I’m not sure my goodreads account will corroborate this, but probably 75%-85% of everything I’ve read or watched over the course of my life has been classified as either fantasy or science fiction. As a result, I grew up with a magic wand and boxes turned into spaceships and futuristic race cars, and wishing for any number of mythological beasts as pets. I’d noticed that the characters did things I did, but I noticed more how they did it (in terms of props and objects) than thinking about what it meant.
When I was in high school, someone started complaining about how the off-duty outfits in Star Trek: The Next Generation resembled a type of resort-ware. I’m a symbologist by nature, so I’d been focused on the uniforms and everything that denoted Starfleet and the Federation…and the various alien races. I hadn’t thought about it. I’d gotten as far as thinking about the lack of currency (which wasn’t really. They used a credit system that was effectively invisible in the show.) after a history lesson on bartering and the development of a local economy. That was it.
It wasn’t until I started playing around with my (at the time) cyberpunk story setting that I really started thinking about the practicalities of creating a political unit, in my case a city. I came across this quote somewhere: A country without borders falls off the map. And I started thinking about geography classes I’d sat through, where the teachers kept making the point that natural markers were often the easiest way to mark off a new country’s territory. It’s why we so often see a mountain range, a river, a large body of water, or some other distinctive landform at an edge of a country or state.
It’s a brilliant way of claiming an unmistakable border…right up until weather and erosion get a hold of these borders and change them over years. The landform changes. The understood boundary changes. And the more it happens, the more it changes the edge of the country and all war breaks out while people on either side of the border try to decide how to handle this natural change. If you’re creating a country/kingdom, giving it a natural border is a great opening to exploring how the country/kingdom handles a neighborly conflict.
And while we’re on the topic of the effect of geographical features, most successful major cities started out as a small port on a river, lake, or sea. I’ll give you a minute to go scan a map. I certainly had to when someone told me that. More often than not, these ports develop on rivers or lakes that have rivers passing through. It makes sense. People need easy ways to move things around, and for a long time water was the fastest, most effective way to do it. So when you’re developing a city, it’s probably in your best interest to set it near a major source of water, even when it’s a city whose origins you haven’t thought through yet. (In my case, this particular lesson totally screwed up the city/region I’d been building for a few years. I suddenly had to figure out how my beautiful city on the plains could get a hold of some water. I still haven’t resolved it to my satisfaction.)
This is just covering the geographical and political components of worldbuilding, but it does affect the biological (animals and plants) aspect of creating your world, too. If you guys remind me, I’ll try to address that in a future post because understanding that is actually how I landed a freelance game writing gig earlier this year.