I was recently asked to be guest on another podcast and the episode is now live. I talk more about my experiences with world building, so if you’re following my own podcast or The Art of World Building, check it out!
When drawing maps of continents, being realistic is a good idea even when inventing for a fantasy or SF landscape. We’re not freed from plausibility unless we’re purposely throwing out the laws of physics and nature. Most of us are probably creating reasonably Earth-like terrain, but even if not, there are natural forces at work on most planets.
The following tips can not only prevent mistakes but give world builders ideas. Sometimes we’re not sure where to put a forest or desert, or why. Maybe we’re not sure where to even begin. The answer is mountain ranges and a decision on which hemisphere our continent is on. This will determine prevailing winds and, as a result, vegetation. If you don’t understand why, read on.
Mountains and Rain Shadows
Mountains cause moisture-carrying winds to rise. The clouds dump all the rain on one side of the mountain range, causing plants and trees. On the mountain range’s other side, there’s no water left to fall. This causes a “rain shadow,” an area that receives little to no rainfall. Deserts are the usual result.
The below image of the western coast of the United States shows the sudden onset of desert on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains, which are also causing the forests to their west. Not only is this not peculiar, but it’s a common and expected result that plays out across the Earth. Not knowing this, we might try to justify such a thing by saying a supernatural or technological event caused it when nature will do it.
A rain shadow can cover a huge area, such as the Great Plains of the United States. This isn’t a desert, but grasslands, but the same effect is responsible. The Rocky Mountains have taken much of the moisture out of the air, just not all of it. Some moisture is also coming up from the Gulf of Mexico to the south, so there’s enough rain to cause grass, just not lush vegetation. Generally, desert-like conditions occur closest to the mountains. As we progress farther from them, desert may give way to grasslands and finally forests.
How do we know which side has the desert or forest? We need to know about prevailing winds to answer that.
On a world that is spinning on its axis, like Earth, there will be winds. Which direction these winds flow depends on latitude (distance from the equator) and which way the planet is rotating. Earth rotates counterclockwise and in this article we’ll assume your world does, too; if not, then reverse every mention of direction made below.
On Earth, the rotation causes winds from the equator (0°) to the tropics (up to 40°) to travel east; on the map below, yellow and brown arrows indicate this. In the temperate zones (40°—66°), winds travel west, as indicated by the blue arrows on the map. In the polar zones, winds are again eastward but are light. On the first map above, this explains why the forest is on the westward side of the mountains: the wind is westerly.
No Deserts near the Equator
The world’s deserts aren’t within 30° of the equator due to an atmospheric phenomenon called Hadley cells (there is one in each hemisphere). This weather pattern means most deserts, especially the large ones like the Sahara, start around 30°.
It also means there’s heavy precipitation from 0°—30° and this is too much rain for deserts to form. There’s one exception to this, at least on Earth: Somalia is located at the equator and is mostly arid. The reason? The elevation is between 5-15,000 feet. This changes what would be a tropical climate into a temperate one, and that’s exactly where rain shadows cause deserts. In this case, the Himalayan Mountains are the likely culprit despite how far away they are.
Putting it Together
How can we use this information? We can follow these steps when planning and creating a continent map:
- Determine which hemisphere our continent is in, and how far from the equator (or even whether it spans it)
- Decide which parts of the land mass are in each latitude/climate zone, noting the prevailing wind direction:
- Between 0°—40°, winds are easterly
- Between 40°—66°, winds are westerly
- Add mountain ranges where desired
- Plan where your deserts and forests are:
- Between 0°—30°, no deserts except in highlands
- Between 30°—40° forests to the east of mountains, deserts to the west
- Between 40°—66°, forests to the west of mountains, deserts to the east
- Remember that a desert may give way to grasslands and then forests, farther from the mountains that cause a rain shadow. This can give us a line, from left-to-right (or right-to-left) of forest, mountains, desert, grassland, forest. This depends on mountains running north-to-south, as this is perpendicular to the wind direction and therefore blocks the winds. An east-to-west range may cause this but on a smaller scale.
Also, note that winds are westerly or easterly but not perfectly so. They move slightly toward or away from the equator, as the above image illustrates. We don’t need to be super picky about this, however, partly because the vast majority of people have no idea about any of this. We always have the caveat that no one from our imaginary world is going to show up on Earth and announce to our horror (and the delight of our critics) that there is, in fact, no desert or forest at a specific location despite what our map says.
