Mountains, Deserts, and Swamps, Oh My: Secondary World Geography

I’ve been thinking about secondary world geography a bit lately for a couple projects. There are tons of worldbuilding and writing books out there that discuss the issues of geography, many with specific reference to geology. At least a couple I have on hand include detailed chapters on geology.

On myriad blogs and other sources, geography and geology are also oft repeated subjects. One of the big examples that gets cited for “bad” worldbuilding in this sense is Tolkien’s Middle Earth, particularly Mordor. The argument goes that: “Mountains don’t form in a U-shape because plate tectonics don’t work that way, therefore Mordor is an example of bad worldbuilding, since Tolkien didn’t pay attention to geology.”

Here’s my response:

If the worldbuild is a variant Earth, then yes, Earth’s geology needs to be followed. Or a damn good explanation for working around our knowledge of geology needs to be in place.

A secondary world? Not so much.

Consider this: our knowledge of geology is based on, basically, one planet. Yes, we’ve conducted relatively minor studies of Mars and have photos and such of a few moons and planets in our solar system. This is still a very limited sample, given the sheer size of the galaxy, much less that of the universe. There really isn’t, at our current level of study, a way to be certain that geology works the same everywhere, until we get out there and see other star systems. We do know that the universe has infinite variation–we’ve discovered extra-solar planets that are theoretically made entirely of diamond, massive Earth-like worlds, planets (gas giants) with their own bio-zones, and both planets and moons with frozen seas of methane.

And that just assumes the secondary world is located in our own universe.

In short, secondary world geology doesn’t need to behave like Earth geology. For instance, look at Discworld, a successful and well built world that follows, not Earth geology, but the author’s “I want to add this feature and it needs to be X distance from Place A for the story.” (Heck, it’s a friggin’ flat world on the backs of four elephants on the back of a flippin’ turtle swimming through space.) A lot of early fantasy and science fiction took the same approach. Somewhere along the way we may have lost some of that sense of wonder and invention, perhaps.

Back to Mordor.

Even assuming an Earth geology (admittedly, Middle Earth is supposed to be a “pre-historic” Earth), Mordor exists in a fantasy world. This means magic. In Middle Earth’s case, potentially very powerful magic.

So. Sauron and Morgoth/Melkor were extremely powerful beings. Tolkien describes the Istari (Wizards) as angels. Sauron and Morgoth are said to be vastly more powerful than Saruman and Gandalf, even moreso than the entire collective of Istari (all five) plus two elf royals (Elrond, Galadriel) with a combined three Rings of Power (all three elf rings, Gandalf, for those who forgot, carries the third). That combined might only served to drive Sauron away when he was in a very weakened state. They, Sauron and Morgoth, each have potentially god-like power at their respective peaks. Therefore, who says that Sauron (before creating or losing the One Ring) or Morgoth couldn’t reshape the land to suit their needs, thereby creating a U-shaped mountain range?

Urban Centers Fiction & Reality

Writers of urban fantasy, near future sci-fi, even mystery, historical, and other genres have an important setting decision to make: real or fictitious city? The answer to the question offers a variety of opportunities and potential problems.

There are several benefits to choosing a real city as a setting. First and foremost, the city is already named. Real cities also have maps, politics, locations, notable people, and histories already “pre-made” as it were. This can be great for writers as it saves a lot of the creation process. All the writer has to do is personalize the city to fit his/her worldbuild and genre (e.g. add magical sites, intervening history, tech modifications, fictitious agency offices). Additionally, real cities, particularly famous ones, have reputations, a feel, and form preconceptions in the readers’ minds: compare expectations of New York or Las Vegas to London or Beijing. William Gibson made especially good use of the city’s feel in his foundational cyberpunk works, employing Tokyo his primary inspiration. Ilona Andrews’ magic post-apocalypse Atlanta works well in this respect as well.


On the other hand, using a real city requires a significant amount of research and even a number of visits or long term visits to the city. Invariably, if a real city is chosen, there is going to be at least one reader who lives in or is very familiar with the city. Said readers will jump on errors in description of places, the city’s feel, and the like. Michael Scott and his Nicholas Flamel series is a great example of the level of research necessary, as he explicitly states that he repeatedly visited San Francisco, Paris, and London before writing his series (the vast majority of which occurs in the three cities). Using a real city can also open the writer up to a certain amount of ridicule, depending on the plot and genre. Case in point, the number of jokes circulating the web about the most recent run of Dr. Who and its use of London–ex. a Time Lord can travel anywhere in space and time, but he seems to spend an awful lot of time in early-21st century London.

