There are many different peoples, cultures, habits, and ways of life in the world. We all know that geographic boundaries helped these differences occur, but it’s less clear how these boundaries and regions helped bring about any specific culture. Most created worlds don’t include as many widely varying cultures as there are in real life, but there’s still an opportunity to imagine a human world from scratch. What kinds of things would precipitate your society’s values or ways? What kind of world have you made?
The book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, while certainly not perfect, is a very interesting read on the subject of how the world and its resources shaped the world as we know it. If you’re interested in worldbuilding and speculative fiction writing, it’s a great book. The picture links to the Amazon purchase page.
Climate and Geological Features Shape Cultures
People who live in the Sahara desert probably don’t dress the same as people in the Amazon. They probably don’t dress the same as people in Australia or Siberia, either. This is a simple example of how climate can affect one aspect of society – fashion. Fashion needs can become societal norms and expectations. Perhaps climates where more clothing is required for safety or comfort from the climate are more naturally emphatic about covering up? Perhaps climates with more rain prefer different materials? It’s up to you to decide.
More importantly, though, is how climate affects economies and agriculture. As an American who has, at least in the past, been interested in biofuel development, I’ve seen a map like the one here several times. As you can see, the east coast and south gets by far the most rain. There’s also a clear division between east and west, along the 98 degrees west longitudinal line, where the rainfall drops off. To the east of this line is where crops can be grown easily. To the west of this line, they can’t.
In addition to rainfall data, there’s the fact that the north is chillier and has a shorter growing season. Combine this with the rainfall map above, and what do we learn? The American South is the best region to grow plants and other agricultural products in the United States.
This makes sense. The Civil War was partially precipitated by an agricultural South’s reluctance to give up slave labor. Geography encouraged and allowed white Southerners to continue the plantation lifestyle, whereas Northerners had no such reason. Factories and industrialization made slavery less useful, allowing the Northerners to develop a different culture and set of sensibilities from the Southerners. Did this mean that the South was right? By no means – it just shows that the South would have always been more likely to make this egregious error and sin.
So, what was the point of all this? In short, this was an example of how climate dictated agricultural needs, which dictated economies, which in turn dictated cultural development and interaction. If you want a society with a certain cultural institution, think about what would have made that desirable for the people who live there. As horrible as it was, the Southern plantation owners had a powerful motivator in instituting and propagating slavery and racism – money from their agricultural products that couldn’t be easily grown elsewhere in the US.
Let’s turn to a more ‘fake’ example, one that isn’t quite so politically charged. Let’s say you want a society with a thriving bourgeoisie, but also the presence of nobility. There needs to be opportunity for individual businesses, which means ways to make money without land. Nobility, however, tend to be the landowners and the ones who make agricultural money from their estates. Shipping, or proximity to oceans, tend to allow a middle class to have a niche. What kind of place would your story need to take place in to have these requirements? What would it look like? What seasons would you have?
There’s far too many elements to analyze to get a culture-geography link perfect. There’s things like the origin of the people groups to consider. For example, Southerners brought traditions from Scotland, Ireland, and England that focused on honor and retaining this honor. They kept these traditions and emphasized them far more than their respective Northern counterparts. The way that Southerners are exceedingly polite stems from this tradition more so than their direct geography and agricultural influences.
The take home from this is consider whether a Europe-like setting makes sense for your high fantasy story. Would an American setting be better? Would it not be more interesting to create one yourself? There are as many endless possibilities as there are arrangements of the tectonic plates, only limited by the imagination.
Natural Resources and Geopolitical Barriers Create Tensions
Scarcity is the source of so many human problems. The most recent, and most vivid, set of natural resource issues is centered around energy – namely oil. Because of the value of oil to modern economies, where it sits can cause major issues.
What kind of world would we live in if the easily accessible oil reserves were placed, instead of the middle east, in Australia? What if they were in India or China? Or even North Korea? While we don’t know what kind of world that would be, one thing is for sure – it would be different!
Societies, and people, are driven by gold, riches, and power. Political boundaries often align with geographical ones, but the presence of natural resources within or without can cause major issues and tension.
When making a new world, think about what is scarce in your created culture. Let’s say it’s water: what do they do? Do they purchase it from elsewhere? Could the source country going through a drought be enough to cause a war? Let’s say that your primary culture is rich in precious stones – what do they do with their valuables? Do they artificially inflate the price by hiding much of their mined goods? These questions are just as important for societies with magic as they are for societies without.
In science fiction, this can be a very useful concept for a multitude of things. In the novel The Evolution of the Predator, I created a fictional race based off of the idea of creatures that evolved from prey creatures in a swamp environment. Economic and survival pressures drove the societies’ decisions, but simple speciation was also dictated by the environment I chose. For worlds that choose not to focus on evolution as the origin of a species, why would a deity create a soul vessel in the chosen shape? Is it advantageous or disadvantageous for that world? For example, would a deity place bear-people in a desert as punishment for turning against it?
I hope your creative juices are flowing! Check out the first geography entry to see how to make maps using travel data, or look at other writing resources!