Podcast Episode 14.2 – How to Create Sovereign Powers

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Jul 242018
 

Episode 14.2: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create sovereign powers by understanding government types like federations, unitary states, kingdoms, dictatorships, authoritarian states, oligarchies, republics, and more, including how they rise and fall.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Why world builders should care about government types and how to use them
  • Why each type rises, falls, and what life is like for people in its territory
  • What authoritative states like a dictatorship are
  • The difference between a federation, confederation, unitary state, and more
  • The difference between constitutional and absolute monarchies
  • What an empire is
Coda

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Episode 14.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part two. Today’s topic continues out talk about how to create sovereign powers by understanding government types like federations, unitary states, kingdoms, dictatorships, authoritarian states, oligarchies, republics, and more, including how they rise and fall. This material and more is discussed in chapter 5 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Government Types

Most of us probably think that a subject like government types is going to be kind of dry, and maybe a little bit boring, but I have found that it’s actually one of the more interesting subjects when it comes to building a world, and even creating a setting for our stories where it can impact the story that we are telling. One reason we might think it’s not interesting is that we just don’t know some of these things. And so, one government type is kind of the same as another to us, unless we have looked into this or we’ve recently taken something like a high school or college course on the subject.

You could do a lot of research on this, but one of the things that I’ve done with this entire series is done that research for you. Now, I won’t cover absolutely everything because there are literally entire books written about government types. And, in fact, they’re probably entire books written about one specific government type, such as a monarchy. But what I have done is collected all of what I feel are the relevant, high-level details about what we need to know as world builders. And that’s part of what we’re going to discuss today.

If you really do want extreme detail because you’re going to write a story kind of like Game of Thrones, where the details of how government works actually matter to your story, there are many resources out there that you can find. But, for most of us, we are really just trying to decide what the government is like because of how this affects life for our characters. And we really only want a high level of detail on this. So, that’s what I’m going to cover here. It’s not because I’m lazy or I don’t find it interesting. It’s partly because I’m trying to teach and reach the widest audience here. One thing I’m hoping that may happen for you is that you become more interested in this and then you go ahead and do the deeper dive into it on your own.

In quite a few episodes, I’ve talked about using analogues, which is basically when we invent something that is based on something here on Earth. Government types is a good way of doing this and we can even use things that have happened with governments here on Earth to model something on. For example, in recent times, the government of Somalia has kind of fallen apart and been destabilized and, as a result, pirates have sought a better life through attacking ships that are sailing near. And this is something that we can use ourselves.

If that seems like it’s too recent an example and someone, a reader of yours, may realize what you’re basing it on, then you can look through Wikipedia on any country and find things that have happened in that country’s history when one government type or another fell, or rose, and different things that happened within that country. We can take one of these, modify it a little bit, and it’ll be something of our own. This is also a good way to get ideas.

On that note, with Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin did not invent much of what is there. He’s actually based it on real life events in England. Now, this is not taking anything away from him because he has admitted this and it’s basically a point of inspiration. It’s funny how if you plagiarize someone’s words, people have a big issue with that, but if you take an idea like what happened in England and then turn it into a book series, like Game of Thrones, people will actually appreciate the fact that you’ve called their attention to something that happened in history. So, it’s not only not considered bad, but it can actually be considered a plus and you can be given more esteem because you have taken something from the real world and turned it into an intelligent story. So, don’t be afraid to use an analogue.

Something else I should mention at the start here is that sometimes a country has a name that is misleading and is actually wrong. For example, we could call something the Empire of Kysh when it’s really a federation if we looked at how it’s government works. But maybe the people in that country decided it sounded better to call themselves an empire. This is not a scenario that I am making up. This is something that actually happens here on Earth. So, as world builders, we should try to use the correct name for something, but we can get away with using the wrong name. It’s just one of those situations where you should know the rule before you break it because there’s always going to be that guy who comes along and says, “Hey, that’s incorrect. You’re using the wrong name. You don’t know what you’re doing.” Well, make sure that you do know what you’re doing, and then, if you’re using the wrong name, do it on purpose, for a reason. And it can be as simple a reason as I like the way that sounds.

Something else to bear in mind — and this is something that can really enrich our world — is that no government type lasts forever. Now, if it’s relatively young, such as a couple decades, then maybe it does. But in the case of something that’s been around a thousand years, most likely the form of government has changed repeatedly. And it can go kind of in any order. We’ve got all these different options like a constitutional monarchy, an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship, a federation.

So, these things change. We’ll talk a little bit as we go along about how things can change from one type of government to another. This is something that can make our setting a little more interesting, and certainly the story that we’re telling somewhere, because any government type that came and went is going to leave some sort of impact. And it could be just something like a dictatorship creating these hulking, brutish buildings that are intimidating to people, and that architecture still being around.

The type of money that is around, or some of the laws, could come from a previous government type and still be considered just part of the way things are now, even though there’s a new government type. Obviously, some things will not stand the test of time and will be abolished, but sometimes things do remain. And this is also true when a sovereign power is conquered by another sovereign power and occupied for generations. Eventually, that conquering sovereign power may leave, but they may have had a permanent impact on the setting that they had formerly occupied.

So, with all that said, we’re going to start talking about different government types. And these can be organized in different ways, such as by the power structure or the power source. And the latter is what we are going to use here. So, the first thing we’re going to talk about is authoritative states.

Authoritative States

The first authoritative state we’re going to talk about is the autocracy. This basically means one person is in charge and they can do whatever they want without any consequence. This is the sort of leader who can kill someone in broad daylight rather than having their guys go and kidnap someone and do it in a back alley somewhere. We tend to really like this idea for fantasy and science fiction villains who are running a country because this gives our hero someone to destroy.

We don’t even need good reasons for this person being so evil because we can always fall back on that idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We may not want to say that because it’s a cliche, but the idea still holds true. We can give this person any reason to be the way they are. It could be their ego, it could be their personality in some other way, or it could be the fact that they have witnessed that sort of abuse by their predecessors. It could also be fear of someone taking over and doing the same things to them.

We’ll be discussing these more in a few minutes, but absolute monarchies, like Brunei and Saudi Arabia, and dictatorships are the main forms of autocracy. There’s almost not that much to explain to this because it’s relatively simple in that one person has so much unchecked power. The simplicity of this also makes it somewhat appealing to us if we haven’t taken the time to research more complicated forms of government. This could even be expected in the genres, and that might be one reason to avoid it in favor of something that takes a little bit more research and skill to depict.

The next authoritative state we’ll talk about is the totalitarian government. In a totalitarian government, the state has total control of everything, which is, of course, why it’s called that. This means military, communications and even the infrastructure, like your water source and your electricity. There’s only one political party and they use a lot of propaganda to remain in power and control the minds of the citizens who have no power at all. And there’s not going to be any law to protect people or get them what they want from their lives.

You have few, if any rights. If you try to speak your mind in this sort of regime, the punishment could be really brutal. We’re talking about not only death, but mass killings and long prison sentences, or even hard labor. The military is also used to enforce the will of whoever is in charge. And this can also mean that there is a cult of personality where everyone is supposed to worship this person. This is the sort of government that has a secret police, and they use the state to terrorize people into submission. If you’re looking to create the good versus evil sort of dynamic, this is the sort of government that many of us would consider evil.

If you live somewhere that has this government type, or if you are visiting, it’s going to have a major impact on your stories. So, you should have a pretty good understanding of what life might be like there in order to set your story there. And if you don’t want your story to be that impacted by the government, then you probably should not choose this. Maybe you should choose something a little bit more generic, like a monarchy.

One of the ways that this government type arises is after a war when there has been a lot of destruction, and the existing government type might have been destroyed during that war, such as many of the people leading a democracy being killed or the political party being destroyed in some way, or just upset enough that a balance of power shifts too much in one direction and one political party seizes all control. So, if you’re trying to figure out how such a regime can come to be, this is one option.

A totalitarian government can also form after anarchy when there is no government at all. What these scenarios have in common is a power vacuum that is filled by someone with a lot of political allies supporting them. This is part of why in the United States the founders created different branches of government to try to prevent anyone from getting that much power, or even one political party gaining that much power. That sort of power leads to abuse.

Now, if we like the idea of a totalitarian government, but we find it a little bit too extreme, we can go with another type which is known as an authoritarian government. Power here is not so absolute and all-encompassing. There will still be one political power, and that could either be an individual or a group. But one of the differences between an authoritarian government and a totalitarian one is that the latter has a cult of personality designed to worship the leader, who is usually very charismatic. But in an authoritarian one, the guy may actually be disliked. One of the reasons this still works is that he is not in as much control of the government.

Another difference is that in an authoritarian government, the state is mostly concerned with aspects of political life, not everything else. So, it’s possible for someone to do things like own a business and have a certain amount of rights, or at least the illusion of control. However, that control is mostly over their own lives, not the political establishment. That is being tightly controlled by those who are in power. There will be a legislature in this kind of government, but there is so much corruption and red tape that, basically, those who are in charge can stall any progress on something that they disagree with and they don’t want to see it go forward.

This is, again, part of the illusion of what life is really like there where they allow people to think that they have more freedom than they do. Someone may be able to introduce a bill that would change the way the state works, but the state would basically kill it. In a totalitarian one, you wouldn’t even be allowed to do that, and if you said anything about it, you’d be killed. Some examples of an authoritarian government include Laos, Egypt, China, Vietnam and North Korea.

The last authoritative state we’re going to talk about is the famous one: dictatorships. When one person or party rules a country, that’s a dictatorship. And that does bear some resemblance to some of what we were just talking about. But one of the things to keep in mind here is that this is almost a role in government more than a type of one. One basic reason for this is that it’s basically impossible for one person to rule everyone. They’re going to need a whole bunch of people to support them. And sometimes that leader is nothing more than a figurehead of a party or a small, elite group of people who are actually in charge. And this person is the public face of that dictatorship.

So, that begs the question, “What type of government is it really?” And the answer is it’s either authoritarian or it’s totalitarian. So, to reiterate, a dictatorship is not a type of government, it’s more of a role in an authoritarian or a totalitarian government. This means when you are creating a dictatorship and you’re calling it that in your notes, for example, you should still figure out which type of government it really has, and the answer is not “dictatorship.” When we say it’s a dictatorship, we’re really talking about the authoritarian or totalitarian governments that are run by a dictator and his inner circle, and that’s why we’re calling it a dictatorship.

On the other hand, if we want to be vague and not make a decision about what the government type really is, then a dictatorship is a good way to imply a certain level of brutality. One reason we may want to do that is so that we can make up our minds later. Like some of the other brutal regimes, a dictatorship can arise when there is a government that has collapsed and either a leader or a military group exerts control. Sometimes it is actually elected presidents or prime ministers who seize power by crushing the opposition and then creating a one-party rule. All we really need is a power vacuum and someone to seize control.

One last note on dictatorships is that a new dictator may want to prove to any surrounding sovereign powers that they are a force to be reckoned with and, as a result, they stage a series of attacks and wars. On the other hand, if the dictator has been around for 20 or 30 years and has already established himself, then he may not want to upset the balance of power in the region. And it’s not because he’s trying to be nice. It’s more because he’s protecting his own status quo. After all, what if he attacks someone and he loses, and then attacks someone else and he loses? Then he starts to lose stature and be seen weak by his own people. And, as a result, he may be taken over by somebody else.

So, part of what we’re getting at is that dictators can act differently from each other, and it’s going to depend, in part, on how long this dictatorship has lasted. Keep this in mind when creating one. Finally, some examples of this are the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and, of course, Nazi Germany.

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Democracy

Let’s talk about democracies. One of the basic ideas of democracy is that people are allowed to participate in government and they have influence over what becomes a law. Now, you may not have heard of this, but there are two versions of this. One of them is called direct democracy, and the other one is indirect democracy. The direct kind means that people vote directly on the initiative that is supposed to become law. The indirect kind means that we actually appoint people, such as senators and congressmen, and they do the voting for us. Many of you will recognize this because that’s basically the way the United States is set up. However, it is possible in the United States for people to vote directly on some initiatives. Many of those direct initiatives are voted on at the state level, or even at smaller levels like the county.

With the indirect kind, we are voting for people to do our biding, and if we don’t like the way they have done things, we end up voting them out of office. This gives rise to a scenario where a politician tells us what we want to hear in order to get elected, and then they don’t necessarily follow through and then they end up losing the next election. Because we can vote people in and out of office, this has eliminated the need for something like a revolution. We can create change in a more peaceful way. And government is supposed to reflect the will of the people, not some all-powerful leader.

Democracy as a concept, and even a reality, has existed for thousands of years, but it’s really only been in the last couple hundred years that it’s become one of the major forms of government. Before that, there tended to be a small group of people known as an oligarchy who were running a country. Now, just because we create a democracy, that does not mean that our characters who are experiencing that form of government, whether they live there or they’re traveling through it – it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to run into problems.

For example, even though equal rights are supposed to be one of the things that happens in a democracy, we all know that there is bias, whether it’s gender bias or racism. There can also be bias against immigrants, whether they are legal or illegal. If there’s a lack of freedom in someone’s home country, that could be the reason they have journeyed to the country where the story is taking place, like the United States if it was happening here on Earth. As we all know, the United States has been looked up to as a place where people can come to for greater freedom in their lives. But, of course, so many people have done so that we have a pretty strict immigration policy, as do a lot of other countries that have a better standard of living.

When we are creating sovereign powers, we probably want to create multiple types in a sense that some of them have a good standard of living, like a democracy, and some of them have a terrible one like in the dictatorship. One sovereign power will be a place to avoid and another one will be a place that is sought after. This is a truly great reason to have a better understanding of government types and use them for variety. Characters will be well known for having originated from one place or another. There’s a tendency in fantasy and sci-fi to just say that someone is from so-and-so country and not only not mention what kind of government type it has, but – and we don’t necessarily want to get into explaining that to people, but another character should have an opinion of what life must have been like for that character.

If they’re from the Kingdom of Kysh, and that’s an absolute monarchy where people have almost no rights, then someone should say, “I can see why you left,” or something to that effect. Or they might just assume that this person’s relatives are living in a harsh world, or maybe they’ve even been killed. On the other hand, if I’m the person from a dictatorship and I found out that you’re from a country like the United States, I might assume that your life has been really great, and maybe I’m jealous.

Now, when it comes to the rise and fall of democracy, usually something must change in order for this significant level of change to occur. This is true of any government type. They don’t just suddenly end for no reason. If there has been a dictator, for example, who has been abusing power, and this person is killed in some way, or just dethroned, then the people could have been fed up for so long that they go ahead and try to create a democracy. If that sounds too simple and farfetched, well, that’s exactly what happened when the United States formed and threw off England as its ruler.

But a democracy can also fall when things become too heavily sided in one direction or another. Right now in the United States, one political party has more power than the other. And if that continued to go in that direction, and the people in that party were willing to give up democracy, then we could actually move away from a democracy towards a more authoritarian government. This could not only happen from things becoming too one-sided, but it’s possible that the government wasn’t setup with enough checks on balances of power. If there weren’t enough laws to stop a leader from doing something, then maybe you could get away with it.

In extremely recent times, such as this year in the United States, in 2018, we actually have a president and a political party who don’t seem to care as much about threatening this balance of power. And people have even talked about supreme court nominees potentially pushing things even further in one direction. And some people are rightly worried that this could ultimately lead to a destruction of democracy to at least some degree.

There are some additional details in the Creating Places book, but I’m not going to cover those today.

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Federations

Let’s talk about federations. As it turns out, there’s more than one type of federation, but one of them is actually called federation. The others are a unitary state, the confederation, and, of course, the empire. Let’s first cover the federation.

This is a union of self-governing states or regions that give up some of their freedom for a national government and some other advantages. There is a constitution and it outlines the status and the division of power, and this cannot be altered by political powers, the federal government, or any of the regions in the union.

