Advice · Real Talk · World-Building · Writing

World-Building! Part 3: Your World, Your Map

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This is part three of my ten-part world-building series. As always, I’d like to point out that what’s presented here isn’t absolute gospel. There are many ways to world-build, and many paths to get to the same destination. I’m not the all-knowing guru, but rather a geek who’s sharing how he goes about it. Ready? Let’s go.

A good world can’t exist as some blank spheroid alone. It needs features. Lands. Geological formations and oceans and all the colors in that sweet sweet jumbo pack of crayons! What? I like coloring. We’ve established this.

But maybe the idea of creating that sprawling map or painting in the shapes that make up your world’s jigsaw puzzle seems bland? I mean, not everyone is cut out for the low-risk no-frills world of cartography, right?

Wrong. You’re making a WORLD, you devil-may-care pioneer! You’ve already volunteered! So class is in session, and whatever test you take will be comprised entirely of what knowledge you’re willing to glean.

Trust me. There’s some groovy treasure to glean from these humble studies for your world. <Cosmos> “Follow me.” </Cosmos>


Geography, Geology, and YOU – Why digging on dirt is a good thing.

Geography and Geology. Maybe these weren’t your favorite subjects in school. Unfortunately for you, dear world-builder, you’ve signed up to become a scholar of multiple disciplines by dint of creation. Don’t fret. Remember: one thing at a time, all in service to answering the question of WHY. However, if these two points weren’t your strong suit, then it’s high time you reacquaint yourself with the particulars.

On the geography side of things, come to love borders, both naturally-made and politically established. Embrace how nation-states form. Inform yourself on how swaths of land change hands through treaty, war, or unscrupulous deals.

As for Geology? Lock and load, scholar. Mountains affect weather patterns and the disposition of the lands around it. Volcanoes dictate everything from atmosphere to global thermal rates. Erosion and plate tectonics shape and mold and—yes—shake things up enough to set the terms for your land formations. There’s a rhyme and reason to why there’s a mountain range in a certain place, or why that lake is there, or why that river bends just so.

And speaking of water configurations, it can’t be stressed enough how important it is to the choices that your sentient beings might make. In point of fact, everything you’ll sponge up from these two subjects is important. Because –


The People of the Land – Why such humble topics decide the fate of nations

The land creates the people, because the conditions they find there create the culture. No, really. Take a look at our own humdrum planet, and the immense diversity of cultures that can be found across its face.

Here’s where your anthropology hat gets slipped back on again, because throughout the breadth of history, you will find that where people live has a direct impact on every aspect of their lives: Religion, philosophy, politics, their approach to art and love and war. The land dictates a response from the people in order to survive there, and any culture at its core is simply an ongoing response to the environment.

So, starting with WHAT the land is first and foremost can lay the groundwork for you in terms of what the PEOPLE that live there will be like. What do they value? What are their beliefs? What is their approach to the pressing problems that land serves their way? How does that direct their technology and creative expression? All of these pressing issues can be answered by simply looking at the slab of earth you’ve dumped them on, if you’ve done your homework.

And it also affects how they might view and interact with the realms outside of their own, both for good and ill. Remember the precursors for large-scale conflict? Yep. That ties in here. That mountain range might be creating a lush valley on one side of it, while the other side is experiencing desert conditions, drought, and poor farming. The other side of those mountains sound better and better everyday, don’t they? If only there were those pesky foreigners living there…

And just like that, those people have a pretext for military buildup and territory expansion, and all because in this instance the grass really was greener on the other side.


Rules, Schmules – Breaking the world with a purpose

Let’s go left-hand path on this, shall we? Half the benefit of learning the rules for anything is the bonus of not only knowing how to break those rules, but also why. It’s pointless to break the rules unless you can do so intelligently. Trust me, your audience is savvy, and they WILL eventually call you on it.

So, in the case of you wanting a mountain peak where, geologically speaking, none should be able to exist, now you have an in-road for explaining why that particular vacation destination is there in the first place. Even if it’s not just another lone volcano. That, in turn, can serve your story pretty damn nicely.

What event occurred for that peak to be there? Maybe there’s a creationist tale surrounding it that people adhere to in their worship? Why is this one land locked in ice in an otherwise temperate zone? Magical catastrophe? Mad science run amok? Some dread curse? Dastardly GMO’s? (I kid.)

Or, it could just be a carrot you dangle just off to the side of your main narrative exploration of this particular world; a curiosity off in the distance that’s noted, but tantalizingly just out of reach. It’s good to have it and not need it, if you recall. It’s just another splash of spice from your cupboard.

And, again, those odd deviations from the norm will, naturally, have a direct impact on the culture. How that plays out is up to you, your imagination, and your studious efforts.


In Finance and Landscapes – Why you should embrace diversifying

I want to talk tropes for a moment, here. Specifically, what I call “game-world” tropes. You know the ones. Ice-land, Jungle-board, Desert-world, etc.: Fictional places that latch on to one climate configuration with a white-knuckle grip for what is arguably in service to editorial expediency. These are fine in small doses, but unless you’re designing a planetary theme-park, I’d advice avoiding that kind of simplicity.

Unless, you know, you are creating “Planet Funtime-World”. In that case, carry on.

For the rest of you, don’t shy away from diversity when it comes to your map. You can get freely complex with your lands without much effort. A great example of this is Texas.

Stop laughing. I’m serious.

See, Texas is where I currently reside. When I talk to folks who’ve never visited, they all pretty much imagine the state in the same way: Either it’s the desert backlot for a Tombstone remake, or it’s Oklahoma’s larger brother with plains, cowboys, and cattle-drives.

It is. But it’s also lush forests. Swamps. Rocky outcroppings with freezing rivers threading through. Bayous and lakes and beaches. Humble towns and sprawling mega-cities. Hell, Texas even gets snow, let alone all the other greatest hits of the Weather Channel. Texas is pretty damn diverse when you actually take a look.

And all of that is just one state; a small part of one country, on one continent. Remember that when it comes time to whip up the homesteads for your characters.


Your Map, Your Rules – Cartography for fun and profit

By and large, we geeks love a good map. Or, at the very least, we love a good visual aid to sort out whatever place we’re being introduced to. But, as with most things in the realm of world-building, the K.I.S.S. Method holds sway. Keep it simple, stupid.

You’re not stupid, mind. You’re intelligent. And attractive. I really should come up with a new acronym. Anyway.

You might not be ready to bust out a Wheel of Time map for your needs, but that’s not to say you can’t at the very least napkin-sketch something for your reference for now. It comes in handy to be able to have anything that depicts all this information you’re dealing with. USE IT. Something more polished can always be created later, either by you, or by some other enterprising soul should you not prove a deft hand at map-making. Just remember to pay them fairly.

Don’t make me come over there and beat you with your own map. That’s just a bad time on both of our parts.

But seriously, learning HOW to craft your map is not only essential, but can be a hell of a lot of fun in a weird God-complex sort of fashion. Better still, you have a plethora of fantasy AND sci-fi maps to research online to see how other world-builders put their creations down. And there’s few feelings that compare to the joy of being able to look down upon that world of yours, and start cementing the pieces together.

Tomorrow, we’ll go into part four of the series, and this one’s all about the chief means for both your world, and your people, to express themselves: languages.

Until next time, Horns Up.

(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)

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