Fictitious cities have the benefit of being tailored to the writer’s wishes and needs. The writer is not limited to a real place’s history, politics, or geographic limitations. Nor are there reader preconceptions. Fictitious cities also allow for secret societies and hidden communities, such as Eureka’s town Eureka and Sanctuary’s Old City. In both cases, the writers are given free rein to do whatever they wish with the city, in terms of initial design.

On the other hand, fictitious cities take a lot more work in some ways. They have to be designed from the ground up, including mapping, history, businesses and other sites, politics, famous people, cultural feel, everything. Even woth fictional cities, many writers take short cut by borrowing from real cities for some elements, or being inspired by real cities. This even comes into play with maps, ex. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, where he mapped his city by taking NYC and giving it a quarter turn. Another effect of fictional cities can be ambiguity of location, which can be a pro or con depending in one’s perspective. Case in point, Charles de Lint’s Newford, which American readers generally think is Canadian while Canadian readers tend to think Newford is an American city. De Lint says it was inspired by both, but tends to use U.S. laws.

How Many Sheep Can Graze on One Hill Anyway?

There are a lot of worldbuilding sites out there for writers and gamers alike.  Many seem to favor incredible detail, or claim that massive detail is required in worldbuilding.  They seem to want to turn writers into: geologists, biologists, climatologists, linguists, anthropologists, oceanographers, theologians, etc.

I look at a lot of these sites and wonder why.  On one hand, I suppose there’s the fact that we see the highly detailed fictional worlds of our predecessors and wish to emulate them.  However, I think most don’t realize that the majority of these worlds grew over time, as needed, often haphazardly, and/or really cover a small geographic area.  We look, for instance, at Middle Earth (which grew over the course of decades, while Tolkien was writing his novels and after they were “done”), Narnia (which seems to have grown as Lewis needed it), or Steven Brust’s Dragaera (which is continually growing and being fleshed out).  Then there are the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, or Krynn (Dragonlance) and Toril (Forgotten Realms), where teams of people have been paid to develop the worlds over the course of decades (versus one person, who is not getting paid to build the world).

This may, I guess, be one reason there seem to be so few standalone novels in the fantasy genre today (aside from the sales side of things), why virtually every new writer out there has a first book subtitled “Book One of the <insert name> Cycle/Trilogy/Whatever”.  After spending a decade building the world before writing novel #1, I can see wanting to get your time’s worth.

In the old days, say before the mid-90s, this devotion to detail seems to be the exception rather than the rule.  There seems to have been less worldbuilding time.  Writers didn’t seem to care about the price of sheep in Upper Fantastan’s effect on the grain prices in Midland or the fact that the mountains on Earth don’t form horseshoes (Tolkien).   Along with that, a writer commonly produced dozens of novels, hundreds of stories in hundreds of worlds (see Fritz Leiber for an extreme example—he had fantasy, SF, horror, and mystery novels, all in different settings, except for his three Lanhkmar anthologies).

Certainly authors like Larry Niven, Tanith Lee, Anne McCaffery, and Mercedes Lackey were, and in some cases still are, creating significantly detailed settings.  But, they have done so over the course of decades of novels in the same setting that are still largely standalone, with different characters, exploring different parts or time periods of the world.  Robert A. Heinlein and Harry Turtledove are great examples of the Leiber-like spread of work.  I can’t recall any two Heinlein books set in the same “world” and Turtledove only produced a few series with a wide range of standalones set in a variety of worlds between them.

Perhaps the devotion to detail practiced by so many writers and editors or publishers reflects a lost sense of fantasy in favor of a view that a somewhat slavish realism must be everywhere.

I’ll close out with a Terry Pratchett quote (despite this quote, I do like maps):

“You can’t map a sense of humor.  Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons?” (The Colour of Magic; 19 years and 28 Discworld novels later, Sir Terry decided that maps could be useful)