One goal of that union is greater stability, which can be economic. One of the problems with that is that if one of the states has a serious economic problem, it can actually affect all of them. Suddenly, what seems like a good idea might not seem like a good idea anymore to all those who are affected. Another reason for joining a federation is that if there are territorial disputes, this will also be resolved with the agreement. In other words, a federation can put an end to war. Now, we may not like this idea because it could interfere with our setting if we are trying to have countries who are at war, or characters who are being affected by war.

In an earlier episode, we talked about the concept of sovereignty, which is basically whether or not you are self-governing. And when it comes to a federation, the individual states are self-governing, but they don’t have any power at the federal level or with any foreign power. And all states in the federation may not be equal because some of them may have joined before newer laws came into play and impacted later powers that joined. Of course, that sort of imbalance of power can also lead to problems.

The central government is tasked with trying to find a solution that will satisfy all of the states in the federation, so this can be a big task. And if we have a character who is in that federal government, they might have a lot of problems on their hands. However, this is not normally the sort of thing that people find interesting, so we’re going to have to make this really be character-based and impactful in the story in such a way that it makes it interesting to our readers.

If they fail to resolve these conflicts, this could lead to civil war. And there’s a really good example of this. It’s called the United States Civil War. I’m going to simplify the issue, but basically the southern states in the United States thought that the constitution gave them the right for slavery, and the other states disagreed with this. Now, slavery was a basic part of the economy in the south, which felt like it wasn’t going to survive very well without it. And, as a result, war broke out. The southern states tried to create the Confederation, which is another form of federation that we’ll talk about in a minute. But one of the problems that the south faced is that no foreign country would recognize that the south had sovereignty over itself. So, this was going to be a problem. The federal government in D.C. fought the war partly to bring the southern states back in line.

Now, a final note on federations is the naming convention. Sometimes they actually do have the word “federation” in their title, but a place like Canada does not. And there are other titles that can be used, such as a confederation, a federal republic, dominion, kingdom and even union. The only real problem for us as world builders with these titles is that we can’t always tell what form of government something is just by the word that we have put on it.

Let’s talk about the unitary state. This is very similar to a federation except that the federal government can completely eliminate the autonomy of the states. The way this forms is also a little bit different because a federation comes together when independent states join forces, but a unitary state originates from a preexisting central government granting more autonomy to those previously dependent states. For example, imagine that a country like the United States suddenly set free, so to speak, the 50 states making it up, and became a unitary state where those states now have more autonomy over themselves. But one of the things about a unitary state is that just as it can give that autonomy to the states, it can also take it back. The unitary state’s central government can literally abolish a state altogether at will.

This is an interesting scenario where a state could be existing for a long time, but maybe it’s doing things that the central government’s leader doesn’t like. And so, he simply abolishes the state altogether. The United Kingdom is an example of a unitary state.

Let’s talk more about a confederation, which I mentioned a few minutes ago. This is when a group of sovereign powers forms a permanent union so they can act together against other states. And membership is voluntary, which is very different from a federation. A state that’s part of a confederation can simply leave if they so choose. We once again may find this to be a little bit less interesting because we kind of like it when someone is being constrained by something, they try to do it anyway, that causes a problem because somebody like another government or part of their own government goes after them and we have this conflict. If you can simply take your ball and walk away or go home, there’s less drama to that.

A confederation usually forms by a treaty, but the agreements are not binding until the member states create laws that are in accordance with those agreements. Some examples of a confederation are Switzerland, Canada, Belgium and the European Union.

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Empires

The last one we want to talk about is the empire. This is a little bit different from everything we’ve been talking about because in this case we have multiple sovereign powers who are being ruled by a single power. For example, the Roman Empire conquered one sovereign power after another and absorbed all of them into its own Roman Empire. By contrast, France was only a kingdom when Napoleon decided it was an empire, even though they did not yet rule other sovereign powers. And he did this partly so that he could declare himself emperor. After all, why be a king when you can be an emperor? The British Empire included territories that were far across the sea. So, this is another option for us.

Empires always form as a result of coercion, which can be a war where you defeat the other sovereign power, or it can be something like economics. Sometimes a weak state is simply annexed by an empire for protection and other advantages such as trade, and they might be perfectly okay with this. It’s always better for even an empire to not go to war, so if they can coerce, in some other fashion, another sovereign power to join the empire, they will do so.

One of the problems that an empire faces is simply the physical size of it. And it’s not going to have troops to maintain control over all of that. So, having a certain amount of peaceful interaction with the sovereign powers that it has absorbed is going to go a long way to making it stable. Another issue you can face is having, basically, racism going on where different ethnic groups that were part of different sovereign powers have now both been absorbed by one empire, and now they have to act like they get along. This may work for a time, but there could be simmering hatred. And if the empire ever falls, then those ethnic groups and their respective sovereign powers may go right back to fighting with each other.

It should also be noted that if you are being ruled by an empire, and you’re in a previously independent sovereign power, and then the empire falls and your sovereign power is suddenly freed, well, that’s no longer going to have its own government. Actually, that may not be true. It might have a government, but the point really is that there’s still a sudden change to the government, so this is another opportunity to suddenly change the type of government that we have in one of our sovereign powers.

So, if an empire falls, we could have one sovereign power that becomes a dictatorship, another one that becomes a constitutional monarchy, and another one that becomes a democracy. Generally, if an empire collapses, this is often catastrophic for any of the sovereign powers that it was ruling over.

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Monarchies

Time to talk about everyone’s favorite, the monarchy, which is what a kingdom is technically called. This used to be the most common form of government until the republic eventually took over. So, if you’re writing fantasy and you keep using this, well, maybe there’s a reason for that. A federation is arguably more common in science fiction.

In a monarchy, the person in charge, the monarch, is sovereign until death or abdication. As we all know, a monarchy is typically hereditary, with only the members of the family, such as the males, becoming a monarch. If we would like to be more progressive, we can have women also have this ability. The heirs are raised in a royal family and taught what is expected of them. And if the same family rules for many generations, that is called a dynasty.

Now, sometimes the path of succession, who becomes the next monarch, is not always clear. And that actually lead to the War of the Roses, which, in turn, inspired George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Some of the succession stuff is a little bit confusing, so I don’t want to go into the details here in the podcast, but the details are found on the website and, of course, in Creating Places.

What I want to talk about instead is the difference between an absolute monarchy and a constitutional monarchy. I briefly talked about the absolute monarchy earlier when I mentioned the authoritative states. An absolute monarch is one who is above the law and can get away with anything. Precisely because such persons abused their power, there were resistances that slowly built up in one kingdom, and then in another. And, over time, a new form developed and that’s called a constitutional monarchy. What’s happened in this case is that the monarch has become the head of state, which I explained in the last episode, and then there is a parliament with a prime minister, and that prime minister is the one who is the head of government.

What we’re talking about here is that all of this power that one person had has been disseminated to other people. One result is less abuse of power. The constitution is actually what exists to place those limits on the monarchy. Now, you may be wondering, as I often did, what can people get away with? What can a monarch do and what can the prime minister do? And the answer is that it really depends on the country, and the result is that we can do whatever we want when we are inventing a sovereign power that has a constitutional monarchy. This is one area where we don’t need to feel like we have to get it right because we can make it up.

Oligarchies

Now, there is one last group of government types known as oligarchies. What they have in common is that a group of people is in charge. Anything can really be the basis for an oligarchy, such as a group that has unusual wealth or military power, status, family, higher education or even an ability like with wizards. An aristocracy is a form of government where a privileged class of people is supposedly the most qualified and, therefore, they are in charge. In a plutocracy, it’s a small group of rich people. In a military junta, as you would expect, the military is in charge and the government type is usually authoritative. Then there’s a timocracy, where only property owners can participate in government. And then there’s a theocracy, where a religious person or group is in charge. Although, the reason they are in charge is that they are supposedly given that position by a god, who is the ultimate authority.

Now, if you’ve ever wondered what a nation is, or a country, I do go into some detail in Creating Places about what these are and what these words really mean, and it might surprise you. They are not government types, however. I’m also not going to go into detail on how to choose a form of government or how to create the history, although I did mention a little bit of this. And another subject that I cover in the book is how many different powers you should invent.

In our next episode, we’re going to continue discussing the subject of creating sovereign powers.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album The Lost Art called “Loeillet de Gant, Sonata No. 1, Second Movement.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 14.1 – How to Create Sovereign Powers

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Jul 032018
 

Episode 14.1: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create sovereign powers like kingdoms, dictatorships, republics, and more. This includes what sovereignty is, how it is gained and lost, the divine right of kings, some roles like head of state and what each means, and branches of government.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What sovereignty is and why it matters
  • The difference between external and internal sovereingty
  • How sovereignty is gained and lost
  • What the divine right of kings is
  • What a head of state and head of government are and how they differ, and why you should care
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 14.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number fourteen, part one. Today’s topic is how to create sovereign powers like kingdoms, dictatorships, republics, and more. This includes what sovereignty is, how it is gained and lost, the divine right of kings, some roles like head of state and what each means, and branches of government. This material and more is discussed in chapter 5 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

What is Sovereignty?

To talk about sovereignty, we naturally need to understand what sovereignty means. Basically, it’s the right to govern oneself without outside interference. It’s also a question of recognition, both from other countries and from the people within its borders. This is known as external sovereignty versus internal sovereignty. We’ll talk about both of these in more detail now.

External Sovereignty

A sovereign power may or may not be recognized as having sovereignty by other powers. In other words, we can’t just buy an island somewhere, declare ourselves the king and have sovereignty because other, actual sovereign powers may refuse to recognize that we have this sovereignty. There are some reasons why they may refuse to do so.

Exclusivity is one of these reasons. If two sovereign powers are contesting an area of land, that means that neither of them is recognizing that the other one has sovereignty over that land. Therefore, neither of them have sovereignty. Of course, a power could have sovereignty over other lands where that is recognized, but when it tries to take over another area of land, its sovereignty over that particular area is not recognized.

There is a modern example of this where Russia has sovereignty over many lands, and there was another country that was independent and had sovereignty, but Russia decided that because its citizens lived in that country, that this other country belonged to it. So, it invaded and took over that country. And it felt that it had the right to do so, but most of the rest of the world disagreed. In this instance, what Russia was doing was claiming that it had sovereignty over that country and, at the same time, it refused to recognize that that country had any sovereignty of its own. Since much of the rest of the world, such as the European Union, did not agree with this, Russia was subsequently punished and kicked out of the G8 summit, which became the G7 as a result.

So, if two powers are claiming sovereignty over something, or somewhere, then one of those sovereign powers must be destroyed, or it must be engulfed by the other, or otherwise proven illegitimate. Otherwise, neither of them is truly sovereign. Two powers cannot be sovereign over the same territory. One of them has to give.

Another factor that can come up is that sometimes a sovereign has the legal right to control a territory, but it doesn’t have that actual control due to a lack of military. Their military may be insufficient to control that territory. This is something that comes up in war when one country attacks another and drives them out, but other countries see the invaders as exactly that – they are invaders who do not actually have a sovereign claim to that territory. Sometimes, when the war is finally over, it’s because allies have kicked out that invading country on behalf of the country that was invaded.

I said that in a way that’s a little bit confusing, so let’s use an example. This may not be historically accurate, but let’s say that Germany invaded France and expelled the French nobility so that they were no longer there, but the rest of the world did not recognize that Germany now had sovereignty over France. The rest of the world might have thought France has been invaded and they need to be properly put back where they belong when it comes to the rulers. So, therefore, French allies might have joined forces with France and helped expel the Germans. In this case, the reason for this was the question of sovereignty. France’s sovereignty over that territory was recognized by other countries, but Germany’s claim on sovereignty over French territory was not respected.

During this war, it’s possible that France’s army would’ve been defeated. And, in that sense, it would have this legal right over that territory, but no longer have the military might to enforce that sovereignty. Therefore, it would have to turn to allies to help it. If those allies agreed, then they would help. If they did not agree, then Germany would be successful in taking over that territory. Now, just because Germany has taken over France, that doesn’t mean that other countries immediately recognize that it has sovereignty over France, but, in time, they may.

Now, rather than this being a military issue, there could be other reasons such as a population that is being uncooperative. Perhaps Germany is trying to rule France, but the French citizens are just being incredibly difficult and rebelling all the time. This could make it difficult for Germany to exert the sovereignty that it is trying to claim, even if Germany has defeated France’s military.

We’ll be talking about internal sovereignty in a few minutes, but, basically, that’s what we’re hinting at here. If Germany now possesses France’s territory, but the citizens of France do not recognize that they are now citizens of Germany, then there’s a bit of a problem. The territory itself, the people in it, are not recognizing Germany’s claim of sovereignty.

It’s also possible to achieve sovereignty but not be independent due to needing help from other powers. In fantasy and science fiction, we probably don’t like this idea because we want someone who is weak to be overtaken by a nefarious kingdom that our heroes can then try to destroy. So, if a kingdom has sovereignty but it needs a lot of help and is, therefore, not independent, it could be taken advantage of by another sovereign power. Or, in the case of our fantasy and sci-fi settings where we want more aggression, then it could just be taken over.

But there are times when a large country, like the United States, is benevolent toward other countries and trying to stand them up as a democracy, for example. One of the reasons that can happen is for ideological reasons where we prefer democracy to spread throughout the world as opposed to authoritarian governments proliferating. Therefore, if there is what we consider to be an evil regime that has fallen, and a new government hasn’t taken its place yet, but they show an interest in democracy, we might help them try to achieve that democracy. In this case, what we would be doing is showing them respect for their culture and their own sovereignty. And, even though they need help from us, we are providing that without just trying to take them over.

The kind of assistance that one power can lend another could be military, it could be technological – which is especially interesting in science fiction – or it could be humanitarian. Or, in fantasy settings, it could be magical assistance. Maybe the wizards of that sovereign power don’t have anywhere they can get schooling, so we allow them to come to our country for that. The same could be said for the ability to pilot spacecraft. Maybe they don’t have the training facilities, but they’ve got people who have the talent. So, we provide that for them. We give them the training. Maybe we even loan them some ships or help them start their own industry. The leader of such a sovereign power, such as a monarch, might want military aid that he has to bargain for by offering something else, such as crops or natural resources.

One thing that we can gain from all of this as world builders is that we can start thinking of alliances that different sovereign powers might have because of the ability to trade for something that they don’t have in their territory. So, for example, if your sovereign power has no large forests, then they’re going to be at a loss for the kind of wood that might be needed to build wooden ships if we’re in a fantasy setting. A sovereign power that has no mountains might have a lack of mines and, therefore, no ore to build technological weapons or spacecraft. This is one way that the terrain of a sovereign power can be used to help us create more relationships that make sense.

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Internal Sovereignty

Now we should talk about internal sovereignty, which is whether the sovereign power is recognized by its own subjects. In more extreme cases, people might overthrow the ruler, or murder him, imprison him or even exile him. As storytellers, we tend to like these more extreme versions, don’t we? If the person who has been overthrown still lives because they’ve been exiled or imprisoned, that does give us the option for further problems that this person could cause. Death tends to eliminate that option unless we have a setting where undead are an option.

So, the obvious question is when does a ruler get overthrown by his people? Why do they not respect his sovereignty? The main answer for that is weakness or, at least, perceived weakness. This can come in several ways. The inability to create peace, or restore it if it has been disrupted, is one of the reasons. War is not typically good for anyone. Though, in our modern times, we sometimes cynically say that the companies who manufacture weapons, for example, often benefit from war. And that is true, but, generally speaking, war is devastating, and it’s considered a very negative thing.

This is still true even if your side wins. The reason people celebrate the end of a war is that they can go back to their peaceful lives. So, a ruler who cannot create peace or restore it when something has gone wrong is considered weak, and he might end up getting overthrown if the tension goes on for too long. It also must be remembered that usually it is males who get sent into war – at least historically on Earth – and this really does cause a major problem with reproduction and people’s ancestry continuing as people are being killed off during battles. If war drags on for a long time, this can really have a devastating affect on many aspects of life. But it’s not even just war. Even smaller conflicts can cause these kinds of problems.

