Podcast Episode 12 – How to Create a Continent


Episode 12: Learn How to Create a Continent

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create a continent, including hemisphere considerations, understanding plate tectonics, and when to use what term for bodies of water, like oceans, seas, bays, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Why the hemisphere our continent is in matters.
  • Why you need to know about plate tectonics
  • Where the biggest mountains will be
  • Where the most explosive volcanoes will be
  • Where the worst earthquakes will be
  • What the difference is between an ocean, sea, bay, and more.

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Episode 12 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twelve. Today’s topic concludes our talk about how to create a continent, including hemisphere considerations, understanding plate tectonics, and when to use what term for bodies of water, like oceans, seas, bays, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 3 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

How Many Continents to Build

While we are talking about creating a continent today, we’re looking at the big picture. And that means we’re not talking about mountain ranges and forests, prairies, grasslands and other details like cities. We will be talking about all of those things, but those will be covered by different episodes that dive more deeply into those subjects. Regardless of how many continents we are creating, the same advice and procedures can apply to doing all of them. For any continent that we create, we don’t have to create every last detail of it, especially if we’re not going to use it.

It helps to have an idea of what you’re going to use it for. Something like a a trilogy or a long novel where the characters are going from one place to another and collecting quest tokens, as they’re called, is going to need more places developed. On the other hand, if you’re writing a short story, you certainly don’t need to go that far. However, that said, even if you’re just focused on a local region, it will help to know where the equator is in relation to your story, and how far away the mountain ranges are and what the weather patterns are like. So, it does help to have that broader image in your head, but this can be general for most of the continent and go into detail just on the area that you’re going to actually use.

One of the reasons we might want to have at least a general sense of other areas on the continent is that we may be able to refer to them. Let’s say that we have a country called Outlandia and we can just say, from Outlandia, they have great wines. And that might be the only thing that we have invented for that place. This might be all that we ever do with that, but then, maybe later, we decide to actually use Outlandia. And, at that point, we start fleshing it out more.

One reason I mention this is that it can become overwhelming to think about creating the details of an entire continent. So, in the beginning, we just want to focus on some basics, and that’s what we’re going to start with. This same idea can apply whether we’re talking about different areas of one continent or if we are talking about multiple continents. If the idea of creating one continent feels overwhelming, then that gets exponentially worse if we’re talking about multiple continents. But sometimes all we need to do is name them and decide which direction they are in from the one that we’re currently working on. We may never use them, we may never mention them, but if we decide to use them later, then at least they exist and we already know where they are in relation to our first continent.

Migration and Skin Color

Figure 9: The Impact of Mountains

Another reason to go ahead and create these other areas of a continent or other continents is that travelers from faraway lands may reach our shores eventually and become integrated into the local world that we’re creating — the local area that we are intending to use. Using Earth as an example, and just the United States, the native population had darker skin than white people from Europe. Black people from Africa, of course, had even darker skin. Unless you are planning to populate your story with people who are exclusively one race, which means they are from one geographic area, then you may want to have an idea where other races could have come from. And by races, I don’t mean dwarves and elves, but races of humans.

You’ve probably heard of the recent controversy about the whitewashing of Hollywood and how films sometimes show only white actors, even when the location is ancient Africa, and that is something that bothers people. Now, whether you agree with that or not, it is still true that the skin color of people in one region is going to be determined by their location comparative to where the equator is. Since the equator is hotter, then people there tend to wear less clothing. And, as a result, they are exposed to much more sun. And, over the millennia, their skin is more likely to darken. By contrast, someone who is living closer to the poles is usually covered up when they’re outside, and this does not happen.

This is a very general concept, but what you want to do is have at least some idea where the white people came from and where the black people came from, just using those two as an example. If they’re from the same continent, then you still need to know where the equator lies on the continent that you are creating, and then you need to understand how far away each region that you are drawing is from that equator. If the continent that you’re creating is relatively small, then you’re probably going to have a skin tone that is pretty similar throughout.

And that means that if there are people of a different skin color there, then they must have come from another continent. And it’s probably going to help you to know how far away that is, which will determine how likely it is that people from there end up here. If we don’t want to invent that other continent in detail, then all we have to do is choose an area on that continent, give it a name and then we are good to go for now. And if we ever decide to return to that and develop it in more detail, well, we’ve already got it.

In a fantasy setting, travel is typically far less likely when we’re talking about great distances than in a sci-fi setting. So, in sci-fi, we’re probably going to have much more integration. But of course, in sci-fi, the problem may be exponentially worse because, in that case, you might be talking about multiple planets and even multiple solar systems. But, once again, we don’t have to create all of those in great detail. Just create what you’re actually going to use.

Getting Started

There’s a fairly simple process you can do to get started with creating a continent. The first step would be to roughly draw one on a sheet of paper, and not worry about how great it looks because no one’s ever going to see this except for you. Then you should decide where that landmass lies in relation to the equator, and where it is in relation to any other continent. And that can be as simple as drawing an arrow pointing to the right side of the page and writing “Outlandia” and indicating it is in that direction.

Then, of course, you’re going to want to give that continent a name. Now, you might just give it a working name for now because that might not be the best thing. For example, I made up Outlandia a couple minutes ago, and I would never actually use that because, personally, I don’t think it sounds very smart. But it just gives me a working title to use for now and I can replace it later.

Once we have a continent drawn in rough form, we can start carving it up into sovereign powers. Now, that said, I will recommend that you draw more features on that continent, such as mountain ranges and forests, because in my experience, when those are there I can often use those to figure out what might be where as far as countries go. If you’d like a really detailed explanation of what I mean, I would suggest picking up a copy of Creating Places, and I think it’s Chapter 1. It talks about case studies.

This is a detailed breakdown of exactly what I was thinking when I created certain areas of one of my continents and how I used land features like forests, mountains, even the sea to determine where those countries broke down in between one and another, or what the boundary was. And then the reason they are that way, and even how I decided, based on land features, what the government type was and whether it was an aggressive or peaceful country, whether they have freedoms or slavery. And all of that is discussed in detail in that one chapter. And that’s one of the few chapters — and, so far, the only chapter — that I’m not covering at all during this podcast because it’s a little too map specific. You kind of need to be looking at the maps that I have in that chapter in order to follow along.

At least one of those case studies is published on artofworldbuilding.com. If you go to the menu for Book Two, there’s a link that says “read free.” You can get to the table of contents on there and you can go to that section and just read some of what I’m talking about.

Now, once we’ve got our sovereign powers decided, we are once again going to need some names for these. And we can follow the same process of just giving them some basic names that we can improve later. In my experience, names are sometimes hard to come up with. And we’re going to discuss this in another podcast episode as part of Volume 3, Cultures and Beyond, but there are techniques we can use to come up with names. And one of the things that happens is that anytime we are inventing names, not every name is going to be great the first time we try to come up with one. So, in my experience, I have repeatedly replaced names that I just didn’t like, or it was okay, but in time I thought, “Okay. I’m finally going to fix that.”

So, that brings up a basic problem with world building, or just a situation with world building, where generally we are often improving on what we’ve created. That comes up a little bit less with short stories because we’re probably going to invent the world, and the story outline and then write the story and not revisit that.

That last thing we might want to do at a high level when creating these sovereign powers is just to decide what kind of sovereign power they are. Our choices are things like authoritative states, democracies, federations and monarchies. We’re going to cover a lot more of that when we get to creating a sovereign power. So, in the beginning, all we really need to do is have a basic understanding of whether this is a benevolent or nefarious society. Is this somewhere where people have freedom and it’s relatively peaceful, or is it really horrible to live there? We can decide later what sort of government is responsible for that quality of life.

Figure 2: The Sea of Fire

We can also decide that certain areas of the continent have a reputation for one thing or another. Think about the Earth and what intrigues us about a place. Some countries are known for their benevolence while others are known for being a source of tension. That would include the Middle East. Other areas are known for their dictatorships and the brutal quality of life. An area might also be known for its hot and humid weather or its hot and dry weather. There’s at least one area on Earth that is synonymous with brutally frigid cold.

More examples include a slave trade, huge forests, impenetrable mountains, vast deserts and exotic animals. Mind you that exotic animals are only going to seem exotic to people who are from another place. To the locals, they’re going to seem normal. But this is one of the reasons to create this sort of reputation for certain areas and then be able to reference them in the area where you are setting your story.

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Which Hemisphere?

The next subject we’re going to talk about is a brief one, and that is the affect of the hemisphere where your continent is located. One reason I’m not going to spend too much time on this is that the previous two episodes talked about this in more detail. We can draw something like a mountain range without having decided where our continent lies in relation to the equator, but we shouldn’t draw things like deserts, grasslands or forests without having made this decision.

The reason is that all of those are going to be affected by where the continent lies in relation to the equator. One reason for this is the prevailing winds and the latitude. And then, of course, there’s the influence of those mountain ranges. The previous episodes talk about the subject of rain shadows, which basically means that the prevailing winds are moving in a given direction, and when they hit a mountain range, those winds go up and all of the water — well, not all of it, but most of the water in the clouds falls on one side of the mountain range, and then, on the other side, there’s no water left to fall. As a result, there is usually a desert there, and this is known as a rain shadow.

How do we know which direction the prevailing winds are blowing and which side of the mountain range is going to have forest and which will have desert? That’s easy. It’s going to be based on the latitude, which means the distance from the equator, which is why we need to know this. It changes depending on how far from the equator you are. I don’t want to reexplain all of this, so if you haven’t listened to Episode 11.1 or 11.2, go ahead and check those out after this one.

One last issue to talk about is that if you are living in a given continent, you are used to thinking that it’s colder in one direction and warmer in another, but this is going to be reversed if you are in the other hemisphere. This is a big deal when you’re creating a continent because you don’t want to be creating a cold region to the north if you later decide that this continent is in the Southern Hemisphere. Because the colder region is actually going to be to the south and the northern area is going to be warm.

Another issue is that the seasons are reversed. When it is winter in the northern hemisphere, it is, of course, summer in the southern hemisphere. The entire planet is not experiencing winter or summer at the same time.

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Plate Tectonics and Mountains/Volcanoes

If you’re like me, you learned about plate tectonics either in junior or high school, but you’ve probably forgotten some of the details. So, we’re going to discuss some of the basics you need to know when inventing a continent.

The biggest reason that this matters is that plate tectonics are going to determine where your mountain ranges are. This is not to suggest that we actually have to figure out where the plate outlines are when we are inventing a continent, but just to get a general understanding of what’s going to happen and what is not going to happen.

For example, I once drew a continent that had a circular mountain range. This is basically impossible. The only explanation for that is that those mountains were part of a range and they were once filled on, but then some sort of titanic explosion happened and carved out the center. I made that decision when I was a teenager when I couldn’t have cared less about being correct. But that’s the kind of mistake we would likely want to avoid. If you’re wondering how I solved that problem later, when I wised up — well, I just told you. I decided that a huge explosion had created this situation. With some ingenuity, there is often a way out of our mistakes, but it is better to avoid those mistakes in the first place.

In theory, that’s one of the reasons you’re listening to this podcast. So, let’s get started.

Figure 4: Kysh Kingdom

A planet like the Earth is composed of an outermost shell of slowly moving plates, and those plates either move towards each other, which is called convergence, or they move away from each other, which is called divergence, or they transform. We’ll talk more about that last one in a minute. The converging or diverging ones are what give us mountain ranges and volcanos. Most of the volcanos occur where two plate boundaries intersect, but some of the volcanos can exist in the middle of a plate due to a flaw in the plate. And what that means is that the crust of the earth could be unusually thin right there. And, as a result, the magma below the surface is able to burst through and create a volcano.

So, one thing that this means is that we could have a volcano anywhere on our map and no one can tell us, “No, that’s not possible. It couldn’t be there.” I can almost hear some of you breathing a sigh of relief the same way that I did.

