If you want to build a rich world for readers to immerse themselves in, geography is your friend. By selecting specific geographical features, you can authentically shape everything from land and architecture, to transport and trade, farming to food and fashion and your characters potential jobs. This world building geography blog lists possible geographical features, ideas and prompts to help you use geography to shape the physical culture of your world, including its impact on religious beliefs.
Choosing Somewhere Different
What’s the most inspiring geographical location you can think of? Where don’t we expect to find cities, towns, homes etc?
One of my favourite locations in Final Fantasy was a ruined, underground city. Its floors split or cut off and gave way to gaping chasms. Occasional daylight beamed down from the highest points of cavern ceilings, onto fallen beams and broken off pillars. In choosing a setting, consider, what’s the most evocative place, with the strongest cultural and or technological ties to your human or other races?
If your civilisation is industrial, is it built on ledges carved from the mountainside, using water wheels or hydro to operate steampunk technology?
Or is it built on the shores of the ocean, harnessing the tide to power the city?
How does Geography Impact on architecture?
If you have jungles full of bamboo, are houses made of bamboo? Or bamboo and fabric screens?
If, like in ancient Egypt, your people have access to limestone, is there a tradition of monumental public building created from stone blocks?
And if there are lots of forests, are timber cottages with thatched roofs common?
Are roofs slanted for rain to run off with gutters and drainage pipes? Or is your city near a desert, built of mud-brick, with flat roofs and courtyards with rooms built around and shading them? Alternately, does the roof slope to the ground so the weight of snow doesn’t cause the roof to cave in, like in northern Europe?
If the climate is extremely hot, do people dig their homes into hills and under hillsides, like in Coober Pedy, Australia (yes Hobbiton too, but Coober Pedy is an actual, inhabited town). Or have extreme heat, endless war, persecution or other calamity driven your people to dig a city inside a mountainside, or connect natural caverns to inhabit them?
Geography and Defensive Architecture
Sure, lots of castles throughout history have been built on hills, and you could do that. But you could also make the geography more interesting, and the site more defensible. Put your castle on the edge of a cliff, or halfway up a mountainside. Or make it a mountain on a peninsula or an island, surrounded by water and ‘unscalable’ cliffs. Place it in a desert, underground, watered by springs and with limited passageways to enter, each defended by its own array of booby traps. Build it in a jungle with a mountain behind, two rivers becoming waterfalls flowing either side and a cliff on the forth.
Consider every kind of geographical feature which could be an obstacle -hills, mountains, cliffs, rivers, waterfalls, seas, a dense wild jungle with no roads inhabited by man eating creatures -be creative!
Freshwater, Sewage & Hygiene
A lot of cities in the real world, especially premodern ones, are located on rivers, lakes and places where there’s usually fresh water. Medieval Europe may have had wells, buckets and limited hygiene, but you can have more advanced, yet also ancient plumbing and irrigation. Think ancient Egyptian style canals to redirect water from a river to water crops. Consider using hills and fired clay pipes (or the more perilous Roman lead pipes) to plumb fresh water for bathing into homes. Have clay pipes direct waste water into sewers of fired clay, mortared Roman (or Indus Valley) brick or stone sewers under ground.
If your city (or farms) are isolated, do you have Egyptian style canals redirecting water to the fields? What about Roman style aqueducts transporting water to towns? Or are the farms based on mountain sides, on terraces through which water is piped, like East Asia?
Do you have floating cities or townships like in Vietnamese Ha Long Bay? If so, do you have waste boats or waste disposal, or is the waterway bath, washing machine, dishwasher and toilet?
Does your city’s water source have to be boiled before its safe to drink or hygienic to wash in? Are your people aware of this or are water based diseases like typhoid rampant?
Do your people have a culture of bathing -immersed, standing and pouring water? Or do they have steam or sweat tents and laver sweat and dirt off their bodies? Alternately, are they unwashed barbarians (like the Georgians) with no understanding of how poor hygiene can foster all sorts of disease?
What is the farming system and how does geography influence it? Is it a dry land fed by canals, mountain terraces fed by pipes from mountain lakes, or European fields watered by the rain? If the former or latter, do people harvest one field and leave another fallow (making them prone to famine if crops fail, like in medieval Europe)? Do they have a three plot system (more likely to produce enough, or surplus grain like early modern Europe)? Or do they slash and burn the jungle, plant and harvest a certain number of crops, then let the jungle regenerate and slash and burn elsewhere (like in Indonesia)?