We may not know where 40° latitude is on our maps, but as long as we’re in the ballpark, we’re okay. The goal is to be plausible, not necessarily right.
Hopefully all of this informs and inspires your work, rather than inhibits you. If you’d like to learn more such details, they can be found in my book, Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2).
Based on the image below (from my world Llurien), see if you can answer these questions (answers at the article’s end):
Question #1: based on where mountains, forests, and deserts are, which direction are the prevailing winds?
Question #2: how far from the equator is this region?
Question #3: which hemisphere is it? (hint: look at the vegetation icons)
Question #4: If you know the answer to the first three questions, what explains the existence of the deserts on the bottom area of the map?
- not very because easterly winds are nearer the equator
- this image is in the northern hemisphere. If we can see the tree icons (they’re a little small here), rainforest icons are used on the southern half, implying the equator is to the south (it’s just off the bottom edge of the map).
- since this is near the equator, there can’t be deserts, except that those areas of the map are above 5,000 feet (called the Marulan Highlands)) and are therefore a temperate climate. This lets the mountains on the right cause a rain shadow.
NY Times Bestselling author Piers Anthony was once again kind enough to read a volume in the series. This time, it was Creating Places, and he had this to say (bold highlights are mine):
“I read Creating Places—the Art of World Building Volume II, by Randy Ellefson. This is the second volume of a three volume work. The first volume was Creating Life, which I reviewed in Mayhem of this year. This volume addresses the settings a writer wishes to create, and it is exhaustive. So you invent a planet; does it have a moon? Because a moon facilitates the evolution of life on a planet, by stabilizing it; otherwise it could bobble all over, with disastrous consequences for life below.
“The book also gets into plate tectonics—drifting continents, for you ignorant folk—clarifying what is going on there. When one continental plate shoves under another, and melts, hot lava emerges from the surface above as volcanoes, some of which can be devastating. This too is important for the welfare of life. In fantasy you can do things magically, but in science fiction it is better to know what you’re talking about, and this reference spells it out. When the movements of the ground throw up mountain ranges, these can create rain shadows, with copious rain on the side where fronts come from, and deserts on the other side because the rain has been squeezed out. Bounteous California, but also Death Valley.
“What kind of creatures to you have? This touches on everything from dragons to elves. Are there guns or just swords? That too makes a difference when you’re up against hungry monsters. How do you travel? There are various ways on land. If there is plenty of water, then probably by ship; there is a competent discussion of the types of ship, including their sails. Next time I have a ship in my fiction, I expect to reread this portion, and get it right. Then there is the dubious art of politics. How are people governed? It goes into the various types of organization, from settlements to kingdoms, from autocracy on down. That discussion triggered an idea for me: suppose folk lived in a kakistocracy? That is, government by the worst. I may write a story about that. This book may well spawn similar ideas for you.
“It also has advice along the way on writing that I’m sure novice writers and perhaps some established ones too can profit from. I recommend this book as a basic reference; at worst it is a review of necessary concepts, and at best it will upgrade you from a mediocre speculative fiction writer to a superior one.“
Creating Places has been published in both eBook and paperback format! The audio book will be released soon. Join The Art of World Building mailing list to get the free templates! Chapter summaries are below.
Chapter 1—Case Studies
Three case studies show how the contents of this volume can aid in creating relationships we can use in our work. They discuss the effects of prevailing winds, climate, land features, rain shadows, and the impact of passages to travel through troubling areas. Each affects the sort of sovereign power suggested by a region and how alliances and enemies can be forged, some changing with time. Each power will have different ideologies and geographical features and needs, which can help us determine relationships between different powers.
Chapter 2—Creating a Planet
This chapter focuses on creating an Earth-like planet. World builders should understand the role of the moon and its effects on tides, seasons, and more if we intend to have a moon different from our own or multiple moons. Mention of other planets, constellations, and comets can make our world seem like it’s not an island. The equator, climate zones, prevailing winds, and rain shadows all affect how much precipitation falls in an area, which in turn affects all life there, including vegetation or the lack thereof. Understanding these basics will help us create believable landscapes.
