What would Hoth be without extreme cold? What would Middle Earth be without its vast tracts of wilderness? What would Dune be without its incredible desert?
In speculative fiction, geography matters. How mountains and sky, rain and plant interact affect the characters. A wise writer will spend some time to determine both how geography will affect society as well as his main cast. In non-fiction settings, that process can be fairly easy: read some history! Do some research! In a fiction setting, though, it means having to do a little more work.
If you want to see a magnificent example of a great setting properly thought through, read Frank Herbert’s Dune. The deserts of Arrakis become real to the reader from the first few chapters. Those who dwell in the sands have their lives determined by their lack of water. If Herbert had not carefully planned every aspect of ecology, the first novel would have fallen apart. His imagination and research shine through in the perfect way in the first book of the series. (Personally, I didn’t care for book 2, loved book 3, and haven’t moved beyond those yet.)
For another example, read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. The work there isn’t as ornate as Herbert’s, but it’s clear Jordan thought through these matters. Of course, he thought through a lot of things and ends up with approximately 3,724 main characters, but that’s a discussion for another day.
If you’ve constructed a fictional world, you need to address some of these geography questions. All right, you’ve planted a mountain range in the middle of your continent. What does that do to the wind patterns? Are the lands on “the other side” of the mountains arid? How does that affect the inhabitants of those regions?
Let me give you an example I’m working with. Over in my fiction, The Least of Men, I’m playing in one of the nations of my novel’s setting. Parvia is a desert nation, immediately next to Raumioch Beti, a massive mountain range that divides the lands of men from the lands of Garethen, that world’s Patriarch of Lies. Originally, I imagined Parvia as a fruitful plain. However, when I looked at my geography and how large the mountains were meant to be, I realized that it made much more sense for Parvia to be a parched wasteland. The mountains would stop most moisture from making it through. So, I changed the entire nation.
Of course, geography isn’t just about mountains, but about nations. If a nation of men lived in the shadow of great evil and constant threat of invasion, what would that do to its society?
In Parvia, it took the form of a strict rule code. Those who broke the rules were suspect at best, more likely accused of being those who wish to undermine their society. It’s also a society built on honor. They realize that to accuse a possible ally against the dark of being traitorous would result in worse problems. Their rules code, then, balances welcoming the stranger and treating him well with being suspicious of any newcomers.
Yet, in a desert society, water becomes a valued commodity. The various patriarchs jockey for position, trying to make sure their households control the best oases. Again, how does this affect society?
If you’re developing a fictional world, I encourage you to consider geography. Mountains, deserts, and swamps affect the people who live in and around them. Do your characters reflect their settings? If not, why not? Or is that you’ve simply written without considering the setting, so the story could take place anywhere?
Just as in real life, in fiction, geography matters.