Taking nature into account during your worldbuilding means thinking about everything that you take for granted. Most stories just take place on Earth. As a resident of Earth (probably) you have at least a cursory understanding of what life on Earth is like. You probably already understand that Earth gets a bit colder near the poles and warm toward the equator. It gets colder as you get higher, as well, and harder to breathe. The sky is blue and rain is wet. Wood comes from the trees and metal from the Earth. The seasons change, rain falls, we harvest potatoes on occasion, and none of the plants are trying to eat you, for now.
So, what do we, as writers, take for granted about nature?
Too much. Trust me.
It’s what writers think they know, but don’t, that gets them into trouble. For instance, humans already use most, if not 100%, of their brains. An old fridge will protect you from neither the heat, nor the radiation, not the pressure wave of a nuclear blast. An astronaut connected to a space station by only a tether can make it back very easily because there is no friction in space. A normal sized superhero punching a bus will fly farther than the bus no matter how strong they are. There is no sound in space because there is no matter to vibrate.
Fictional universes can have fictional rules, but more often than not, it’s only a misunderstanding that led to these embarrassments.
The only way to avoid these kinds of embarrassing plot points is to educate yourself. Don’t assume that you understand what it is you’re talking about. Writers thrive on pushing the limits of the possible, and while they’re out there, they need to understand the ramifications of changing the rules even to fit their story’s own internal logic.
A deeper understanding of the physical sciences will not only help you create realistic and fantastic scenarios governed by real-world logic, but it will help you in worlds unknown as well. Imagine your heroes travel to Mars. Is a simple astronaut suit with a tank of air good enough or are there far more aspects to consider?
To help you get started on building your world with nature in mind, I’ve made a short list of considerations. This is by no means a comprehensive list; our natural worlds and worlds beyond have environments we can’t dream of, but this should be more than enough for most stories.
- Planet Size: This will affect gravity, which will affect the lifeforms and the behaviors of many physical processes.
- Atmosphere: The sustainment of life is a delicate balance. Just a bit less oxygen saturation in our atmosphere, and we would start to feel sluggish and even a little silly. A bit more oxygen isn’t much different. Other planets have atmospheres that boggle the mind. Mars has very little atmosphere, and as such cannot trap solar heat very effectively. You would need more than just an oxygen tank to survive the average -83 degree cold. Venus has such a thick atmosphere and pressure is so high that the outside air temperature can melt lead.
- Celestial Bodies: A planet with many moons is likely to have gravitational tides that can be seen in any body of water. A sun just a tad closer to the planet can cause incredible climate variances and would require lifeforms that can take the heat. Multiple suns have the same problem, not to mention the cataclysmic celestial implications of two supergiant entities close to one another.
- Geography: Different biomes have different rules and different plants and animals that can live there. How would a penguin be different if it lived in a desert?
- Natural Resources: Pretty basic stuff. Wood, silver, platinum, uranium, Nth Metal, Unobtainum, Spice, etc. Know what it is and where it comes from What is it used for? How has it shaped the culture of the characters?
- Weather: How does the atmosphere affect weather patterns? How do the inhabitants of the world deal with weather? What are the ramifications of a constant rain or drought? Does your world have only a wet and dry season, four full seasons, or a period of weather we can only imagine?
- Wildlife: What eats what? What’s venomous? How have animals evolved to combat the weather? How do they hunt? What does their diet do to them? How smart are they? Which ones are domesticated and what purposes do they serve?
- Flora: Will the plants in your world try to eat you? How big are they? Will the atmosphere support plants that big? How do they deal with the weather?
Like I said, this is just to get you started. Oftentimes, the natural world shapes the people and creatures who live on the planet. Their customs can be traced back to a time when they didn’t understand their world. Maybe the civilizations of your world have conquered nature and exploit it for their own ends. They fly, they breathe the air, they eat the food, and they tear down forests, but in the end, they are at the mercy of nature, so don’t forget to take the natural world into account as your reality takes shape. And know what it is you’re talking about.
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