Chapter 3—Creating a Continent
Which hemisphere our continent lies in affects the seasons and might impact where we place constellations. Understanding plate tectonics can help us build believable mountain ranges and place volcanoes where they might occur. This can also determine where deep areas of the sea are, giving our sea monsters somewhere to call home. We have some liberty to name bodies of water what we want, but this chapter includes details on when to use which name, including seas, bays, inlets, and more.
Chapter 4—Creating Land Features
A continent will have mountains, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, forests, woodlands, savannahs, jungles, prairies, wetlands, and deserts, but world builders should understand each to place them in believable locations. While some aspects are obvious, minor details can change our decisions and augment our resulting stories. Why say characters have entered a run-of-the-mill forest when we can say it’s a savannah instead, describing how it looks and what life is like for inhabitants and those traversing it? This chapter aids world builders in making a more varied landscape—one that is accurately depicted.
Chapter 5—Creating a Sovereign Power
Kingdoms, empires, dictatorships and more are types of sovereign powers that world builders can create. Before we do, a high-level understanding of the differences between them is crucial. Many variations to government types exist, which gives us freedom to tweak details for our needs, but we should know the rules before we break them. The role of sovereignty, including how it is gained and lost, is examined in this chapter along with the “divine right of kings.” We also look at the head of state and head of government roles, the differences between them, and the conflicts that can arise. The nature of each branch of government is examined along with parliamentary systems. Democracies, federations, theocracies, monarchies, autocracies and more are examined for their key differences.
Inventing a sovereign power should include friends and enemies who shape policy, lifestyle, and culture. The form of government has significant impact on inhabitants and results from world view. History affects this as well, and while creating a history is optional, it enriches the dynamics of relationships and can create heroes, villains, and attitudes in the population. We should consider which species are present and in how great a percentage, and what languages are spoken or forbidden. Our power’s location and climate will impact lifestyles and vegetation, which also influences what natural resources it has or lacks, and what the power does as a result. These can all lead to tensions both with other powers or the residents. Symbols, colors, flags, and slogans will be a source of pride and even fear for both foreigners and the population.
Chapter 6—Creating a Settlement
Location impacts a settlement more than many world builders realize, from climate to terrain and water supply, but our neighbors also determine how much fortification is needed and the number of armed forces, including their skill sets. Ancient and recent history can bring lasting change and cause attitudes that enrich our setting. Our population’s diversity is also critical for determining what life is like for the majority and minorities alike, but first we need to decide who is who (and why), how much power they have, and whether they can subvert those who are supposedly in power. Whether outposts, castles, villages, towns, or cities, or even an orbiting station, a settlement will have secrets, a reputation, colors, symbols, and local lore that characterize it in the minds of inhabitants, friends and enemies.
Chapter 7—Travel Over Land
In settings without automobiles, world builders may struggle to determine how long it really takes people to traverse a distance, whether that’s between settlements or land features. Mountains, hills, desert, and vegetation all impact speed and endurance, whether one is walking, riding a steed (even flying on one), or hauling freight like a wagon. The presence and quality of roads alter this, as do life forms that might cause wariness and therefore slower travel. A methodology is presented to assist with organizing distance measurements and scale, determining the base miles per day (BMPD) for various mode of travel, and terrain modifiers to BMPD. Using both miles and kilometers, formulas are provided for making calculations, which can also be estimated for overall land area in sovereign powers. Newsletter subscribers receive an Excel spreadsheet that can be used to alter scale and modifiers so that all calculations are automatically updated, reducing the need for manual calculations.
Chapter 8—Travel by Water
Landlubbers have difficulty determining how long it takes for any ship, whether powered by oars or sails, to traverse a distance. This chapter explores the factors affecting sailing speeds and what vessels are most likely to be used during an Age of Sail period. Calculations are provided for realistic estimates. Both long and round ships are discussed, including the galley, brig, frigate, galleon, sloop-of-war, and ship-of-the-line. In fantasy, we have species and warrior types who might be part of our crew. We might also rule out gunpowder and cannon, which means having ships with no real fire power or which use alternative weapons, some of which are examined. Subscribers to The Art of World Building newsletter receive an Excel spreadsheet that performs calculations in kilometers, miles, and nautical miles.
