Mountains, forest, valleys and ocean
One of the joys of writing fantasy fiction is that it gives you the freedom to design a world from scratch; you can let your imagination run wild creating dark forbidding forests, waterfalls, lost cities, and so on…
This page looks at the basics for the geographical design of a fantasy world, mapping it out and seeing how it works with the stories and adventures
Throughout these articles the ideas will be demonstrated by referencing a fantasy world that I designed, showing how it interacts and grows with the stories that were written – Creating the world can be just as much as writing the stories!
Geography and land feature design – Overview
Fantasy worlds need to have a basic geographical structure that makes some sense when reading the story. The world needs to be designed so that if you were to trace out the path taken throughout the story, you would find that it ‘flows’. A purely ‘make it up as you go along’ world is really only good for one story and even then it may not quite join up in later parts of the story if a lot of movement has taken place.
Whether starting with an idea for a story, or with an idea for a fantasy world, some thoughts will need to be written down about the geographical design of the world before the story goes too far, especially if it to be reusable in the future
Identifying the key geographical features
One starting point will be to reflect upon the basic ideas behind the story and identify some of the geographical features that the story is required to travel through in the world. Make a note of these thoughts and create a list of the key ones. No great decision of where they should go or any great depth to them is necessarily required at this stage – just simply jot down some initial notes on features that you may want. For example if you need a fast flowing river that plunges over a waterfall, then write that detail down but if there is nothing more to add at the moment then leave it at that
Once these initial reflections have taken place, there will now be a list that contains the key geographically features of the world.
Within the world a number of basic geographical features were identified, these included:
- A dark forbidding forest, full of shadows and sudden death – although how the ‘sudden deaths’ occurred was unknown at that point
- A land suitable for cities, libraries and academies to exist and thrive – It needed to be able to supply information and contacts for the stories
- A marshland that would be tricky to navigate through – exact location not fully established
- A narrow valley that links two sides of a mountain range – For source of rumours and future expansion
- A large country estate of pleasant and futile countryside, complete with villages – To be the home of a character
Creating the world
Once the key geographical features of the world have been identified, then begins the thinking about how to structure a world to contain them.
From a ‘whole world’ perspective, this world will need to be of a suitable size for all of these features to co-exist and should also include space to allow for any ‘growth of imagination’ later on, just in case the story returns to the area and requires a feature from it that was not thought about at the beginning.
Creating a complete detailed world layout is not required at this stage, just one that is detailed enough to hold the aspects that the stories require.
Things that need to be considered at this point include:
How much area does a feature cover?
If the size is uncertain at this stage then an idea of the minimum size required for the current story can be worked out.
What geographical features need to run along side each other?
Does a river run beside a desert? Does a forest path lead you to the mountains?
How far apart are the geographical structures?
Does the ‘trek to the mountains’ part of the story take a day or a week to complete?
This exercise will bring to light any features that clash in location, perhaps there is a forest path leading to a river in one part of the story, but to a town in another. Some remapping of that part of the world will be required so that the world remains consistent for future journeys.
For instance, in the path example, the characters could be sent in the opposite direction along the path for the second occurrence, or have them cross the river to reach the town – requiring a short scene to be added about crossing the river when heading for the town (how to cross it? …).
Mapping the geography features – the boarders
Roughly how big the world is going to be can be partly determined by the features themselves and how they are placed in the story.
If the story needs vast rivers, high mountains and large desserts then the world will need to be at least a few hundred miles in both directs to allow those three to exist. If there is not much geographical variation required then it may still be worth having a few ideas of what the countryside could look like beyond the stories, especially towards the horizon – does the sun rise over a mountain or does it create a reflection in the lake before you?
The world design initially cover an area of about 500 hundred miles in either direction, each of which is marked by natural boundaries. What lies beyond those boundaries are for later stories and will be mapped out then – although rumors do filter through from time to time…
To the North is a mountain range that has before it a vast waterfall. There is no easy way into these mountains and what lies beyond is unknown, other than the climate beyond these mountains will be cooler.
To the West lies an ocean, with steep cliffs in many places. There are islands close to the land and a character has his home base on one of those islands.
To the South lies another range of mountains, but there is a narrow route through them, so some knowledge of what lies beyond is known. It is unused in current stories, but actions from there can influence what happens. The climate beyond these mountains will be warmer.
To the East lie forests, deserts and other natural barriers that, as of yet, have played no important part in the world. The details to these will be expanded once such an area is required for a story, until then they are just part of the world and have little reference to them.
Geographical features – relating them to each other
Geographical features can have an influence on different geographical features next to them. They can be next to another feature already existing within the known world of the story, or they can relate to those found at the boarders of the known world without requiring any further knowledge of what is beyond the boarders, such as a river coming from a mountain – it can be used in the stories with the characters only knowing that it comes from a waterfall to the north.
For example if there is a river next to a grassland then it will be possible to have the river flood the grassland from time to time. It may not need to happen in any story at the moment, but the potential is there for when a scenario requires something like that to happen – perhaps some soil needs to be washed away in a field to reveal an old cellar.
There is an extremely wide waterfall in front of the northern mountain range, its existence justified by the mountains behind it supplying the endless water it needs. A wide river is then formed further south from this water, the river eventually reaches the ocean in the west. A wide lake can be formed along this river where a settlement lives. Another part of the river vanishes underground, only being visible in a couple of places before, it too, tumbles into the ocean …
Mapping the features – the closer, the greater!
The closer that a feature is to where the story is to take place and the greater the chance it is to be used, then the more detailed the geography needs to become. Whatever the geographical feature is, it will need to be defined deeply enough before the story starts to use it.
Once the feature is in place, the thinking can always be extended a little to consider the land that lies just beyond it to get a ‘feel’ for what could be there. Perhaps there are hills appearing on one side, or a lake can now be seen in the distance. The description can be left as simple as that – waterfalls, whirlpools and outflows can appear in the lake once that area comes into use
One story started in an area that was outside of the normal story world; so time was spent working out the layout of the new area before identifying a route that joined them together. The new area was a forest that joined with the main area via a path through a valley.
The area around the path was kept simple in the first story, defining in detail only those aspects the characters could see or interact with. Some thought went into the layout of the land around the valley – it had a river running alongside the path, moving from the north side to the south side at one point. There was woodland on the south side, whilst the land to the north led to hills & mountains, and that was all that mattered for now
In a later story this hilly area came into use when a path was added that headed north from the valley into the hills beyond where the characters could explore and where they would met a new key character – this required a more detailed design of the geographical aspects that they were travelling into, but the starting location for it had already been defined so no extra designing was required at a world level
- Keep it simple
- Design with the thought that areas may need to expand
- Do not put too much detail into an area when it is not required at the time
- Reflect a little about what else could be around the area you are working on
Jenny Maryl ~ Inspiring the Imagination ~ Contact Me