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When building a world, I use one of two approaches: Either figure out the geography or write down the societal history. I can then use the one to influence the other and then move on to the rest of the world.

When building a world for the sake of worldbuilding, I like to create the geography of it first and then let the society play out its own history. But when building a world for a story, I have to work on the history leading up to the story, to determine how the society evolved to its current state. Then I figure out the geography I need to let that history play out (for example, maybe I need to have characters live in a city on the slope of a mountain, and so I create a mountain range).

While working on one of my current worlds, I determined that a specific city needed to be in or near the foothills of what I've called the Great Western Mountains. That's fine enough; most of the rest of the immediate area in the east is flat and gently starts to become more mountainous, with a couple hills here and there. The issue, though, is that in order for the city's history to develop to where it is in my story, I want to have a great battle take place in a long, grassy plain outside the city - kind of like the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, for all you Tolkien fans. The problem? I can't come up with a good reason for there to be a giant plain in the middle of the foothills of the Great Western Mountains. I'm not willing to change the battle setting, because when last I checked, cavalry charges are not good on forested mountain slopes.

This isn't the only time I've had the geography of my world clash with its history. At least one island city has never come to fruition because I determined that the mountain islands it resides on would, in a realistic world, extend north on the mainland in a large mountain range that blocks off a trade route or two. These aren't fantastic examples, but the point is, I've had many cases where I can't have a certain setup and preserve historical and scientific realism.

The obvious solution here is to develop the geography and history side by side, integrating each into the other. My reason for not doing so is that I tend to end up with either a world that is scientifically unnatural (e.g. a peninsula that spontaneously juts out from an otherwise flat coastline) or a world with an implausible history (e.g. General Thel has to make a detour along a mountainous ridge that I've had to make instead of engaging the enemy's much smaller force on the valley floor I originally wanted but had to get rid of).

Maybe this is just the result of a lack of imagination on my part, and an inability to see solutions to these issues (as well as the terrible examples I've given), but this sometimes becomes a problem I can't solve. So when I'm trying to build a world, and I need event X to happen at location Y, but the two are incompatible, what can I do? How do I build a world that doesn't behave like I want it to?

Please note that I'm not asking how to solve the specific examples I gave, but the case in general.

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  • $\begingroup$ By the way, I don't mean to dissuade other answerers just because I've already answered. If there are better solutions to my problem, I'd be glad to hear them. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Feb 7 '16 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ Is adjusting the region's climate not an option? $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Feb 7 '16 at 1:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Preferably not, unless you think there's no other option. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Feb 7 '16 at 1:57
  • $\begingroup$ Poor soil composition could also explain the lack of trees, but leave you with hills. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Feb 7 '16 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ In the Julian Alps (and probably), there are a some very wide valleys from glaciation that are now fairly large and flat areas surrounded by very tall and steep ridges and peaks. I'm pretty sure there would be plenty of room for a cavalry charge in many of these valleys. There's almost no geography that is impossible (or implausible). $\endgroup$ – user2051 Feb 8 '16 at 2:46
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The obvious solution here is to develop the geography and history side by side, integrating each into the other.

For starters, this made me laugh, and I will get into why in a minute.

My reason for not doing so is that I tend to end up with either a world that is scientifically unnatural (e.g. a peninsula that spontaneously juts out from an otherwise flat coastline) or a world with an implausible history...

Been there, I understand your pain.

Maybe this is just the result of a lack of imagination on my part, and an inability to see solutions to these issues

Maybe a little bit.

So when I'm trying to build a world, and I need event X to happen at location Y, but the two are incompatible, what can I do? How do I build a world that doesn't behave like I want it to?

Ok let's get to it. The reason this: The obvious solution here is to develop the geography and history side by side, integrating each into the other. made me chuckle is because while it seems like that is obviously true and should be the simplest, that doesn't tend to be the case.

In an ideal situation this would be my recommended process.

