Podcast Episode 13.1 – How to Create Land Features


Episode 13.1: Learn How to Create Land Features

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how to create land features, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, and various kinds of forests, from woodlands to savannahs, jungles, and run-of-the-mill forests.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to create mountains that are different from each other, and characterize them
  • The difference between extinct, dormant, and active volcanoes
  • What the four major types of forests are and where they form, and how they can impact story, and
  • How to make each river different from the last one you invented

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Episode 13.1 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part one. Today’s topic is how to create land features, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, and various kinds of forests, from woodlands to savannahs, jungles, and run-of-the-mill forests. This material and more is discussed in chapter 4 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.

Creating Mountains

Mountains are the first land feature we’re going to talk about because they have a big affect on where forests, deserts, and bodies of water, like rivers and lakes, will form. In the previous episode, number 12, we talked about plate tectonics and how this determines what kind of mountain ranges are in what location. I don’t want to explain that over again, so if you missed that episode, I suggest checking that out. I would also suggest checking out the previous episode, number 11, where I talked about prevailing winds and rain shadows.

I’ll briefly mention the reason we care about this, and basically what is going on is that wind is moving in a certain direction based on how far from the equator that landmass is and where the wind is passing over it. What happens is that the prevailing winds hit one side of the mountains and most of the water in those clouds falls on that side, causing a forest there and, on the other side, there is no more rain to fall. And, as a result, there’s usually a desert there. This is one of the reasons we care about putting mountains on our map first. Or, even if we’re not doing a map, this is something we should decide on early.

But let’s talk about the mountains themselves, not the affect that they have on vegetation. We all think we know what a mountain is, but it might surprise you to know that there is actually no definition that has been agreed upon. For something to be considered a mountain, it just has to be something that stands out from the surrounding countryside. So, if you have a very flat land and there is a so-called mountain that is 2,000 feet tall, then it’s going to look like a mountain. Calling it one might seem ridiculous to someone who is used to living somewhere where the mountains are 14,000 feet tall, but it’s still okay to call it that. For this reason, when we are doing world building and we are deciding that there’s a range of mountains, or even just a solitary peak, we should always make a note in our files just how big this thing is.

On Earth, roughly a quarter of the surface is covered in mountains. So, when you are laying out your continent, you should have this understanding that these are not exactly rare. Depending on the size of the continent that we’re inventing, there could be multiple mountain ranges. Sometimes mountain ranges are parallel to each other. Using the United States as an example, all of them appear to run north to south. The Cascade Mountains on the western coast do this, and so do the Rocky Mountains that are further inland. And the same is true on the eastern side of the United States.

One thing to keep in mind is that to the average person like ourselves, when we look at a map showing the topography, we might think that the Cascade Mountains on the western side of the United States is one very long mountain range going all the way from Canada down through the United States into Mexico. But the reality is that these are actually separate mountain ranges that are sort of stacked on top of each other north to south.

If we choose to do such a thing ourselves, then we may want to leave a small gap in between those mountain ranges and indicate that this is a travel route (or a pass, as we sometimes call them) or we might want to just decide to use one name for the entire range. And, in fact, this sort of thing does happen in the real world. We do that with the east coast mountains. For example, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Mountains are actually part of the larger Appalachian Mountain Range. If we don’t want to invent three different names like that, then we don’t have to.

Many of us have probably heard of Olympus Mons on Mars. This is the largest mountain in the entire solar system. On Earth, Mount Everest is roughly 29,000 feet, but Olympus Mons is 69,000 feet. This seems like it would be truly amazing, but the reality is that the mountain is so large – it’s basically the size of France – that if you were standing on that mountain, you wouldn’t even realize you were on a mountain because it’s so broad and flat. The reason this mountain is so tall is that there are no tectonic plates on Mars. And we discussed that in a previous episode. Basically, all of the continents we have here on Earth are on top of a tectonic plate which is sort of floating on the surface of the Earth. They’re all basically moving. When they move towards each other or they pull apart, this causes volcanoes and mountain ranges to form.

There’s also something called a hot spot, and this is actually what’s causing Olympus Mons. Basically, the surface of Mars is not moving and there is a hot spot there. Therefore, the magma is just perpetually coming up. This doesn’t happen on Earth to the same degree because the surface of the Earth is moving. And, therefore, the hot spot keeps changing as well and that gives us something like the volcanic islands of Hawaii.

