Worldbuilding is a vast topic that takes various forms depending on what you are looking to do with it. The end result looks different for every writer, but there are certain topics that are uniform across the spectrum. For the rest of April's worldbuilding series, I'm going to be going over the topics that seem most relevant to me, judging by what I feel most writers struggle with. I'm going to be splitting these topics into four parts: Natural, Societal, Governing, and Advanced because otherwise this post would be overwhelmingly long and the last thing I want is to overload you on a topic that can already be daunting. Today we're discussing the natural elements of worldbuilding.
While it's possible to leave certain details out of worldbuilding, for example language, it is not possible to exclude geography. Each new world needs a backdrop. Understanding the geographical layout will help you establish the how's and why's of your world. Let me show you what I mean.
When you think geography, you probably picture a map with all it's shapes and names. Worldbuilding one should be easy-peasey right? You just draw some borders and make up some weird names and then boom. You've got a map. While that may be true at surface level, it's actually not all that geographical worldbuilding is made up of. Through this process you will have to discover how and why natural phenomena occur and how and why civilizations crop up in certain places as opposed to others.
How Do I Begin?
Start by thinking of the biggest big picture. Close your eyes and imagine that you're an eagle soaring over your world' landscape. What do you see? You may be seeing oceans, rivers, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, etc. You may see the extent of your world's borders, or you may be noticing details such as man-made features like damns, mines, and bridges. Cities, towns, farms, and factories may crop up in your mind's eye as well.
Geography encompasses all of these, as it is the study of Earth's physical features, atmosphere, how human interaction influences and is impacted by these, including the distribution of population, resources, land use, and industries. It also refers to the arrangement of physical features and places.
Go ahead and make note of any of these that appear on a piece of paper during this exercise. You'll need these for when you eventually draw out your map and for development later.
What topics fall into the "Natural" category?
This refers to the mass of land, islands, etc. that make up your fantasy world. This is the basic geography that serves as the background for everything else, so it's important that this is the first thing you decide when you start building. This includes, mountains, forests, jungles, beaches, lakes, rivers, oceans, deserts, plains, valleys, cliffs, etc. For inspiration you can look at the maps you see in other books, real-world maps, or even take landscapes that you're familiar with and apply them where you please. Just note that whatever natural landforms arise will come with different climates, flora and fauna, resources, and challenges that will later impact your characters as you begin writing. It's a good idea to list these in short-hand for a quick reference guide later.
These are the features, natural or man-made, that are easily recognizable and visible from a distance. Typically these are used to help a person establish their location. Examples of man-made landmarks include bridges, statues/monuments, historically significant buildings, lighthouses, pyramids, etc. Examples of natural landmarks include volcanoes, rare or historically significant trees, waterfalls, picturesque cliffs, caves, meteorite craters, unique geological outcrops, and noteworthy boulders. Use these sparingly and make sure that they will be backed by significance within your story. Either it is significant to the people of the land, your protagonist, or it marks where to find an item important to your protagonist/antagonist's conflict. A good example of both types of landmarks in literature is the Dothraki city of Vaes Dothrak in Game of Thrones. The city is marked by a mountain peak called the Mother of Mountains and the entrance is signified by two rearing stallions.
Refers directly to the short and long-term patterns of weather in a specific region. This will largely be determined by the geographical location you've chosen, as well as the season your story takes place in. It includes aspects such as wind velocity, precipitation, temperature, and humidity. Knowing these aspects of your world comes in handy not only when you're trying to ground your reader into a scene, but also when used to present a challenge to your protagonist. An example is in the sequel to The Hunger Games, when Katniss has to deal with poisoned fog, lack of water while walking in tropical heat, and blood rain. Also keep in mind that even if you don't have a complex geographical setting, you still have to know the patterns of weather that occur in the area where your story takes place. This means you need to do your homework and make sure that the patterns you describe are actually possible within the region you chose.
Seasons are a period of the year characterized by or associated with a particular activity or phenomenon. In this case we're talking about the changing weather that comes at certain times of the year. Whether it's rain and flooding during the rainy season, hurricanes and tornadoes in the summer, falling leaves in the fall, or snow in the wintertime, weather presents unique circumstances and specialized activities year-round. You can manipulate the seasons in your worldbuilding to help make your world stand-out. For instance, the summers and winters in Game of Thrones last for years rather than the traditional few months creating a distinctive setting and a dire threat to those living in Westeros.
If you wrote down a cheat sheet when coming up with your geography, it's time to develop the notes you have. Resources can be several things. It can be a source of supply or support, a source of wealth, a natural feature or phenomenon that enhances the quality of human life, or a source of information or expertise. Depending on what your region looks like, the resources it offers will change. If your story takes place in a fruitful valley, your character may have access to a wide variety of foods, but may have to fight the people already living there for the right to eat it. On the flip side, if your character finds themselves stranded on an island, then finding basic resources becomes the ultimate challenge.
