I got into an argument yesterday. Someone created a map, but only the outline. There was a continent and a handful of political boundaries in an ancient fantasy world. From everything he was saying, there was magic, but nothing absolutely world altering. It was enough to give an edge.

Attempting to be helpful, I warned him the pitfalls of creating political geography on a map before knowing the physical geography. Most political geography revolves around natural barriers. I gave a couple historical examples, and left it at that. There are a few exceptions, but anyone who took geography and history knows this is truth, so I did not expect anything to contradict it.

Then I get the response that magic and modern technology make physical geography meaningless compared to political geography, and the guy didn’t have to care about where mountains or rivers were. I was stunned. Without the ability of flight or instant tunneling, how does one get through a mountain? What magic makes rivers easily traversed, negating the defensive advantage on the other bank? Sure there are forms of magic that assist, but unless the magic is overwhelming, it still takes work, and there is still likely magic to counter it.

Map of G'desh
From my future book. It’s a desert. So most cities are around a lake. The others have a natural water source. Because deserts are mostly inhospitable.Dana Villa-Smith (c) 2015

This went back and forth until I finally gave up, figuring for whatever reason this guy was set up to always be against physical geography dictating political geography, and it likely had something to do with his own writings. I could have given him dozens of historical examples, but at a certain point you know a man has settled on his way and there is no moving him. Never mind the only evidence to the contrary he had were western states are squares and rely on no physical geography. Except maybe longitude and latitude lines.

For those willing to read on, willing to see that history is rife with physical geography dictating political geography without overwhelming technology, I give to you a few examples. I will also give a few examples of people overcoming physical geography.

Rome was kept safe by the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps to the north. Hannibal, with the Carthaginians, overcame the Alps, but did so with great effort. India is difficult to conquer due to hot and humid weather and diseases invaders were not accustomed to. Alexander the Great and China both attempted and both had severely limited success. Japan is an island. Though conquered a few times, it was impossible for anyone to keep because it was difficult to keep a steady supply when trying to rely on resentful locals. It was also impossible for Japan to make real lasting invasions on the mainland for this reason.

Russia defended both against Hitler and Napoleon because extreme cold in the winter cut off supplies and there was nothing to live on otherwise. Hitler had the ability to call in air support, and it did him no favors. For the Allies, Normandy took many lives. Landing on a coast is incredibly difficult and it took absolutely overwhelming force at one focused point, and with the element of surprise, to succeed. They again had planes.

These barriers take many forms. Some aren’t strictly physical geography. It can be heat, cold, and disease. However, when making your political lines, remember that physical geography will never be fully discarded when creating nations.

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10 thoughts on “World Building: Geography Matters

    1. Historical fiction? 😀 A heads up that the risk here is they are fictional. I know one that had a massive army travel through mountains and forests entirely unimpeded, and it made it so I never read the next book.

      However, the best example I have is Middle Earth. The forests belong to the elves, and man is not agile or knowledgeable enough to dethrone them. The dwarves make the few mountain paths nearly impossible to get through, fortifying the mountain as physical deterrent. Mordor is near impossible to invade because it’s surrounded by a mountain range, while Gondor is difficult to mount an offensive against because of terrain, rivers, and the men of Gondor know the terrain well.

  1. Paul, look at the opposite and read the history of Poland. From a huge empire to being wiped out many times, mainly because of no geological boundaries. Yes, inheritance laws also had an effect, but essentially it is a country that can easily be invaded, and has been many times.

  2. There are many examples of this in the Song of Fire and Ice series as well– the Twins and Riverrun are both important or easily defended because of rivers. The North is unassailable because of the cold. The Vale is “impregnable” because of the mountains. Moat Caitlyn straddles a causeway that’s the only path through a swamp.

  3. Paul,
    You’ve made an important point here. As an example, weather and harsh terrain play a major role in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series.

  4. I don’t suppose your friend would be interested in hearing about how the states got their shapes, how the US looked around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, why the eastern states have more squiggly borders than western states, and so on.

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