Building a Fantasy World: Geography, Climate, Weather, and Time

I thought I’d do a bit of discussion about world-building, especially with a focus on fantasy genre world building. I’ll be using the setting of Echo of the High Kings for this, my upcoming epic fantasy novel. First, one thing I feel is valuable is taking the time to establish a world, culture, history, and all that goes with it. There are fantasy stories and novels where this is all kept very vague or even mutable. I would point out, however, that some of the most successful fantasy authors are the ones who have taken the time to build the world in which their characters live. It isn’t just about knowing what lies beyond the hills the characters are climbing, it’s also about knowing why the character’s culture and background might drive his decisions.

For my science fiction and fantasy novels, I like to do extensive world building. There are a million details that I like to know. The place I started, with my epic fantasy, was the world. I drew the original map as the first bit. Maps are a staple of epic fantasy, but that’s not why I drew mine. I drew it because I wanted to know where things were in relation to one another, long before I even started writing. I started with a large, central continent, which I gave a large inland sea. This sea both split the continent, and allowed for trade along its coastlines. I wanted trade to be well established, so that communications and travel are also established. Also, while I wanted each area to have its own background and culture, I wanted them speaking a common language in most of the areas, which basically required that they have constant communications and travel, else over generations their languages would shift. I also crafted a natural channel or rift that connected the inner sea to the southern ocean, and left the top of the sea open to the northern ocean. This meant that the natural trade facilitated by the inner sea could easily spread to the rest of the world. From there, I wanted to establish natural boundaries that would separate some of the more distinct cultures and empires. Mountains and rivers often act as the natural boundaries with nations, so that’s where I started. Also, with the large geological rift splitting the continent, I figured there would be some extreme tectonic upheaval. This served another purpose because I wanted a strong presence and threat of barbarians, so I established high mountain ranges, with deep, secluded valleys which could act as the refuges for these barbarians as they attacked the lowland civilizations. I also wanted an ‘evil’ empire, based in the south, so I crafted a deep jungle region for them to live in and follow their bloody and violent gods.

Map drawn, I wanted to know where this was in relation to other places. I made my decision, early on, that I wanted this world to be part of a greater universe. So I expanded it. The continent was joined by four others, which make up the world of Eoria. Eoria, I decided, has a severe axial tilt, which basically means that the seasons are very extreme, making for scorching hot summers and bitterly cold, dark winters. In addition, it has a much longer orbit than Earth, a total orbit that lasts six hundred and ninety nine days, which are twenty six hours long. I divided this up into twenty four months of twenty nine days, along with three non-month holy days. In addition, each month would have four weeks of seven days along with a single feast day. Why is that important? Well, it means that those scorching summers last for six months… and the winters the same. It means that a campaign or fighting season could last as long as eighteen months, depending on weather. It means that extreme snow-fall in the winter will lead to particular designs for buildings and that spring flooding will be a huge issue, as will drought control in the summer. This is a setting where survival of civilization requires work, hard work at that. Surviving winter is an endeavor that requires preparation and forethought and a certain level of pragmatism, especially in the far north where the growing season relative to the rest of the year is so short. With only a six month growing season, it makes sense that many northerners would turn to raiding to augment their supplies for eighteen months of cold and darkness. It makes even more sense that they might make pacts with beings or creatures that others might find unfathomable, in order to prevent death by starvation or freezing.

What about tides? And also, with that severe axial tilt, how is that maintained? Earth has a moon, a large one at that, which maintains our axial tilt and provides us with ocean tides. Here I came back to the fact that Eoria is going to be part of a larger universe. Maybe not at first, but they need to be able to adapt to the idea that there are other people out there. How better than another world, just as blue and green as our own? Thus, Eoria has a twin world, Aoria, also a life bearing world. In addition, it has cities and towns and people of its own. More, there has, at times, been contact back and forth. Thus, people know it is there, and the underlying assumption is that of course there are other worlds, other people. Eoria and Aoria are locked in orbit together, a dance that has lasted several billion years. They are distant enough that the tides are not extreme, though they are higher than what we are used to here on Earth. Why does that matter? This will make harbors and channels more important, for both tactical and strategic considerations. Deeper harbors will prevent ships from being stranded on low tide, while deep channels will remain navigable.

Moving outwards, there’s the star that both worlds orbit. I could call it ‘the sun’ but I’ve already established that this isn’t Earth. Nor is it some almost Earth. This is Eoria. In Eoria, they call their star Auir. Now with the orbit for Eoriel being so long and therefore so far out, Auir needs to be a bit warmer than our sun. Therefore, Auir burns a bit hotter and has a faint greenish cast to its light.

At this point, I’ve developed the world, its climate, its weather, and even a calendar. That allows me to link things not just to a timeline but also to peg down when characters might celebrate a holiday and when they might shutter their windows and hunker down in fear of dark or wicked spirits. The weather and geography allow me to design the cultures of the people that live in certain places and to justify some of the actions they may take as a result.

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