  1. Create a geographical world complete with map.
  2. Define a history based on that world.
  3. There is no step three.

...ok I admit unless you are starting a brand new project (or making a sandbox) this isn't likely the scenario you are working with. When you are telling a story you likely have scenes in mind, ideas, plans epic moments.

This is where I can feel your pain I have rewritten and redrawn maps more times than I care to admit.

The short answer is unfortunately that there is no simple solution to this problem.

I do have suggestions for you though to help you deal with the problems we all inevitably have.

  • Don't be married to your own ideas. This one is difficult, I have had to learn to throw away. These were things I thought I had to have. Being willing to eliminate (always save the idea somewhere) or at the very least being willing to modify them will make your life much easier. Maybe that fortress doesn't have to be in the mountains after all.

  • Be flexible with both the world and the story. Think of this process as shuffling a deck of cards where one half is geography and the other history. The process you are working on is weaving them together.

  • Be creative. Come up with new ideas rather than always trying to smash existing ideas together. For example, your city in the foothills that was part of a major battle on the plains. What if the city was mostly destroyed in the battle, heck the battle could be named after the city, and after it was over the survivors fled toward the hills and rebuilt. It could be a part of the city's history AND allow the battle to take place on a plain.

  • Discuss your ideas with other people Its really easy to get settled with where things are at, having a new set of eyes take a look for you may help immensely. A friend of mine and I are both big nerds (we play DnD etc together) and when we go sit at the bar for a few hours it never fails that we start talking about campaigns, alignments (always entertaining) and story ideas...If you are going to do this at the bar I recommend something to take notes...it can get a little hazy the next morning otherwise.

  • Search for new ideas Maybe this comes from conversations in the idea above, maybe from a movie, a comic book, video game or whatever. You get the idea, keep adding to the pile and you may find the right piece. Always keep the flow of new ideas and content going. I keep a notepad program on my phone just for this purpose...write it down...right away!

This brings us back to this....

The obvious solution here is to develop the geography and history side by side, integrating each into the other.

It is not the easiest, but in my experience this will give you the best, most consistent world and gives the world great depth and the history appears integrated and natural.

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Try not to oversimplify, do not underestimate nature, do not overestimate humans.

Simplifying is something needed when worldbuilding, simply because the process is too complicated for us to extensively understand. However, if you want to come up with a self-consistent world, by simplifying the rules of your universe, you may exclude possible phenomenons to occur, then closing yourself some doors.

I am not sure it exactly what you wanted, but as an example, here is a giant plain in a mountain chain and here a way to create mountainous islands without using tectonic plates.

It leads me to my second point, do not underestimate nature complexity. It can probably produce things you would not be able neither to imagine, nor to explain (seriously, moving stones ?).

The conclusion of this two first point is that it is actually really hard to now if a geographical setup is actually not possible, and you may fall into the old trap to come up only with likely setup, which is far narrower than realist setups.

But how to come to now all that stuff ? I honestly do not now, I personally tend to crawl randomly in Wikipedia, but if it gives you more possibilities, it does not help you checking if a particular setting is realist. Well of course you can ask it here, but neither of the option is a systematic approach to the problem.

You may have notice that I have not so far talked about history. Here comes the part about not overestimating humans. Your problems in fitting history and geography is that you tend to expect your populations to follow a reasonable way of thinking. They not necessary do.

You can actually test if your humans are too reasonable by asking some historical question : would your generals ever accept sending more than 500,000 men to invade Russia in winter without assuring supply ? Or would your people fight among themselves when their empire is threatened from everywhere ? If the answer is "no" then your humans are too reasonable, and you can clearly afford to make them a bit more stupid to explain your world.

In conclusion, I think that you have way more possibilities than you may think at first glance. You can use this freedom to make your worlds fit your needs. Of course, your capacity of playing with geography and history without ending in a contradiction or unrealistic result depends on your expertise in the domain (team work may actually help a lot).

