Ecology for World-Builders: Why Does It Matter?

Consider the fantasy world. Most of the time, when we experience in it, we’re being exposed to new and interesting cultures, dealing with exotic political systems, seeing the effects of magic on society, being introduced to alien creatures with an intelligence all their own, you name it. But there’s one thing that a lot of people seem to lose track of, and that’s how the natural world actually works.

It’s hardly surprising. We are creations of a modern age; most of our meat comes pre-butchered, our cloth is mostly synthetic (and that which isn’t is taken care of Somewhere Else), and our encounters with wildlife are few and far between. Small wonder, then, that we don’t put near as much effort into our ecosystems as we do into our cultures.

If all you’re dealing with is a tale within a city in your world, this isn’t going to matter too much, but most of us seem to like covering a lot of ground, operating in the wilderness, or otherwise putting the characters in contact with nature. How many protagonists have come from farming villages? (Or been chased out of farming villages, for that matter, either by the residents or by invading fill in the blank?) Knowing your nature is going to matter in those cases: what they grow, what eats what they grow, whether they raise animals and what else might eat those, and what’s likely to skip a step and just eat them. And where they get things that aren’t necessarily food; I’ve seen at least half a dozen rants about Chris Paolini’s vegetarian elves in leather armor. (I will cheerfully explain the problem with this at great length if asked.)

Then consider the changes of the seasons. Unless you live in a place with no real weather (I’ll admit, I’ve done that for most of my life), you’ve probably at least experienced changes in seasons. And you may have noticed that certain fruits are cheaper some parts of the year than other parts. It doesn’t affect us much, but for people who don’t have refrigeration or really fast transit between two points with extreme climatic divergence, this is going to be a big deal, and a lot of life is going to adapt to deal with that.

It doesn’t exactly help that we have the simultaneous blessing and curse of having magic to fall back on when we create our worlds. Having magic as a resource means we can create creatures who innately have it, which allows them to do things that standard biology wouldn’t permit. On the other hand, it’s easy to go too far with this, until you’re in “A wizard did it” territory. (And anything a wizard did, another wizard can complain about). Granted, magically created creatures can be fun in their own right, but isn’t it just as much fun to see what natural or supernatural forces can do on their own?

Besides, if you’re going to do something, you may as well do something right. We make all this effort on our cultures, our magic systems, in some cases our languages. Why shouldn’t we put the same effort into making a cohesive and internally consistent ecology?

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  1. Reality in Review: September 2008 | Exchange of Realities

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