Waterways, Mountains, Deserts and Travel
Do you have riverine, island or coastal based cultures? If you’re writing a civilisation set between the Neolithic and the invention of steam power, shipping down rivers and along coastlines will be the fastest (non-magical) mode of transportation. Without a Roman style empire build roads everywhere, the ‘roads’ may take days to travel just a few kilometres by horse and cart -especially through muddy, rain-prone, hilly and mountainous areas. Meanwhile, if you have people traversing deserts, they either need access to semi- regular oasis to restock their freshwater, to sail around the desert or to fly. (Yes, you could have an army march across a desert, but Alexander the Great lost a lot of men to dehydration crossing the Gedrosian Desert that way 😉.)
Bearing all this in mind, do you need characters to move swiftly across terrain? How might poorly maintained roads (or lack of paved or maintained dirt roads), deserts, mountains, wild forest or other geography slow people down? Can magic, sea or air travel speed things up, how much, for how many characters?
If, like the Romans, your people have discovered thermal heat, do your buildings feature tunnels and vents guiding hot air up through floors? Or if your civilisation colonises places where thermal heat is lacking, do they dig fire-pits deep bellow buildings, and channel the hot air up through pipes to floors?
How are Geography and Afterlife Beliefs Intertwined?
Inhabiting an island but lacking ocean-going ships, Celts in Ireland envisioned the afterlife as the distant, unreachable for the living Isle of the Blessed. In ancient Egypt, a short journey east or west of the Nile brought you swiftly from lush greenery and palm trees to desolate desert sands. So one of multiple Egyptian afterlife beliefs viewed the Land of the Dead as the desert beyond the western banks of the Nile, the direction of the setting sun (whom Egyptians worshipped as a god Ra/ Re).
If you have a civilisation based in the mountains, do they worship the gods of the skies? Do they have notions of a sky burial -like in Tibet- where the body is place on a mound of stones and left to the birds? Or like, the vikings, for whom boats were a treasure producing treasure through raids, do your people bury their dead in boat burials, so they can row across your River Styx in the underworld? Alternately, will they join Re in his daily voyages across the sky, and nightly voyages through the underworld?
Magic Meets Geography?
Is magic present in the air itself, in physical objects or cursed lands in your world? Are there bubbling pools of power atop mountains, or buried in the deepest caverns? Is magic guarded by ancient beings, controlled (and exploited) be a select few? Or forgotten or not properly understood until your story begins?
Is there a forest oozing and poisoned with dark magic? Are their magical curses which effect forests, crops, or wild or domestic animals? Are there areas of mutant plants and monsters effected by magical wars, curses or powerful magic gone badly wrong?
Do you have locations only accessible by magic? Have you gravity defying islands floating in the sky? Islands only reachable by crossing cursed seas or streams (like Voldemort’s horcrux in the seaside cave)? How about cities inside mountains (or atop them) surrounded by geographical barriers -solid rock, cliffs few dare to climb- reachable only by magical transportation?
Are there spaces beyond settlements of cultural or religious significance to your people? A cave where a prophet had a revelation? Mountains believed to be inhabited by gods, angels or elves (as in Iceland). A garden of Eden? The place where Hercules performed one of his labours?
Are there locations associated with cultural or religious myths which make them sacred? For example, do local creation myths narrate the story of how goings on between the Ancestor Spirit Beings (from whom the local people are descended) shaped local geography, and the animals which inhabit it (as with Indigenous Australian myths)?
Do sacred sites have shrines? Or religious buildings -even if they’re in the wilderness?
Are sacred spaces open to the public, to only those in power or only to priests/ priestesses? Or, like among Indigenous Australians, are some sites linked to rites of passage -to becoming a man, woman or nonbinary adult- and sacred to and only to be entered by a particular gender?
Alternately, are your scared spaces known only to local people, without fences or gates? Do they have earthworks, like neolithic barrows in Britain and Europe? Or are they marked only by flowers, or trinkets -offerings to the spirit of the spring, the forest or the mountain?
Gods/ Powerful Magical Beings
Are gods/ spirits/ magical beings associated with geographical or natural elements? Do spirits flow in the streams or Ride the winds (like in the Stormlight Archives), or dwell in the trees? Are local volcanoes seen as gods? (Are they actually?) Is that forest wild because Mother Nature lives at its heart? Do the skies above those plains attract hyenas and birds of prey because the god of death dwells nearby, ensuring food for them all? Occasionally, so people glimpse objects in the clouds because a ‘divine’ being actually lives in them, receiving the occasional visitor?