In the end, I admit, the only true advise that answer actually contains is "Learn more about the real world, it will give you freedom". It is a bit disappointing I guess, but, to me defence, you have already cleared a large bit of the other possibilities in your own answer.

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I've run into challenges like this both in world building and elsewhere. Most typically it occurs when I try to take on a large effort and have to make simplifications to keep it tractable. If one's preferred simplifications are harder and more universal than absolutely necessary, one can artificially remove solutions from the playing field without fully considering them.

To give an example, from your question, it is very easy to restrict Science to truly scientifically defensible effects. This can lead to "inevitable" decisions. In reality, the reader may have cared about the "inevitable" decision, but all those little events which lead up to it might have been massaged to avoid it. Maybe 3 small "creative interpretations" of plate tectonics a few million years prior could be enough to give you a short lived plain to fight on thanks to glacial scouring and a conveniently timed warming trend (short lived being maybe 100,000 years). The hard part is when those 3 key points are so far from the question at hand that you can't even sense that they offer a solution.

In the real world, the answer is simple. Geologic activity occurs on such a longer span than human existence, that geology does what it does, and History fills in after it. In world building, however, we have more power than that. We can let Geology and History intermingle, trading off the location of rivers for the rise and fall of kingdoms as we please. Its very powerful, but makes things more complicated. Its hard enough to trace back through Geology to find the small shifts that make your world a reality. It's even hard to trace back and forth between Geology and History tradeoffs to find your perfect world.

The solution I often turn to is an agent based approach. The basic premise is simple: if I lack the dynamic range to build the entire world in one piece, I can instead focus on a bunch of interconnected smaller problems. I lose some control over the final world, but I know I wasn't succeeding at making that world anyway. In exchange, I gain access to literally limitless detail. Some of those little details might have the key to making my world a reality, or even identify a better world that I didn't even think to make in the first place!

The idea is simple. You spawn any number of "agents" you please, which all seek to craft the world using their own free will and creativity. Sure, they're really just bookkeeping devices, you'll have to supply your own free will and creativity, but they supply a necessary element: boundaries. When you're figuring out what an agent in charge of making a plain would do, you can just focus on the narrow issues at hand.

Figure out what each agent would want to do. Then, you shape the world a little. Treat this as a democratic autocracy: they vote, you decide. You collect all of the agent's opinions as to what should happen (alternatively: your own opinions when you bound yourself into each agent's POV). Their opinion is a key guide, but in the end its your world. In the end, this approach permits you to clone yourself a bunch of times, and see how the crowd of HDE 22686's might solve the problem.

The basic process described above is obviously under constrained. All it really says is "pay attention to the little stuff, then make the world." However, the structure of this agent based approach permits you to add more flavor, constraining the solutions until you arrive at something you like. These constraints have the advantage of being very human-like, so we have lots of experience applying them. Here's a list of some of my favorites:

Self-reflective goals: You can always make an agent whose job is to build you a plain for a battle. However, those agents tend to start acting very single minded, and they don't inspire you in any creative ways you hadn't considered before. Self-reflective goals permit an agent to refine their goals as you go. Simply change the wording of the goals for any agent to refer to themselves or something they might have. Instead of "Ensure this area is a plain, so a battle can be fought here," permit the agent to instead have a goal: "I have an image of a fight. I should adjust the geology until this fight can be a reality." Then, if another agent can suggest a better fight, they may be able to take that image and work with it.

Balanced desires: Agents are also boring when all they do is try to instill their worldview on the world around them, without looking at what they already have. It's like a sculptor not considering the grain of a marble block before starting to carve his idea of a bust. Instead, try to have each agent's world view slowly reflect the world around them, while they seek to shape the world according to the world view. This sounds strange, but its incredibly powerful because it forms a feedback loop. It leads each agent to start having its own personality, so your world doesn't look like it's made by 10,000 Agent Smiths. It also inspires creativity, because its very difficult to predict what a complex system of feedback loops will do. The result of those loops may serve as a muse, suggesting directions for your creativity that you never even thought of. One of those directions may even solve your problem!

