How To Build A World From The Ground Up Week 2: Groundwork

I realise from the outset that a lot of people will decide that this post isn’t relevant to them. And maybe, to some extent, that’s true: not every writer needs to know where mountain ranges are likely to pop up, especially if you’re writing in the ‘real world’. Still, mapping has its place for everyone. For example, the kitchen of a house doesn’t usually migrate from front to back to top floor to basement; the writer obviously knows where in the house it is, and I guarantee you there was a map involved, even if said map is only in the writer’s head.

Cartography: it’s for everyone!
O:)
But I want to go a little further than that to discuss something I’ve seen a lot of lately: a blatant disregard for the actual, physical constraints of the world when creating a map. Published authors are just as guilty of this as non-published, and both are equally shudder-worthy. Sure, okay, writers don’t have to be cartographers as well – but just a little bit of thought and effort will make sure that people who know about this kind of thing don’t feel tempted to throw your book against the wall.
The example I’ll never forget is good old Robert Jordan. Regardless of what you think of his writing, his control over his plotting, and his development of female characters, you can’t escape the fact that his work is popular as anything. And in the front of all the books, all prettily drawn up, is the map of the world, which makes me want to beat my head against the wall every time I see it. Why?
Have a look at it. Note especially the coastline, and where all the rivers exit to the sea. Can you see anything wrong? Every. Single. River. exits to the sea at the very end of the land point. Every single time!
I see heads shaking in confusion. What’s wrong with that? you ask.
It’s wrong because it’s not the way things work. Water always takes the path of least resistance; a spur heading out to sea will be higher than the surrounding ground; water also causes erosion of the surrounding ground; ERGO a river will, nine times out of ten, exit to the sea in a BAY, not off the tip of a point. And if it didn’t exit into a bay initially, give it a few years to erode and it will.
Yes, if you’re writing fantasy you can in theory get away with anything – but only if you have a good reason for it. Hint: “Because it looked pretty” is not a good reason. Neither is, “Because I felt like it”, “Because that’s how it came out”, or just, “Because”. Aside from the use of magic, the physics of Robert Jordan’s world isn’t demonstrably different from our world. We are given no reason to think that physical substances shouldn’t behave there exactly as they do here; and yet, for some strange and untold reason, rivers do.
Lesson #0 in Map-Building: Always have a reason.
If you don’t have a good reason for changing the way something works, don’t. It’s as simple as that.

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