Another source of peace going wrong could be rebellions. If there is a rebellion happening within the country, and the ruler is unable to squash this, this can be considered weak. That tends to encourage more people to rebel, so this tends to be bad for not only the ruler, but the people who are trusting him to do something about this will increasingly lose faith. And they might actually join such a rebellion.

Another potential sign of weakness is when the ruler refuses to enforce a law when those laws are being broken in a way that are very costly to the country. For example, in the United States and other countries, we have immigration laws. There are people who feel like illegal immigration is a major problem and the government is not doing enough to enforce the laws by removing illegal immigrants. The failure to act in a way that the people find acceptable is considered a sign of weakness.

Of course, another issue is that a leader could be too strong about enforcing those laws in such a way that it is disrespectful of human rights, and that this also causes disillusionment and an idea that the leader is still being weak because they are actually being too forceful in the name of being strong. But, you know, being strong doesn’t mean being cruel to people, such as separating children from their parents when they cross a border illegally because of your detention policies.

So, different people are going to have different ideas about that, but this is a very timely subject. This is an issue that’s not only happening in the United States right now, but in other countries, due to an unusual amount of migrant population moving from one country to another, not only in the United States, but also in Europe. So, this is an example of a law that is not being enforced enough for some people who have determined that the leader is, therefore, weak. They, therefore, lose respect for that leader. Incidentally, enforcing laws in a draconian fashion might also upset the people so that the rebel.

Something else that we also see play out in our own country is that promises to one’s own people need to be kept. We often see people being removed from office in democracies because the people feel like they campaigned on certain promises and then did not uphold them once they were elected. So, at the next election, they get booted out of office. In our science fiction and fantasy settings, we might especially want to pay attention to the idea that promises that are made to one’s own police force and military force must be kept. Otherwise, this can result in an internal war and a coup with a military junta or dictatorship taking the place of whatever leadership was there. And if you’re not sure what a military junta is, we’re going to be talking about that in another episode.

And the last note on this is that many centuries ago, people tended to believe that a single person should rule because this provided a single voice of decisions. But, as the years have passed, this idea has slowly fallen out of favor. We’ve moved towards more countries that have an elected body, such as a parliament, that has authority.

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Gaining Sovereignty

All of this may have you wondering how a power gains sovereignty. So, let’s talk about that. As I alluded to earlier, a conquest is one of the more interesting reasons for us. In the modern world, and potentially in science fiction settings where there is a lot of communication, there might be more of this issue that we have today where things like the European Union are joined. These are multiple countries that are working together. And, therefore, at this point in Earth’s history, we are generally opposed to one country conquering another.

While that may have been true in the past, the military might that we had back then was not so great, and the cooperation was not so great that we could actually stop countries from doing this as much as we can today. One of the reasons we can stop countries from doing this is that we have a very integrated world when it comes to things like trade, and we can jointly punish a country that invades another, the same way that Russia was recently punished.

So, if we are creating a setting that is like that, this is something we may want to consider. We might not have sovereign powers conquering each other so much anymore. But, if we’ve got a setting that is more like what you typically see in fantasy, then it’s much easier for one country to simply attack and absorb another, and then hold onto that territory for long enough that it is considered sovereign over that territory. How long is long enough? Well, it’s probably going to be at least 5 years, maybe 10. But, certainly after 100 years, everyone who was alive when it used to be another sovereign power is now dead, unless we have something like elves that live 1,000 years or more.

So, if no one in living memory even remembers that being a different kingdom, then it’s no longer that kingdom. That’s gone. That kingdom might actually still exist, but the territory that it used to have might have been taken over by another country and held for so long that it is considered part of that other country. Although, of course, we could still have historical records and people saying, “Okay. This is still a sore point. We still want that area back.” But it might have gotten to the point where other countries just decide, “Okay. We recognize that this other sovereign power has taken over that country or that territory for so long and has held onto it that we now recognize, yes, it is sovereign over that territory.”

Figure 3: Erizon

Figure 3: Erizon

Another possibility that can come up is that one power could cede land to another via a treaty, for example. This isn’t the most exciting for us, but it does happen. An example of this would be the Louisiana Purchase that happened in the United States where the United States bought a huge territory in the center of the United States, or what is now the center of the U.S., from, I believe, France. And why did France agree to sell that huge area of land? Well, France was having a money issue back in France because Napoleon had declared war and was attacking all these different other sovereign powers. He also decided he couldn’t fight wars over there and over here at the same time, so he just sold the territory to the United States. Now, it’s been a while since I read about that, so there may be details I’m forgetting, but you get the basic idea.

There’s another way that territory can be claimed, and that is if no one is claiming sovereignty over it, then, in a sense, it is up for grabs. The example I’m going to use is, once again, the United States because when the Europeans – the British, the French, and the Spanish conquerors – landed on what is now United States territory, each one of them just claimed sovereignty over different areas of it. Why did they feel that they could do this? The Native Americans were here. The answer is that the Native Americans did not really understand this concept of sovereignty, and they didn’t recognize it. And, therefore, they weren’t really sovereign over this territory. They considered it to belong to everyone. You know, these other people come in and decide, “Well, no. This belongs to my country. That belongs to the other one.” So, it just got divided up.

Basically, these countries that invaded did not recognize any sovereignty by the Native Americans. And, therefore, they just took the land. There were overlaps, at times, with different countries claiming different areas of that land. And, of course, that led to wars and, eventually, what is now the United States won out and everyone else ended up leaving. When other countries departed, what they were doing was also finally, and formally, recognizing that the United States had sovereignty over that land.

We can use this same sort of scenario, especially in science fiction, where different spaceships from different planets or sovereign powers could discover a country at roughly the same time. And they start investigating the minerals and other ores that this planet provides, and different countries could be deciding that they want one continent, or part of it, versus another one. And, next thing you know, you have all these wars. You know, I haven’t seen this scenario played out in a science fiction book, but it seems like something that’s fairly obvious. This might be a little bit harder to do in fantasy, unless we have a situation very similar to the one I described a minute ago about the Native Americans. Of course, what precipitated that was an improvement in the quality of ships that could sail over the open ocean. And, therefore, different countries were able to discover North America at roughly the same time. By roughly, I mean over the span of a couple decades.

Barring something like that in a fantasy setting, we might have to have something like the wall in Game of Thrones come down, and various kingdoms decide that they want to take that land. You know, there would have to be some sort of discovery of new land that no one had claimed in order for several countries to rush in and start claiming it.

The Divine Right of Kings

Let’s also talk about the divine right of kings. This is something that sounds really cool, and which you’ve probably heard of before. Basically, what this means on Earth is that someone is considered to be sovereign by the will of god, and that is the only person to whom they answer. A dictator or an absolute monarch is going to be viewed this way, or, at least, want others to view them this way. It implies that they are above the law.

You’ve probably also heard that quote that absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, tyrants tend to like this idea. It could be considered treasonous to stand in the way of this absolute monarch. If we have a world where there is more than one god, we could also do this and have one person decide that they were appointed by one god to be the ruler, and another person could decide that they were the one appointed by a different god to be the ruler, so that we could have conflict.

Now, here on Earth, some places, like Asia, consider a sovereign to be legitimate only if he is a just ruler. If he is unjust and engages in very bad behavior, then he could be stripped of this sovereignty. This is an area ripe for conflict because we could have some people deciding that this sovereign was acting justly, while other people decide he was acting unjustly. And, therefore, when he is stripped of power, some people might want him to be restored to power. So, this is another way we can use something for storytelling.

Losing Sovereignty

Since we’ve talked about gaining sovereignty, let’s talk about losing it. We’ve already touched upon this because one of the most obvious ways is to be conquered. Another is to be overthrown from within, such as during the French and American Revolutions. Both of these violently ended the rule of sovereign powers. When this happens, a new government must take its place. If you’re looking for ideas on what sort of government could replace them, we will be covering many options in the next episode. There are some additional details found in Chapter 5 of Creating Places, but I’m going to move onto roles such as the head of state and head of government next.

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Head of State

The head of state and head of government are the two most important roles in a government. And, at first glance, this might sound like it’s going to be a boring subject, but it can actually be really interesting and very beneficial to understand this when we are doing world building or any storytelling involving these characters.

The head of state is the visible representative of a sovereign power. He may have no actual power, or very limited powers, being largely ceremonial. This is the monarch who might show up to bless a battleship or a sailing vessel, or to knight someone. If there’s an annual parade on a big holiday, this is the figurehead who will be in a prominent position during that parade. Sometimes, they appear to have power, but they are just going through the motions. That could be something like signing a bill into law where the parliament actually does that, but this person still signs off on it. This head of state is also the highest military leader, or commander in chief, but, as with other subjects, this power could actually be ceded to other people who have control of it.

Examples of heads of state would be kings, emperors and presidents. A president is sworn in, whereas a coronation is for a monarch. As world builders, we have the ability to grant these heads of state whatever powers we would like them to have. On Earth, this changes from kingdom to kingdom, so we can do whatever we want here. Don’t feel like you have to get this right by modeling it on some kingdom here on Earth.

We also don’t have to explain the reasons why they are only ceremonial, in one way or another, and have no actual power. Readers don’t typically want some sort of history lesson unless that story has something to do with the reason this character does not have the power, because that character wants to flex that power and discovers they don’t have it. Unless it’s part of your story, you don’t need to worry about that too much.

Head of Government

The more important role, arguably, is the head of government. This person is the one leading government, and they usually have a title such as prime minister or chancellor. If this person is also the head of state, then they will have a title like king, emperor or president. Arguably, writers have a tendency to simply give a title like “President So-and-so” without actually explaining anything about what they can do. Some of that may be natural because we don’t really want to bore the audience with exposition explaining all the things that they can and cannot do, especially if they’re not going to impact our story. But it does help us to think about this. So, I’m going to give you a couple ideas here.

What we want to do is think about what this head of government can actually do. So, for example, can they veto laws or sign them into existence by themselves, or do they need parliament? Can they be removed from office, and by who? Are they protected from prosecution? Can they be executed? Can they raise and lower taxes? Do they need permission or cooperation from others in government to get anything done? Can they declare war? Are there exceptions to any of this? For example, maybe they cannot declare war under normal circumstances, but, in more extreme ones, they can.

If our sovereign power has a prime minister who is the head of government, that means that there is also going to be a ceremonial head of state who has less power. An example of this would be the prime minster of Great Britain. He is the actual head of government. The queen is the ceremonial head of state. This is why the President of the United States meets with the Prime Minister of Britain to discuss matters of government, because these are the two heads of government. Now, in the case of the United States, the president is also the head of state. So, there are times when, in the capacity of head of state, the President of the United States meets with the Queen of England, but this is mostly a ceremonial function. Why is that? Because the Queen of England does not have that much power. All of that resides with the prime minister and with the parliament.

And if you were paying attention, I did just say that in something like the United States, which is a democracy, one person is in the role of head of state and head of government. But then, in certain other setups, like a monarchy, we might have the king or queen be the head of state. Power has been ceded to the prime minister and parliament. This is what’s known as a constitutional monarchy, and we’ll be talking about that more and it’s alternate version, the absolute monarchy, in the next episode. The absolute monarchy is one where the king is the head of government and the head of state.

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Branches of Government

I’m briefly going to talk about the different branches of government. The executive branch is the one that administers the state and enforces the laws which are passed by the legislative branch, whereas the judicial branch is the one that interprets those laws. The reason this is separated this way is to prevent abuse of power. Even in a democracy, there are those who wish to abuse power and try to merge or force their way past these delineations to get what they want. The separation of powers inhibits that. It is built into the government structure by design and on purpose to prevent the sort of abuses that happened in the past.

An absolute monarchy where the king, for example, is both head of state and head of government, and believes he has this divine right of kings and only answers to god, this king is the kind of guy who’s going to do tyrannical things that really upset a lot of people. And, over time, people resisted this kind of thing. Sometimes, they got executed by the king for this. But, sometimes, enough resistance built up in the population that the king ended up having no choice but to cede power to government, and he became a head of state and, next thing you know, you had a parliament that had these different branches of government. And that parliament was led by the prime minister who was the head of government who had much of the power.

One thing that we are implying here is that earlier forms of government were often this type where they were an absolute monarchy, and things have progressively moved toward a more diverse separation of powers so that no one person has that much control. One way we can use this in our world building is that if we have a very advanced society that you’re likely to see in science fiction, then they may have also moved away from things like absolute monarchies. On the other hand, a fantasy setting where things tend to be more like our past, like a medieval setting, they are more prone to having this sort of government because, maybe, they have not collectively moved past it. By collectively, I mean that multiple countries might still have monarchies. On Earth, this was once the primary form of government, or one of them, and today, it is one of the least popular or common ones.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album The Lost Art called “Loeillet de Gant, Sonata No. 1, First Movement.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 13.2 – How to Create Land Features

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Jun 192018
 

Episode 13.2: Learn How to Create Land Features

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create land features, including grasslands, deserts, and various kinds of wetlands like bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Where grasslands will have tall grass and where they’ll have short, and why
  • Why not all deserts are sandy and where you’ll find the ones that are
  • What the four different types of wetlands are (bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps) and how they differ
Coda

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Episode 13.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part two. Today’s topic concludes our talk about how to create land features. This includes grasslands, deserts, and various kinds of wetlands like bogs, mires, and fens. This material and more is discussed in chapter 4 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Creating Grasslands and Prairies

Let’s briefly talk about grasslands, which can also be called prairies. As the word “grasslands” implies, this is an area dominated by grass, whether that is tall, short, or a mix of both. Naturally, it’s much easier for a predator to hide in tall grass. And, therefore, we may be tempted to use this quite often. After all, we can have something hiding that is trying to attack our characters.

However, it is tempting to do this everywhere so that we have that possibility everywhere, but if you’re creating a setting for a particular story, decide whether you need this or not. And, if you don’t, then go ahead with the short grass, just because there are probably going to be opportunities for you to use taller grasslands in another story. And we don’t want to get into a habit of always making them tall. So, if you don’t need them to be tall, just go ahead and make them short.

We’ve probably all seen TV shows or movies where our characters, or something that’s after them, is using the tall grass to their advantage. This is a pretty good hiding spot, with one exception. If you are already being pursued and you enter these grasslands, you’re going to leave a trail that’s going to last for a little while. And, therefore, it’s going to be relatively easy for whatever’s following you to follow that trail.

But, otherwise, if more time has passed, you can easily hide in these tall grasses for a long time. To some extent, that will depend upon your predator because if they have a good sense of smell, then they may be able to follow you anyway. But, for those of us, like humans, who are mostly going by sight, we are at a disadvantage trying to find someone who has been in those grasslands for a while.

Figure 27 Grasslands

Figure 27 Grasslands

That said, we’ve all seen characters who are good at tracking, which is identifying how the ground has been disturbed, or even how vegetation has been disturbed. And, therefore, following the path. So, this is another option to give our human characters, or others who are like them, the ability to track someone anyway. Of course, if there is aerial pursuit, then this isn’t going to work nearly as well.

Now, if you’re wondering where the taller grass is more likely to occur, the answer should be fairly obvious. It’s going to be where there is more rain. This is something to keep in mind beyond your story needs because if you have a desert and you would like the characters to run right out of that desert into tall grass, that’s probably not going to happen because the whole reason there is a desert there is that there’s not a lot of precipitation. And, therefore, it doesn’t make too much sense that there’s going to be tall grass right next to it anymore than there would be a forest right there. What is realistic is that we would have short grass that slowly gives way to taller and taller grass and, eventually, to a forest.

Something else to be aware of is that in tropic climates near the equator, sometimes almost all of the year’s rain happen in just a couple weeks. This might mean that those tall, green grasslands are only a temporary feature.

I’ve mentioned the issue of prevailing winds and rain shadows a couple times, and how mountains can affect rainfall, and I’m going to do so again here using the United States as an example. When the Rocky Mountains rose out west, what happened is that this caused a rain shadow that killed the forest for hundreds of miles to the Midwest. And this caused the famous plains that are dominating the Midwest.