Flexibility and Optimization: Its easy to write requirements like "make sure a castle appears here in the year 1200," but hard edged requirements like that often lead to the agent based equivalent of bickering. Instead, it works better if there's some flexibility. Give them a metric, such as "100 points for a castle here in 1200, and -1 point for every 2 years it misses that goal by." Optimizing a balance often leads to solutions that were not considered before because it softens the requirements. The agents don't give up on what they hold dear, but they are less likely to rip eachoether's head off when things go wrong (What do you mean you put a swamp there? Ugg! Now I'm going to have to build 3 more castles before this, let each one sink into the swamp before I build the 4th!)

Done right, you should find your agents shift their focus to draw your attention to the most important details in a very flexible manner. You'll find things you thought were important but actually were not will slowly become less and less important to all of these agents. Meanwhile, you may find that some details you never even thought of suddenly become a contentious battle to be resolved. (all the world in one girl). And I think that's really the point. You still know how to world build, all you need is a system to shake it up a bit and draw your attention in directions you hadn't considered!

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  • $\begingroup$ Would be interesting to actually implement it in a computer program (both from a programming and a worldbuilding point of view). $\endgroup$ – Kolaru Feb 9 '16 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Kolaru I've dabbled with it, using computer controlled agents rather than the "I think from the POV of an agent" mentioned here. The tricky part is writing the agents well. They have a horrible nasty tendency of doing exactly what I tell them to do, rather than what I wanted to. Worse, they're really good at it! (The paperclip making AI trope works wonders here) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Feb 9 '16 at 22:43
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Why try to make the two work together at all? It turns out that I can have my cake world, and eat build it, too.

Many of my conundrums arise because of other geological features that must exist for feasibility issues. For example, think of the mountainous islands I mentioned in the question. The northern extent of the mountain range on the mainland must exist where it is because the collision of two tectonic plates will not simply cause one small archipelago to have mountains, while the surrounding mainland does not. To address the feasibility issues, all I have to do is destroy these secondary features. To do that, I have several options, which I'll illustrate with my mountainous island city setup.

Magic

I'm one of the Tolkien fans I mentioned in the question, and many of my worlds have medieval fantasy settings, with a touch of magic. If I need to get rid of a mountain range, all I have to do is invoke intervention by the Lityish Clan of warlocks from the far north. Here's how I can acknowledge that in a story:

"There used to be great mountains here, when I was a child," the old man said, sadly. "I used to play in the foothills, by the banks of the great river Gela. But then this changed." He furrowed his brow, and his eyes flared in anger. "The Lityish Clan intervened, angry at the king. They were unhappy because of the defeat of the Pov'tish at the Battle of Gela Delta. So they took away the mountains, and the forests with their wood, and even Gela itself." Anger took hold of him again. "They will pay one day."

Another option here is, of course, divine intervention, but I tend to leave that out of worlds. Religion may be present - indeed, it is often present, in some form or another - but I like to leave gods out of things like this. Otherwise, the resulting baggage tends to drag the world in directions I don't want it to go.

Time

The world is always changing. The forces of nature build up mountains and erode them down to nothing. Valleys are carved out of the rock as glaciers barrel through, but eventually become flat again. In a story where one part of an event happens in the past - say, a famous battle on a flat plain that led to a ruined city nestled in a valley that should not exist - I can simply say that the battle happened a very long time ago. In the intervening thousands and thousands of years, glaciers came and went, and when they left, a valley remained.

You might argue that these timescales are unrealistic, but in many cases, they're just fine. I once again reference Tolkien's histories, and his Ages that lasted for thousands upon thousands of years. For those not familiar with the chronology of Middle-Earth, I'll put it like this: Elrond should have retired a looong time ago. Ice Ages don't have to last more than, say, ten thousand years, and that seems like a timespan in which an old, mysterious (and magical?) character could live through.

