I was always torn about geography in school. Economic geography I hated. With a passion. The passion practically had a life of its own and would sit in a corner quietly hating geography while I was getting my math on with quadratic equations. Which I enjoyed. Sorry. Geek flash.
But physical geography? With volcanoes and earthquakes and deserts and forests and mountains? I loved it! I still love it. Always will, I think. Indeed, I hope. Because when it comes to building your fantasy world, nothing gives you more inbuilt opportunities for messing with your hero than geography.
Think about it. Your hero needs to get to the town of Oooga Booga by sunset tomorrow. But this will take him across the Mountains of Oh My God They’re Tall and that is terribly dangerous. He’ll need to climb vertical peaks and take his chances with vicious Whatever Eagles that like to claw out your eyes and then shrug and throw them away. Now imagine Mr. Evil has a very good reason for wishing to prevent the hero from reaching Oooga Booga by sunset tomorrow (he wants to marry the beautiful barmaid and take the magical Straight Flush artifact for himself). What better place to derail him for good than in a mountain range famous for a number of malicious and uncaring predators? Quite apart from the crumbling cliffs which would be so easy to blow up with…
You see what I mean? Sorry about all that, I got a bit carried away, but again, the possibilities are endless. As Kristen Lamb has pointed out on her blog, mountains (and other forms of extreme geography) don’t make conflict. They produce a ‘bad situation’. But having a bad situation raises the stakes of any conflict you throw into it. I mean, the hero and Mr. Evil having a swordfight in the middle of a wildflower-strewn meadow doesn’t quite have the same atmosphere as a ledge with a four thousand foot drop on one side and a Whatever Eagle nesting on the other, just waiting for those eyes…
Mountain ranges, deserts, jungles and large cities are all aspects of geography that can really bring an extra layer to your story. What? I hear you say. Large cities? Urban development isn’t geography. Really? You want to go and ask your geography teacher about that? It’s ok. I’ll wait.
There is a reason that urban fantasy is a genre in its own right. The city is a landscape, just like a mountain range or a rainforest, and like all landscapes it has its own rules for survival. You have to know where to find food, how to actually get your hands on it and how to get yourself out of trouble should a big bad something see fit to mess with you. The only difference between an urban landscape and an entirely natural one is that money and words won’t usually cut much ice with predators anxious to dine on your internal organs.
Tip: when considering how to use your landscape, don’t forget to look up. All landscapes (with the possible exception of deserts and maybe not even then) exist in three dimensions. On a street corner in central London, between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, there is a building with a huge fountain set into the corner. Four stone horses here are in a constant state of panic, eyes wide and legs flailing as they gallop out of the fountain. No one ever looks up. If you read this and you know what I’m talking about, please let me know in the comments section. Otherwise I’ll reveal the mystery tomorrow 🙂