The reason this happened is that those mountains caused most of the water to come out of the clouds, into the mountains, and then, on the other side, there wasn’t any moisture to fall – or not enough to cause more lush vegetation. This is still true today, but when I did some research on this, one of the things I found is that the Native Americans would periodically burn down the grasslands, and they were doing this for a specific reason. They were trying to prevent trees from growing there because, eventually, those trees would start to grow and they would start to become a savanna, which we talked about in the previous episode. And, in time, a savannah could start to become a woodland, which has more trees, and then it could eventually become a forest. And they did not want this. They wanted more land for their livestock to graze. So, they periodically burned all the grasslands down. Well, not all of them, obviously, but they would set fires that would burn for many miles and this would kill off any potential trees that were starting to grow.

One thing this shows us is that even before modern civilization, humans had the ability to manipulate the land. So, if you have a world in a fantasy setting where there is not modern technology, your people could still be causing such a thing to happen. In fact, if we’re going to create a story that happens on a plain and have our characters get involved with nomads, for example, we might actually want to show a scene of them burning down the grasslands. Or we can just have our characters come across an area that has been burned, and maybe they think it’s natural, like a lightning strike, but it actually isn’t.

On that note, when we do create grasslands, we shouldn’t decide that there’s no population there, but we might want to go ahead and decide that there are nomads populating it. Not only is this reasonable, but it gives our characters someone that they might run across while they’re traveling. The nomadic culture is going to be very different from the culture of people who live in cities, and this gives us a good opportunity to show some more variety. These nomads might also be hostile or friendly depending on their relationship with those in the city. After all, there is likely to be some trade going on, but there might also be some suspicion on both sides, and possibly some past conflicts. So this, again, gives us more diversity and some history.

This is more likely anytime we have a wide expanse of land that is full of grasslands. So, if you have an especially tall group of mountains in the interior of a continent – which, as we learned in a previous episode, is where the tallest mountains will be – then we just need to know which direction the prevailing winds are going based on how far this land mass or this mountain range is from the equator, and then we can decide that on one side of this there is heavy forest, and on the other side there are many miles of grasslands that are populated by nomadic tribes.

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Creating Deserts

While we’re talking about areas with limited rainfall, let’s talk about deserts. It may surprise you to know that, here on Earth, deserts take up an entire third of the land surface. Not the entire surface, just the surface covered by land. So, don’t be shy about placing deserts on your world because they’re definitely going to be there, although we can change how many deserts are on the world.

Figure 32 Hard Desert Surface

Figure 32 Hard Desert Surface

However, you may want to not stray too far from doing a third of the land surface, and there’s a reason for this. The deserts play a role in regulating the planet’s temperature. So, if we go far outside of that, we may be messing with how things work. Although, the average person is not going to know this. Still, it’s something to keep in mind and follows that idea that you should know the rules before you break them. So, don’t be shy about adding deserts in many places.

And the obvious question is where would they form? And, if you’ve been listening to this episode and the previous ones, the obvious answer is that they would form to one side of a mountain range. This isn’t always true, but it often is. On that note, some deserts do receive rain, but they don’t receive enough to compensate for the high levels of evaporation. How little rain to we need in a year to cause a desert? Just 10 inches, which is really not that much.

Don’t think of a desert as a place where it never rains, because that’s usually not true. Some places are sort of semi-deserts because they receive 10 to 20 inches of rain, and some of these also have grass, in which case it’s called a steppe. So, this will be a place where it is still fairly barren, but not nearly as barren as a place with bare rock or sand. Once again, this variation keeps us from having everywhere be the same. Land that is closet to a mountain range might be a desert because of the lack of rainfall that the rain shadow caused, whereas land that is a little bit further away might be a steppe because it’s getting a little bit more rainfall and, therefore, has low grass. That, in turn, might give way to actual grasslands.

Of course, the reason that there is increasing vegetation further and further away from that rain shadow desert is that there is moisture in the air that is being picked up continuously. It’s just that most of it that was in the air before it hit the mountain range left those clouds. By the way, when it does rain in the desert, it often happens in a violent downpour, and this can cause a flash flood that happens miles away from where the storm actually is.

Another interesting fact about deserts is that they normally cannot form too close to the equator because there is too much heavy rain in the tropics from 0°, which is the equator, up to a roughly 30° latitude. That said, it is possible to have a desert here, and you may be able to guess why. There are areas near the equator where the elevation is very high and, as a result, instead of it being a tropical climate there, it’s actually a more temperate climate that would normally be found further north or south, away from the equator. The result is that if there are mountains there, there can actually be a rain shadow. And, as a result of that, an actual desert that is at the equator.

When it comes to the composition of deserts, it might also surprise you to know that only 20% of the Earth’s deserts are actually made of sand. Hollywood tends to show us this as the default, so most of us probably assume that’s how all of them are. But it’s not true. This is yet another way that we can make one desert different from another. The rest of the deserts are actually kind of like a virtual pavement of tightly packed small stones like pebbles. Hearing me say that, you might assume that it’s very loose, but it’s actually very stable. This hard desert is hard on the feet, including those of animals.

And one thing that this also means is that people can move relatively quickly through this, as opposed to a sandy desert. So, while a horse might struggle in sand, it will be fine on the hard desert. However, the hard desert is actually going to hurt its hooves. That doesn’t mean that the horse can’t travel on it, it just means that sooner or later it’s going to get fatigued, and that’s probably going to happen sooner. Horses prefer relatively soft earth, but not so soft that it’s like mud. So, when you’re working on your travel times, consider what type of desert is in a specific place.

So, the question then becomes where do you find a sandy desert versus a hard desert? One answer to this is to understand why sand forms. Basically, what’s happening is that extreme temperature changes from day to night cause rocks to break apart. After that, more erosion occurs from wind, and you end up with sand. In an earlier episode, we talked about climates, including the dry climate, and this is where deserts are typically found. Both the hot and the cold deserts are more likely to have this, as opposed to the mild deserts where the temperatures are not that extreme.

While there are a few more little details in the Creating Places book, the last thing I want to mention about deserts is the difference between a sandstorm and a dust storm, as these are not the same thing. Most of us have probably seen these towering images of what looks like a sandstorm engulfing an entire city, while these are actually dust storms. Sand is too heavy to get that high into the air. In fact, it doesn’t get much higher than us. What sand will do is pelt you sideways. It does not actually fall down on us from above, because it’s not going to get that high.

So, a dust storm looks really impressive, but is it really that lethal? And the answer is, actually, yes, because exposure to dust storms, if it happens repeatedly, can actually cause an incurable respiratory illness. Now, that can cause people to eventually suffocate. This does not sound as exciting or as dangerous as immediate death from sandstorms, but a dust storm is actually more likely to cause death. If we’re going to be writing a story that features one of these storms, we should have some idea of the difference here and use it appropriately.

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Creating Wetlands

Now that we’ve talked about places with very little water, let’s talk about places that have a lot – so much so that they are called wetlands. As it turns out, a wetland can either be freshwater, saltwater or brackish, which means that it is somewhere in between. Not surprisingly, the freshwater ones tend to be inland where water is coming from rainfall and runoff, whereas on the coast we’re more likely to have the saltwater ones. The ones that are brackish are still going to be near the coast, since that’s where the saltwater is coming from, but they also have a freshwater source, which is either going to be rain or a nearby lake, or a river, or possibly an underground spring. The result is called brackish.

Figure 28 Bog

Figure 28 Bog

As storytellers, we can use wetlands as a place where monsters like to hide because humans, in particular, tend to like solid ground and not be that comfortable going into them. Those who spend a lot of time in wetlands will feel differently, of course. These might also be the people who are familiar with that monster or what it is capable of, and even where it tends to be. They are likely to be the source of rumors about it, too, whether those prove to be true or false. Most wetlands are found in the temperate climate zone or in the tropics near the equator, but they can be in polar areas, too.

When it comes to the freshwater wetlands, what we might want to do is decide that there is an area of any lake that is actually a wetland. This could be any side of it, and what we’re talking about is a transition from lake to solid ground. And that area in between is going to be our wetland. This is generally the case. So, we don’t need to invent new areas on our map if we’ve got one. We can just decide that one area of a lake is the wetland.

Aside from monsters, why would we want to create one? Well, there could be lots of fish and other animals that have this as their habitat, and this results in products and other things that our characters might be using, which also includes food. In a world with magic, we could certainly decide that some sort of plant is growing there, and that it is very valuable, and that’s the only kind of place it’s found. And, therefore, those who are comfortable moving around in that wetland are going to be the ones who are harvesting that. And, therefore, they might have some position of prominence, at least when it comes to that particular item. Now, if it turns out that we do have a monster and we have that special plant there, maybe the monster has some sort of special property as a result of having access to that plant.

Creating Mires

There are four basic types of wetlands, and the first two are both known as mires. This includes bogs and fens. After that, we’re going to talk about marshes and then swamps.

When it comes to bogs and fens, both types of mires get their water from rainfall. Both of them form at the edges of lakes, as we were just talking about, and sometimes they can even cover the entire surface of that lake. So, what’s the difference between a bog and a fen? Let’s talk about bogs first.

A bog forms in a low area of land or on top of an old lake, which also forms in a low area of land. A bog can be many meters deep, and what happens on the surface is that dead plant material, like mosses, tends to form peat. Evergreen plants can grow on the surface, and one of the things that can happen is that, from a distance, it might look like it is just regular land and you might have no idea that there is actually water under there. This is especially true if it happens to be adjacent to a forest and, therefore, it just looks like the ground blends right into the forest in the background. And so, you could have a scene where a group of warriors on horseback are charging across the land, and they think they’re heading for that forest, having no idea that there’s actually a peat bog there and they’re just going to tumble right into the water.

Figure 28 Bog

Figure 28 Bog

One interesting idea we can leverage is that sometimes carnivorous plants exist in bogs, and these survive by eating invertebrate, but there’s no reason we can’t have bigger plants that survive by eating our people. In drier locations, we can actually have trees growing in these bogs. So, it’s not impossible to have a large plant. And by large, I don’t necessarily mean that it’s tall because a plant could be many meters across, lying across this apparent ground, which is actually peat.

Sometimes on Earth, large animals, like moose and caribou, are found in bogs, and there are a lot of other animals like otters and just smaller animals that use this as their home. And then the peat moss itself can be used as fuel for either heating or cooking. This, once again, gives us a product that we can mention in our city if there’s a nearby lake that has a bog on one end of it. Maybe someone is burning peat moss for fuel.

So, how does all of this differ from a fen? And the answer is pretty simple. Instead of being covered in peat, a fen is covered in grasses and shrubs. In addition to occurring along lakes, they can also occur alongside a river. They also typically get most of their water from the ground rather than rain, but this is not the kind of difference that your audience is likely to notice or care about if you point it out to them. A fen can also turn into a bog in time. Like bogs, fens have a tendency to be found in the mountains. And, just like with bogs, they can be deceptive from a distance so that you don’t realize it’s a fen and you might just assume it’s a grassland.

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Creating a Marsh

Let’s talk about another type of wetland called a marsh. They also form in a depression of land, or at the edge of a lake, or along the side of a slow-moving river. The water tends to be shallower here. Keep this in mind if you’re intending to use a marsh as the habitat of a large water-dwelling animal because that may not make as much sense as placing that into a bog or a fen, for example. The monster that we were discussing earlier is probably going to be more a land-dweller than a water-dweller if it calls a marsh its home. But, as for other life here, we can still have fish, bird, amphibians and smaller aquatic mammals. Instead of grasses and trees, like you would find in a fen, or the peat that you would find in a bog, here we would have grasses and reeds.

It is possible to have a saltwater marsh. These are found further from the equator along a coastline where the tide will flood them. However, they must usually be protected by a lagoon or an estuary because, otherwise, the flow of water coming in and out might be too strong for them.

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Creating a Swamp
Figure 31 Swamp

Figure 31 Swamp

And that brings us to the last wetland, and that is the swamp. This is one that we’ve all heard about, but we may not understand the difference between this and other types of wetlands. It’s basically a wetland that is a forest, meaning there are a lot of trees here. One way this is different from a fen is that fens don’t have nearly as many trees. As you might expect, a swamp occurs near large rivers and lakes. This means that we can once again take any lake that’s on our map and decide that part of it is a swamp. This swamp might also connect directly to an actual forest where the ground is solid.

Now, it is possible to have two different types of swamp, one of them being a swamp forest, and one of them being a brush swamp. And the difference is the amount of tree cover. The shrub version has fewer and shorter trees and is mostly bushes instead.

Now, within a swamp, there are sometimes dry areas of land that are raised, and these are called a hammock. This is where the shrubs tend to be found.

In a fantasy world, we know that elves love forests, but there seems to be not much mention of elves loving a swamp, even though this is just a forest with a lot of water. But maybe this is something that we can exploit in our world. Surely, the elves can find a use for this particular habitat.

Now, that said, we often show elves as living up in extremely tall trees, and it’s possible that such tall trees are not going to be growing inside a swamp for the simple reason that the ground is so saturated that they may not be able to grow that tall without falling over. Maybe this is the reason we don’t talk about elves being in swamps.

However, while they may not live in the swamp, there are certainly going to be times when there is a forest, and there’s a lake, and in between there is a swamp. And I see no reason why we can’t have elves make use of that swamp. At the very least, they’re going to be familiar with the types of creatures that live within it. They might turn them into products or have other uses for them, and this is something that we should explore as world builders.

So, that about wraps up Chapter 4, Creating Land Features, although I do have a few sections in the book that I’m not going to cover here, including settlements, which is briefly talked about in relation to these land features, and then the cultivation, meaning how much the humans and other species have manipulated this land for their benefit, and the impact that this can have on that settlement and the corresponding land features.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album Now Weaponized! called “Serenade.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

5 Tips – Government Types

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Jun 052018
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #13): Government Types

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is sovereign powers. You can read more in Chapter 5, “Creating Sovereign Powers”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Authoritative States”

Whether an autocracy, totalitarian, dictatorship, or authoritarian government, authoritative states are not the most pleasant ones to live in unless you’re the ones in power. With severe restrictions on freedoms, our hero can find himself/herself under duress to accomplish what they desire. They make great places for your hero to destroy or at least kill the leader of. The differences are discussed in Creating Places and help make our sovereign powers stand out from each other.

Tip #2: “Democracies”

A democracy allows people to participate in government by having influence over what policies are made into laws. This means far more freedom for the population and our heroes, who might originate from such a place and be philosophically opposed to more oppressive regimes. Wanting to free someone they love or respect from such a place is the sort of thing that makes them heroic.

Tip #3: “Federations”

Whether an empire, federation, confederation, or unitary state, federations have states that have some sovereignty over their own affairs while still following the laws of the federation. Some are members voluntarily while others are not, and some can leave when they want but others cannot. Their point of origin is also different.

Tip #4: “Monarchies”

Kingdoms are common in fantasy but less so in science fiction, but either way, they’re not all the same. The two main types are absolute vs. constitutional. The former has a ruler who has no limits on his power, a scenario ripe for abuse, especially with the “divine right of kings” being employed. A constitutional monarchy gives more power to the people via parliament and results in a ruler with often severe restrictions on their powers.

Tip #5: “Oligarchies and More”

An oligarchy is any form of government where power is controlled by a small group of people. This could be those in the military, those with magic power, the wealthy, merchants, or other groups we invent. Some of these variations have names like theocracy, aristocracy, or military junta, and each may have stark differences that lets us create more variation on our world.

Summary of Chapter 5—Creating a Sovereign Power

Kingdoms, empires, dictatorships and more are types of sovereign powers that world builders can create. Before we do, a high-level understanding of the differences between them is crucial. Many variations to government types exist, which gives us freedom to tweak details for our needs, but we should know the rules before we break them. The role of sovereignty, including how it is gained and lost, is examined in this chapter along with the “divine right of kings.” We also look at the head of state and head of government roles, the differences between them, and the conflicts that can arise. The nature of each branch of government is examined along with parliamentary systems. Democracies, federations, theocracies, monarchies, autocracies and more are examined for their key differences.

