Fantasy worlds take all shapes and sizes. The physical landscape of your story’s setting plays a large part in its uniqueness. Creating fantastical geography involves more than just drawing maps, however.
Determine the Scope
Building an entire fantasy world can be daunting, and unnecessary. No need to create entire continents if your hero will only be gallivanting around a kingdom. Even epic fantasy, where the journey is an integral part of the plot, doesn’t require vast amounts of terrain. Focus only on what the story depends upon.
When I started writing my first Janner Kohl story, the world consisted of two cities, a coastline, a river and a forest. I added a third city, on the other side of the sea, and an archipelago when I wrote “Relvan’s Rescue”.
The world of Chronicles of Jord began as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. I included every major geographical features: forests, lakes, mountains, plains, rivers and swamps. I even had a small bay that opened into a greater ocean. At one point, I believe I had expanded my world map to encompass an entire continent. As I converted the world from a game supplement to a backdrop for a fantasy novel, I pared down the elements that weren’t supported by my chapter outlines. I no longer had to be concerned with players running off the beaten path; I controlled where my cast of characters would go.
Determine the Landscape
Here we come to the nitty-gritty. What does your world look like? Is it pseudo-European, with the standard geographical features? Is it a vast desert or ocean, dotted with tiny, isolated regions suitable for sustaining life? Perhaps it’s something completely alien, with forests of giant mushrooms and rivers that flow uphill.
Don’t worry about naming your features at this point. That will become important as you develop the history and cultures of your world.
I’m going to include climate under landscape, as the two are intertwined. Weather and temperature are important obstacles, and should not be treated as window dressing. They also give the reader a sense of the passage of time.
While actually drawing a map to scale isn’t necessary for good world-building, you do need to have an idea of how far it would take your protagonist to get from point A to point B. This gives you opportunities to create tension as your hero journeys, racing against the clock to save the world. Remember to take into account all the methods of travel you include in your world.
Consistent geography adds credibility to your world. It’s an important detail, but don’t go overboard. Build your world within the context of the story you’re telling. I tend to stick with fairly vanilla landscapes in the fantasy fiction I’ve written so far. What kind of geographical settings do you prefer?