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?