Inventing a sovereign power should include friends and enemies who shape policy, lifestyle, and culture. The form of government has significant impact on inhabitants and results from world view. History affects this as well, and while creating a history is optional, it enriches the dynamics of relationships and can create heroes, villains, and attitudes in the population. We should consider which species are present and in how great a percentage, and what languages are spoken or forbidden. Our power’s location and climate will impact lifestyles and vegetation, which also influences what natural resources it has or lacks, and what the power does as a result. These can all lead to tensions both with other powers or the residents. Symbols, colors, flags, and slogans will be a source of pride and even fear for both foreigners and the population.

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Podcast Episode 13.1 – How to Create Land Features

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Jun 052018
 

Episode 13.1: Learn How to Create Land Features

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how to create land features, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, and various kinds of forests, from woodlands to savannahs, jungles, and run-of-the-mill forests.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to create mountains that are different from each other, and characterize them
  • The difference between extinct, dormant, and active volcanoes
  • What the four major types of forests are and where they form, and how they can impact story, and
  • How to make each river different from the last one you invented
Coda

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Episode 13.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part one. Today’s topic is how to create land features, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, and various kinds of forests, from woodlands to savannahs, jungles, and run-of-the-mill forests. This material and more is discussed in chapter 4 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Creating Mountains

Mountains are the first land feature we’re going to talk about because they have a big affect on where forests, deserts, and bodies of water, like rivers and lakes, will form. In the previous episode, number 12, we talked about plate tectonics and how this determines what kind of mountain ranges are in what location. I don’t want to explain that over again, so if you missed that episode, I suggest checking that out. I would also suggest checking out the previous episode, number 11, where I talked about prevailing winds and rain shadows.

I’ll briefly mention the reason we care about this, and basically what is going on is that wind is moving in a certain direction based on how far from the equator that landmass is and where the wind is passing over it. What happens is that the prevailing winds hit one side of the mountains and most of the water in those clouds falls on that side, causing a forest there and, on the other side, there is no more rain to fall. And, as a result, there’s usually a desert there. This is one of the reasons we care about putting mountains on our map first. Or, even if we’re not doing a map, this is something we should decide on early.

But let’s talk about the mountains themselves, not the affect that they have on vegetation. We all think we know what a mountain is, but it might surprise you to know that there is actually no definition that has been agreed upon. For something to be considered a mountain, it just has to be something that stands out from the surrounding countryside. So, if you have a very flat land and there is a so-called mountain that is 2,000 feet tall, then it’s going to look like a mountain. Calling it one might seem ridiculous to someone who is used to living somewhere where the mountains are 14,000 feet tall, but it’s still okay to call it that. For this reason, when we are doing world building and we are deciding that there’s a range of mountains, or even just a solitary peak, we should always make a note in our files just how big this thing is.

On Earth, roughly a quarter of the surface is covered in mountains. So, when you are laying out your continent, you should have this understanding that these are not exactly rare. Depending on the size of the continent that we’re inventing, there could be multiple mountain ranges. Sometimes mountain ranges are parallel to each other. Using the United States as an example, all of them appear to run north to south. The Cascade Mountains on the western coast do this, and so do the Rocky Mountains that are further inland. And the same is true on the eastern side of the United States.

One thing to keep in mind is that to the average person like ourselves, when we look at a map showing the topography, we might think that the Cascade Mountains on the western side of the United States is one very long mountain range going all the way from Canada down through the United States into Mexico. But the reality is that these are actually separate mountain ranges that are sort of stacked on top of each other north to south.

If we choose to do such a thing ourselves, then we may want to leave a small gap in between those mountain ranges and indicate that this is a travel route (or a pass, as we sometimes call them) or we might want to just decide to use one name for the entire range. And, in fact, this sort of thing does happen in the real world. We do that with the east coast mountains. For example, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Mountains are actually part of the larger Appalachian Mountain Range. If we don’t want to invent three different names like that, then we don’t have to.

Many of us have probably heard of Olympus Mons on Mars. This is the largest mountain in the entire solar system. On Earth, Mount Everest is roughly 29,000 feet, but Olympus Mons is 69,000 feet. This seems like it would be truly amazing, but the reality is that the mountain is so large – it’s basically the size of France – that if you were standing on that mountain, you wouldn’t even realize you were on a mountain because it’s so broad and flat. The reason this mountain is so tall is that there are no tectonic plates on Mars. And we discussed that in a previous episode. Basically, all of the continents we have here on Earth are on top of a tectonic plate which is sort of floating on the surface of the Earth. They’re all basically moving. When they move towards each other or they pull apart, this causes volcanoes and mountain ranges to form.

There’s also something called a hot spot, and this is actually what’s causing Olympus Mons. Basically, the surface of Mars is not moving and there is a hot spot there. Therefore, the magma is just perpetually coming up. This doesn’t happen on Earth to the same degree because the surface of the Earth is moving. And, therefore, the hot spot keeps changing as well and that gives us something like the volcanic islands of Hawaii.

One point I’m getting at here is that a truly enormous mountain is only going to happen on a world where there are no tectonic plates, and that’s going to cause all sorts of other changes to our world that we might want to be aware of. For example, all of the other kinds of mountain ranges are probably not going to exist. As a result, those mountain ranges that don’t exist are not going to have an affect on prevailing winds, and there’s not going to be this whole thing of rain shadows and forests on one side, and then deserts on the other.

Of course, anything is technically possible, and scientists often say something like that, and then, years later, they discover a world that has something that they thought was impossible. So, maybe I’m wrong, but you get the idea. If you’re going to do something like one truly enormous mountain, you’re implying that there are no tectonic plates and that there would be other side effects. However, the average person reading your book is going to have no idea about any of that.

This means we could get away with a truly enormous mountain, but if you stop and think about it, a solitary mountain is the most impressive looking thing. One example that you can Google to get some images of this is Mount Shasta in Northern California. It’s the only mountain right there and it stands out very dramatically from the surrounding because of that. And it’s only 14,000 feet tall, compared to Mount Everest at 29,000 feet. And then, of course, there is Olympus Mons at over 69,000 feet.

When I see pictures of Mount Everest, it doesn’t look nearly as majestic to me as Mount Shasta, even though it’s twice as tall, because there are all sorts of other mountains that are almost as tall surrounding Mount Everest. But, on the other hand, Mount Shasta is kind of standing there mostly by itself. In other words, context is everything.

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Volcanoes

In thinking about volcanoes, one of the things that we need to concern ourselves with is its status. Some volcanoes are said to be extinct, and what that really means is that in written history it has never erupted. Now, if we have a species like elves that are 1,000 years old, and they have a civilization going very far back, then your world might have no volcanoes that are considered to be extinct. Or we could change our definition from extinct meaning “that no written record of it erupting exists” to “no living memory of it erupting exists either.” Or we could decide that extinct just means it’s 5,000 years since it erupted. In Earth terms, that’s long enough ago to be before written history. Actually, that may not be true, but you get the idea.

An extinct volcano is one that has not erupted in thousands of years. So, what do we call one that has erupted in the last few thousand years or during written history? Well, those are called dormant if they are not currently active. And, of course, an active volcano is erupting right now. You’re not going to fail to notice this. Neither are your characters. As storytellers, we only need an active volcano when that’s actually going to impact the story that we’re telling.

Extinct volcanoes may not have much use for us because it’s no fun deciding that something is never going to erupt again and, in fact, we’re right about that. It can be more fun to decide that people think it’s extinct and that it’s not going to erupt again, but it’s actually dormant and then, suddenly, it erupts. But, of course, just as with the active volcanoes, once it’s erupting, that’s going to be impacting our story. So, we only need to be concerned about that if it’s going to be something we want to happen.

In other words, should we bother putting a volcano there if it’s extinct, or should we always decide that those are dormant? In other words, we’re not going to use it until, suddenly, we do need it. Bear in mind that even with a supposedly extinct volcano, it’s possible for us to have geological cataclysms of such a huge nature that a once extinct volcano becomes one that’s erupting.

Also bear in mind that, just like you were a few minutes ago, probably, your characters don’t really know the difference between dormant and extinct. All they’re really going to be thinking is whether or not that’s going to erupt anytime soon, and that’s going to be based on how recently it last erupted, which means it’s dormant. If everyone says, “Well, we don’t remember it ever erupting,” well then, of course, it’s extinct. But no one’s probably going to make those distinctions. The exception would be a scientist.

Characterizing Mountains

When we’re creating mountains, we should also try to characterize these just as we do with volcanoes. We could reasonably say that mountain ranges are roughly in the 3,000 to 4,000 foot range, which is around 900 meters, or they tower over 10,000 feet or over 3,000 meters. Making a distinction here is one way to keep all of your mountain ranges from being the same. If the continent you’re inventing is going to have two mountain ranges, make one of them small and the other one big. How do you decide? Well, from the previous episode on plate tectonics, you might remember that the tallest mountain ranges tend to be those on the interior of the continent. They also don’t have volcanoes.

On the other hand, those mountain ranges along the coasts do have volcanoes and they tend to be shorter. This isn’t necessarily the case, however, as the mountains on the eastern side of the United States are in the roughly 3,000 to 4,000 foot range, whereas the tallest mountains on the western coast are in that 14,000 range. This might sound contradictory, but basically, that’s the way nature works. Nothing is really a law set in stone, and the great thing about this is that this gives us flexibility to decide what we want to do. We can be informed by science instead of restricted by it.

The lower mountains are less likely to cause the rain shadow that we’ve talked about in a couple episodes here. On the other hand, taller mountains will definitely cause one. This is why we see rain shadows on the western side of the United States, but we do not see them on the eastern side.

Tall mountains are obviously harder to get over, not only for those on land, but even for birds. It may surprise you to know that in the Himalayas, there are species of birds that try to traverse those mountains and they have a lot of difficulty flying that high to do so. If you have dragons in your world, or enormous birds like eagles that you see in The Lord of the Rings, this is also going to affect them. And it might affect them even more than the smaller birds.

So, if you’re trying to decide how tall the mountains should be for your story, then this is one way to make a decision. If you would like the dragons to have to also go around, then there you go. You could just make these mountains very tall. That said, we do like the idea that dragons are all-powerful, but it’s really a good idea in any sort of storytelling to give even something supposedly that powerful some sort of weakness. This is a very realistic and believable one for dragons.

The higher the mountains, the less likely they are traversed, which means that there may be fewer trade routes or settlements there. This, in turn, makes it a good place for a hideout for something like a wizard. In science fiction, this is less true because, of course, we usually have spacecraft and something like that is not really an issue.

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Rivers

Let’s talk a little bit about rivers. They obviously flow downhill because that’s the way gravity works. And, usually, they end up either in a lake or an ocean. But, sometimes, they actually dry up first. They can also fall into something like a sinkhole in the ground and become an underground river. This is something we can leverage if we have a humanoid species, for example, who lives in water. The result could be that the species is found in places where people might not be expecting them. There could be an underground river nearby.

As for what determines where a river flows, it’s generally going to go through the softest material. In other words, it’s going to erode dirt before it’s going to erode rock. We may also want to keep in mind something called a flood plain. This is where the water goes when the river overflows its banks, and a flood plain can be many miles wide and have settlements in it. So, this is where we want to focus on this. Decide if you have any settlements that are built in a flood plain near a major wide river. If so, they have likely been flooded repeatedly, and this is something that you can add to their history file and it’s part of their life there that they expect this. Maybe they’ve even built their houses on stilts because of it.

The age of a river is also something else to consider. If a river is steep and fast, it also tends to be relatively straight. So, if you draw a straight river on your map, you are implying that it’s a young river that is steep and fast. It might also be deep instead of broad because the water is going through there so quickly that it’s carving a deeper channel.

Then there are mature rivers which are less steep and they flow more slowly. And this is going to mean that they have a wider channel and more tributaries.

And then there are the old rivers. These are slow and they don’t erode much anymore. And they usually have a flood plain.

If we are drawing a map, we should also be aware that there are going to be many more waterways than the ones that we’re going to draw, especially if we’re doing a continent-sized map. If we were to draw every little river or stream, the entire thing would be covered in rivers. What this means is that we usually want to make a decision on what the major rivers are, and only depict those. Don’t get carried away with putting every other little river onto the map.

When it comes to lakes, sometimes we have a hard time deciding where a lake should be when we’re drawing a map. Well, one thing to consider is that they tend to be at higher elevations. This means that we might want to draw it closer to the mountain range than the sea, for example. However, we can really get away with doing almost anything we want here and not explain it. All that really matters is that there is an area of depressed land, and that is where the water has begun to collect.

On Earth, most lakes are freshwater, but not all of them are. So, it is possible to have a saltwater lake. It’s also possible to have a lake that does not have a river flowing out the other side. Most of them do because this is how the river maintains its water level. The lakes that don’t have a river causing this outflow of water are going to lose their water through evaporation. This is, again, something we don’t need to explain to anyone, but there is a tendency to always want to have a river coming out of a lake on one side and going in on the other. And we don’t necessarily have to do that. Generally, you will want to do it, however.

There are some other interesting details on lakes and rivers that are found in Creating Places, but I’m not going to cover them here.

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Types of Forests

Arguably, most of us are not that familiar with the different types of forests. And, as a result, we tend to make all of them mostly be the same in our work. So, what we’re going to focus on here is discussing some of the differences of the main types. In Episode 8, I talked about the different types of trees. So, we’re not going to cover that. We’re just going to focus on the different types of forests. That said, it does help to know the basic types of trees. There are evergreens, which are literally green all year. Then there are coniferous ones, which have needle-like leaves such as pine trees. And then there are the deciduous ones, which have seasonal loss of flowers, leaves and fruit ripening.

As it turns out, all trees are actually losing their leaves throughout the year. The issue with deciduous trees is that they do so all at once in a dry season or a winter season, and that’s the one that we associate with losing leaves. But, as someone who has a pine tree in his back yard, I can tell you that I spend all year sweeping off my deck because the pine needles just keep falling off. This is on my mind because I literally did this about three hours ago.

Regular Forests

To talk about the other types of forests, we need to establish a baseline that we will just call the run-of-the-mill forest. This is the one that we will distinguish the other types from. So, what’s a forest? Well, that means it has a tree canopy covering roughly 60 to 100 percent of the land under it. In other words, this has one of the thickest tree canopies and, as a result, the most shade is found under it. If we have decided to invent a plant that needs full sun to grow, then it’s probably not going to be found in this forest unless it’s along the edge of a clearing, for example. There may not be enough sunlight, but it depends on how thick that canopy is. If we’ve decided that it’s covering 100 percent of the land, then yes, that’s true. On the other hand, if it’s only covering 60 percent of the land, well then, there’s probably enough sunlight in certain areas for that to grow.

This is the kind of detail that can add some realism to our story if we’ve decided the characters are hunting for that plant, but they have to go, say, further into the forest to get to an area that is less full of canopy, and it has more sunlight. But, by doing so, they’re going to run into some nasty thing that they’re going to have to fight. Why would they want that plant? Well, because it has some sort of property, like magical or poison, that we need for our story. This amount of tree canopy also means that there will be some underbrush, but it’s not going to be impenetrable.

Woodlands

The next thing we want to talk about is the woodland. Now, we might not call it that on our map. We might just still write the word “forest” or “woods,” but we should note in our files that this is a woodland once we understand what that is and why we would want to create one.

The trees in a woodland are spaced further out, and that means that the canopy is less and, therefore, it’s relatively sunny. Rather than calling a forest a light forest, we should call it a woodland because that’s what it is. There tends to be less underbrush and, therefore, it’s relatively easy to ride horses or other animals through a woodland than a forest, or a jungle, certainly. Keep this in mind when deciding what type of forest is in your story. If you want the characters to be able to ride through there relatively quickly, then you say it’s a woodland. If you want it to be harder to get through, then maybe it’s a forest with more underbrush. Of course, in both cases, they may have trails going through there that bypass this problem, but you get the idea. If they leave the trail, then they have a different degree of difficulty going through the land anyway.