Since I live in the United States, I’m more familiar with what’s going on on either coast and I’m going to use this country as an example of something. The west coast, with California, is known for earthquakes, but the eastern coast is not. And there is a reason for this. Every continent, obviously, has an area that is above water. But, just off shore, there is an area of the continental shelf that is underwater. This is an area of relatively shallow water compared to the deeper sea that is farther away. On the west coast, the continental shelf ends relatively near the end of the actual continent, but on the east coast the continental shelf is relatively farther away.

This is something that we can decide almost arbitrarily when we are inventing our own continents. After all, no one from this invented planet we are making up is going to come to Earth and tell us that we’re wrong.

One thing that this means is that deep ocean is just off shore on the west coast, but on the east coast it is farther away. And one of the things that this implies is that if we are creating the sort of world that has sea monsters, they are more likely to be close to the western side of the United States, in this example, than the eastern side of the United States, if we are deciding that those sea monsters are truly enormous and prefer having deep water to live in.

The more important aspect of this is that the plate boundary is near the west coast of the United States, and that means that this causes dramatic activity at the boundary between the two plates. What kind of dramatic activity? Mountain ranges, volcanos and earthquakes. So, something to keep in mind is that if there is deep water just off shore, that also would imply that there are probably mountains and volcanos on the continent right there.

One of the challenges of world building is that we sometimes don’t really have a reason for making one choice or another, and, therefore, we get stuck by indecision. This is one way to get past that. If we would like sea monsters that prefer deep water to be near the eastern side of the continent, then we are probably going to have tall mountain ranges and volcanos there. If we don’t have a sea monster idea or story in mind, then we can still just make this decision somewhat arbitrarily but understand what we are implying. A shipwreck on the eastern coast of the United States is likely to be in relatively shallow water compared to one off the western coast of the United States, unless that shipwreck is relatively close to the continent.

Convergent Boundaries

Let’s talk about convergent boundaries. What this means is that two plates are moving together and one of them is destroying the edge of the other. The results of this can be be varied. One result is called subduction, and this means that one plate is forced under the other. This often happens when the two plates are for an ocean and a continent. This is known as an ocean-to-continent boundary. When this happens, the ocean plate is the one that goes under the continent, and this causes a mountain range that is on that side of the continent, such as the western side of the United States.

One thing this means is that that mountain range will be parallel to the coast. So, if the coast is running north to south, the mountain range is, too. And the volcanos that are here are usually very explosive. In fact, they are the most explosive volcanos on earth. Of course, one of the things this means is that the residents on such a coast should be aware of volcanos. Depending on how well they keep written records, they may be well aware of when the last eruption was. They might also have myths about this and cultural milestones, such as the last time that eruption took place, because that might have destroyed the city or something else that’s very important to everyone.

Another scenario is that we could have two ocean plates where one of them is being forced under the other. And what this causes is a chain of volcanos, just like those in Hawaii.

Then there is the continent-to-continent boundary. And when this happens, the plates converge, fold and lift, forming very tall mountain ranges with no volcanos. These are the tallest mountain ranges on the world, and they are located in the interior of the continents. When drawing a map or deciding on where things are, this is something we should consider.

Divergent Boundaries

Earlier, I mentioned another kind of boundary, and that is the divergent boundary, when two plates are moving away from each other. If this happens underwater, this can also from volcanic islands. If this happens on land instead, what happens is that a low area of land can form and then possibly fill with ocean water to create a sea, such as with the Mediterranean Sea.

You may have heard this idea that the Earth once had a super continent, which I think was called Pangea. The reason this broke apart was divergent plates. The plates moved away from each other. Evidence of this can be seen just by looking at a map, because the left side, or the western side, of Africa looks like it fits into the right side, or eastern side, of South America like they’re some sort of jigsaw puzzle. We may want to consider this when drawing two continents, because we could draw the right side of one to be a mirror image of the left side of another one.

Sometimes, as world builders, we are looking for a reason to make a decision, and this can be one way to achieve that decision. Not only can we decide what one side of a continent looks like, but we can decide on what another side of a different continent looks like. However, don’t go overboard. Don’t make every single edge of every continent look like it fits into some sort of jigsaw puzzle.

