A map of people groups in Iran

Alright, a few weeks ago I started a series on world building, and I was originally only planning to do three posts.  I should have known better.  I have already said that every ‘world’, whether a small city or a galactic empire revolves around three factors: People Groups (Cultures, Races, etc), Nations (Political Factions, Power Bodies), and Geography (Mountains, Rivers, Oceans, Stars, etc).  In my last post I talked about beginning to fill in the blanks, and a little about the importance of having a basic outline of all three factors before moving on with any one of them.  Remember that these factors will affect one another, a culture will both affect and be affected by the geography around it (Japan is a prime example), a nation will be shaped by the various cultures it contains.  If you don’t believe me look at Iraq and Iran.  These are two nations whose borders were essentially randomly drawn.  Each contains a set of people groups that do not get along, do not cooperate, and often do their best to kill each other.  This is a profound effect on the stability of each nation, and their ability to act on the world stage.  India is another great example.  India is, perhaps, the most heterogeneous nation on the planet.  There are 15 different native major languages (spoken by over 10 million people in country) in India, and 23 different native languages spoken by over a million people in country. This does not include foreign languages (i.e. English, French, Bulgarian, etc) spoken by tourists or immigrants.  The variety of culture present in India is nothing short of staggering.

So, it is important to have a basic idea of what your world looks like (geography), who lives there (people groups), and of your borders (nations) before you begin to deeply develop any of the above.  Also, depending on your world, don’t feel like you need to have someone living everywhere.  If you’re writing a fantasy world with any kind of ancient (i.e. Non-Medieval or Pre-Roman) style setting you might have great swathes of relatively uninhabited, unclaimed wilderness between your nations.  If your world is very Medieval, then it is likely to be more populated, and claims will be stronger.  The same is true in a sci-fi world.  If you are writing an early sci-fi world in which races are just venturing into the stars then plan on including a large amount of ‘wild space’.  On the other hand, a sci-fi world in which ftl (faster than light) technology has been available for thousands of years (see Star Wars) then unexplored/unclaimed space is probably at a premium.

So, a few things to remember when developing geography:

A map of 13th Century Siena, Italy. The black line shows the city walls.

For Cities:  Remember that not all cities are walled.  When designing your city consider the culture that lives there.  Are they likely to be attacked? Would they fear attack? Are they generally warlike? If any of these is true, then it would be appropriate to give the city walls.  If none of them are true (i.e. if the city is protected by geography or distance, if it is a haven and generally considered neutral, etc) then don’t bother giving the city walls.  Also, remember that city walls are generally built after the city, not before, and usually the city grows beyond them.  If you city is walled, consider it’s age.  The older the city is, the more sets of walls it’s likely to have, and they won’t travel in straight lines.  Walls are built around a living city and generally don’t form a perfect square or circle.  Streets are the same way.  ‘City Planning’ is a relatively new field, and older cities tend to be haphazard in design.  Roads don’t move in straight lines, and often don’t make sense at all.  Sometimes they don’t even go anywhere at all.  Cities are also ‘living’ organisms.  What is currently a high class distract might be a ghetto in fifty years, and what is currently a ghetto might be rebuilt into a shopping district.  Little details like fancy but run-down buildings in the ghetto, or remnant tenement buildings in a nicer district will give your city character, and the feel of a living city.

A map of Erikson’s Seven Cities.

For Continents:  There are a few geographical constants that you MUST remember when making your world.  Straight coastlines are rare, as are perfect curves, and odd shapes (like a spiral).  Coastlines tend to be bumpy, unkempt, and have a lot of small bays and peninsulas.  Mountains cause deserts! Whether will tend toward one side of a mountain range, or another, but generally you don’t have a lot of rain on both sides.  Unless you have rivers running out of your mountain range in both directions then you are probably going to have a desert on one side or the other.  Desert does not mean Sahara! The Nevada desert, Sahara desert, and Gobi desert are three very different places.  Don’t assume that desert means endless sand dunes.  Your continent does not have to have an inland sea! This is something that I had to teach myself.  North America and Asia Minor both have inland seas (i.e. The Great Lakes, The Caspian Sea, The Black Sea, The Dead Sea, etc), but Europe, South America, Africa, and Australia don’t.  So, while your continent might have an inland sea, it doesn’t have to.  Also remember that seas dry up.  Parts of the American west were underwater at some point in the past.  This is something that Steven Erikson does well in his Seven Cities continent.  Always take into account how old your world is when designing your terrain – remember that the older the world is, the more dead civilizations it will have.  Answer the question ‘who lived here before us?’ It’s an important one.

The Milky Way, note the clear spiraling arms and their names.

For Galaxies: Remember that Galaxies are not just giant random clusters of stars.  They have shapes (for instance the Milky Way galaxy has arms that spiral out from a central cluster of stars), and stars tend to be more densely packed at the center of a galaxy than at the rim.  Start by examining some of the galaxies that astronomers have discovered and determining the shape of your galaxy.  Also, remember that stars often come in clusters with a more significant amount of space between clusters than between individual stars in a cluster.  Remember that life could potentially exist in many different forms and not all aliens will be from an Earth-like planet.  You might have an alien race that developed in a gas giant, or one that developed on a frozen planet like Neptune.  Remember that there are many, many types of celestial bodies, from planets to stars, nebulae to black holes, etc.  These should all be represented in your galaxy.

All right, this post is long enough for now.  You probably have a general idea of what you’re looking at now.  Looking forward to next time – these are fun to write.

3 thoughts on “World Building Part 3: How to Flesh Out Your Geography

  1. Another note on galaxies: stars give off radiation (i.e. solar wind, cosmic rays, etc). The closer your stars are to each other, the more radiation the planets orbiting those stars get. Our solar system doesn’t get much radiation from anything other than our own Sun, and yet we still need a planet with a strong geomagnetic field to not just protect life, but our own atmosphere (Mars probably once had a water rich atmosphere, which would have warmed it considerably, but with no appreciable geomagnetic field, the solar winds stripped off most of the hydrogen).

    Our system is relatively safe because we aren’t in the Core, or even really in a spiral arm. We’re in a relatively ‘desolate’ (or perhaps just habitable) section of the galaxy between two arms. If you have ‘core worlds’ and ‘rim worlds’, PLEASE give these core worlds some reason NOT to be irradiated, gas-less rocks. Maybe they’re gas giants, which have truly MASSIVE geomagnetic fields, or maybe they’re moons of gas giants, protected by the giant’s field. Maybe the life on them is especially resistant to radiation (there are real bacteria that actually feed on radioactive uranium ore, so it’s possible). Maybe the life didn’t evolve on the surface. Maybe it’s something like Europa, which has a thick ice shell on the outside (GREAT radiation blocker, btw), but a (probably) liquid ocean beneath.

    Just PLEASE don’t have Earth with three suns and a half-dozen stars within two light years. Earth would be a radioactive wasteland in that system.

  2. Just a small detail, but informative. I remember driving around Maine with Dad once and he asked me if I knew why there were so many random corners on the rural roads. I had no idea. He told me that when the roads were being build by the local communities they didn’t want to cut property lines, so half of the road was taken from each property owner. Whenever there was a property boundary there was a corner in the road.

    I told this story to one of my wife’s uncles who worked for the Georgia Road Commission. He said, “Want to know how we build roads in Georgia? We survey from one patch of shade to another!”

    Remember, logic does not always rule in human decision making!

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