How has Geography Shaped Religious/ Philosophical Beliefs?
This may sound like an odd question, so let me use ancient Egypt to explain. Along the Nile once lay the geographically largest kingdom in the world. Every Spring, snow melt brought fertile soil down from the mountains via the Nile, depositing it in Egypt and watering and enriching crops. One king ruled the length of the Nile, but beyond its banks and canals the kings built and maintained lay a vast desert. A desolate space of heat and death. A space roamed by nomadic, ‘savage’ tribes in the west.
In the north east there were other cities, ever at war with one another, falling to empire after empire for several thousand years. To the ancient Egyptians, Egypt was a land of order, blessed by the Gods. And foreigners were agents of chaos, their god being the god of chaos. These geographical realities seem to have resulted in the belief that it was the sacred duty of every Egyptian king to extend the borders of the kingdom, thus extending the sacred world order of Maat. This was a worldview, a belief about kingship and a conscious and deliberate foreign policy of expansion, all influenced by geography and its impact on human life.
So think of your own fantasy peoples. Where do they live? How easy or hard is life for them? Do they, like the Chinese emperors, believe their rulers to be sons of heaven, the sacred Middle Kingdom blessed by the Gods because of its geographical blessings? Conversely, do they live near a volcano and believe its periodic eruptions are punishment for their sins?
Do you have majestic ruins where a combination of geography and climate change has forced people to abandon their civilisations and move on? Ancient cities left adrift -like some in Egypt- in the desert, as the waterways move, the city dries out and is buried in sand? Does an expanding polar icecap in an ice age bury your northern mountains in snow, and force people out of the mountains, seeking new lands to farm? Will the snow one day melt -during global warming- to expose their civilisation to your characters? Then, will oceans rise and flood coastal cities, and be visited by foot during low tide?
Or are oceans retreating, revealing strongholds of magic or lands of myth -does Atlantis rise again from the sea? Alternately, does an empire like Rome collapse, government becomes localised and impoverished, and great buildings are abandoned in favour of small towns? Does stone from grand monuments of the past become a quarry (like in Egypt)? Or does the empire collapse and do people move on, leaving brick temples buried by the jungle -like the Mi Son temples in Vietnam?
Geography and War
The opposite of the kingdom blessed with fertility by the gods would be kingdoms experiencing severe famine. A famine in the Russian steppe once led to a displacement of starving people. They pushed south, driving people south of them further south. Eventually, the Mediterranean Sea was overrun by displaced pirates raiding for a living (the Bible’s Philistines among them). Does a poor harvest due to people farming unforgiving landscapes, drought, or subsistence farming push populations to war because they cannot sustain themselves?
Or does the advantage of geography and greed of rulers or entire people’s fuel war? For example, in ancient times, Cyprus’ location in the Mediterranean Sea made it an excellent base for controlling sea trade. So Cyprus has experienced a great many invasions throughout its history.
Other geographic reasons for war include geographical disadvantage. If the majority of trade and the fastest transportation in your world is sea trade, a landlocked kingdom with the power to seize its own patch of coastline is going to want that coastline. Alternately, if you’re Kuwait -the West is going to want your oil. Whereas, if you’re Australia or New Zealand -England has run out of farmland and wants your land.
If you want to have realistic reasons for war (beyond the exhausted trope of ‘power corrupted whoever and made them an evil megalomaniac’), consider who has geographical resources, or controls strategically important land -mines, trade routes, farmland, forests etc. If physical objects, materials or sites are associated with magical power in your book, these may also be factors in war.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it!
For the curious, yes, I studied archaeology at university, and that’s the very much the lens I view world building through. Its also the source of many historic references I’ve made in this article. I’ve also travelled widely. I heard that up until around fifty years ago belief in elves occupying the higher parts of the mountains was still popular in Iceland while I was in Iceland. I’ve also seen many locations I’ve referred to in this article with my own eyes. If you haven’t had the chance to travel much, I’d Google images of or search Pinterest for pictures of different geography for world building inspiration.
10 Houses Built in Weird Locations, 3 min youtube video by Earth Titan.
10 More Houses Built in Weird Locations, same as above.
12 of the World’s Most Beautiful Deserts -illustrated blog by Trips to Discover.
Beautiful Forests Around the World, illustrated blog by The Active Times.
Most Beautiful Rivers of the World, illustrated blog by The Better Vacation.