Mountains, forest, valleys and ocean
One of the joys of writing fantasy fiction is that it gives you the freedom to design a world from scratch; you can let your imagination run wild creating dark forbidding forests, waterfalls, lost cities, and so on…
This page looks at the geographical design of a fantasy world, mapping it out and seeing how it works with the stories and adventures
The Main Fantasy design menu provides more in-depth details to fantasy world designing
Throughout these articles I will reference my own fantasy world that I designed to help demonstrate it, how it interacts and grows with the stories that I write. In truth I enjoy creating the world just as much as the story writing
Geography and land feature design – Overview
Fantasy worlds need to have a basic geographical structure that makes some sense when reading the story. The world needs to be designed so that if you were to trace out the path taken throughout the story, you would find that it ‘flows’. A purely ‘make it up as you go along’ world is really only good for one story and even then it may not quite join up in later parts of the story if a lot of movement has taken place.
Whether you started with an idea for a story or with an idea for a fantasy world, you will need to get some thoughts down about the geographical design of the world before you get too far into your story, especially if you want it to be reusable in the future
Identifying the key geographical features
Begin by spending some time in reflection of the ideas behind your story and identify some of the geographical features that your story requires from your world. Make a note of these thoughts and create a list of the key ones. You do not need to decide where they should go or give any great depth to them at this stage; just simply jot down some initial notes on features that you may want. For example if you need a fast flowing river that plunges over a waterfall, then write that detail down but add nothing more to it for now
Once you have completed your reflections, you will have a list that contains the key geographically features of your fantasy world.
Within my own world I defined a number of basic geographical features which included
- A dark forbidding forest, full of shadows and sudden death – although I had no idea how to make those deaths ‘sudden’ at the time
- A land suitable for cities, libraries and academies to exist and thrive – It needed to be to support all the people
- A marshland that would be tricky to navigate through – exact location not fully established
- A narrow valley that links two sides of a mountain range – For source of rumours and future expansion
- A large country estate of pleasant and futile countryside, complete with villages – To be the home of a character
Creating the world
Now that you have identified the key geographical features of your world, you can start thinking about how to structure a world to contain them.
From a ‘whole world’ perspective, this world will need to be of a suitable size for all of these features to co-exist and should also include space to allow for any ‘growth of imagination’ later on, just in case you come back to that area and require a feature from it that was not thought about at the beginning
You are not looking to create a complete detailed world layout at this stage, but one that is detailed enough to hold the aspects that your stories call for.
Things that need to be considered at this point include:
How much area does a feature cover?
If you are not sure at this stage then just give an idea of the minimum size you will need for the current story.
What geographical features need to run along side each other?
Does a river run beside a desert, does a forest path lead you to the mountains
How far apart are the geographical structures?
Does the ‘trek to the mountains’ part of your story take a day or a week to complete?
Doing this excise will bring to light any features that clash in location, perhaps your forest path leads to a river in one part of the story and to a town in another, so now you can consider how to remap those areas so that the world remains consistent for future journeys.
For instance, in the path example, you could send the characters in the opposite direction on the path for the second occurrence, or have them cross the river to reach the town – requiring you to add in a short scene about crossing the river when heading for the town.
Mapping the geography features – the boarders
A good place to begin is to get a rough idea of just how big your world is going to be, or at least in the area your stories are to start in. This will be partly determined by the size and number of features your world needs to accommodate.
If your story needs vast rivers, high mountains and large desserts then you will need at least a world of a few hundred miles in both directs to allow those three to exist. If there is not much geographical variation required then it is worth still having a few ideas of what the countryside could look like, especially towards the horizon – does the sun rise over a mountain or does it create a reflection in the lake before you?
The best way to explain this is to give an example of the decisions I made for my own fantasy world and the reasons why
My fantasy design
The fantasy world that I designed, and within which my stories take place is called Cruthia and the stories take place within an area of about 500 hundred miles in either direction, each of which is marked by natural boundaries. What lies beyond those boundaries are for later stories and will be mapped out then – although rumours do filter through from time to time…
To the North is a mountain range that has before it a vast waterfall stretching for many miles along its boarder. There is no easy way into these mountains and what lies beyond is unknown. For this world I made the decision that the climate beyond these mountains will be cooler.
To the West lies an ocean, with steep cliffs in many places. A catastrophic event a couple of thousand years ago caused any travelling across the ocean to stop (survival became a higher priority) and little is now known of what lies beyond. There are islands close to land and one of my characters has his home base on one of those islands.
To the South lies another range of mountains, but there is a route through them, so some knowledge of what lies beyond is known. I have set no stories through there, but actions from there can influence what happens. Due to them being south the climate beyond these mountains will be warmer.
To the East lie forests, deserts and other natural barriers that, as of yet, have played no important part in the world. The details to these will be expanded once I need such an area for a story, until then they are just part of the world and have little reference to them.
Within those boarders – Mapping the known land
A number of geographical features that exist within the known world can be related to the those found at the boarders without requiring any further knowledge of what is beyond the boarders, such as a river coming from a mountain.
You can also have features that can be influenced by the one next to them, for example if you have a river next to a grassland then it will be possible to have the river flood the grassland from time to time. You may not need that to happen in any story you want to write now, but the potential is there for when you need something to happen using that scenario – perhaps you need some soil washed away in a field to reveal an old cellar.
My fantasy design
Within Cruthia there is an extremely wide waterfall in front of the northern mountain range, its existence justified by the mountains behind it supplying the endless water it needs. A wide river is then formed further south from this water, the river eventually reaches the ocean in the west. The land around this river can be very fertile in places and in one area it spreads out to create an area known as the ‘Water Fields’. Another part of the river vanishes under a forest, only being visible in a couple of places before, it too, tumbles into the ocean…
With any areas that are not in use in the stories it is best not to give them too much detail until they are required, that way you have the freedom of complete creativity when you do need the internal details of a desert or a swamp.
Mapping the features – the closer, the greater!
The closer that a feature is to where your story is to take place and the greater the chance it is to be used then the more detailed the geography needs to become. Whatever the geographical feature is that you are looking at, it will need to be defined deeply enough before your story starts to use it.
If you want to, you can extend this thinking to consider the land that lies just beyond your immediate area, so you can get a ‘feel’ for what could be there. Perhaps you have hills appearing on one side, or you can see a lake in the distance. Leave the description as plain as that – waterfalls, whirlpools and outflows can appear in the lake when you decide you need to use that area
One of my stories started in an area that was outside of my normal story world; so I spent some time working out the layout of the new area and then identified a route that joined it to my main area. The new area I decided was a forest that was slightly tropical in nature and that it joined with the main area via a path through a valley.
I kept the area around the path simple in the first story, defining in detail only those aspects the characters could see or interact with.
I also put some thought into the layout of the land around my valley – I already had a river running along the south side of the path with woodland beyond that, but I decided that the land to the north would lead into hills, and left it just as simple as that
In a later story I decided to use this hilly area, so I added a path that headed north from the valley into the hills beyond where I could send my characters (and where they met a new key character) – this required a more detailed design of the geographical aspects that they were travelling into, but I already had a starting location for it within my world so no extra designing was required at a world level
- Keep it simple
- Design with the thought that areas may need to expand
- Do not put too much detail into an area when it is not required at the time
- Reflect a little about what else could be around the area you are working on, but do not go into any depth of detail until you want to use it
Jenny M L ~ Inspiring the Imagination ~ Contact Me