When we talk about world-shaping forces, climate and terrain are inextricably locked in an endless cycle of transformation. The presence and placement of mountain ranges and oceans can have a dramatic effect on weather patterns. On a geological time scale, the effects of rain, wind, snow, and heat can erode mountains, carve canyons, thaw glaciers and lower (or raise) sea levels.
But these global elements don’t just influence each other. A world shapes the people in it, so the choices you make in worldbuilding have the power to shape cultures, and those cultures shape individual characters. Climate and terrain can set the stage for global conflicts. They can represent obstacles and opportunities in your story, at both the character and world level.
Let’s take a look at some important worldbuilding questions (these over on World Anvil are great!) around climate and terrain, and see how you can utilize them to add conflict, theme and weight to your fictional world.
What You'll Learn
How can climate challenge your characters?
In our real world, climate and weather can be a driving force behind everything from trade routes to migration patterns. The existence of trade winds in a world influences what materials, foods, and other resources are accessible to different peoples. Cultural practices and traditions are often anchored in the seasons. Weather affects which crops can be grown and the harvest seasons, which affects cuisine and culture.
Beyond these obvious influences, people who grow up in deserts have a different relationship to water than people who grow up in rainy climates. A river in the path of a desert denizen may present a bigger challenge than it does for a rainforest dweller.
A cold climate means people need to spend resources on heat – what are they diverting those resources away from? Or have they evolved to adapt to a colder environment? Those regions may also have a shorter growing season, so one single bad crop could potentially be devastating to a whole community.
How can climate impact your plot?
Climate and weather conditions can add dramatic tension to the plot of your novel, story, screenplay or game. An oncoming monsoon season or winter freeze (or thaw) can create a ticking clock or deadline – to coin a phrase, “winter is coming.” Perhaps characters can only safely travel before the roads flood? Or if they fail to cross a frozen lake while the ice is thick enough, it will mean a much longer, more arduous journey?
Floods, drought, blizzards and heat waves can all create conflicts over resources. Water, fuel, food and shelter can all become objects of contention for groups stressed by extreme weather.
Climate change can also reveal things that were previously hidden, creating new mysteries for your protagonists to explore. A good real world example of this is Lake Mead in the U.S. As the level of the water has receded in recent years, the remains of several victims of foul play and accidents have been discovered. In your world, climate change, or dramatic shifts in the weather, might reveal the entrance to previously-hidden ruins of a lost civilization.
Not to mention that man vs. nature is a classic plot point all of its own, and climate plays a big part in that struggle!
How can terrain challenge your characters?
Throwing your characters into unfamiliar surroundings can be an easy way to show how they handle stress or the unexpected. People tend to feel comfortable with the familiar, and fear what they haven’t experienced.
A character who grew up in the open plains may fear heights. Someone from the mountains may feel anxious and exposed in an environment of wide, open spaces. People who grow up in coastal cities or seafaring societies can usually swim – and if they can’t, it is probably a bigger deal (and potentially a source of embarrassment or shame). What skills do people need to thrive based on their physical environment? How could not having those capabilities cause a person to be “othered” by their society, and create the sense of being an outcast?
Oceans, mountains and deserts can isolate groups and cultures. For some characters, just leaving home to start an adventure can be a challenge that feels almost insurmountable. And on the other hand, people may flee to a mountain, desert or across a sea to escape. That introduces interesting complexity for both the hunter and the hunted.
Which brings us to another important consideration. In speculative fiction, “terrain” may not always mean “terra firma.” It could mean the physical environment of a space station or starship. Maybe your spacer heroine feels unsettled without the hum of a star drive beneath her feet? Moving in real gravity could feel exhausting to a hero acclimated to a simulated version. And don’t even get me started on pooping in space.
How can terrain impact your plot?
Those natural borders – oceans, rivers, mountains and deserts – can lead to national conflicts. And they can certainly create areas of tactical advantage or disadvantage. But terrain doesn’t need to be visually dramatic to incite narrative drama. An open plain can serve as fertile farmland to be contested, and an exposed, barren “no man’s land” when that conflict escalates to war.
Difficult, dangerous terrain can create a forbidding journey for your quest plot. Terrain can also contribute to mood and atmosphere, building tension and foreshadowing future threats. Ask yourself what kind of creatures and cultures would rise from this particular environment?
Terrain also includes natural landmarks that may have thematic or symbolic significance, for example a mountain called Mount Doom sets some heavy expectations. These landmarks can also be a way to establish pacing, as well. If you tell your readers, players or audience that Lake Waterford is several week’s journey away, but still only halfway to the hero’s destination, you’ve set the expectation of an epic tale.
How to start worldbuilding
I hope these suggestions help you think more deeply about the effects climate and terrain can have on your story. These elements may exist in the background of your prose, but they are important forces that shape the characters and larger conflicts in your world.
If you’d like to dive headfirst into the worldbuilding of your story, check out World Anvil! It’s a tool custom-built to create a rich, interactive world bible for writers and game masters. You can create a free account or get 40% OFF premium with the code AMWRITINGFANTASY.