This would also be true for anything living in there that might want to attack our characters. Is the road needed or do they have the ability to go off that road without suffering any major consequences to their travel time? As you might imagine, if you’re a creature who would like to attack travelers, it’s easier to do so in a forest than a woodland, partly because there’s less to hide behind, but, in a forest, the characters you want to attack might be more restricted to the road and, therefore, it’s easier to know where they’re going to be. If we’ve invented a species that is known for attacking travelers in forests, they probably aren’t known for doing that in a woodland. So, if you’ve created two forests – well, one’s a forest and one’s a woodland, that species might be in one, but not in the other so much.

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Savanna

And then there’s a savanna, which has almost no tree canopy at all, despite the trees. One result is that there could be grass, and it could be rather tall grass that could be hiding things like a lion, for example. If you’re wondering where a savanna would be located, well, it’s usually between a forest and a grassland. In other words, the thick trees have given away to sparser trees of the savanna, and those eventually give way to the grassland. We shouldn’t be afraid to create a savanna because a fifth of the worlds land surface is actually comprised of savannas.

Jungles

The last type I want to talk about is the jungle. And this is a term that can be poorly understood for a number of reasons. Sometimes the word “jungle” is confused for the word “rainforest,” but to understand that explanation, you’d first need to understand what a jungle is.

It’s basically a very dense forest with enough underbrush for it to be difficult, if not impossible, to get through unless you cut your way through. By contrast, a rainforest has very little underbrush because the tree canopy prevents light from reaching the ground, which means that it isn’t going to grow. So, the impassable jungle often borders a rainforest because there is enough light at the edge to allow that thick underbrush to grow. You would have to cut your way through it in order to reach the deeper area where it’s going to be a rainforest, and there is not going to be all that underbrush.

So, why does a jungle and a rainforest get confused for each other? Well, it’s because European explorers were initially traveling through tropical rainforests by river, and what happened is that because the river is opening up the forest there, there is enough sunlight to cause a jungle. It’s growing on the edge. So, basically, they thought, wrongly, that the jungle continued miles in each direction away from the river when the reality is if they had just cut their way through a little bit more, they would have seen that it’s just a rainforest and that the jungle is only by the river.

We can use this in our stories by having our characters basically make the same mistake. So, we could have a settlement that’s in a rainforest and that’s only reachable by boat on a river, and people assume that you have to get through this incredibly hard jungle underbrush to get there. And, therefore, people don’t even try without even realizing that maybe they only have to cut their way through, I don’t know, maybe 1,000 yards of jungle before they suddenly have much easier travel time through the rainforest for the rest of the trip.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album Now Weaponized!, called “Serenade.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

World Building University Coming!

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May 292018
 
World Building University Logo

WorldBuilding.University

I’ll be turning the successful series, The Art of World Building, into online courses that will be launched within the next year. There should be a free mini-course, a main course, and then the flagship one that has all the bells and whistles.

This will take some time to plan, film, edit, and prepare for students, and I really need to finish the final book, Cultures and Beyond, to do all the courses, but the free one will be released ahead of the others to get some momentum.

You can bookmark worldbuilding.university now and check back later this year!

Podcast Episode 12 – How to Create a Continent

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May 222018
 

Episode 12: Learn How to Create a Continent

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create a continent, including hemisphere considerations, understanding plate tectonics, and when to use what term for bodies of water, like oceans, seas, bays, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Why the hemisphere our continent is in matters.
  • Why you need to know about plate tectonics
  • Where the biggest mountains will be
  • Where the most explosive volcanoes will be
  • Where the worst earthquakes will be
  • What the difference is between an ocean, sea, bay, and more.
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 12 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twelve. Today’s topic concludes our talk about how to create a continent, including hemisphere considerations, understanding plate tectonics, and when to use what term for bodies of water, like oceans, seas, bays, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 3 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

How Many Continents to Build

While we are talking about creating a continent today, we’re looking at the big picture. And that means we’re not talking about mountain ranges and forests, prairies, grasslands and other details like cities. We will be talking about all of those things, but those will be covered by different episodes that dive more deeply into those subjects. Regardless of how many continents we are creating, the same advice and procedures can apply to doing all of them. For any continent that we create, we don’t have to create every last detail of it, especially if we’re not going to use it.

It helps to have an idea of what you’re going to use it for. Something like a a trilogy or a long novel where the characters are going from one place to another and collecting quest tokens, as they’re called, is going to need more places developed. On the other hand, if you’re writing a short story, you certainly don’t need to go that far. However, that said, even if you’re just focused on a local region, it will help to know where the equator is in relation to your story, and how far away the mountain ranges are and what the weather patterns are like. So, it does help to have that broader image in your head, but this can be general for most of the continent and go into detail just on the area that you’re going to actually use.

One of the reasons we might want to have at least a general sense of other areas on the continent is that we may be able to refer to them. Let’s say that we have a country called Outlandia and we can just say, from Outlandia, they have great wines. And that might be the only thing that we have invented for that place. This might be all that we ever do with that, but then, maybe later, we decide to actually use Outlandia. And, at that point, we start fleshing it out more.

One reason I mention this is that it can become overwhelming to think about creating the details of an entire continent. So, in the beginning, we just want to focus on some basics, and that’s what we’re going to start with. This same idea can apply whether we’re talking about different areas of one continent or if we are talking about multiple continents. If the idea of creating one continent feels overwhelming, then that gets exponentially worse if we’re talking about multiple continents. But sometimes all we need to do is name them and decide which direction they are in from the one that we’re currently working on. We may never use them, we may never mention them, but if we decide to use them later, then at least they exist and we already know where they are in relation to our first continent.

Migration and Skin Color

Figure 9: The Impact of Mountains

Another reason to go ahead and create these other areas of a continent or other continents is that travelers from faraway lands may reach our shores eventually and become integrated into the local world that we’re creating — the local area that we are intending to use. Using Earth as an example, and just the United States, the native population had darker skin than white people from Europe. Black people from Africa, of course, had even darker skin. Unless you are planning to populate your story with people who are exclusively one race, which means they are from one geographic area, then you may want to have an idea where other races could have come from. And by races, I don’t mean dwarves and elves, but races of humans.

You’ve probably heard of the recent controversy about the whitewashing of Hollywood and how films sometimes show only white actors, even when the location is ancient Africa, and that is something that bothers people. Now, whether you agree with that or not, it is still true that the skin color of people in one region is going to be determined by their location comparative to where the equator is. Since the equator is hotter, then people there tend to wear less clothing. And, as a result, they are exposed to much more sun. And, over the millennia, their skin is more likely to darken. By contrast, someone who is living closer to the poles is usually covered up when they’re outside, and this does not happen.

This is a very general concept, but what you want to do is have at least some idea where the white people came from and where the black people came from, just using those two as an example. If they’re from the same continent, then you still need to know where the equator lies on the continent that you are creating, and then you need to understand how far away each region that you are drawing is from that equator. If the continent that you’re creating is relatively small, then you’re probably going to have a skin tone that is pretty similar throughout.

And that means that if there are people of a different skin color there, then they must have come from another continent. And it’s probably going to help you to know how far away that is, which will determine how likely it is that people from there end up here. If we don’t want to invent that other continent in detail, then all we have to do is choose an area on that continent, give it a name and then we are good to go for now. And if we ever decide to return to that and develop it in more detail, well, we’ve already got it.

In a fantasy setting, travel is typically far less likely when we’re talking about great distances than in a sci-fi setting. So, in sci-fi, we’re probably going to have much more integration. But of course, in sci-fi, the problem may be exponentially worse because, in that case, you might be talking about multiple planets and even multiple solar systems. But, once again, we don’t have to create all of those in great detail. Just create what you’re actually going to use.

Getting Started

There’s a fairly simple process you can do to get started with creating a continent. The first step would be to roughly draw one on a sheet of paper, and not worry about how great it looks because no one’s ever going to see this except for you. Then you should decide where that landmass lies in relation to the equator, and where it is in relation to any other continent. And that can be as simple as drawing an arrow pointing to the right side of the page and writing “Outlandia” and indicating it is in that direction.

Then, of course, you’re going to want to give that continent a name. Now, you might just give it a working name for now because that might not be the best thing. For example, I made up Outlandia a couple minutes ago, and I would never actually use that because, personally, I don’t think it sounds very smart. But it just gives me a working title to use for now and I can replace it later.

Once we have a continent drawn in rough form, we can start carving it up into sovereign powers. Now, that said, I will recommend that you draw more features on that continent, such as mountain ranges and forests, because in my experience, when those are there I can often use those to figure out what might be where as far as countries go. If you’d like a really detailed explanation of what I mean, I would suggest picking up a copy of Creating Places, and I think it’s Chapter 1. It talks about case studies.

This is a detailed breakdown of exactly what I was thinking when I created certain areas of one of my continents and how I used land features like forests, mountains, even the sea to determine where those countries broke down in between one and another, or what the boundary was. And then the reason they are that way, and even how I decided, based on land features, what the government type was and whether it was an aggressive or peaceful country, whether they have freedoms or slavery. And all of that is discussed in detail in that one chapter. And that’s one of the few chapters — and, so far, the only chapter — that I’m not covering at all during this podcast because it’s a little too map specific. You kind of need to be looking at the maps that I have in that chapter in order to follow along.

At least one of those case studies is published on artofworldbuilding.com. If you go to the menu for Book Two, there’s a link that says “read free.” You can get to the table of contents on there and you can go to that section and just read some of what I’m talking about.

Now, once we’ve got our sovereign powers decided, we are once again going to need some names for these. And we can follow the same process of just giving them some basic names that we can improve later. In my experience, names are sometimes hard to come up with. And we’re going to discuss this in another podcast episode as part of Volume 3, Cultures and Beyond, but there are techniques we can use to come up with names. And one of the things that happens is that anytime we are inventing names, not every name is going to be great the first time we try to come up with one. So, in my experience, I have repeatedly replaced names that I just didn’t like, or it was okay, but in time I thought, “Okay. I’m finally going to fix that.”

So, that brings up a basic problem with world building, or just a situation with world building, where generally we are often improving on what we’ve created. That comes up a little bit less with short stories because we’re probably going to invent the world, and the story outline and then write the story and not revisit that.

That last thing we might want to do at a high level when creating these sovereign powers is just to decide what kind of sovereign power they are. Our choices are things like authoritative states, democracies, federations and monarchies. We’re going to cover a lot more of that when we get to creating a sovereign power. So, in the beginning, all we really need to do is have a basic understanding of whether this is a benevolent or nefarious society. Is this somewhere where people have freedom and it’s relatively peaceful, or is it really horrible to live there? We can decide later what sort of government is responsible for that quality of life.

Figure 2: The Sea of Fire

We can also decide that certain areas of the continent have a reputation for one thing or another. Think about the Earth and what intrigues us about a place. Some countries are known for their benevolence while others are known for being a source of tension. That would include the Middle East. Other areas are known for their dictatorships and the brutal quality of life. An area might also be known for its hot and humid weather or its hot and dry weather. There’s at least one area on Earth that is synonymous with brutally frigid cold.

More examples include a slave trade, huge forests, impenetrable mountains, vast deserts and exotic animals. Mind you that exotic animals are only going to seem exotic to people who are from another place. To the locals, they’re going to seem normal. But this is one of the reasons to create this sort of reputation for certain areas and then be able to reference them in the area where you are setting your story.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

You can also join the mailing list at artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. This gets you free, reusable templates from each published volume in the series. You don’t even need to buy the books to get these. I also send out contest information, free tips, and other stuff to help with your efforts. Please note I do not share your email address with anyone as that’s against my privacy policy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Sign up today to get your free content and take your world building to the next level.

Which Hemisphere?

The next subject we’re going to talk about is a brief one, and that is the affect of the hemisphere where your continent is located. One reason I’m not going to spend too much time on this is that the previous two episodes talked about this in more detail. We can draw something like a mountain range without having decided where our continent lies in relation to the equator, but we shouldn’t draw things like deserts, grasslands or forests without having made this decision.

The reason is that all of those are going to be affected by where the continent lies in relation to the equator. One reason for this is the prevailing winds and the latitude. And then, of course, there’s the influence of those mountain ranges. The previous episodes talk about the subject of rain shadows, which basically means that the prevailing winds are moving in a given direction, and when they hit a mountain range, those winds go up and all of the water — well, not all of it, but most of the water in the clouds falls on one side of the mountain range, and then, on the other side, there’s no water left to fall. As a result, there is usually a desert there, and this is known as a rain shadow.

How do we know which direction the prevailing winds are blowing and which side of the mountain range is going to have forest and which will have desert? That’s easy. It’s going to be based on the latitude, which means the distance from the equator, which is why we need to know this. It changes depending on how far from the equator you are. I don’t want to reexplain all of this, so if you haven’t listened to Episode 11.1 or 11.2, go ahead and check those out after this one.

One last issue to talk about is that if you are living in a given continent, you are used to thinking that it’s colder in one direction and warmer in another, but this is going to be reversed if you are in the other hemisphere. This is a big deal when you’re creating a continent because you don’t want to be creating a cold region to the north if you later decide that this continent is in the Southern Hemisphere. Because the colder region is actually going to be to the south and the northern area is going to be warm.

Another issue is that the seasons are reversed. When it is winter in the northern hemisphere, it is, of course, summer in the southern hemisphere. The entire planet is not experiencing winter or summer at the same time.

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Plate Tectonics and Mountains/Volcanoes

If you’re like me, you learned about plate tectonics either in junior or high school, but you’ve probably forgotten some of the details. So, we’re going to discuss some of the basics you need to know when inventing a continent.

The biggest reason that this matters is that plate tectonics are going to determine where your mountain ranges are. This is not to suggest that we actually have to figure out where the plate outlines are when we are inventing a continent, but just to get a general understanding of what’s going to happen and what is not going to happen.

For example, I once drew a continent that had a circular mountain range. This is basically impossible. The only explanation for that is that those mountains were part of a range and they were once filled on, but then some sort of titanic explosion happened and carved out the center. I made that decision when I was a teenager when I couldn’t have cared less about being correct. But that’s the kind of mistake we would likely want to avoid. If you’re wondering how I solved that problem later, when I wised up — well, I just told you. I decided that a huge explosion had created this situation. With some ingenuity, there is often a way out of our mistakes, but it is better to avoid those mistakes in the first place.

In theory, that’s one of the reasons you’re listening to this podcast. So, let’s get started.

Figure 4: Kysh Kingdom

A planet like the Earth is composed of an outermost shell of slowly moving plates, and those plates either move towards each other, which is called convergence, or they move away from each other, which is called divergence, or they transform. We’ll talk more about that last one in a minute. The converging or diverging ones are what give us mountain ranges and volcanos. Most of the volcanos occur where two plate boundaries intersect, but some of the volcanos can exist in the middle of a plate due to a flaw in the plate. And what that means is that the crust of the earth could be unusually thin right there. And, as a result, the magma below the surface is able to burst through and create a volcano.

So, one thing that this means is that we could have a volcano anywhere on our map and no one can tell us, “No, that’s not possible. It couldn’t be there.” I can almost hear some of you breathing a sigh of relief the same way that I did.

Since I live in the United States, I’m more familiar with what’s going on on either coast and I’m going to use this country as an example of something. The west coast, with California, is known for earthquakes, but the eastern coast is not. And there is a reason for this. Every continent, obviously, has an area that is above water. But, just off shore, there is an area of the continental shelf that is underwater. This is an area of relatively shallow water compared to the deeper sea that is farther away. On the west coast, the continental shelf ends relatively near the end of the actual continent, but on the east coast the continental shelf is relatively farther away.

This is something that we can decide almost arbitrarily when we are inventing our own continents. After all, no one from this invented planet we are making up is going to come to Earth and tell us that we’re wrong.

