This two-part article looks at the nature of things and how they’re formed. Part one will examine oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, and deserts. Part two will look at forests, mountains, hills, swamps, snow, ice, and volcanoes.
The aim is to provide you with the fundamental basics so you can create your fantasy maps with confidence.
It’s also important to remember that this is just a guide. A big part of fantasy is about creating new worlds. It’s up to you whether to change the rules or not. This, at least, provides a starting point from which you can deviate.
Oceans and Seas
Given their empty vastness, oceans don’t tend to feature much on the fantasy map; seas are more prominent given they’re often found closer to land. Throughout history, humanity has made its home by the sea. Around half the world’s population live within coastal zones. It provides a multitude of opportunities to survive—food, water, bathing, energy sources, tactical advantages over enemies. It’s unsurprising then, that many fantasy stories feature a sea of some kind. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Oceans form over millions of years. Various theories exist as to how they came about. Some say the earth was struck by a water-rich meteoroid. The more likely theory is that they were formed by water vapour and other gases escaping from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. You might have seen them on Blue Planet. Other sources are rivers and rain.
- Mankind needs oceans to survive. They produce over half of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Oceans absorb the heat of the sun, transfer it to the atmosphere and distribute it around the world by ocean currents, thereby regulating the weather.
- ‘Ocean’ and ‘sea’ are terms often used interchangeably, though there is a difference between them. Seas are small than oceans, usually located where the land and ocean meet. They are often partially enclosed by land. This map of Midkemia, one of the worlds in Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga, is a good example of a fantasy map with various seas.
Rivers are the veins of the planet, carrying fresh, life-giving water across the land. Major civilizations have found their homes along rivers, such as the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and Chinese.
- Most rivers start life as a stream trickling down a mountain slope. These streams can come from underground springs, melting snow and ice or rainwater. The beginning of a river is known as a headwater.
- Rivers take their shape by following cracks and folds in the land. Small streams join together until they reach a size big enough to be classed as a river. No two rivers are the same. Each shapes the land in its own way.
- The land is shaped by the river as it makes its way to the ocean, eroding rock and carving out valleys. Rivers can change over time depending on the makeup of the river bed—soil, sand, rock, clay.
- Rivers widen and narrow and take snaking routes, called meanders.
- The small streams which flow into a river are known as tributaries.
- I’m sure you know what a river bank is. These areas are rich in nutrients as a result of flooding, but they also provide protection from flood damage, as well as filtering run-off from the land.
- The end of a river is known as a mouth or delta. Lands flatten and the water loses speed, usually around the point it meets the sea, lake or ocean.
- Some rivers flow year round, others are seasonal and form during wet seasons.
- A river can be a kilometre long or stretch the length of a continent. Some examples of the lengths of real-life rivers: Nile – 6,853km long, Amazon – 6,992km, Mersey -112km (I’m from Liverpool, I had to include it), Congo – 4,700km.
- Some countries have no rivers—there are eighteen on earth—and others have shit loads. Russia, for example, has around 100,000.
There are a fair few lakes on earth. Around 117 million to be precise. They litter the land and invariably find their way into fantasy maps too.
- A lake is a body of water surrounded by land. They are found in every kind of environment: mountains, deserts, on plains, near coasts.
- They vary in size, from ponds to seas, the Caspian Sea arguably the largest lake on earth.
- Lakes can form in various ways. Water can fill craters left by dormant or dead volcanoes, by glaciers, or from craters left by meteors or asteroids.
- Lakes evolve over time, and like humans, they age. Over hundreds and thousands of years, their basins fill with sediment and vegetation, growing shallower until eventually, they dry up.
- Most lakes are fed by rivers, streams, run-off from the land, and rain.
The desert is a unique environment filled with a host of challenges. They feature in quite often in fantasy books. The sand city of Dorne from A Song of Ice and Fire springs to mind. Here are a few things to keep in mind when including them:
- The standard definition of a desert is an area receiving less than 10 inches (or 250mm) of precipitation a year, i.e. rain, snow, sleet.
- Deserts are formed by the weather. A lack of moisture turns the land arid and dry.
- Most people assume that deserts are sandy, arid places, but in fact, the largest desert on earth is Antarctica, which receives around 200mm of precipitation a year.
- Deserts are not static, but rather change over time through a process known as desertification. This involves the desert expanding its borders. As an example, 1,000 square miles of Chinese land turns to desert every year.
- Some deserts are flat, consisting of rock and sand. The Sahara is one example. Others contain rocky mountains, such as those in North America.
- Deserts tend to cover vast areas and contain little life and low vegetation cover.
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