Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions: Physical and Historical Features

By Patricia C. Wrede

Copyright © 1996

II. Physical and Historical Features

  1. General

    • In which geographical areas will the story take place? How much ground will the story cover? What are the most striking features of landscape, climate, animals, etc. in thisarea? How will these features affect travel time, communication, etc.?
    • If there are non-human inhabitants, are there any areas they particularly claim as their own (e.g., dwarves traditionally live underground, usually in mountains)?
  2. Climate and Geography

    • Have human activities affected climate, landscape, etc. in various regions? How? (Example: Sahara Desert growth has been increased by over-farming.) If this is an alternate earth, will the “alternate” part change existing effects? (If there are no people in N. Africa, desert growth is probably slower.)
    • How do differences from Earth (multiple suns, moons, etc.) affect the climate in various areas?
    • How much land is in each of the equatorial, temperate, and polar zones?

      Note: climate affects landscape through erosion and weathering; the distribution of plants and animals, and formation of soil. As a result, it determines what crops can and can’t be grown, what animals can and can’t live in an area, what clothes must be worn to cope with the weather, and how houses are built. Winter freezing and thawing may change travel patterns, as waterways freeze or flood and passes close. Weather also affects available sports, like skiing. Are all these things consistent with what you say the climate is like in particular areas?

    • Where are major mountain ranges? Rivers and lakes? Deserts? Forests, tropical and otherwise? Grasslands and plains?
    • If there are imaginary animals (dragons, unicorns, etc.), how do they fit into the ecology? What do they eat? How much habitat do they require? Can they live anywhere, or do they prefer or need specific kinds of climate or terrain? Are they intelligent and/or capable of working spells, talking, etc.?
  3. Natural Resources

    • Which areas are the most fertile farmland? Where are mineral resources located?
    • Which animals, birds, fish, and other wildlife are commonly found in which areas? If there are imaginary animals such as dragons, where do they live?
    • Which natural resources, if any, have been depleted in which areas over time?
    • Which resources (e.g., coal, oil, iron ore, gold, diamonds, limestone, etc.) are particularly abundant, and in which areas? Which are scarce? Are there places where there are rich deposits that haven’t been discovered yet, or where they haven’t been fully exploited?
    • How much conflict has been or might be caused by these imbalances in resources? How much active, peaceful trade?
    • What water resources available, and for what uses (a mill wheel requires flowing water, i.e., river or stream; irrigation needs a large, dependable water source like a lake or large river; etc.)?
  4. World History

    • How far back are there records or tales of historical events? How widely known are these stories?
    • Do average people believe old tales, or do they dismiss some that have a basis in fact (e.g., Troy)?
    • How long have there been people on this world? Did they evolve, were they created by the gods, or did they migrate from somewhere else? If there are non-humans, how long have they been around and where did they come from?
    • How similar is the history and culture of an alternate earth to real history and culture? Why is it similar/different?
    • Where did civilization begin? What directions did it spread? How was its development affected by the presence of magic? The presence of non-human races, if any? The actions or direct interventions of the gods?
    • Which peoples/countries/races have traditionally fought, allied, traded, or been rivals? Where are there still hard feelings about old events?
    • Which peoples/countries/races have been in conflict in the recent past? Why? When and why was the most recent war? Who won?
    • Which peoples/etc. are considered the most civilized? Which are most technologically advanced? Which are most magically advanced? Least advanced? Why?
    • Is there a single, generally accepted calendar (including time measurements), or do different countries or peoples or races have different ones?
    • How many languages are there? Which ones are related (e.g., the Romance languages) and why? Which languages borrow words or phrases from other languages? Which is likely to be most widely spoken?
    • Is there a “trade language” that facilitates commerce between countries that don’t speak the same tongue? Is there a “universal language” spoken by educated or noble persons, as Latin was in the Middle Ages?
  5. Specific Country(s) History

    • How accessible is this area? What natural features mark the borders? Who are the neighboring countries/peoples and what are they like?
    • Why did people settle in this country in the first place — strategic location, trade route, water transport, minerals, good farming, etc.? Have things changed much since, or do they still depend on whatever brought them in the first place?
    • How do the weapons of this country compare with those of surrounding cities and countries? Have there been recent innovations that may upset the balance of power, or is everyone more or less equal?
    • Who are the rivals or enemies of this country? How close are they physically? How powerful?
    • Who are the heroes and villains of each country’s history (e.g., Washington and Lincoln in the U.S.; Henry V in England, etc.)? Why are they heroes/villains and what do this say about the country and the people who admire them?
    • How many people are there in this country? How does this compare with world population? What is considered a small town/large town/city in terms of number of people?
    • How diverse is the population of this country — how many different races (human or non-human), creeds, etc. normally live in various cities and towns in this country? In what percentages?
    • Is population shifting from rural to urban, south to north, mountains to coast, etc.? Why — invasion, plague, gold rush, etc.? What effects has this had on the places being left? The places gaining people?
    • Is magic legal here? All magic, or only some types? Do laws vary widely from country to country, or is the attitude generally similar?
    • What does this country import? Export? How important is trade to the economy? How is currency exchange handled, and by whom? What is the system of coinage, and who mints it?
    • Which peoples/countries/races have been in conflict in the recent past? Why? When and why was the most recent war? Who won?
    • Which peoples/countries/races fought, allied, traded, or were traditional rivals? Where are there still hard feelings about old events?
    • How much of the country is farmland? Forest? Desert? Mountains? Plains?
    • What are the primary crops (e.g., potatoes, cotton, tobacco, coffee, rice, peanuts, wheat, sugarcane, etc.)? Are any grown mainly for export? What crops can not be grown here because of the soil, climate, or for other reasons?
    • What water resources available, and for what uses (a mill wheel requires flowing water, i.e., river or stream; irrigation needs a large, dependable water source like a lake or large river: etc.)?
    • What wild animals, actual or imaginary, live in this area? Are any of them potentially useful — e.g., for fur, whale oil, hides, magical ingredients, hat feathers?
    • Which animals, actual or imaginary, are commonly domesticated in this area? Which aren’t here, but are elsewhere? (Example: water buffalo in India vs. oxen in Europe vs. camels in desert areas.)
    • How do most of the citizens make their living — farming, fishing, trade, manufacturing? Do non-humans tend to take up different trades from humans? Are they legally limited to certain trades?

Copyright © 1996 Patricia C. Wrede. Reproduction and distribution specifically prohibited. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.