Build Worlds Ripe With Stories

I often hear beginning writers lament that they’ve built their world, but don’t seem to have any good ideas for stories. Excuse me? You mean you’ve built an entire world but no stories have suggested themselves to you? You say this word, “worldbuilding,” but I do not think it means what you think it means. A properly built world will scream stories at you from the top of its lungs. If yours isn’t doing that, then I suspect you’ve missed an important component in your world. Either that, or perhaps we have differing understandings of what a story actually is. But rather than argue the point, why don’t I show you what I mean. And for this exercise, we’re going find everything we need in the geography.

World Map of Ameria

World Map of Ameria

Consider the world of Ameria. Nice place, huh? It’s a pretty typical world. There are seas and oceans, ice caps, deserts… The usual. Here’s a map of the planet. As you might expect, the blue stuff is water, while the other colors are various altitudes of land. North is at the top, and the equator runs across the middle. It’s yer basic map. In addition to this physical geography map, I’ve also got an average temperature map, a precipitation map, and a climatic zone map. (For now, let’s not worry about where I got the maps. I’ll get into that later.)

On this map, I’ve indicated 6 city-states. They’re a bit hard to see on the thumbnail, but if you click over to the full sized image, you’ll see 6 red squares on the map. Clockwise from the upper left, they are the principalities of Amar, Banesh, Cefareen, Durun, Elmahz, and Fahziq. I do not yet know anything about these places, except where I’ve chosen to place them on the planet. But rather than starting to invent their religions, industries and so on, I’m going to examine the maps I have and see what they can tell me. Let’s take an example to start with. I’m going to choose Banesh.

Banesh Region

Banesh Region

Here’s a detail map of the territories surrounding Banesh. What can we say about this place? Well, the first thing that strikes me is that they are situated in a well defended location. They’re guarded from land assault by mountains to the north and east, while a naval assault, would have to come through two very narrow channels to reach them. (See the black triangles.) If I were the Sultan of Banesh, I would be putting a fair bit of my military budget into securing and holding those two pincers of land. (Marked as white triangles on the map.) And you just know that throughout history, those pinch-points, especially the outer ones, have probably changed hands a thousand times, as one sea-going people or another have tried to secure a maritime raiding route into the fat and opulent Baneshian capital city.

Climate Zones of Banesh

Climate Zones of Banesh

Another thing we can see about Banesh, is that there appear to be rich temperate lands immediately surrounding the city, and spreading off to the north and east. The land is a bit hilly looking in places, but it isn’t very harsh looking. With a bit of logging they can clear vast tracts of crop land, and they can use that lumber to build a fishing fleet, and to provide amble fuel for industry. So we can surmise that after some initial period of settlement and expansion, Banesh probably has a vibrant economy in both grains and fish, perhaps fruits as well, given the warm climate, and I would guess they have a thriving fishing fleet. Nor would it surprise me if they fish the second, smaller sea as well, so there is probably also a navy of some kind to protect the fishermen from raiders, and to help with the defence and provisioning of those Inner and Outer Pinches.

The mountains to the east of Banesh, in addition to providing protection from overland invasion, are also likely to be a rich and handy source of minerals, ores, precious metals, and maybe even gem stones. So in addition to their abundance of food and lumber, Banesh is probably also steaming right along on the old technological development curve, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a rich arts culture, to beautify their existence with some of those precious metals and jewels they have in such abundance.

Climate of Cefareen

Climate of Cefareen

All in all, Banesh seems to be a pretty fabulous place to live. To the world outside their sheltered little paradise, tales of opulent Banesh are probably legendary – a sort of Shangri-la. And a very attractive target to less settled peoples. If you look at the world map, you’ll see that there’s another kingdom north east of Banesh, on the other side of the mountain ridges. That’s Cefareen. By their climate map, you can see that they don’t have as cozy a setup as the Baneshi do. They’re living in an alpine scrub forest. They’re probably primarily a maritime economy, and they have to travel south to the lowlands to reach more attractive crop land, so they’ve probably never really developed much of an agriculture. But their neighbors to the south-west certainly have. And even better, the route from Cefareen to Banesh is relatively open for travel – especially to people accustomed to living and working in the highlands. So in all likelihood, there has been a long history of Cefareeni raiders coming down into Banesh as soon as the winter snows have cleared the high passes.

I won’t bore you with more maps and such, but there is another principality – the Free States of Yabo – that is not on the maps yet. It is a harsh string of islands just south of the maps of Banesh, where sea raiders gather in a loose affiliation to wait out the storm season, and with little more than rock, sand and scrub vegetation, along with torrential rains and intense heat, they will be highly motivated to seek crop foods and raw materials – not to mention jewels and metals – wherever they can find them. And what wealthy carrot is dangled just north of them? Why Banesh, of course.

An important observation to make is that we did not start by defining religions, trade guilds, languages, etc. If we had done so, without first looking at the geography, our cultures would have been phantoms, built on nothing of substance but the whimsy of the author. Your people worship an 11-headed elephant? But they live on an island of crabs and rocks? How does that work? They have an elaborate steam-punk technology, but they do not live near any ore-bearing geological formations? Where does their brass and iron come from? I’m sure others have written about this approach to world building before, but for me, the inspiration came from Jared Diamond’s brilliant book, Guns, Germs and Steel. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. That one book will tell you everything you need to know about world building. And it’s all been play-tested in the best adventurers of history, because he isn’t actually talking about world building – he’s talking about how the cultures of Earth came to be the way they are today.

So as you can see, we have only looked at 3 locations on these maps so far, but already we’re getting a wealth of detail concerning the features, wants, and treasures of several different societies in our world. It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that there are political and economic forces at work here to drive stories of conquest, stories of exploration, heroic quests, cowardly betrayals. It’s all here. Just as character conflicts are driven by an understanding of what each character has, what he wants, or what she needs, and how those conflict with other characters around them in dramatic fashion; the same principles can be applied to nation-states, where the inventory of their wealth and abilities are dictated largely by the maps of the world around them, and whatever resources they lack, they must then look to other societies to provide. The behaviors of cultures are no different than the behaviors of individual characters, and when you have unfulfilled needs, you have the basis for story.

Now, remember that everything we’ve said so far has been educated guesswork, based solely on the information provided by our maps. So where do you get such maps? Well, you could just pick up an atlas and zoom in to some unrecognizable region on Earth to repurpose to your own authorial ends, or you could get a copy of Fractal Terrain 3. It’s an excellent tool that will create random geographies for you, and then compute rainfall, termperature, climate zones, etc. from those geographical foundations. With FT3, you could create a hundred worlds in a day – plenty of geography to fuel an entire career of storytelling. It runs natively on Windows, and I run it just fine on Linux using WINE. If you want to play with it for a while, you can even download a free trial for two weeks to give it spin.

So, if you’ve got yourself a world, and you still don’t think you have any stories, have you really actually built a world? I do not think so.

Forget boosting your signal - create friendship feedback loops
The Best Time for Writing

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.