Writing Fantasy: How to Create Realistic Geography

Here I’m going to talk about geography in fantasy. First thing, and probably the most important thing I’ll say in this post: consider the effect of the geography on the people that live there.

Before we get to that, though, let’s cover the basics of geography:

– Rivers flow downland, towards the sea.
– Mountains tend to form in lines where two landmasses are pushing into each other.
– Unless your world is different, it will tend to be colder in the extreme north and south and warm in the middle. Rarely do you get a desert too far from the equator.
– Island chains tend to form tectonically, so there will often be hot springs or volcanoes there.
– Swamps tend to form on flatlands close to sea-level that are near the coast or near to rivers.
– Don’t forget tectonics. Earthquakes, mountains, soil fertility are all impacted by it. If your fantasy world is spherical, tectonics will come into play.

A fair amount to consider, I know. Luckily for you, most fantasy writers couldn’t care less about the mechanics of geography, so you’ll probably be able to get away without thinking about it. My personal opinion, though, is that putting in that bit of extra work will go a long way to making your fantasy world unique, because accurate geography is not yet the norm in fantasy, and many writers ignore it entirely.

Now, how geography impacts people.

– Think about basic resources. People in the desert are much more likely to build with stone than wood, so there will be many more quarries/mines here than usual.
– Where do people get food? If they live in a jungle, they’re likely to do a lot of foraging and hunting because of the effort needed to clear space for farming and the poor quality soil. If they live in a desert, it’s likely to come from farms on flood plains and oases, maybe miles away. People who live in mountains are more likely to be shepherds, because only hardy crops will grow properly – and it may take effort to clear flat terrain.
– Case Study: Medieval Japan. Japanese cuisine contains more fish than usual because it is an island nation with poor soil. Dairy is rare because of the rarity of milk-bearing animals. Their buildings were built out of light materials because of the frequency of earthquakes and storms. The lack of precious metals led to rice being the mainstay currency of medieval Japan. Their poor natural resources also meant that in early Japanese history many Japanese were pirates who raided the trade routes and coastal cities of China.
– Think about the impact on religion. Harsher gods are more likely in places with hard living conditions and frequent natural disasters. Benevolent gods are more likely in places where life is peaceful or easy. Similarly, cultures that depend on agriculture are likely to have gods of seasons or food, while nomadic cultures are more likely to worship gods of animals or the elements. As a general rule, think about the most noticeable feature of local geography. There is likely to be a god for it. A good example would be the god of air for the Mongols who lived on the windy steppes.

I think I’ll leave it there. If you have any further questions, leave a comment and I’ll answer it! If you think I’ve left anything out, tell me and I’ll add it in.

Thanks for reading! Good luck with your world.

Click here to see the rest of my ‘How to write fantasy’ posts!

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