New Worlds: Natural Disasters

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

When “natural disasters” wandered through my head as a possible thing to post about, I found myself thinking, Is that really a worldbuilding topic? Aren’t natural disasters more of a plot element?

That type of thinking is exactly why I want to talk about natural disasters as an aspect of worldbuilding.

Let me illustrate with two real-life stories. I have a friend I often visit in New York City whose apartment has very deep molding around the doors and windows. She has decorated these with small spheres of different kinds of stone, on little stands — it’s very pretty. But the first time I visited her after moving to California, I looked up at those and twitched. Man, those are all going to fall on somebody’s head in the first earthquake.

Also, earlier this year a friend of mine moved from California (where he’s lived his whole life) to Texas (where I grew up). When he asked what he should know about his new home, one of the first things I did was educate him in tornado safety.

In stories, natural disasters usually are plot. Blizzards happen when you need to trap your characters in their current location. Earthquakes happen when dead gods rise. Volcanoes exist for the purpose of melting magical rings. You almost never hear about such things outside of those moments — even though many of us live in places where they’re an ever-present concern, albeit a background one. Flooding. Hurricanes. Ashfall from the nearby volcano. Mudslides. Wildfires. Tsunami. There are a lot of ways the world around you can go wrong. Sometimes it may be intentional — the evil sorcerer controlling the elements, the alien empire using weapons beyond our ken, the angry god punishing impiety — but even in the absence of such forces, these things will just happen, as the inevitable consequence of natural forces at work.

Why bring up such things when they aren’t plot-relevant? For the same reason you provide any other sort of descriptive detail: because it gives your setting depth, makes it feel more three-dimensional and real. Your readers from California or Japan will feel a little frisson of recognition when a small tremor shakes the ground beneath your protagonist, making her pause briefly and look for the nearest sheltered spot before continuing on with her business. That volcanic ashfall can be a source of tension; your characters are used to it and sweeping away the day’s ash is just part of their routine, but the reader wonders if it’s foreshadowing, a harbinger of greater trouble to come. Maybe people keep small rowboats at their houses because the river floods every spring and trying to walk or ride to the neighbor’s house will be impossible for a month or so. The flood doesn’t have to be disastrous for you to include that little moment of color, paddling around on one’s errands instead of going by dry land. (In the canal region of Kerala in India, going places via boat is quite common.)

These hazards shape our architecture. Many places in the “Tornado Alley” corridor of the Midwestern U.S. have basements or other underground refuges where you can go when the sky threatens to unload a twister. Roofs in wintry regions are steep rather than flat, the better to shed their burden of snow. People in flood-prone regions may put their houses on stilts or small rises, clear of the expected water level; people in earthquake-prone coastal regions may build their houses on higher elevations away from the shoreline, to avoid the destruction of a tsunami. (There are markers showing the point below which you should not build in northern Japan, which were ignored by more recent generations. The Sendai earthquake in 2011 reminded everyone why those markers were there.) Even on a smaller scale, kitchens are sometimes built as free-standing structures not only to keep the smells of food preparation away from the living quarters, but also so they won’t take out the whole house when the inevitable fire happens.

As my stories above illustrate, such hazards also shape our behavior. A New Englander will put a beautiful glass vase on a little pedestal above a tile floor; a Californian may cringe at the sight of it, envisioning shards flying everywhere at the first tremor. A resident of Tornado Alley will take note of certain weather conditions (the green sky is proverbial, but not always accurate) and reflexively calculate the best place to shelter, should it be necessary. A Canadian won’t put important objects outside where they might get glued down with ice or buried under three feet of snow. Failing to pay attention to this sort of thing risks kicking the knowledgeable reader straight out of the story: I happily bought into the alien powers and kryptonite of the TV show Smallville, but when they showed me a Midwestern girl trying to drive away from a tornado rather than lying down in a ditch, my suspension of disbelief died on the spot.

And since we’re talking about speculative fiction: you can always invent new hazards. In C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy, many of the biggest hazards on her alien planet come from “fae,” which are not sentient creatures so much as a kind of substance that responds to human thought. It comes in several different types, and the most dangerously volatile type, “dark fae,” cannot survive the light. Which means you’re fine . . . until “true night” falls. When the Core (the massed stars of the Milky Way, on whose extreme fringes this star system is found) and the sun and the moons have all set? Then things get very bad. That kind of thing veers back toward plot-central disaster, but it’s also very clearly an element of the worldbuilding, adding a new wrinkle to the setting that has repercussions for the way all the characters live.

The natural world may be a background element rather than a driver of your plot, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there — or that it can’t pose hazards to your characters. How many of you live in a place where some potential disaster or another is a concern?

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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5 Responses to New Worlds: Natural Disasters

  1. When I was a kid writer, my worldbuilding was pretty much what you’d expect from a teen (a mishmash of whatever I liked in my reading, plus some teenage what if thinking) but there was a lot about plate tectonics, and how mages did spells to relieve quakes and protect structures. Oh, and houses were open to release heat, as everyone went around all year long in sandals. One guess where I was born and raised!

    I think of this sort of thing as inadvertent worldbuilding: certain givens creep into a story because of the author’s background.

    • Yeah, if you’re steeped enough in the assumptions of your surroundings, they’re likely to come through.

      The reverse is what (if I recall correctly) Chimamanda Adichie brought up in “The Danger of a Single Story”: if everything you read contains the assumptions of someone whose life is not like yours, you may end up writing their assumptions instead of your own. Teenaged Me was probably more apt to write about a blizzard than an earthquake, even though neither was very likely where I lived, because the books I read had more blizzards than earthquakes in them. And no tornadoes at all.

  2. Tamsin says:

    Yes, this is a great post! I’m a geologist and have given quite a bit of thought to the topic when discussing worldbuilding with writing friends. I have a couple of points that I’d like to add.
    In addition to shaping the practical aspects of a culture, like architecture and everyday behaviour, natural disasters will shape the stories that are told by/in that culture: myths and legends, religion, folklore, popular media. As a very simple example, a society in a geologically quiet place is less likely to worship a God of Earthquakes than a society living on an active plate boundary.
    Also, for me as a geologist, natural disasters are very much linked to landscapes. Mountainous regions are often prone to earthquakes as well as (possibly) more obvious hazards like landslides. A mountain range can also interact with prevailing winds to affect the weather, making one side of the range prone to flooding while the other side is prone to droughts. A long narrow bay or fjord might have a higher tsunami risk than nearby open coast, because the geometry of the bay can act like a funnel for waves that builds them up higher. And so on. So in creating a fictional landscape, it makes sense to me to consider how that landscape would generate or be generated by natural disasters, and how the people who live there might deal with that.

    • natural disasters will shape the stories that are told by/in that culture

      And this is why it’s so hard for me to discuss worldbuilding — because I start out with earthquakes and end up with folksongs or something. 🙂 Deciding where to put the boundaries on a single post is tough. I figure I’ll circle back around to this a bunch; I want to get into some of the landscape issues you raise, but I also don’t want to spend too long at once on a single (broad) topic.