One thing that this means is that deep ocean is just off shore on the west coast, but on the east coast it is farther away. And one of the things that this implies is that if we are creating the sort of world that has sea monsters, they are more likely to be close to the western side of the United States, in this example, than the eastern side of the United States, if we are deciding that those sea monsters are truly enormous and prefer having deep water to live in.

The more important aspect of this is that the plate boundary is near the west coast of the United States, and that means that this causes dramatic activity at the boundary between the two plates. What kind of dramatic activity? Mountain ranges, volcanos and earthquakes. So, something to keep in mind is that if there is deep water just off shore, that also would imply that there are probably mountains and volcanos on the continent right there.

One of the challenges of world building is that we sometimes don’t really have a reason for making one choice or another, and, therefore, we get stuck by indecision. This is one way to get past that. If we would like sea monsters that prefer deep water to be near the eastern side of the continent, then we are probably going to have tall mountain ranges and volcanos there. If we don’t have a sea monster idea or story in mind, then we can still just make this decision somewhat arbitrarily but understand what we are implying. A shipwreck on the eastern coast of the United States is likely to be in relatively shallow water compared to one off the western coast of the United States, unless that shipwreck is relatively close to the continent.

Convergent Boundaries

Let’s talk about convergent boundaries. What this means is that two plates are moving together and one of them is destroying the edge of the other. The results of this can be be varied. One result is called subduction, and this means that one plate is forced under the other. This often happens when the two plates are for an ocean and a continent. This is known as an ocean-to-continent boundary. When this happens, the ocean plate is the one that goes under the continent, and this causes a mountain range that is on that side of the continent, such as the western side of the United States.

One thing this means is that that mountain range will be parallel to the coast. So, if the coast is running north to south, the mountain range is, too. And the volcanos that are here are usually very explosive. In fact, they are the most explosive volcanos on earth. Of course, one of the things this means is that the residents on such a coast should be aware of volcanos. Depending on how well they keep written records, they may be well aware of when the last eruption was. They might also have myths about this and cultural milestones, such as the last time that eruption took place, because that might have destroyed the city or something else that’s very important to everyone.

Another scenario is that we could have two ocean plates where one of them is being forced under the other. And what this causes is a chain of volcanos, just like those in Hawaii.

Then there is the continent-to-continent boundary. And when this happens, the plates converge, fold and lift, forming very tall mountain ranges with no volcanos. These are the tallest mountain ranges on the world, and they are located in the interior of the continents. When drawing a map or deciding on where things are, this is something we should consider.

Divergent Boundaries

Earlier, I mentioned another kind of boundary, and that is the divergent boundary, when two plates are moving away from each other. If this happens underwater, this can also from volcanic islands. If this happens on land instead, what happens is that a low area of land can form and then possibly fill with ocean water to create a sea, such as with the Mediterranean Sea.

You may have heard this idea that the Earth once had a super continent, which I think was called Pangea. The reason this broke apart was divergent plates. The plates moved away from each other. Evidence of this can be seen just by looking at a map, because the left side, or the western side, of Africa looks like it fits into the right side, or eastern side, of South America like they’re some sort of jigsaw puzzle. We may want to consider this when drawing two continents, because we could draw the right side of one to be a mirror image of the left side of another one.

Sometimes, as world builders, we are looking for a reason to make a decision, and this can be one way to achieve that decision. Not only can we decide what one side of a continent looks like, but we can decide on what another side of a different continent looks like. However, don’t go overboard. Don’t make every single edge of every continent look like it fits into some sort of jigsaw puzzle.

Transform Boundaries

The last type of boundary is called a transform boundary, and this means that two plates are grinding past each other without either of them getting destroyed. This causes really strong earthquakes, but, aside from this, there’s no evidence, like mountains or volcanoes, that they actually exist unless we are a scientist studying this sort of thing. What this means for us as world builders is that we can basically ignore this type of boundary. It’s not going to affect what we indicate exists on a map. On the other hand, we could decide that there are strong earthquakes somewhere that is far from a mountain range, and that this is the reason for it.

One way to tell that such a boundary exists is if a road that used to connect has a break in that road that is 20, 30, or more feet apart from each other. We could have our characters see that a road they are following suddenly ends, but that it is continuing but it’s 30 feet away. In doing so, we would be implying that this area is prone to extremely strong earthquakes.

Subscribe

So let’s talk about how to subscribe to this podcast. A podcast is a free, downloadable audio show that enables you to learn while you’re on the go. To subscribe to my podcast for free, you’ll need an app to listen to the show from.

For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

For Android listeners, you can download the Stitcher radio app, which is free, and search for The Art of World Building.

This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

How to Name Water Bodies

There’s one more major subject that we should discuss when we are creating a continent, and that is the bodies of water that are surrounding that continent. Here on Earth, we talk about there being five different oceans, and those are the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern oceans, but the reality is that these are all one, continuous body of water that is a kind of world ocean. Why did we divide them up? Because it makes it easier to refer to one area of that ocean versus another. Also bear in mind that sometimes we talk about there being Northern Pacific and a Southern Pacific Ocean, for example. This is done for the same reason. These are really the same body of water.

Figure 4: Kysh Kingdom

One of the things that we’re talking about right now is why different bodies of water are named different things. For example, you may have wondered what the difference between an ocean and a sea is. The quick answer to that is that there is actually no difference. This is one reason why we can all be confused about that. We’re assuming that there is a difference, otherwise why would people have two different words? But I guess people just like to use different words for the same thing. It’s called a synonym.

That said, the word “sea” is typically used to refer to a smaller area than an ocean, and it is often an area that is surrounded by land on several sides. What that means is that it’s going to be near a continent, of course. There is, of course, something called a lake, and one of the differences between a lake and a sea is that a lake is completely surrounded by land, whereas a sea is only partially surrounded by it. That said, sometimes a very large lake is called a sea, and there could be several reasons for this. One of those might be that technology is not great and, therefore, the people who are living on one shore of that lake feel like the lake extends indefinitely, and it might extend so far out of reach that they think it’s a sea when it isn’t.

There’s another reason to call a lake a sea, and that is simply because the name might sound better. The Sea of Sadness sounds more interesting than the Lake of Sadness. Another explanation is that the word “sea” can often have a connotation that the land on the far side of that sea is somehow untamed and wild. And, therefore, it is dangerous. You may have noticed that we are basically using the wrong word, sea, to refer to a lake, but that we can sometimes get away with this and justify it, although we don’t necessarily have to explain to our audience why we have chosen that name.

One point here is if real people on Earth are using the wrong word for something, then there’s certainly no reason we can’t use it, too. One problem to be aware of though is that there will be people who think they know everything. They’re a know-it-all, and they could come along and say, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” But we do have some flexibility here.

When we are creating our continent, there are other words we can use to refer to different areas of the edge of that continent where it meets the water. I’m going to quickly run through some of those. Like a sea, a bay is a body of water that is surrounded on several sides by land and it can be part of an ocean or a lake. A gulf is a very large bay. A cove is a smaller bay and is usually circular, with a narrow passage that leads into it or out of it. A fjord is a narrow bay with a steep terrain on either side of it, or, usually, both sides of it. An inlet is a narrow, but long, indentation of shoreline and which often connects a bay to another body of water. There could be a group of these, and those are often called a sound. A sound is large enough to draw on a continent-sized map, and they can be big, if not bigger, than a bay. Finally, if there are two large bodies of water that are separated by a narrow area of water, that smaller area is called a strait, channel, pass or passage.

If you’re having trouble remembering all of that, then you could pick up a copy of Creating Places, and Chapter 3 has all of this listed out for you.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album The Firebard, called “Journeys.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

5 More Tips – Land Features

 5 Tips Series, news  Comments Off on 5 More Tips – Land Features
May 222018
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #13): Land Features

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is land features. You can read more in Chapter 4, “Creating Land Features”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Know Your Forest Types”

Why have every forest be a generic one when we can distinguish between forests, savannahs, woodlands, and jungles? Each gives a different impression and causes variation in animals and creatures present, plus travel conditions.

Tip #2: “Know Where Grasslands Are”

They tend to be located farther from a mountain range that is causing a rain shadow. It’s reasonable to have a forest on one side of it and a desert on the other.

Tip #3: “Don’t Forget Wetlands!”

Mires, bogs, swamps, and marshes are similar to us if we haven’t done our research, but Creating Places gives you enough detail to tell and show your audience the difference. They can form boundaries that average people don’t want to enter, or places from which strange creatures emerge. They also let us create a more varied landscape.

Tip #4: “Deserts Tend to be Rocky”

We think of huge sand dunes with deserts, but the majority are covered in hard, packed Earth, almost like pavement. This is hard on the feet (or hooves) but offers a very different experience than sand as far as trudging along is concerned. Understand where this happens to utilize it effectively.

Tip #5: “Decide on the Cultivation Level”

Some worlds have been terraformed while others are wild, untamed expanses. Decide how much your species have cultivated the world. This can include burning down forests, dumping toxic wastes, turning deserts into cities, and much more.

Summary of Chapter 4—Creating Land Features

Figure 25 Savannah

A continent will have mountains, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, forests, woodlands, savannahs, jungles, prairies, wetlands, and deserts, but world builders should understand each to place them in believable locations. While some aspects are obvious, minor details can change our decisions and augment our resulting stories. Why say characters have entered a run-of-the-mill forest when we can say it’s a savannah instead, describing how it looks and what life is like for inhabitants and those traversing it? This chapter aids world builders in making a more varied landscape—one that is accurately depicted.

Buy Now!

Podcast Episode 11 (Part 2) – How to Create a Planet

 news, Podcasts  Comments Off on Podcast Episode 11 (Part 2) – How to Create a Planet
May 082018
 

Episode 11 (Part 2): Learn How to Create a Planet

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create a planet and focuses on climates. This includes understanding the role of the equator and oceans, climate zones, prevailing winds, rain shadows, and of course the climates themselves.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How the oceans and equator impact climate
  • What climates zones are and why they matter
  • How prevailing impact climate and vegetation
  • What a rain shadow is and why you must know this before placing vegetation or deserts around mountains
  • What climates are typically used in our stories
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 11 (Part 2) Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number eleven, part two. Today’s topic concludes our talk about how to create a planet and focuses on climates. This includes understanding the role of the equator and oceans, climate zones, prevailing winds, rain shadows, and of course the climates themselves. This material and more is discussed in chapter 2 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Basics on Climate

Climate is one of those subjects that most of us probably don’t find very interesting, but I think that’s partly because most of us don’t really understand it. I mean, we have a basic understanding just from living on the planet, but we don’t really understand the details of it that actually do make it interesting, and we certainly don’t understand how those apply to a world that we are inventing. So, by the time we’re done with this podcast episode, I think you will find it more interesting that you do right now – or, at least, that’s my hope.

When it comes to climate, there are things that affect the entire planet’s climate, and then there are things that are happening on a more regional level. So, first, we’re going to talk about that bigger picture, and the two primary things we want to focus on are the equator’s role and then the role of the ocean.

The Equator

Let’s first talk about the equator. We all know what one is, but it’s basically an imaginary line. You know, it doesn’t actually exist. It’s just a line that’s equally distant between the north pole and the south pole. One of the things about the equator is that days and nights are exactly at the same length there, all year round. This changes the farther north or south you go towards a pole, to the point where it can be night for six months and then day for six months at one of the poles.

It’s also perpetually hot there, except in higher altitudes where it’s a little bit cooler. As a general rule, things tend to remain the same at the equator, and the equator is sometimes the exception to some of the other climate things that we’re going to talk about today. Since things stay the same, one of the things we don’t really have at the equator is the normal four seasons that most of us experience. They just don’t exist. Well, technically, they do exist, but they’re so subtle that they may as well not. If you are building a fantasy world where the characters in that region never leave that area, then they may not even understand the idea of the seasons, the same way that they would have never seen snow.

Now, they do have something instead of the four pronounced seasons, and that is basically a wet season and a dry season. Some places are actually wet all year, but many of them are just wet for something like 200 days a year on Earth. Of course, this means that they are predominantly wet. If you don’t like rain, you probably don’t want to live near the equator.

And, now, if you’re building a world where there are inhabitants who never leave the equator, then they are probably very used to the rain. They probably take it for granted and their culture as likely to have something to do with this abundant rainfall. Life in this area is often based upon the rain. If you are setting a story at the equator, you should take into account that it’s probably going to be raining on the characters most of the time. If this is something you don’t want in your story, then you might want to move it further from the equator.

For those of us who write science fiction, you may have wondered why space craft on Earth are usually launched from Florida, and the reason is that this is closest to the equator in the United States. The reason this matters is that the escape velocity needed to escape our atmosphere is less at the equator because the planet is spinning faster there. So, if we’re building a science fiction planet, we might want to consider this. We may have decided that the propulsion systems on that planet are so powerful that they don’t need to worry about this anymore, but it could be more realistic to decide that they do still need to worry about this, and plan our strategy and our books more with that in mind.

One of the things you can do with this is have a kingdom that is near the equator and, therefore, it is in control of the territory on that continent. And there’s another kingdom further north, for example, and that kingdom, the northern one, wants to send spaceships into space, but it has a harder time doing so because it’s farther from the equator. And this might cause it to try engaging in a war to gain territory that is closer to the equator. So, this is one way in which our research into world building and how the planet works, and just physics, can help us think of a story scenario.

In the previous episode, we talked about the Earth spinning counter-clockwise, which is why the sun is rising in the east and setting in the west. This is important to remember as we continue through this episode, because some of the other issues I’m going to talk about have something to do with which direction the winds are going and that is based on the direction that the planet is spinning, in part. But the reason I mention it right now is that in order for spacecraft to take advantage of this, they have to launch in an easterly direction. So, you could, again, have another scenario where two kingdoms do have territory near the equator, but one of them must launch its spacecraft over the other one to get into space and, as a result, it’s very likely to be shot down. Of course, this is assuming that they are enemies.

Personally, I find this kind of detail more interesting, and this is part of what I alluded to at the beginning, where understanding climate and other things about our planet can make the subject of climate more interesting. And, in this case, it can also impact our story and add a nice bit of realism to what we are doing.

Another issue we should talk about when it comes to the equator is that when we are inventing a continent for our world, we should always make an early decision how far from the equator this continent is. This may not seem like it matters at first, but the distance from the equator is going to determine the direction of the prevailing winds, and those are what carry moisture from one place to another, and that moisture can be blocked by mountains. And that is going to cause something that we’re going to talk about in a few minutes called “rain shadows.” This also causes the location of deserts and forests, so all of this is related to how far from the equator is this landmass.

If you’re not sure why any of that matters, by the time we conclude this podcast episode, you will.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

You can also join the mailing list at artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. This gets you free, reusable templates from each published volume in the series. You don’t even need to buy the books to get these. I also send out contest information, free tips, and other stuff to help with your efforts. Please note I do not share your email address with anyone as that’s against my privacy policy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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The Ocean

Now we’re going to talk about the ocean and its affect on the climates, which is actually quite significant. If you have a world that has almost no oceans, then the climates are going to be much more stable everywhere. But, as I mentioned in the previous episode, we are focused on creating an Earth-like planet, not one that has so little water. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look, now, at how the oceans affect climate.

The first thing to understand is that the ocean absorbs a lot of heat from the sun. It then distributes that heat around the world as the oceans move. If your planet is not rotating, but is tidally locked to the sun, this is not going to happen. But that does not fit our description of an Earth-like world, but I did want to mention that.

Something to be aware of is that the water tends to circulate in certain directions, and what I’m talking about is, you know, we have one ocean that is really the entire planet. But, here on Earth, we call parts of that ocean the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean, even though they’re really one, giant body of water. But, that aside, the Atlantic Ocean, the water in that area, it spins in a certain direction. And which direction that is has to do with which direction the Earth is spinning.