When I say regional differences here, I mean how landscapes differ from each other in your story. It's safe to assume that you'll most likely have two or more different landscapes within your setting. This is especially true if you are writing sci-fi or fantasy, or if your protagonist has to journey far away to complete his or her quest. Set aside these differences in your notes. Begin with geography and work your way down to resources so that you can compare the differences side-by-side. This will help you later on as you begin to drop in those "breadcrumb" details as you write.
Flora and Fauna
Plants and animals play a large role in your worldbuilding. Arguably, this is where you can get super creative and play around with the specifics. Creating a hybrid breed of peacock tigers, a magical flower that oozes purple smoke, white berries that will make you immortal- the sky is the limit. Where this was done particularly well was in the movie Avatar. The world of Pandora mirrors ours but the scale of things is much larger, the sky is filled with different planets, and the plants and animals are a mix of the strange and familiar. Some tricks you can employ here are to make subtle changes. Be purposely vague when it comes to scenery where other elements of magic and fantasy are present. Instead of calling it a "birch tree" just call it a "tree". To some extent the reader is going to visualize a magical place because there are goblins or faeries running around. Don't spoil the illusion by being overly specific in your descriptions. If you want to add a fantasy aspect to an otherwise realisitc setting, try pulling inspiration from animals and plants that used to exist, such as the "direwolf" from Game of Thrones. If you're making plants and animals from scratch, keep in mind that they should blend naturally into their environment. This means making sure they can realistically survive in their surroundings and naming them appropriately so that they fit your language scheme.
Bodies of Water
Though water is technically part of geography, I separated it into it's own category because where it's located and what type of water it is affects the rest of your world. Everything needs water in order to survive, so humans, animals, and plants will be more densely populated in areas where freshwater exists. Bodies of water are also ecosystems for different types of animals and plants and they provide resources/challenges unlike any of those seen on land. It also provides a mode of transportation to other places within your world, enabling goods and people to connect (given that they have the technological advances to do so). In The Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway, being out alone in the ocean fishing brings many challenges for the old man. We also see this in Melville's Moby Dick, where Ishmael must fight the sea as much as he fights the whale.
Sun and Moon
I've included this because the sun and moon each have their own affects on the universe. Whether it's seasonal, gravity, tides, or the way they look in the sky, they can be utilized to do some interesting things. In several fantasy stories religions are built around them each respectively, hybrid's behaviors change around them, and some magical entities even draw their powers from them. Stories that exhibit these types usually have to do with supernatural entities such as vampires and werewolves.
Principles such as gravity and the laws of physics should be left alone unless there's a good reason to change them. Unless you're an expert in science, you shouldn't attempt to re-write hard facts that will require lots of detailed explaining for the reader to understand. This is one of those worldbuilding details better left alone, only because explaining how characters move around without gravity will lead to readers questioning why gravity doesn't exist and so on.
Knowing what extends beyond your world may be necessary for your story. If you're dealing with a story that has gods, aliens, or takes your character into outer space, you'll probably need to explore what lays in the great beyond. Here you can play with your reader's imagination, particularly if your characters arrive on another planet entirely, then you can make up the rules from scratch because the reader already knows what's coming next is completely fictional. An example of this is Star Wars.
Once you have all of these other elements in place, think about how your civilizations came to be. Typically where people choose to settle has a lot to do with what natural resources are available. Places that are near water, have fertile farmland, and lots of prey animals is most ideal. If they choose to live someplace where resources are more scarce (say in the desert or mountains), you'll have to give them a reason for doing so along with ways to get the resources they need despite the challenges. They also have to have modes of viable transportation, especially in more hospitable regions. As you start establishing these civilizations, make note of any borders or if there are none, the extent of which they know their world.
On a closing note, here are some things to look out for while you're working on your natural elements.
When creating plants and animals from scratch, be careful not to go too far out there. Unless you have a degree in zoology or botany you shouldn't completely go against the fundamentals of nature.
Think about the logistics of nature. Water cannot travel upwards, it can't flow from the ocean into a river, and it eventually has to accumulate somewhere. Likewise rain cannot fall from the ground into the sky. It doesn't work in real life, and it won't work in your fantasy one.
If you want to use an unfamiliar setting that you find intriguing such as Fjords, make sure you do your homework and understand how such a setting is initially created. Fjords are formed by glaciers. That means that if your land doesn't have an Ice Age or a reason why they would retreat into an area, then it probably doesn't make sense that it would exist at all.
The best way to make sure that your worldbuilding is solid is to consult an expert in the topic that you are working on. Having an expert review your work will help ensure that any gaps in logic will be smoothed out before readers ever have a chance to pick and unravel it. By asking if something is possible, you can then figure out how to make it so if the answer happens to be "no". This is a good tactic to use throughout this process, as it helps you build a cohesive, seamless world.