Chapter 9—Travel in Space
Science fiction features invented technologies for traveling the cosmos, but that doesn’t free us from attempts to be realistic about life in space or how to maneuver. Modern engines operate on the principle of thrust, which requires rear-facing engines, and we’ll need this for slower-than-light travel within a solar system. Imaginary propulsions, like warp, hyper, or jump drives can benefit from believable limitations. We should also remember that locations in space are ever changing positions so that how long it takes to travel between two points is seldom the same—or convenient for our characters. The need to enter a planet’s atmosphere affects the structure of our ship, but world builders will be most interested in the internal organization and the effect we can make this have on people and story.
Chapter 10—Creating Time and History
History can enrich a world and provide us with cultural clashes, famous items, and world figures to which our stories and characters can refer or cite as inspiration. To save time, we can create a master history file with short entries that are invented in a few minutes and which do not need long explanations. Some could be turned into stand-alone stories if we stumble upon a great idea. Historic entries can be created at any time and can include events involving the gods, technology, supernatural, wars, the rise and fall of sovereign powers, artifacts, and famous missions by groups or individuals.
We also need a universal way to measure time because each sovereign power might have its own calendar, making the correlation of events across kingdoms harder. The merits of keeping timeframes similar to Earth’s are discussed; this includes the reasons why minutes and hours benefit from little alteration, while the number of days, weeks, and months can experience greater variation without disrupting the audience’s sense of time.
Chapter 11—Creating Places of Interest
Even seemingly ordinary locations can acquire significance due to scale, features, or people associated with them. These include monuments, graves, catacombs and hidden passages, and unusual buildings, whether built in stone, flying in the air, or floating on water like Venice. Ruins offer places for treasure to be found or horrors unleashed, including magical or technological items. Event sites and shipwrecks also give inhabitants places to reference, seek, or avoid, and can be where items of our invention originated.
Bonus Chapter 12—Drawing Maps
While drawing maps is optional in world building, they can help us visualize where everything’s taking place, and if done well, can even be included in published works. Drawing skill isn’t really needed, as modern map making programs allow us to place pre-existing shapes onto a map and move them around. Continent maps help us decide on the location and quality of land features like mountains, forests, and deserts so that we create a realistic ecosystem. The location of settlements, rivers, and bodies of water will also impact the stories and lives of characters we create. We can also draw settlement, dungeon, and ship maps to solidify our decisions and find new inspiration in our layouts.
The makers of Campaign Cartographer and other map-making programs I use invited me to write a guest post on their site, ProFantasy.com. It went live Monday and can be read at this link.
The article discusses subjects covered in Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2), including how a continent’s hemisphere, prevailing winds, and mountain ranges causes rain shadows, which affect where vegetation and deserts lie.
There’s also a little quiz at the end to see how well you retained the lesson! Check it out and leave a comment on their site if you’d like to see more.
These guys have been very cool to me. How cool? They donated the three programs to the left for the giveaway I’m running for the next three weeks. Stop by their site and see what they have to offer!
In celebration of the release of Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2) I’m doing a massive giveaway of world building tools, training, and advice! All you need to do is enter and get a chance to win $200 worth of stuff!
It gets better: once you enter, you’ll get an email with a link just for you. Send that to your world building friends, and if they click it and enter the contest, you’ll get an additional three chances to win! How cool is that?
What can you win?
- Three of the best programs from ProFantasy, allowing you to draw maps of land features, cities, and dungeons!
- A world building course by David Farland/Dave Wolverton!
- A bunch of world building ebooks, including mine!
- And even if you don’t win, all contestants get a free copy of THE EVER FIEND!
You can forward the contest to anyone who does world building and improve your own chances.
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I just received another endorsement from Ed Greenwood, creator of The Forgotten Realms® and dozens of other imaginary worlds:
With CREATING PLACES, Randy Ellefson has penned a sequel to his CREATING LIFE that walks story creators through worldbuilding along an entertaining road that runs everywhere, making sure nothing is missed. Plentiful examples are provided, and a veteran worldbuilder can find just as much fun and comprehensive reminders in these pages as a novice. Some books are nice to have, and a rare few are “must haves.” Like Ellefson’s preceding book, CREATING PLACES is one of that rare breed: an essential reference work. Unlike most references, this one is fun to read. Not to mention a goad and spark for the imagination!
The audiobook of Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1) is now available at iTunes, Amazon, and Audible. Running time is 5 hours and 13 minutes and it’s on sale for between $17-19. Now you can have it read to you while you go about your day!