction set in an archipelago. An outside academic arrives in the islands to study the winds. There’s a throwaway line in which the academic asks the locals about the winds and they don’t know anything, they just have superstitious myths they’ve handed down from generation to generation. I stopped reading right there. Because it is the locals who are going to know, even if they couch their understanding in non academic terms. Their lives depend on their knowledge of the winds, tides, currents, and seasonal cycles.

I live in Hawaii. I race outrigger canoes, both sprint races and long distance. The most famous long distance race runs from the island of Molokai to the island of Oahu.

When you race long distance in an OC-6 (a canoe that seats six people), you go out with nine to twelve paddlers because your crew will switch out at intervals over the race (which may run from 24 – 42 miles). For example, you may paddle for thirty minutes, jump out of the canoe as another person pulls themselves in to the seat you just vacated, and swim to the escort boat (where your coach and extra paddlers wait). After half an hour in the escort boat you may jump into the ocean and, as the canoe races up beside you (and other floating paddlers ready to make the change), switch in again.

When you cross the open ocean, for example the Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu whose maximum depth is 2300 feet, there are multiple factors to take in to account, including:

1) the open ocean swells, their direction and height and frequency.

2) the winds — how strong, where are they coming from.

3) the ocean currents — which direction are they pulling, how fast.

4) the topography of the ocean floor itself, especially important when you are close to the shore.

These conditions change every day.

So when you are racing from Molokai to Oahu, the straight line, the shortest distance, may be the fastest route but maybe because of the winds, swells, and currents, it might be better to take a slightly longer route that swings farther out. You can win or lose based on whether you took the best route for that day in those conditions.

Many (not all) people today live a step or three removed from needing an intimate knowledge of their physical environment. We are insulated in so many ways. But in a fantasy setting it is probable that your characters will not be–and should not be.

So when you think about world building, think of an ocean-going race as your metaphor:

1. The straight line isn’t always the best path. Don’t make geographical choices based on novels you’ve read or from a generic and disconnected idea of the physical setting. Remember that people really live in this world and must react and respond to its conditions.

2. Know your environments. Remember that distinct areas have local ecologies, and that societies develop within these local ecologies as adaptations.


I’ll discuss culture ecology in April, but for the month of March I plan to take a detour into narrative maps and tropes, including a guest post on tropes by the redoubtable Juliet McKenna.

Next week: Narrative Maps

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny