How to Create a Continent


Despite the term “world building,” we usually build far less than that in detail. Fantasy tends to utilize one continent. SF will typically use multiple planets, but on each, a single location (like a city) is used. Chapter Six, “Creating a Settlement,” covers the invention of single cities, so this chapter discusses inventing a continent, even if we’ll only use portions of it in detail. Multiples continents can be created following the advice herein. It’s also possible to create a single, large supercontinent, like Pangaea or Gondwana.

We don’t need to invent every region of our continent, but some basic thought should still be given to areas we won’t utilize as much. It adds depth to our work to say that a product, like wine or furniture, came from a certain region. We can invent that on the fly instead of planning it, but there’s more to life than products. Different sovereign powers will exist and have histories with each other. Allies and enemies flourish. Grievances are to be nurtured. Stereotypes, racism, and ethnic hatreds blossom. We can do all this and more by laying out a continent so we know where these people in conflict live. It’s crucial for any story involving travel, like a quest, which typically involves a journey through hostile places; otherwise, any schlep could go get the quest token.

Multiple Continents

We don’t have to invent more than one continent, but to make our main one seem less like an island, we can name other continents and decide what they’re famous for. We might never use them. But then maybe people on our main continent know of another where people are free, and those in an oppressed kingdom dream of going there. Travelers from faraway lands will eventually reach our shores. Why not have some ideas on where they originated?

Creating multiple continents doesn’t necessarily mean laying out each in detail. Here’s a simple process we can follow to get started for one:

  1. Draw a rough shape on paper
  2. Decide where the land mass lies in relation to the equator and where it is in relation to the others
  3. Give the continent a name
  4. Carve it up into sovereign powers
  5. Add names to those powers
  6. Decide what each power is like, using Chapter 5, “Creating a Sovereign Power.”

That can be it for now, or maybe we’ll go one step further and decide on some reputations for the entire continent or various regions in it. Think about the Earth and what intrigues us about a place, then create such a one somewhere. We might want to save the best ideas for our main continent, but some things will be true of multiple places, like naval powers. There’s usually at least one per continent. We can ask ourselves some questions for inspiration:

  • Is there a kingdom known as a naval superpower, whose ships and raiders will reach our main continent’s shores?
  • Is there a slave trade somewhere?
  • Huge rainforests?
  • Impenetrable mountains?
  • Vast deserts?
  • Exotic animals?
  • A spice trade? Or trade in something of our invention, like supernatural or technological elements?
Which Hemisphere?

The differences between a planet’s northern and southern hemispheres is largely trivial but has various consequences. What matters most is where our continent lies in relation to the equator. The reasons this is important are laid out in Chapter 2, “Creating a Planet,” but amount to determining climate. We can draw mountain ranges without having decided this, but no desert, grassland, or forest should be placed without this decision. The combination of prevailing winds, which are solely determined by latitude, and mountains will influence the location of vegetation, as discussed Chapter 2 under “Rain Shadows.”

Those who travel between hemispheres will note that any moons look upside down. So will constellations. Moon phases are also reversed, which can matter if we’re planning to do something like supernatural spells that depend upon the moon’s phase. An old game called Ultima IV had moon powered portals that only operated at certain moon phases, but the continent spanned only one hemisphere, presumably.

Seasonal Issues

Those world builders who are used to living in one hemisphere might need to remind themselves, when creating a continent in the other hemisphere, that cold regions are not north/south but poleward. The seasons are also reversed; when it’s winter in the north, it’s summer in the south. This matters more during storytelling, but it also impacts constellations, as noted in the previous chapter. It can impact our calendar if we’re not careful; this is discussed in Chapter 10, “Creating Time and History.”