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Worldbuilding: Don’t Neglect The Landscape

climb the mountain by sunrise666You have your story, your plot, your characters, sub-texts and themes. On a piece, or several, of paper you have sketched out a map, worked out the travel distances and know how long it will take the heroes to cover that distance. You’ve spent a bit of time making sure you know the types of weapons and armour appropriate to your setting and buildings the people live in. In fact you’ve gone further; you know how they cooked their food and styled their hair.

You’re ready. Get that story written, edited, submitted and published. Fame and adoration await you (maybe riches, if you’re really lucky).

Except for one small detail; that bit when the hero climbs through the steep, narrow valleys in that cold northern kingdom. You know the bit, he is high up on that mountain side having clambered through deep snow drifts and is now clinging on to the oak tree as the wind tries to pick all the warmth from his bones. That bit. It is good, it is dramatic. The hero is in mortal danger. We are with him and we are worried. But why is he clinging to an oak tree in a climate and latitude where, quite clearly, those species don’t and won’t grow. And those valleys, they’re likely to be wide glacial troughs rather than the traditional V-shaped valley.

Winter Hunt by NinjaticBWhat is more, and sorry to ask, but where is the hero getting his food from? I doubt he is hunting too successfully. Certainly the venison he enjoyed earlier on is not in abundance up on this snow covered mountain. He might find a relative of those animals down in valleys or a plucky hare might have its burrow up there. He probably brought all the food with him, didn’t he?

Great stories are based in fantastic landscapes. They don’t have to be otherworldly or majestic forests that stretch further than the eye can see. But if a mountain, all on its own, we’ll call it a lonely one for now, sticks up through the carpet of forest I’d bet my last denomination of local currency that it was a volcano, either active, dormant or extinct. It might well be riddled with lava tubes, hollow caves where once lava flowed, that provide a handy entrance to a band of heroes or a home to some denizens of darkness.

Think of those amazing stories you’ve read and I am sure you are placing the characters in landscapes you can picture with consummate ease. Something about them resonates; they have a core of realism amongst the magic, demons and climatic battles.
When I bring to mind the books I’ve read that have carried me through a world of landscapes some classics and new books spring to mind; Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, Tower and Knife Trilogy.

Disturber of the Peace by BenWootten

Tolkien creates the archetypal fantasy world that many use as a yardstick or, indeed, template. The world works though. The Elves live in the forests, guardians of the environment, in harmony with their surroundings. Dwarves in their halls of stone, harvesting the riches of the earth, follow the veins of precious ore, moulding the world around them to their desires. The men of Rohan with their horses live on great grass plains where their horses would naturally roam. And the hobbits live in Wiltshire, Somerset or New Zealand, cultivating little plots of land in a semi-subsistence, agrarian society. And they are small, which is a common trait amongst species that live on isolated islands – Gandalf is pretty much the only visitor. (You can look up ‘Foster’s Rule’ and Island Biogeography if you want to know more on this). The point is they all fit into their landscapes and the landscapes fit them.

Altai Mountains by kir-tatEddings takes the boy Garion from Faldor’s farm across the whole world in the two series of books. Through his eyes we see the Chereks in the arctic north (think of Norway), the grasslands of Algaria (think prairie grassland or the steppes of Mongolia), through the tropical land of Nyissa with its myriad of snakes and trees adapted to the heat and humidity (Amazonia?). The land of the Moridim – the tundra of Canada?

Mazakis Williams teaches us about the desert. The dunes, the sand underfoot and the adaptations people must make to survive there. The landscape, even the barren dunes, come alive and present a challenge to the people that live there.

The landscape is as much a character as the hero. It cannot be neglected and should not be. But, it cannot take over the story. Few people are happy to sit there and read page after page about how the pyramidal peak our hero is struggling towards was formed during the last glacial and is now being slowly eroded and weathered away. It might be interesting for them ponder how those sea shells got all the way up here (tectonic uplift and mountain building – think Himalayas and the crushing impact of the Indian subcontinent). Similarly, those knife-edged ridges he had to scramble along to get here where one misstep would send him skidding and tumbling down the scree slope below, being torn to ribbons by the sharp stones (the result of weathering not erosion – rounded stones are usually found in the presence of, or have been in, moving water (rivers/seas)) are darn interesting but really, knife-edge ridge is the only description you need.

To return to our hero on that mountain one last time. As he climbed up from the warmer valley, he probably passed through the deciduous forests that may have contained an oak or two (if he was far enough south). As he continued upwards the temperature fell and the broad-leaf forest gave way to pine and these gradually got shorter and sparser. The stones, if he could see them through the snow, were likely surrounded by stunted grasses and had mosses and lichens growing on their southern aspect (if that isn’t the prevailing wind direction and we are in the northern hemisphere). Beyond that, as he struggled onward and upward, all he’d find is those lichens.

Mountains p81 by HBDesign

Each environment presents its own challenges to the hero; the cold and scarcity of food on the mountain, the humidity of a rainforest with its poisonous plants and animals, the heat and aridity of the deserts. The landscape can be a driver for a scene or chapter. It can set the mood, be the enemy, the ally, the uncaring observer. We’re lucky. Every environment you could, almost, ever want to portray can be found on our planet (and hence the internet).

Landscapes are vital to the world you are building and writing about. Don’t neglect them, relish in them, and immerse your readers in them.

This article was originally published on July 8, 2014.

Title image by kir-tat.



  1. Avatar Nicole says:

    Excellent post! My old crit group called me out on the volcano thing in my first novel. 🙂 I fixed it and like to think I’ve become wiser since then. Done well, landscape can be such a cool driving force in books.

  2. Avatar JC says:

    I really appreciate the article. I’m literally a diaper wearing new writer, but, I have traveled a bit and spent a large amount of time outdoors.
    I picked a specific region for the story I’m writing. In writing one battle scene, by adding the specifics of terrain(I used actual pictures) the scene organically developed far better than what I had originally drafted.
    Your article is really spot on and thanks for the instruction.

  3. Avatar Kaybee says:

    Beautifully written and a fascinating, valuable topic for writers, as well as for readers wondering why some fiction is more satisfying to them than others. Some of us here get irritated at shallow fictional depictions of agricultural methods or animal domestication and usage. But this article on the overall landscape ties so much of it all together.

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