WorldBuilding 01#: The Environments

Alright, guys, sorry about the lack of a post yesterday.  When work and school combine to swing a lariat around your legs, you can stumble around a bit.  By the time I got to the blog, I was pretty much wiped out, mentally, anyway.  Hopefully, this will make up for it.

As promise, we’ll be working with environments. This one seems logical enough, but strangely, it’s one of the harder parts to make really believable.  Sure, each of us subconsciously knows enough to create somewhat believable environments, but it’s the tiny details that readers tend to notice.

One of the best examples of this is the town.  Fantasy authors tend to sprinkle them around liberally, without much regard to the logistics of actually building a town.  People, especially people from older times, built their towns in extremely logical places, usually dictated by the environment.  (We modern people aren’t quite so smart)

If you want to study this in real life, take a look at the news from day to day.  More often than not, you’ll read or hear about a town or city that is seriously lacking available water.  You might hear about one that has drastically too much water.  There could be one that was built in a place where the ground was incapable of supporting farms.   The list goes on.

Now, it’s a standard feature of fantasy, especially high and epic, for there to be cities of tremendous age.  Often, these cities also posses a massive population.  When such a city is written, the environments surrounding the city are of paramount importance.  If they are incapable of supporting a city, your believability is lost.

Another excellent example of environments is the forest.  Do you have a wild, dense forest?  Utterly untouched by man?  Is this forest in a temperate climate, much like North America or Europe?  Okay, if so, you’d better not have dense, thick underbrush.  The only reason forests that fit this description have thick underbrush is because of man.  We stop the forest fires that burn away the underbrush.  In forests of this type, when completely wild, they are essentially park-like, with large, relatively healthy trees and very little brush and undergrowth.

The forest is also not a good place for people to live, regardless of what Robin Hood might think.  Even the aboriginal peoples of our world rarely actually live in forests, as such.  They will clear away trees and saplings in order to make a large clearing in which to live, but living in an untouched forest is a pretty dangerous business.  Stand under a pine tree on a very windy day and you’ll know what I mean.  It only takes one tree falling on your tent to ruin your day.  Also, forests are hard put to sustain many people, mostly because people eat a lot.  For most villages, some form of agriculture is necessary, and woodland doesn’t lend itself well to that.

Now, another kind of environment you’ll often see in fantasy books is the battle ground.  This, even more than the town, is a place that will be carefully picked.  Even in cases of ambushes or last stands, the battle ground will be picked by one side or the other.  In cases of the huge, fierce battlefields of the medieval or early modern times, the battlefield would be carefully devoid of natural barriers or hindrances.  No knight or lancer wanted to die because of an unseen river bed that tripped up his horse.

Generals like downhill slopes for cavalry charges, but an enemy won”t want to fight uphill, so they are likely to pull back to level ground, in order to negate the cavalry advantage.  A general also likes level ground for footmen, mostly because it will allow better maneuvering.  Hills make it very difficult for archers to aim properly, whether uphill or down.  Firing on a slope, in either direction, is very different from firing down from a wall or up at it, mostly because the grade of the slope and the distance is deceptive.

However, in cases where a straight out even battle is not desired, each side will do their best to pick ground that is advantageous to their particular disadvantages.  A weaker force put their backs to cliffs to prevent being encircled.  The stronger enemy will attempt to surround the smaller and use their greater numbers to win the battle. A force with many archers will seek high ground, preferably at the top of those cliffs, to rain showers of arrows from a safe place.  A force with a great deal of cavalry will attempt to fight in fields and plains, where their horses will be at their best.

As you can see from those brief examples, the environment is incredibly important to the realism of battles.  I can’t hope to show all the things that the environment is important to, not in a single post, but I can give one last example of environments.

National boundaries and trade.  To anyone who has ever studied geographical history or played any of numerous civilization building games, the importance of environment to borders.  Pick up a map of Europe.  (The U.S. isn’t a good example of environmental effects on borders) If you just glance at a map, the borders look familiar, but there doesn’t appear to be any real rhyme or reason to how they are drawn up.  But if you very closely, it begins to look as though terrain has a great deal of influence on them.

Many borders run along mountains, forests, lakes, and rivers.  On peninsulas, the borders often run across the smallest section of land.  Italy is the exception to this rule, but if you pay attention, you realize that there is a reason for this.  The majority of Italy’s northern border is mountainous.  For any country in a fantasy world, especially one a war, this situation would be envious.  The entire north border, essentially a tremendous wall, very difficult for even a determined foe to cross.

Spain’s northern border is the Pyrenees mountain range, as well as relatively short, less than 400 miles.  In terms of national borders, this is fantastically small.  If you look at England’s borders, they are a self-evident example of how environment limits and maintains borders.  England is protected by the English Channel, which in turn makes it quite difficult for them to include any part of mainland Europe in their borders.  Island nations usually remain island nations, because of the simple problem of logistics.  Invading a neighboring country is tough when you have to transport your entire force by ship.

As for economy, not only does environment affect trade, trade effects borders.  Mountains are very, very bad for trade, not only for reasons of transport, difficulties but also because of time constraints.  You don’t want national trade hampered by a mountain range through the middle of your kingdom.  It’s more profitable to have another nation on the other side of the mountains, one with whom you have a trade agreement.  They’re more likely to pay well for what you have.  Also, you don’t have to worry about getting troops to the other side of the mountains.  You just defend the mountains.

Rivers increase trade, by irrigation, fishing, easier transport, water on route, etc.  They’re less like to be used as borders, but it isn’t unusual.  Deserts are death on economy, unless they can be reclaimed by a nation that is already very healthy, with enough money to spend. Forests are places that not only encourage industry (for timber, firewood, etc, they also have the bonus of being decent farm-land, once cleared.

Mountains are less likely to be settled, mostly because of the difficulty of travel and transport, but they tend to have minerals that are necessary, as well as a good number of forests.  Grassland is excellent, but only if easily accessed.  If you have to import your wood and stone, it’s unlikely that a city will do well there, unless it’s on a trade route.

Trade routes are also dependent on terrain and are very important to where cities will flourish.  Trade routes tend to avoid deserts, high mountains, and thick forests.  If it’s easier to go around, why bother building a road through the middle.  If your book has a commonly traveled road, it had better not go through The Desert of Skulls (where water isn’t to be found for a hundred miles), the Impassable Cliffs (which need good upper body strength, because of the ropes), or the Forest of Ravening Wolves.  Just……..don’t, okay?  Commonly traveled roads go through safe, comfortable places.  Nobody wants to get eaten, starve, or die of thirst while going to visit grandma.

Next time, for WorldBuilding 02#,I’ll discuss towns and cities.


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