Friday, January 13, 2017

Biomes Part 1: The Natural World (Hannah)

Note: In this post, I am assuming you are not simply using a location that already exists, and are therefore (to some degree) creating your own world. This may also apply to historical settings if there is not enough available information to base your story completely on fact.

“Biome” seems like a simple topic, and really, it is. You can say “desert,” “tundra,” or “tropical island” and in an instant, everyone around you is flooded with related images, feelings, and ideas. This can be a benefit when explaining your story to others. But as a writer, you will quickly find that saying your story is set in “a rainforest,” for example, is nowhere near good enough.

For some people, like me, the setting is determined by the plot. If my main characters didn’t live underground, a lot of the story would be very different. For other people, the biome can be added after the story without changing it much. Whichever category you fall into, choosing your biome (or several) is one of the first steps in setting up your world.

So what is a biome, and why is it so important? A biome is defined as “a large naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat.” Choosing your biome means choosing the weather conditions, what resources will be available to your characters, and what daily life will look like.

In an overall sense, there are two types of biomes: biomes that exist in real life, and biomes that are created specifically for a particular story. Real biomes are definitely the easiest because there is a lot of factual information available, and often thousands of years of real civilizations that have figured out how to thrive in that setting. At that point, it is mostly a matter of doing your research. If you are creating a setting that is only loosely based on one that exists, you will have to do more work, but will have the benefit of a good starting foundation. Creating an entirely new biome is the most difficult as it requires a lot of critical thinking, planning, and brainstorming.

Climate and General Landscape

Despite the definition I gave above, a biome is generally defined by its climate. There are far too many for me to list, but this site gives a large amount of basic information on many different biomes.  It has pages for aquatic biomes, deserts, forests, grasslands, and tundra, and it covers many sub-types in those pages. These are very helpful if you just want to get an idea of what different ecosystems are like, and what wildlife is likely to be found there.

The first day of 30 Days of Worldbuilding has a related short exercise that fits in very well with this section. Try it out: Day 1: Climate and Variety.

If you are creating your own climate that is somewhat similar to earth, here are some things to consider:

  • How hot or cold is it? 
  • It is very wet, or mostly dry? 
  • Are there mountains, hills, valleys, cliffs, or is it mostly flat? 
  • In general, are there lots of trees, are they sparse, or are there no trees at all? 
  • Is there lush green grass, wide prairie expanses, dirt, sand, or clay? 
  • How large is your biome? How long would it take to travel across it? 
  • In general, what are the surrounding areas like? 
  • Is your biome landlocked, or does it border an ocean or sea? 
  • What are some of the neighboring biomes? (This will come in handy later.) 

Keep in mind that if your story takes place across more than one biome (like mine does), you will have to answer separately for each distinct region.

Weather and Natural Disasters

Have you ever lived in a place that has no weather? Such a place does not exist on earth. If your setting is even mildly earthlike, chances are it will have weather of some sort. Of course, perhaps it would be interesting to consider a world without weather… But in most cases, unless explicitly stated otherwise, you will have to consider weather.

Weather can be tricky, since it is an intricate subject that not even meteorologists understand (which is why weather predictions are often wrong). The easiest way to handle it is to do some research on a similar region on earth. It doesn’t have to be perfectly scientific; all you need is a general idea.

For example, in central Florida, during the summer it rains for a couple of hours every afternoon, and then at the beginning of fall is hurricane season. It is mostly dry during the winter with mild temperatures in the high 60 to low 80-degree range, but summers reach over 100 degrees with limited breezes unless you are on the coast.

A simple summary like this is probably all you need. Unless you are writing hard science fiction, it doesn’t have to be perfect, just consistent. Besides, knowing the general weather pattern will help tremendously in rounding out your world and making it feel more realistic and developed.

Everyday weather isn’t the only thing to consider, though. You may have noticed that I mentioned hurricanes as regular yearly occurrences. Nearly every area has some sort of natural disaster that is common. In the U.S., states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico get hit frequently by violent hurricanes. Tornadoes are common in the Midwestern states. Hawaii has the world’s largest active volcano. Countries like Japan, Indonesia, and Australia suffer from many earthquakes, and tsunamis plague most countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. Sandstorms in the desert can be deadly, and droughts can devastate a nation. Floods, hail, and unexpectedly heavy snow can be brutal as well. Don’t forget to consider the worst-case scenario possibilities for your setting.

Weather questions to consider:

  • How often does it rain? 
  • Does it get cold enough to snow, and how long is the snowy season? 
  • Are there mild breezes or violent winds? 
  • When are the rainy and dry seasons? 
  • What natural disasters, if any, are common? 

The related 30 Days of Worldbuilding day is Day 2: Physical Planet.