Transform Boundaries

The last type of boundary is called a transform boundary, and this means that two plates are grinding past each other without either of them getting destroyed. This causes really strong earthquakes, but, aside from this, there’s no evidence, like mountains or volcanoes, that they actually exist unless we are a scientist studying this sort of thing. What this means for us as world builders is that we can basically ignore this type of boundary. It’s not going to affect what we indicate exists on a map. On the other hand, we could decide that there are strong earthquakes somewhere that is far from a mountain range, and that this is the reason for it.

One way to tell that such a boundary exists is if a road that used to connect has a break in that road that is 20, 30, or more feet apart from each other. We could have our characters see that a road they are following suddenly ends, but that it is continuing but it’s 30 feet away. In doing so, we would be implying that this area is prone to extremely strong earthquakes.


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How to Name Water Bodies

There’s one more major subject that we should discuss when we are creating a continent, and that is the bodies of water that are surrounding that continent. Here on Earth, we talk about there being five different oceans, and those are the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern oceans, but the reality is that these are all one, continuous body of water that is a kind of world ocean. Why did we divide them up? Because it makes it easier to refer to one area of that ocean versus another. Also bear in mind that sometimes we talk about there being Northern Pacific and a Southern Pacific Ocean, for example. This is done for the same reason. These are really the same body of water.

Figure 4: Kysh Kingdom

One of the things that we’re talking about right now is why different bodies of water are named different things. For example, you may have wondered what the difference between an ocean and a sea is. The quick answer to that is that there is actually no difference. This is one reason why we can all be confused about that. We’re assuming that there is a difference, otherwise why would people have two different words? But I guess people just like to use different words for the same thing. It’s called a synonym.

That said, the word “sea” is typically used to refer to a smaller area than an ocean, and it is often an area that is surrounded by land on several sides. What that means is that it’s going to be near a continent, of course. There is, of course, something called a lake, and one of the differences between a lake and a sea is that a lake is completely surrounded by land, whereas a sea is only partially surrounded by it. That said, sometimes a very large lake is called a sea, and there could be several reasons for this. One of those might be that technology is not great and, therefore, the people who are living on one shore of that lake feel like the lake extends indefinitely, and it might extend so far out of reach that they think it’s a sea when it isn’t.

There’s another reason to call a lake a sea, and that is simply because the name might sound better. The Sea of Sadness sounds more interesting than the Lake of Sadness. Another explanation is that the word “sea” can often have a connotation that the land on the far side of that sea is somehow untamed and wild. And, therefore, it is dangerous. You may have noticed that we are basically using the wrong word, sea, to refer to a lake, but that we can sometimes get away with this and justify it, although we don’t necessarily have to explain to our audience why we have chosen that name.

One point here is if real people on Earth are using the wrong word for something, then there’s certainly no reason we can’t use it, too. One problem to be aware of though is that there will be people who think they know everything. They’re a know-it-all, and they could come along and say, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” But we do have some flexibility here.

When we are creating our continent, there are other words we can use to refer to different areas of the edge of that continent where it meets the water. I’m going to quickly run through some of those. Like a sea, a bay is a body of water that is surrounded on several sides by land and it can be part of an ocean or a lake. A gulf is a very large bay. A cove is a smaller bay and is usually circular, with a narrow passage that leads into it or out of it. A fjord is a narrow bay with a steep terrain on either side of it, or, usually, both sides of it. An inlet is a narrow, but long, indentation of shoreline and which often connects a bay to another body of water. There could be a group of these, and those are often called a sound. A sound is large enough to draw on a continent-sized map, and they can be big, if not bigger, than a bay. Finally, if there are two large bodies of water that are separated by a narrow area of water, that smaller area is called a strait, channel, pass or passage.

If you’re having trouble remembering all of that, then you could pick up a copy of Creating Places, and Chapter 3 has all of this listed out for you.


All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album The Firebard, called “Journeys.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!