This doesn't mean that characters have to live as long as Elves, just that two events were separated by a decent span of time and, for some reason, not much changed in the interim. Here's how I can put this into a story.

"There used to be great mountains here, long, long ago," the old man said, sadly. "The stories have been passed down over the centuries and millennia. Those who lived and fought and died in the Battle of Gela Delta are naught but dust now, but their memory lives on." He paused in thought. "Were it not for the efforts of the scholarly Monks of Tine, this and so much of our ancient history would be forgotten."

Or, if we make this old man an Elrond-ish figure who's been around for quite some time:

"There used to be great mountains here, when I was a child," the old man said, sadly. "I used to play in the foothills, by the banks of the great river Gela. But then this changed." He had a faraway look in his eyes. "You youngsters, you have no knowledge of what it is to live through the dark ages in the dusty corridors of time. I have lived through fire and ice, and seen my home in the mountains taken away." He paused, now brought back to the present. "But by the cycle of nature, once more, in the far future, those mountains will rise again."

Let's face it, most of the time, it's not necessary to get every little thing right or completely accurate. Sometimes, it's not worth worrying about.

Don't explain it

The option that I never like to use is to simply never explain why there is a paradox here. After all, many readers or explorers of the world might not pick up on why certain situations are impossible. So I can simply go on building my world and suck it up. This is, however, only an option I use when building a world for a story. Otherwise, I tend to get annoyed. After all, something is wrong in my world!

"This broad plain extends as far as the eye can see," the old man said. "It is what makes the trade routes from Celtan City to Deynar Province possible. If there were hills or mountains here, like there are to the west, this land would be impossible to traverse."

Cut the whole thing

The final option, of course, is to rework the entire world so that none of this happens. Get rid of the island, the mountains, the river, and the rest of it and start anew.

The old man said nothing, because he, like the great river Gela and the Ltiyish Clan and the Pov'tish and the Battle of Gela Delta and the scholarly Monks of Tine and Celtar City and Deynar Province were never created.

This is perhaps the worst option, and should only be used if the paradox proves so bad that no alternatives can be found. Really, it shouldn't be used at all.

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I would like to take a different stand in this question. You have wiggle room!

Even though the formation of a landscape is an open process, with a lot of variables to play around with, the end result is nevertheless governed by the laws of nature. Obviously, you can chose laws and patterns that differs from what we have observed so far, but the core principle remains:

Geography depends on logic

Let us take a look at the other side of your "dilemma". I can try to sum up human behaviour in a short statement:

Humans are totally batshit insane!

What do I mean with that? I mean that how humans propagate through, and manipulate a landscape over time is very unpredictable, bordering to directly improbable. Let me show you some snippets from the real world:

  • Czechoslovak legionaries once conquered all the large cities of Siberia, including Yekaterinburg.

  • Guyana has the fifth largest percent of Hindu population in the world.

  • Iceland is the largest European producer of bananas.

Is that something you can predict from geography alone?

"All settings can fit every story." That is a horrible claim, I know, but things are often easier to solve than they seem. I DO NOT say just hand-wave it, that is no fun.

That feeling of banging your head against the wall because of a particularly difficult compatibility problem is one of the things that make world-building so exiting. Reboot, change the world, see it it worked, if not, repeat.

So when I'm trying to build a world, and I need event X to happen at location Y, but the two are incompatible, what can I do?

Hmm... If you really need that plain because of cavalry, it must be there. I might object that even though cavalry was not good for forested mountain slopes the last time you checked, that is certainty not stopping humans from trying.

Let me conclude with the boring answer. Build both your story and setting part by part, and integrate them into each other as you go. If you get stuck, try to include some of the never ending human madness, that usually does it.

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