Welcome back to my worldbuilding tutorial series. I’m going to cover every aspect of worldbuilding so you can make your worlds stand out. Your world is a place your reader will want to escape to, to visit, if you do it right. Think of a place on our world you’ve always wanted to visit. For me, they have these glass igloos in Finland underneath the Aurora Borealis. I also want to visit Prague, maybe an underwater hotel. Because those places sound cool. Either they’re fascinating or they have so much culture and history, I can’t help but be drawn to them.
But now imagine a place with nothing to offer. Have you ever been compelled to visit Carpenter, Wyoming? (I used to live there. There’s no need to even check. Nothing’s there except a post office.) It’s a boring place. I can list about a hundred places I hated when I was a kid. I always wanted to explore. I longed for adventure. For excitement, for something new.
We want your setting to be the place people long for. Send us on an adventure.
But where? For us, the reader, it will be uncharted territory. The wild unknown. A new world, something you get to create. Whether it’s a bleak planet like Arrakis from Dune or a lush environment like Pandora from Avatar, it is incumbent upon you to transport the reader there. So let’s do that, shall we?
Where to begin?
I figured I’d kick this series off with where most people start: geography. To be more specific, cartography. The map making. If you’re visual like me, it might help to start with a sketch of the world your characters inhabit. You’ll probably dive right in and start chunking on mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, forests, towns, roads. Naming everything. It’s a load of fun. You’ve probably already done it.
Lord of the Rings was the first book I ever read that had a map in it. I was captivated by it. I kept referring back to it as I read the book. It added a new dimension to the story, it made it seem more real. The same thing happened when I started reading Terry Brooks. The Shannara books had that map in there.
I started drawing maps of my own, filling them with my own terrain. I don’t blame you if you’ve done the same.
I want to caution you before you get too far. There are some things to consider with regard to cartography that I think are important, especially for worldbuilding. They talk about this over at the Cartographer’s Guild as well (an awesome site dedicated to map-making). It’s this:
Whenever you put in a geographical feature, consider how those features are made. For example, if you want your map to be realistic, little details matter. Rivers are wider where they meet the sea. Coastlines have more detail. Vegetation is thicker near water. Some roads are busier — and bigger — than others. These are all things you can pick up on by looking at real maps from our own world. Do you really need to know how mountains are formed to make a solid world? No. But knowing how mountains affect the climate of the surrounding areas might help you solidify the realism a little more. For example, sometimes mountains will block rain (and wind) on one side, leaving the other side more arid (a desert). Knowing how lakes are rivers are formed will help you place them properly in relation to their surroundings.
I also want to point out, though, that you can bend these things. You can have some incredible science behind your world’s formation that make it truly unique. Another thing is magic. Magic may make things work differently in your world. That’s okay, too.
Does this seem nitpicky? Maybe so. You probably won’t mess anything up by being haphazard about it. I just want to bring up things people don’t normally consider. I simply want you to think, “How does this affect that?” Because there are other things to consider…
History Plays a Role
Borders change. Cities and nations grow and disappear. Wars happen. Cataclysms happen. If your world has been around for any length of time, there should be places that no longer exist. Ruins. Memories. Trade routes are affected by climate, geography, politics. When one thing alters another, that in turn alters other things. The way you draw your map and its elements will determine a lot of other facets of your setting. When you place the regions on your map — the realms, nations, countries, states, provinces — consider how they interact with their neighbors. How might they have interacted in the past? Some will be allies and some won’t. Some attitudes will change from what they were previously. Considering these things, how might the map have looked different in the past?
This map of Europe from 1730 looks a lot different than the one from today. Yet there are some similarities. The point is that no political map will remain the same for long. Keep that in mind when you’re developing the history of your world. That being said, your map will also determine a lot of other aspects of your world.
For more on history, see Tutorial 4.
Geography Affects Culture, Religion, and Mythology
People are always going to be affected by their natural habitat. People in the desert behave differently than people in the jungle. They wear different clothing. They have different industries, which in turn affects the economy. They might have different mythology and superstitions stemming from elements of their surroundings. For example, in my Everwind series, it’s bad luck if your hood or hat comes off three times in the wind. In the setting, the wind never stops blowing, so it makes sense that the people would have customs based around that ubiquitous presence in their lives. Alternatively, things that are not found in a region might also play a role within that culture. For example, the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire are afraid of sailing and the sea because they are an equestrian plains culture. They aren’t accustomed to the sea, so it makes them uncomfortable.
Where you place your settlements also determines how exposed the people are to other cultures. A major port city is going to experience more traffic and culture than a remote settlement. How does that influence the local attitudes and social system? More remote places might be more staunch in their views. They also might be less accepting of outsiders.
