Before I get into the super fun topics like language, religion, and politics, I’ll start with a basic overview of the major concepts of human geography. This can be tedious but it helps you get a grasp on what you are referring to when worldbuilding. (I admit I have ulterior motives: I’m getting review by doing this.)
Human geography terms are in italics.
Scale and Location
Although this sounds kind of boring, it’s actually an important concept to consider. Where does your story take place, and at what scale? Also, you can add layers of depth to your story by building the broad national level, then subnational layers like county and local.
The Lord of the Rings is often touted as a fantastic piece of worldbuilding, and I wholeheartedly agree. Tolkien did an excellent job of creating distinct kingdoms and countries (Mordor, the Shire, and the elves’ country) while at the same time keeping in mind the big picture (how everything connects together on a large scale).
In human geography, there are three main categories of regions: formal, nodal, and vernacular. The reason I’m diving into these particular terms in depth is because they are so important.
Formal has to do with defined boundaries. I’ll get into this more later, but boundaries are a huge part of the conflicts we deal with today. There are countless arguments and wars (sadly) over boundaries and scuffles over where the lines should be drawn. You can craft a tense political plot just from disputed definitions of boundaries.
Secondly, the nodal region has to do with hubs of traffic of various kinds. Where are the main regions in your world, and why are they major? For example, in the Star Wars Republic, Coruscant was the main hub of the galaxy because it was the location of the Republic Senate, Jedi Temple, and lay at the near center of the galaxy. With knowledge of why certain places have the most traffic (agricultural, political, economic, etc.) you can have a reason behind your worldbuilding.
Lastly, the vernacular region. I find vernacular regions one of the most powerful worldbuilding tips. This type of region is defined as sense of place, or perceived place (oftentimes reflected in people’s language). This can show differences in culture, and how citizens of one place may fear another place, for example. Although I haven’t come across this that often in fiction, some groups of people have many different names depending on which group is referring to them. In one of my stories, a warrior tribes’ tribal name is different than what the rest of the world calls them. It shows a divide between the two cultures.
This shows how the definition of regions—boundaries, hubs, and perception—really has a huge impact in the interaction of cultures, leading to richness and possibly plot!
The idea of time zones is so fun, especially if you’re writing science fiction! This is actually a rather new topic, considering that time zones were recently established, when transcontinental railroads were built.
On earth, each time zone is 15 degrees of longitude wide. There are some exceptions where the time zone follows the country’s border instead. A drastic example is China. Leaders established one time zone for the entire country for convenience. Imagine how complex you can make your world just by playing with time zones!
It gets more complicated if you have a sci fi story spanning more than one planet. How would you tell time then? You might not include this concept in your story, but it’s still good to keep in mind when plotting the length of your story (in terms of the story world’s time).
Distance and Space-Time Compression
With the Internet, space-time compression becomes a very real idea. In simplest terms, this compression refers to how distance shrinks relatively when we can communicate (and travel) faster.
With new technology like high-speed jets and texting, the world becomes a relatively small place. It influences interactions between cultures and people. Whether or not you incorporate technology, the concept of distance is very important, especially if your characters will ever travel during the story.
These are good ideas to keep in mind when building your world. How easy is it to interact with other people? Imagine how different our world would be if there was such thing as, say, teleportation, or if we didn’t have the Internet.
The concept of spatial interactions is greatly related to all the terms I just mentioned above. But, spatial interactions aren’t limited to people. It also refers to more abstract things like ideas.
Where does an idea originate? (Hearth) How does it spread? (Diffusion) Does it concentrate in certain places? (Density, Pattern)
Understanding spatial interactions when writing something like a rebellion is important. If you know where the first “seeds of rebellion” were planted, by whom and through whom, is a powerful tool to put together a plot. Knowing how it spreads is great for beginning your story, and it can help you understand who knows what.
I could go into even more detail, and I will in later posts. There’s so much to the idea of spatial interaction!
Geographic Tools, Maps, and Geographic Technology
I saved the best for last! It’s so exciting to talk about technology (yes, I’m a huge nerd, and proud of it).
In our world of the Internet, it’s so easy to get places. All you have to do is “Google it” or ask Siri. In the past, we relied on things like paper maps and navigators. How does your world use mapping?
Today, we have the ever-amazing GPS to guide us places which is a satellite-based radionavigation system. What if the satellites were destroyed? It’s amazing how much we depend on satellites without even knowing much about them. Where would we be without it?
Maps and technology can influence how we think and where we go. Even a simple change in a map projection can vastly morph our perceptions of a place. I’ll get into this idea in depth in a later chapter of Worldbuilding with Human Geography!
All on all, wordbuilding is all about asking “what if”. It’s the same thing when creating plot, characters, or any art at all. With the concepts of human geography, you can get deep and detailed in the world of your story.
Happy worldbuilding with human geography!