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Building A World: Basic Concepts

If you search this site you will find a variety of articles that encourage you to think about how you are going to build your stories fantasy world. You can learn about culture, science, religion, races, beasts, vegetation and, yes, landscapes. But how do these things fit in to the whole world? How did it come to be and how do you make it ‘realistic’ – I’ve added the quote marks because we are talking about fantasy worlds and sometimes realism isn’t required or needed. Now, a caveat, this is not a complete guide just a basic look at the physical world.

Planet Size

Imagination of the planets by alwahdanyYour planet will, I guess, be about the same size as our Earth. It is a simple idea to begin with but vital. This is important because mass creates gravity and gravity determines physiology. Most fantasy novels and stories include humans and many have dwarves and elves too. If you take humans as the ‘average’ then their skeletons and musculature has evolved to suit a gravity of 1g (ours). Dwarves, you could argue, evolved to be shorter because it is an advantage if you live in tunnels – you don’t bang your head so often. Elves, longer of limb, might be better suited to climbing trees where many authors place their homes. The size of your fantasy planet has determined the size and shape of the inhabitants.

It also gives you some measurements and distances to use. I am not suggesting that you go out right now and start plotting and mapping every detail of your world. But it is worth keeping in mind the basic size and arrangement of your world. Which leads onto…

Plate Tectonics

Chasm by korboxIf you look at a map of the world you quite quickly notice that the great land masses are divided by oceans and mountains. This is not by accident. The surface of the earth is very thin in comparison to the whole earth. Really an egg shell and like those it cracks quite easily. Heat from the centre of the Earth causes molten rock to rise and fall in great convection currents. These currents of molten rock (a consistency a bit like jam with all the bits in) create friction with on the bottom of the plates (the separate pieces of crust, the land masses) as these float, they move. It is very slow and change is slow. A fact we should be grateful for. If the plates move quickly? Well, that causes earthquakes and tsunamis. Where the plates split apart you can have great oceans (the Atlantic) and where they run into each other you get…


Altai Mountains by kir-tatSo, plate tectonics builds mountains. The tallest mountains on the planet are also the youngest, the Himalayas. If you climbed to the top of those mountains you would find sea shells in the rocks. Nothing swam up there but the mountains used to be the bottom of the sea. As the plates crashed, in slow motion, into each other the sea floor in-between was buckled and bent upwards into the mountains. If the plate margin is still active you might find volcanoes making up many of those mountains. Japan and New Zealand are good examples of this. If you look at an atlas, at the Himalayas, the Rockies, the Alps, then you’ll notice that there are no isolated mountains, they form chains and ranges.

As altitude increases the temperature drops. As it falls the ability of the air to hold onto moisture declines and rainfall increases as does snowfall. When snow melts or the rainwater flows downhill you get…


Cloudcatcher by RHADSWater always flows downhill. It is always ‘trying’ to reach sea level. If you bear these two things in mind then understanding how rivers change from their source (where they start) to their mouths (where flow into the sea) is quite easy.

Rivers begin small and grow as more and more tributaries join, adding their own volume of water and increasing the discharge. They follow the lowest points on the terrain. Indeed, as they ‘try’ to reach sea level they erode downwards and so often create the lowest point.

In the upper course, close to the source, you’ll find waterfalls and cascades. In the lower course the river is slower and deeper. Here it will have longer meanders and wide flood plains. It is here you should find the major towns and cities. London is built on the River Thames, which is strictly still the coast as it is tidal. Bristol on the River Avon. New Orleans on the Mississippi Delta. New York on the Hudson.

When you combine the factors above with the climate you get…


Biomes by TheMasterN1These are areas with similar climate and vegetation. The map below shows the major biomes on the Earth and, like almost all of geography, there are patterns. If you imagine the equator running through Brazil, below the Sahara in Africa and just below the horn of India then you’ve divided the world into North and South. To the north there is much more land, to south much more ocean and this has impacts on weather patterns and ocean currents. In turn, as the biomes progress north and south in parallel bands, from tropical to tundra, those alterations in the weather and oceans cause some variations in that smooth pattern.

Average temperatures drop with distance from the equator, the climate changes and the vegetation changes too. If you are taking your heroes (or villains) on a journey it might be worth thinking about this before they head off.

Using Maps To Help Build

Vegetation Biom Map by Ville Koistinen

Grab an atlas, examine Google earth, and investigate maps. You will notice the patterns I have, in their basic forms, mentioned. If you want to build a realistic world, or location, then it is easier steal from our world; change the coastline a bit, change the borders slightly, change the names. Use old maps as a starting point.

Title image by alwahdany.


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