How might the geography you created help shape or direct the belief systems of your world? Maybe you have a place with unique landforms the locals consider sacred. Maybe a culture worships a certain aspect of the terrain or climate. Many gods are associated with specific weather events or places. Thor and Zeus are often associated with lightning. Poseiden/Nepture is associated with the sea. I’m sure you’re also familiar with the northern lights, which are mostly exclusive to higher latitudes. How might something similar influence the people of that region in your stories? Even more, consider something that might only occur in a specific region of your world, such as a species of plant. Perhaps the locals worship that plant, as some in India worship trees. Consider a particular plant that only grows in a specific geographic region that might have hallucinagenic properties (or strange medicinal properties). How might the locals attempt to understand or incorporate it into their culture? Such a plant plays a critical role in Batman Begins.
How does the environment effect the traditions and practices regarding death? Are there common types of death that occur due to the environment? For example:
Geographical location and terrain may also contribute to the development of a region’s mythology. An obvious example is how constellations are visible to different regions. A region that can’t see one constellation probably won’t have included it into their mythology. It probably won’t be found in their folklore, their folk magic, their astrology (most ancient cultures have some system related to the heavenly bodies). The same thing applies to unique land features and other such things. For example, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is a pretty unique-looking formation. Native American folklore from the region tells the tale of bears trying to climb up the rock to get a group of girls, which caused the scratches on the sides. Look at your maps and see if you can think of anything that might contribute to your world’s culture, mythology, or religion.
Geography Affects Politics
Resources are important. Wars are fought over resources. Economies are made and broken over resources, which in turn influences politics and government, even the spread of religion. A government with a strong economy because they control a lot of resources is going to have more influence in geopolitical events than a country with a poorer economy. Some resources appear only in certain climates or areas. How might this change things in your world? Who controls those resources? Who might want them? Another important aspect is transportation. The terrain plays a vital role in how people and goods get from place to place. A nation that can mobilize faster than others will be at an advantage. They might even be more expansionist. Landlocked countries might be at a disadvantage. Some terrain might be a boon to its inhabitants. The mountains of Afghanistan proved to be a bane on the Russians. Yet the Russian winters considerably helped them when fighting the Germans on their own turf. A region that enjoys high traffic via land and sea routes might have more influence than they realize. They can charge tariffs and taxes, place embargoes. The terrain has a direct impact on the outcome of battles and wars as well. Sun Tzu makes a big deal about terrain in the Art of War. Some places are harder to attack than others. Harder to transport troops and supplies. The weather will also be a factor. If a supply line is hard to defend because of terrain, it will definitely influence their effectiveness in battle.
What are some other possibiltiies? Perhaps you have a region that enjoys a great position in the midst of several trade routes. Perhaps the region experiences an increase in crime, which is natural. The locals might come to resent any visitors. These shifting attitudes will bleed through into other aspects of the culture. The locals might persuade the legislature to enact new laws. Borders might get stricter. Tensions might rise. Something might happen, something small, that could trigger a massive blowback. It doesn’t take much.
I just pulled all those possibilities from thinking about the location of one settlement.
Geography Affects Language
Language is another one of those things you might really enjoy building and integrating into your worlds. I’ll cover language in a subsequent tutorial. I mention it here to because the terrain also has an impact on the evolution of language. More remote areas will have languages that don’t evolve as quickly as those with exposure to other languages and cultures. Languages in high-migration or traffic areas will also take on aspects of other languages and incorporate those into their own. That contributes to languages evolving. Languages across neighboring regions will likely have similar sounds as well. For example, there are many similarities between Russian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian, but these all sound distinctly different from Spanish, French, and Italian. The same thing applies to alphabets and writing systems. Neighboring languages might share the same writing system. Look at the Latin alphabet as opposed to Cyrillic.
Here’s a cool video you should definitely watch.
Geography Affects Crime and Punishment
Something else, which ties directly into culture, is how a society handles crime. A futuristic culture might have a more liberal perspective, and might lean more towards rehabilitation than punishment or deterrence. A more medieval or tribal culture will probably be more strict, will have customs that seem arbitrary or strange. You can experiment with this, and we’ll also cover it in greater detail in a subsequent tutorial. It’s relevant here because many cultures will take advantage of unique aspects of their terrain or climate and incorporate those things into their punitive systems. For example, in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Eyrie is a keep situated high in the mountains. They like to execute people by throwing them from the “Moon Door,” which is basically a hole in the floor where victims can fall to their deaths. In Snowpiercer, which takes place in a future ice age setting, the authorities of the train will shove the arm of a criminal out a porthole for a period of time until the appendage is frozen solid, then they smash it. In Everwind, because the wind never stops blowing, they have cells placed high on the walls of Everwind City. Prisoners there are constantly exposed to the high winds, which makes a heinous punishment. Walking the plank and keelhauling are a couple of examples of punishment at sea. Another example you see in movies is when a victim is chained to a rock at low tide so they can slowly face their impending death when the tide comes in. This wouldn’t be possible in another geographic location.