And, as it turns out, it’s also different in the southern hemisphere versus the northern hemisphere. This might sound a little complicated, but it’s actually easier than it seems. In fact, all of the oceans in the southern hemisphere are rotating counter-clockwise, whereas the oceans in the northern hemisphere are rotating clockwise. Since many of my listeners are either going to be in the United States or in other English-speaking countries like Europe, I’m going to focus on the Northern Atlantic Ocean as an example.

The Northern Atlantic Ocean, between the United States and the northern coast of Africa and Europe, is spinning clockwise. And what this means is that warm water from the equator is going up the eastern side of the United States, and, conversely, cold water from near Europe in the northern part of Europe is going down towards the equator along the coast of Africa. And then it goes back west across the equator. So, the ocean is spinning in a giant circle.

Figure 14 Ocean Currents on Earth

Figure 14 Ocean Currents on Earth

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it turns out I’ve got one on the Artofworldbuilding.com website. It’s under the Creating Places book. There is a page for all the images that are in the book, and it is Figure 14 from Chapter 2. It shows all of the ocean currents on Earth with blue arrows showing where the cold water is going, red arrows showing where the warm water is going, and black arrows showing water that’s probably basically in between the two of them.

Even without the picture, it’s relatively easy to picture this. If you just imagine the Atlantic Ocean in the north and you’re looking at the map, the water on the left side of the ocean is going up, and then it goes across the top to the right, and then it goes down the right side of the ocean, and then back left across the bottom.

So, what does this mean for climate? Well, on the eastern coast of the United States, there is warm water that is going up that coast. And, as a result, this is impacting the climate by bringing warmer and moist air there. The opposite is true on the other side of the United States where the Pacific Ocean is bringing cold water down from Alaska along the western coast of California and Oregon and Washington State. And, as a result, the water is much colder there. So, as someone who grew up on the eastern United States, I am used to going into the ocean in the summer and having the water being relatively warm. And I have gone to vacation on the western side of the United States and gotten in the water there and been shocked at how cold it is. And this is what’s going on.

Now, I did mention the idea that you could decide to have your planet rotating in the opposite direction. You know, the Earth is going counter-clockwise. If you decide to have your planet going clockwise, then that means that all the Earth’s ocean direction of the currents that I just talked about will be reversed.

Now, I did mention that in the southern hemisphere the water is swirling in the other direction. But, as it turns out, the affect is the same, and here’s what I mean: Regardless of whether you are in the northern or southern hemisphere, the water on the western coast tends to be colder than the water on the eastern coast. It’s true regardless of which hemisphere that you are in. The reason this is true is that in the southern hemisphere, the cold water from the pole is being pulled counter-clockwise up the right side of the ocean. Which means, once again, it’s on the western edge of a continent. Similarly, since the water is going counter-clockwise, the water from the equator is going down the left side of the ocean, which is the eastern and right side of a continent if we’re looking at the map. So, the rule does hold true. Regardless of hemisphere, on Earth or any planet where the world is spinning counter-clockwise, the water on the west coast is colder, and the water on the east coast is warmer.

As we continue our talk about climates, you’ll see how this affects everything.

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Climate Zones

The next issue we need to talk about that affects climate on a global scale are the climate zones, and there are four of these. The tropics, subtropics, temperate zones and polar zones. We’re going to start at the equator and work our way outwards. And this means that we’re going to start our discussion with the tropics.

These run from 0°, which is the equator, to roughly 23.5° latitude. What really defines this is not the latitude, but the spot at which the sun appears to be directly overhead at its highest point in the sky. Naturally, most of us have no idea where that really is, so it’s just safe to say that, at least on Earth, it’s roughly 23.5°. If your planet is roughly the same size, then it’s going to be roughly the same spot. This isn’t something we really need to worry about too much other than just having a general sense of where that is. If yours is 23° or 24° on your planet that you’re inventing, that’s perfectly fine. No one’s going to call you out on that and say, “Well, that’s not true,” because, of course, we’re inventing a planet that doesn’t exist.

Figure 16 The Americas: Climate Zones

Figure 16 The Americas: Climate Zones

One of the most important aspects of the tropics is that they move the heat away from the equator towards the poles. This is true both in the ocean and in the atmosphere. That said, the tropics are not a climate, they are a climate zone. And what I mean is that if we have colder ocean temperatures, or even warmer ocean temperatures and mountain ranges, these can further modify the climate on the continents. For example, if the water is very cold, then the atmosphere is going to be a little bit colder there. And if the mountains are very high right there, then the air is thinner up there and this is also going to have an affect on the climate.

If this is a little bit unclear on exactly how that works, it will become clearer in a few minutes when we talk about the actual climates themselves. Right now, we’re talking about climate zones. And what do I really mean about a climate zone? We’re talking about a general area, in this case of the tropics, from 0° to 23.5°, and this goes all the way around the Earth, both north and south of the equator. This is a zone. The actual climates that are in that zone are affected by being in that zone, but they may differ from the average, and we’re going to talk about that more in a few minutes.

Now, you may have heard the terms “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn.” These are just the names of the northern and southern tropics, respectively. On an invented world, we’re going to want different names for these, and that raises the question of how do you choose a name? Let’s say we’re talking about the northern tropics and you have a kingdom on one of the continents that is synonymous with the area between the equator and roughly 23.5°. In other words, it’s most filling up that area of the tropics. You could name the tropics after that and have that be on your map so that you just call it the “Tropic of Antaria” if the Kingdom of Antaria is filling up that area of the northern tropics.

Now, it’s true that in another part of the world they may call it something else, but this is going to depend on how much travel is really happening on your world. And, let’s face it, most of us are never going to mention this, so what you call it isn’t really that important. However, it can be relatively easy to make up a name like this. And, if you have a sailing story, for example, where a character is travelling into the tropics, it might add a little bit of realism to throw out the name in your narration or in dialogue.

Since the tropics end at roughly 23.5°, they give way to the subtropics, which run from there until about 40°. As you might expect, this area is a little bit cooler. On Earth, as it turns out, most of the world’s deserts are in this region. Further from there is the temperate zone, which runs from roughly 40° latitude to 66° latitude. And this is, arguably, the most important one – at least here on Earth – because the majority of the world’s population lives in that zone.

In this zone, coastal areas experience a milder winter and summer than areas that are further inland, which experience a greater range in temperatures. In other words, it’s going to be even hotter and colder within the interior of a continent than it is on the coast. And the reason for that is the moisture in the air, and that is caused by the currents in the ocean.

It’s also worth noting that if you have a very high-altitude area in this zone, it might essentially act like it’s further north in the polar zone. What I mean is that it’s essentially going to be a lot colder as if it’s further north because of how high it is.

And the last area we need to talk about is the polar zone, which is basically from the pole all the way down to 66° latitude. There isn’t really much to say about this that isn’t perfectly obvious to all of us.

Now, I recognize that some of that information is kind of dry, but you’re in luck because the next two subjects we’re going to talk about are prevailing winds and rain shadows, and both of those are actually pretty interesting and have a dramatic impact on where vegetation is and just how we go about laying out a continent or a region of one.

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Prevailing Winds

Let’s talk about prevailing winds. What this means is that the winds are traveling a certain direction based on how far they are from the equator. In other words, how far from the equator those winds are. Fortunately, this is relatively simple. The winds that are closer to the equator in the tropics and subtropics are generally going west. By contrast, the easterly winds are the ones that are in the temperate zone. This is not to say that the winds are due east or due west, which means straight east or west. It means that they are westerly, for example. That means they’re going mostly west, but they’re kind of little bit northwest.

The reason we care about these winds is that, along with geography like mountains, this will determine where rain falls. And that, in turn, will determine where vegetation and lack of vegetation, like a desert, is. Since the rotation of the Earth is responsible for the direction of these winds, we need to be aware of which direction the Earth is spinning, which is counter-clockwise, and which direction these winds tend to be in different latitudes, as I just mentioned. And the only reason we really need to care about this is that if we decide to change our invented planet so that it’s rotating the other way, then all of these winds will also be the opposite direction.

Figure 17 Prevailing Winds

Figure 17 Prevailing Winds

In other words, if the planet is rotating clockwise, then the easterly winds will be those near the equator, and the westerly winds will be those in the temperate zones. I do have a figure, number 17, on the website showing the prevailing winds that will really help get this across.

The biggest reason that we really care about these prevailing winds is that they are going to determine something known as a rain shadow. This is one of the big payoffs for listening to this particular episode of the podcast, because this is really going to have an affect on your continent. What’s going to happen is that there is moisture-carrying wind that is approaching a mountain range, and that mountain range will cause the atmosphere and the clouds to rise. And what’s going to happen as a result of this is that a lot of that moisture is going to fall on that side of the mountains as rain. One result is going to be lush vegetation on one side of the mountain range. But, as the moisture-carrying winds go over that range, on the other side there is now very little moisture in the atmosphere. And, as a result, there is no rain to fall on the other side, so you’re going to end up with a desert. And this is known as a rain shadow.

A rain shadow can extend as much as a thousand miles away from a mountain range. For example, in the United States, the mountains on the western coast cause a rain shadow, and this is partly responsible for the great plains that fill up the center of the United States. Why is that a plain instead of a forest? Well, because there isn’t enough moisture to fall out of the sky to cause that kind of vegetation there.

If you want to see this for yourself, you can go to Google Maps and zoom out on any continent, or even the whole planet, and you can see where there is vegetation on one side of a mountain range and there is usually a barren area of land on the other side. This is definitely something you want to take advantage of when you are laying out your continents and deciding where a forest, mountain and desert are.

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The Climates

The last thing we’re going to talk about are the climates themselves and where these are typically found. I’m going to keep this at a high level because it’s kind of a lot of information to remember in a podcast episode for you. So, you may already know some of what I’m about to say, but I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page. Climate is a long-term weather pattern, rather than the day-to-day changes. There are times in our modern world where someone is talking about climate change, and someone points to the weather today to indicate that there is no climate change occurring, and this is a faulty argument. Such a person does not understand the difference between climate and weather.

What is that difference? Well, weather changes from day-to-day. Climate is something that basically stays the same for a long time. But, once it does start to change, that change is gradual and it moves in a certain direction and keeps moving in that direction, which is why we talk about global warming. If global warming will be followed by global cooling, that’s not going to be for thousands of years. It’s not going to be something that happens tomorrow.

As far as climate goes, there are things that can affect that climate and change what we might expect, given the latitude of the region we’re talking about. For example, the terrain, the altitude and nearby bodies of water, and their current, can all impact the climate in a region.

The first kind of climate we want to talk about is tropical, which are those nearest the equator. There are several kinds of tropical climates, including tropical rainforests, tropical monsoon, and tropical wet/dry, which is also known as savannah. For most of us, all we’re really going to care about is the tropical rainforest one. So, that’s what I’m going to discuss briefly here.

This is usually found within 5 to 10 degrees of the equator but can sometimes extend to as far as 25 degrees away. The thing about this climate is that the seasons do not really happen here, as we were talking about earlier, with anything this close to the equator. Most places are also wet all year round, and a rain shadow is not going to have as big of an affect here because there is just so much water.

Let’s move on to the dry climate. Naturally, such an area is known for how little rain it receives. What we really care about here is that there are three types of desert; hot, cold and mild. The hot deserts are sunny all year round, and one of the side affects of this is that they have extremely high temperatures during the day, but at night it also gets really cold. This is almost always found in tropical regions. We’re not going to find such a desert in Canada, for example.

By contrast, a cold desert is very hot during the summer, but the winter can be way far below freezing, to the point of it being really dangerous. These are the ones that are usually found in the rain shadow of a mountain. They also occur at really high elevations. These are the ones often found in a temperate zone like in the United States.

Finally, we get to the mild deserts, which are usually mild all year round, and are usually found on the western edge of a continent or at a high altitude. Earlier, we talked about how the western edge of a continent will have colder water, and that is partly responsible for these forming. So, this type of desert is found on the western side of continents. That also means near the coast.

What does all this mean for us? Well, we should have some idea of what kind of desert forms where, if we are intending to have our characters traveling through one of them so that we can characterize it appropriately and distinguish one from another so that they’re not all the same.

Next, we get to the temperate climates. And, once again, there are a half-dozen varieties of these that I’m not going to cover in detail. This is where most of the Earth’s population lives, and that’s partly because that’s where most of the land is. These climates have all four seasons. I could go into detail about all of these, but I have a feeling they would put you to sleep. If you are really interested in this, I would suggest looking at the website, Artofworldbuilding.com, and I do have a chart listing all of these out and making it relatively easy for you to understand them. It is Figure 19, the climate chart.

The next climate we should mention is humid continental. And what this really means is these are the ones that are found in the interior of a continent, away from the coast. Once again, there are a half-dozen varieties of this. These are also found on the eastern side of continents because of the warm, humid air there. Forests grow really well in this climate, including evergreens and conifers. Rain tends to fall equally in all seasons. These differences and more are also summed up in the chart that I referenced earlier.

The only climate left is the polar one, but you basically know what this one is. It’s very cold.

Conclusion

So, to conclude our discussion about climate, I think the big take-aways for you are to just understand the equator’s role and the ocean’s role, and where there tends to be warmer and colder water. You know, as far as which side of the continent. And then understanding the zones, the prevailing winds and the rain shadows are the big ones.

As far as the specific climates, I would use that chart that I have on the website and go through that anytime you are getting ready to set a story in a given city because you can decide what the weather is basically going to be like from year to year, and whether it’s going to be rainy or dry or really humid. And there are areas of different countries that are known for the weather.

You know, in the United States, the southeastern area is known for being really humid and hot. By contrast, in the southwestern area, it’s known for being really hot, but dry. So, this is the kind of difference that you might want to talk about when your characters are in a story, because, otherwise, you might just be tempted to make every place look like it’s exactly the same. And we can create a better a sense of realism by doing something with these climates.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album Serenade of Strings, called “A Sad Winter’s Day.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

5 More Tips – Creating Planets

 5 Tips Series, news  Comments Off on 5 More Tips – Creating Planets
May 082018
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #12): Planets

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is planets. You can read more in Chapter 2, “Creating a Planet”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Understand the Ocean’s Impact”

Ocean currents move in certain patterns that mean one side of a continent has warmer water than the other. This is usually the same across a world. Why does it matter? It affects what sea life might be there and what the climate is like. We don’t need to leverage this, but the knowledge helps makes one location on our world feel different from another, rather than all getting no comment on the climate or its impact on vegetation, livestock, and culture.

Tip #2: “Use Prevailing Winds to Shape the Land”

If your planet spins, it has prevailing winds, which are either east or west. Which direction depends on which was the planet rotates, but it also depends on how far from the equator we’re talking. It changes direction depending on latitude and it’s important to know where this happens on your continent because it affects vegetation.

Tip #3: “Understand Rain Shadows”

If there’s a north-to-south mountain range, moisture-carrying, prevailing winds must go over them. This causes the rain to fall on one side of those mountains, but then there’s no water left for the other side. The result? A desert.

Tip #4: “Know Your Desert Types”

Hot deserts have clear, sunny skies (hence the heat) but get cold at night due to those same skies. Cold deserts are also hot during the day but brutally cold, far below freezing, in winter. Mild deserts are, well, milder than both. Each is found in certain climates or locations (inland, coastal, or at high elevations). Knowing which is found where is more accurate but also lets us create differences instead of every place being the same.

Tip #5: “Use Analogues for Climate”

It can be easier to base a whole continent’s climates based on a familiar country. If you know the climate in Europe, assume your continent is there and is surrounded by similar other continents. The shapes you draw on a map can be different, but this is a quick way to get it “right” without the research!

Summary of Chapter 2—Creating a Planet

This chapter focuses on creating an Earth-like planet. World builders should understand the role of the moon and its effects on tides, seasons, and more if we intend to have a moon different from our own or multiple moons. Mention of other planets, constellations, and comets can make our world seem like it’s not an island. The equator, climate zones, prevailing winds, and rain shadows all affect how much precipitation falls in an area, which in turn affects all life there, including vegetation or the lack thereof. Understanding these basics will help us create believable landscapes.

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