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Worldbuilding 3: geography and physical location


Geography and physical location

Pretty much every time I pick up a fantasy novel and begin to read, the first thing I encounter is a map, or a series of maps, laying out the whole world, the country or city where the main action takes place, two or more separate (and often belligerent) locations, or all of the above. It has become a convention of fantasy literature and, I tend to think, is often rather less use to the reader than the writer.

Think of it this way: when you read a realist novel set in a location you are unfamiliar with, how often do you reach for an atlas before you start reading? I'd hazard a guess that it's not often; for most of us, likely never. I'd also guess that the majority of readers who encounter these maps in fantasy novels do not spend a lot of time familiarising themselves with the layout of the world they are set to read about. Rather, if they look at the maps at all, they treat them as decorations, like an illustrated frontispiece in a vintage tome; or they come back and refer to them if they need or want to.

So why are they there? Well, in the first place they are there to remind us that the world we are going to meet in the book is not the world with which we are familiar; a casual glance from the reader does that job. And secondly, they are a testament to the effort the writer has made in creating the world in which the story is set. They make a statement: this world is new, and I, the writer, created it. And that leads us to a fundamental aspect of worldbuilding: geography and physical location.

In this article I will consider some basic elements of the geography of worldbuilding, and offer a few guidelines for writers embarking on a fantasy writing project. These are not rules, and they are definitely not set in stone; but if you bear them in mind, I think they will make your job easier.

The fundamental principle here is a simple one: the world you build is a vehicle for your story. The physical environment ought to support the narrative and the characters that populate it. This holds true whether you start with the story and build a world for it, or start with the world and sow stories into it.

The narrative conventions of fantasy provide a few short cuts here. If you have dragons or dwarves, you need mountains; if you have elves or outlaws, you need forests; if you have orcs, or similar beings, you probably need a semi-desert environment. You can ignore these conventions, of course, but beware; regular readers of fantasy develop certain expectations and may be bemused - or even offended - if you do.

Our physical environment has a direct impact on culture; it dictates how we live, what we eat, if and how we travel, and what form of shelter we require; it often drives our religious and political beliefs. If you are working from the story point, then you will need to reverse engineer this process; look at the narrative, the characters, and how they live and interact, and build an environment that reflects this.

For instance, if you have several different groups of characters, whether cultures or races, do they share a single environment, or do you need to create a separate environment for each of them? Do they live close to each other, so their lives overlap, or do they inhabit very different locations suited to their needs and dispositions? Does the physical environment of the story cover vast distances, or is it intimate and local?

All of these questions can be answered in broad terms by the narrative structure. The fine details are a matter of choice; this is where you can have some fun and exercise your writing skills to give the world more colour, depth and harmony. Your main aim is to give the story an appropriate setting so that it is plausible and internally consistent. At the same time, you need to make the geography credible on its own terms; to achieve this, it's a good idea to do some research on physical geography so you get the details right.

If you look online, you will find thousands of websites devoted to worldbuilding; many offer checklists on geographical details, and others offer to construct maps for you. Some writers will find this useful, while others may prefer to plough their own path. This is a matter of choice on your part, though I would recommend you use these resources with appropriate caution; slavishly following someone else's checklist may lead to a formulaic and derivative result.

The majority of fantasy writers, whether newbies or seasoned professionals, tend to write a series of books based in a particular world, rather than a single, standalone novel. This leads us to another important learning point: beware of frontloading. That is to say, if you are planning a series of books, you do not need to pack the first book with every detail of the world's geography (or, for that matter, any other aspect of worldbuilding).

The optimal approach is to bring in the worldbuilding details as and when they are necessary; for instance, if the protagonist will undertake a quest in the mountains in book two of your series, then filling pages of the first book with elaborate descriptions of those mountains may be counter-productive, and some readers may find it puzzling, or worse, annoying. Give the reader a taste, a hint, of that landscape in book one by all means; but save the details for a point where they make sense in terms of the story.

In fact, there is every chance that some of the worldbuilding work you have done never makes it onto the pages of the book at all. This may seem counter-intuitive but it's often the case, particularly if you have started from the position of worldbuilding. Much of the detail and background work functions to underpin the logic of your world, but it may not be necessary to show it in the book.

A final thought: if your story takes place in a small part of a larger world, consider how much of that world you need to describe. The land surface of our own little blue orb covers around a hundred and ninety-five million square miles, and that's a lot of land. If I'm writing a thriller set in London and Thailand, the geography of Australia is irrelevant, as is about a hundred and eighty million other square miles. So tailor your efforts to the task at hand. Of course, if you want to make the effort and describe a whole world and all things in it, you are free to do so, and you may find it fascinating and rewarding; but beware of unloading all of that fascination and effort on the poor, unsuspecting reader if it's not strictly necessary.

In later articles I will look at other aspects of worldbuilding, so you can fill the environment you have created with culture, technology, magic, flora, fauna, and beings, human and otherwise. But most importantly, you can fill it with a story; and that's a kind of magic we can all relate to.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Worldbuilding 1: character names in fantasy novels.

Worldbuilding 2: the basics of writing fantasy fiction

Worldbuilding 4: technology

Worldbuilding 5: culture

Worldbuilding 6: magic

Worldbuilding 7: it's a kind of magic