So how does this help you? Give your cultures unique methods of punishment that suit the unique terrain or climate.
Geography Affects Technology
Land features are going to influence aspects of the technology and architecture. And by technology, I’m not just talking about gadgets. I’m talking anything designed by creatures to make something else easier or better. An easy example is the presence of snowmobiles and dog-pulled sleds in the arctic. Places with water will have technology intended for water. A nomadic villager in Mongolia might be surprised to know that scuba gear is a real thing. Consider what machines or gadgets the people might have invented in order to make their lives better in a specific area.
Geography Affects the Bestiary
Plant and animal life will obviously be influenced by the climate and terrain. Utilize this to your advantage. As your characters adventure from one region to another, let them experience new flora and fauna. Vary your wildlife in accordance with the terrain. Maybe there’s a regular type of animal and a mountain variety. Plants will also be determined by the geography and climate, which in turn influences the local industry, economy, and culture. Take, for example, an area where plants have a rough time growing. The local cuisine is going to be more bland than a place that can grow more spices. Additionally, spices will have to be imported, which will make them more expensive in that region. In addition to that, the locals might be limited to eating the types of creatures with habitats nearby. A creature that is food in one region might be a pet in another. Another thing to consider: do the animals migrate? If so, where? How might this be incorporated into the setting?
Geography Affects Magic
Okay, this one is subjective. It obviously depends on your magic system. But just realize that your geography absolutely can play a part in your magic system. I mean, one need look no further than Magic: The Gathering for evidence of that. Each type of magic draws its power from a different source (water, plains, swamp, forest, mountains). Even if all magic works the same across your world, the magic users will probably be adept at specific spells or such related to their geographic area. In other words, mages and spellcasters that spend time near the sea will probably learn how to do spells that affect the sea. If you have any kind of conjuring or summoning in your systems, they will likely know how to summon creatures they are familiar with, creatures that inhabit lands nearby. A mage from a mountainous region will be more likely to summon a golem or a giant rather than a kraken. What I’m saying is, you should definitely take advantage of the geography you’ve created and incorporate it into your magic and technology systems.
The last thing I want to mention before I get into specific resources is naming conventions. I mention above how geography influences language, so this also applies to the way you name your features. Have you ever noticed how you can almost recognize where a place is from by its name? See if you can guess where these places are:
- Boola Boola
That last one I made up. It’s a town in Queensland, Australia I like to tell people I’m from. It’s out in the whoop-whoop.
But do you see what I mean? Each region has its own flavor, based on the languages there. You can use this to your advantage. Your whole world probably isn’t going to utilize the same naming convention unless you’ve found a way to force one language onto everyone. So keep this in mind. How can you take this one step further without having to create whole languages? Just take a couple words from each language. Here are some examples you might recognize but not realize what they come from.
- Stad is the word for city used in Swedish, Danish, Dutch, and Luxembourgish.
- Stadt is the German relative of Stad.
- -stan is a Persian suffix meaning “place of” or “country” (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan)
- many other words are used to name places, such as -land, -burgh, -town, -ville, -bury, etc.
We’ll go over naming conventions all in its own tutorial, but for now just keep these things in mind. Throw in some region-specific place names. It’ll be awesome.
So now we come to the part where I must let you spread your wings and fly. Take these things into consideration next time you draw or sketch out a map of your world. There is so much more you can tell about a place just by looking at that map. We’ll cover each of them in turn in the upcoming tutorials. For now, though, I want to leave you with some of my favorite map-making resources.
- Cartographer’s Guild – a website dedicated to mapmaking and the art thereof. I’m on there as Janden. Come say hello.
- Profantasy Software – software for mapmaking of various types, including the popular Campaign Cartographer
- Terra Incognita – a cool fantasy map generator
- Cityographer – city map generator software
- /r/worldbuilding – a Reddit for worldbuilding
- 10 Rules for Making Better Fantasy Maps – a good article with some solid advice from people who make maps
Next tutorial will be about culture and how to make the different people in your world dynamic and different. I will eventually come back around to mapmaking, so don’t worry if you want more on that. I’ll cover some technical aspects of cartography, just in case you decide to make a go of mapping out your own world.
If you want to be notified as these tutorials become available, simply subscribe to the RSS feed for all writing articles, or the worldbuilding feed so you don’t miss these! And leave me a comment below, let me know what your favorite parts of worldbuilding are. What do you have trouble with? What would you like to see in these tutorials?
- Tutorial 1: Building a Universe
- Tutorial 2: Geography and Cartography
- Tutorial 3: Cultivating Culture
- Tutorial 4: History
- Creation stories and mythology
- Law, crime, punishment
- Technology and science
- Naming conventions
- Flora and Fauna