World Building 101 – Choose Your Planet Wisely


So, you’ve decided to build a world. The first thing you need is well, yes the world itself. The Planet. Now this may seem extreme to some writers, but for certain stories establishing the proper planet (or solar system or even galaxy) may be of vital importance to your story. The following are some examples where planets become key elements to the plot of a book:

Dune, by Frank Herbert. Both the existence of Arrakis (aka Dune, the Desert Planet) and vastness of the galaxy in which the Dune novel is set are crucial elements to the story. Sandworms plunging through the shifting sands of the deep desert, still suits that allow desert people to survive in the brutally harsh environment of their homeland, Fremen tribes harvesting the water from the bodies of their dead, Fremen soldiers honed to lethal effectiveness by their constant struggle to survive: all of these key story elements are tied to the geography of the planet Dune. And the fact that Spice, which is vital for “folding space” to allow rapid interplanetary travel, is only found on this one planet puts Dune smack dab in the middle of the power struggle going on between all the major factions in the book.

The Dragonriders of Pern novels, by Anne McCaffrey. In these novels, the solar system with its elliptically orbiting Red Star that rains the vile, devastating Thread upon the planet every 250 years’ is a vital component of McCaffrey’s world building. Without that Red Star and the Thread that falls from it, the original book, Dragonflight, could not possibly be the same story. Most of the rest of the planet Pern is rather earth-like, but cave riddled mountains (ie., Weyrs) are home to the dragons and their riders, and the existence of a newly discovered southern continent becomes an important feature in Dragonquest and The White Dragon.

Larry Niven’s Ringworld and The Integral Tree as well as many of his other works revolve entirely around the unique physical construction of the “planet” (or in both these cases, non-planet) on which his characters live.
If you are going to set your story in some unique, unearthly setting, be sure to do your homework. For instance, the number and type of suns around which a planet orbits will have substantial impact on the terrain, the climate, and the type(s) of life that can exist there. And make that setting key to your plot or theme in some way. (Otherwise, you’ve created a cool planet, but squandered its true value as an integral element of your book.)

For most people writing fantasy rather than science-fiction, however, the specific geologic composition of the planet or the makeup of the solar system will be of minor (if any) importance. An “earth” or “œearth-like” planet is generally sufficient for most needs.

The basic components all world builders should consider include (again, keep in mind the plots and themes of your book with an eye for making these elements mirror, conflict with, or support those plots and themes):

Climate – Weather, temperature, seasons. Consider the impact of climate on the cultures that live in them. How might their lives, their customs, their racial features, be different? For example, if you are writing a story in which fire and ice are key symbolic themes, you might set two cultures in opposing climates and let them clash.

Geography – What are the land masses? The major geologic features? The rivers, lakes and oceans? Are they all natural? Any man-made? Magic made? (If man- or magic-made, is there a story there? Something you can use in your own plot?) Keep in mind, geography has considerable impact on warfare and defense. Also, when deciding these features, it’s very helpful to draw maps. Consider geography for travel distances and methods, how different terrain affects travel methods, population, plant and animal life, etc.
Resources – What resources are available? Are they rare or precious? Are they unique to a particular area in your world? Throughout the history of our own world, the availability and scarcity of certain high-value resources has proved central to conflict, population, nomadic tribes, etc.

Countries, cities, and political boundaries – Maps are extremely useful here as well. I highly recommend that if you are world building your own continents and cultures, you draw a map (scaled so you can calculate distances) and make use of it. Consider natural geographic boundaries when drawing your countries (rivers, mountain ranges, etc.) and consider reasons why cities would be located in particular spots. Invariably, cities are located near fresh water (rivers, lakes), near locations of important resources (mining towns, logging hamlets, farming villages, etc.) or in key strategic defense positions (cities built to supply frontiers, house troops, etc.).
Plant and animal life. Climate, terrain, and resources most definitely impact the variety and prevalance of plant and animal life. If you put massive predators in an environment, you must be sure the environment can support enough other animals to feed them (which also means plants and water). And please, vary the lifeforms. Insects, birds, fish, fowl, mammal, reptile, amphibian: keep them all in mind. Even if they aren’t key to your plot, having them around helps add richness to your world (and if you can tie one or two to the story in some memorable way, do it!).
Does this all sound too complicated? It doesn’t have to be. If these features are not important to your story, you don’t have to go into great detail to flesh them out, but the broader and more varied your world, your terrain, your cultures, the more concrete you world will seem to readers. The one thing I do strongly recommend is drawing maps. They serve many useful purposes, and you’ll find they become a tool that you refer to constantly.

A Word About Maps

Maps are invaluable tools for world builders. And not just for drawing continents and oceans. You can (and probably should) draw maps of cities that play a major role in your books (particularly if you use street names or need to navigate your characters around the cities). You might draw maps of a castle or palace to remember where the rooms are located, whether the stairs are on the right or left, etc.

I use pencil when drawing my maps – because I find that I sometimes change features on the map to suit my story. If you aren’t certain how to draw a map, I recommend you consult online atlas resources to get a few ideas.

The following is the original map (which I inked for the purpose of scanning it in) of the world I use in the novels of the Fading Lands:

Notice the scale marker at the bottom right. I use this constantly. A piece of string (I use dental floss!) and a ruler allow me to calculate distances between points both “as the tairen flies” and as riders or characters on foot would travel. I place the end of the string at the starting point, lay it out on the map along the travel route, mark the end point on the string, then straighten the string and measure it on the ruler and convert to mile-measurements according to the scale of the map. (Note: it’s very helpful to log these distances and travel times in a file so you can keep it for future reference and not have to keep recalculating.)
Now that we have a planet, we need to populate it. The next article will cover some of the basics of creating races and cultures.

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