Reni: Hannah, I’m pretty sure this violates the terms of our contract. You are two-thirds of the way through this post and I haven’t even said anything yet!

Hannah: I’m easing you in. After all, you may be a world traveler, but you aren’t a writer – not yet anyway. Nevertheless, I will let you take the next section.

Reni: Perfect. This one’s my favorite…

An Unnatural World

What if your biome is radically different from anything humans have ever attempted? Earth-like places are overrated, after all. The world is at your fingertips! Your characters might be living underground, in the depths of the sea, in the vacuum of space, on the surface of the sun, in a world sustained in impossible ways because of magic, or in some other fantasy scenario. This is where the real fun begins!

Hannah: Reni, your bias is showing.

Reni: Of course it is! Why shouldn’t it?

Hannah: If you are writing an informative post like this, you should be careful not to choose one subjective opinion over the other. State the facts and let the readers decide their opinions for themselves.

Reni: That’s ridiculous. Why write if I can’t share my opinion?

Hannah: That’s not how it’s supposed to be done…

Reni: Too bad! As long as I am contributing my knowledge, I will also be contributing my opinions. Anyway, back to the post…

If you are taking the hard route, you have a lot more to consider since you will likely have to make it all up for yourself. Hannah will come back to this again, but for now, try to use any of the elements in the first two sections that would be applicable.

Your species may not need water to survive, so rain or water may not be an issue. Your terrain might be made of stone, space dust, a coral reef, or any other material imaginable. There may or may not be plants of any sort, or plants might be the basis of the entire planet. Since there is so much variability, try to see what sort of landscape features in your world might function in a similar way to other features in earth. Unfortunately, even if you are bravely stepping away from the established world you live in, it is easiest if you can relate it back to the familiar. That will at least give you a framework to start asking questions.

Weather is similarly difficult. Underwater, there will be no rain or wind. However, currents may be comparable to wind, and a particularly violent one might be a natural disaster that affects your characters. Underground in the Vania Peninsula (an unfriendly territory in Ruavaen), there is virtually no weather of any sort. The temperature is consistent year-round, there is no rain or wind, and it is very isolated. However, earthquakes still cause damage, underwater rivers and springs can be accidentally freed leading to flooding, or a particular area may be extremely hot due to a nearby volcano.

One idea is to find a community campfire with other travelers you don’t know, tell them interesting stories to charm them into being talkative, and then interrogate them for their contributions.

Hannah: That’s not as easy on earth as it is in the Ruavaen wilderness.

Reni: See? This is why you create a world that isn’t related to earth at all. That way you can include great ideas like this.

Ok, we’ll try it the earth way. Gather a bunch of your friends who don’t think like you and brainstorm some different ideas and angles to help you get an idea of your world. But remember that stranger-campfire plan. I think it’s a winner.

  • What is the landscape made out of?
  • Is the terrain flat or dynamic?
  • What are the nearby biomes like? 
  • What bodies of water/life-giving liquid are nearby? 
  • What natural shelter is there – caves, trees, outcroppings, or something else? 
  • Does the temperature stay the same or does it fluctuate? 
    • Does it have a regular pattern, like seasons? 
    • How long is each season? 
    • What is the range of temperatures? 
  • Is there weather of any sort? 
  • Is there anything comparable to weather that might serve the same purpose? (For example: currents, meteor showers, magnetic field disruptions, solar flares, radiation storms, ect.) 
  • What natural disasters might disrupt daily life or cause significant damage? 

Hannah: Ok… Thanks, Reni. I’ll take it from here.

Reni: Aww…

In Conclusion

Landscape, climate, and weather play a huge part in the development of a civilization. They affect everything from the available resources (and therefore economy) to what buildings are important to what food your people eat and what clothes they wear… This is the foundation of your civilization. Over the next two weeks, take some time to consider the biome or biomes that are important to your characters, because next time I will get into how you figure out what resources your biome offers, and how those affect your economy and culture.

Thanks for reading! As always, questions, comments, opinions, and ideas are always welcome in the comments. And now I’m curious: what biome or biomes have you chosen?


  1. You do such thorough world-building, Hannah! I'm looking forward to seeing it at work in your books someday :)

  2. I realize how complex it might be to have to "make up" biomes in a fantasy story. Yes, it will surely take more creativity to build your world around an atmosphere of the unfamiliar! Good tips for those working in that genre, and I like your banter with Reni. It will be fun to see what you do with these tips in your own story!

  3. Let Reni write more in the future, please! :) Seriously, though, you are both fabulous writers with lots of great advice about worldbuilding.


  4. Wow, Hannah! This is so thorough and informative. I hope I remember to refer to this when creating biomes for worlds I write.


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