One point I’m getting at here is that a truly enormous mountain is only going to happen on a world where there are no tectonic plates, and that’s going to cause all sorts of other changes to our world that we might want to be aware of. For example, all of the other kinds of mountain ranges are probably not going to exist. As a result, those mountain ranges that don’t exist are not going to have an affect on prevailing winds, and there’s not going to be this whole thing of rain shadows and forests on one side, and then deserts on the other.

Of course, anything is technically possible, and scientists often say something like that, and then, years later, they discover a world that has something that they thought was impossible. So, maybe I’m wrong, but you get the idea. If you’re going to do something like one truly enormous mountain, you’re implying that there are no tectonic plates and that there would be other side effects. However, the average person reading your book is going to have no idea about any of that.

This means we could get away with a truly enormous mountain, but if you stop and think about it, a solitary mountain is the most impressive looking thing. One example that you can Google to get some images of this is Mount Shasta in Northern California. It’s the only mountain right there and it stands out very dramatically from the surrounding because of that. And it’s only 14,000 feet tall, compared to Mount Everest at 29,000 feet. And then, of course, there is Olympus Mons at over 69,000 feet.

When I see pictures of Mount Everest, it doesn’t look nearly as majestic to me as Mount Shasta, even though it’s twice as tall, because there are all sorts of other mountains that are almost as tall surrounding Mount Everest. But, on the other hand, Mount Shasta is kind of standing there mostly by itself. In other words, context is everything.

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In thinking about volcanoes, one of the things that we need to concern ourselves with is its status. Some volcanoes are said to be extinct, and what that really means is that in written history it has never erupted. Now, if we have a species like elves that are 1,000 years old, and they have a civilization going very far back, then your world might have no volcanoes that are considered to be extinct. Or we could change our definition from extinct meaning “that no written record of it erupting exists” to “no living memory of it erupting exists either.” Or we could decide that extinct just means it’s 5,000 years since it erupted. In Earth terms, that’s long enough ago to be before written history. Actually, that may not be true, but you get the idea.

An extinct volcano is one that has not erupted in thousands of years. So, what do we call one that has erupted in the last few thousand years or during written history? Well, those are called dormant if they are not currently active. And, of course, an active volcano is erupting right now. You’re not going to fail to notice this. Neither are your characters. As storytellers, we only need an active volcano when that’s actually going to impact the story that we’re telling.

Extinct volcanoes may not have much use for us because it’s no fun deciding that something is never going to erupt again and, in fact, we’re right about that. It can be more fun to decide that people think it’s extinct and that it’s not going to erupt again, but it’s actually dormant and then, suddenly, it erupts. But, of course, just as with the active volcanoes, once it’s erupting, that’s going to be impacting our story. So, we only need to be concerned about that if it’s going to be something we want to happen.

In other words, should we bother putting a volcano there if it’s extinct, or should we always decide that those are dormant? In other words, we’re not going to use it until, suddenly, we do need it. Bear in mind that even with a supposedly extinct volcano, it’s possible for us to have geological cataclysms of such a huge nature that a once extinct volcano becomes one that’s erupting.

Also bear in mind that, just like you were a few minutes ago, probably, your characters don’t really know the difference between dormant and extinct. All they’re really going to be thinking is whether or not that’s going to erupt anytime soon, and that’s going to be based on how recently it last erupted, which means it’s dormant. If everyone says, “Well, we don’t remember it ever erupting,” well then, of course, it’s extinct. But no one’s probably going to make those distinctions. The exception would be a scientist.

Characterizing Mountains

When we’re creating mountains, we should also try to characterize these just as we do with volcanoes. We could reasonably say that mountain ranges are roughly in the 3,000 to 4,000 foot range, which is around 900 meters, or they tower over 10,000 feet or over 3,000 meters. Making a distinction here is one way to keep all of your mountain ranges from being the same. If the continent you’re inventing is going to have two mountain ranges, make one of them small and the other one big. How do you decide? Well, from the previous episode on plate tectonics, you might remember that the tallest mountain ranges tend to be those on the interior of the continent. They also don’t have volcanoes.

On the other hand, those mountain ranges along the coasts do have volcanoes and they tend to be shorter. This isn’t necessarily the case, however, as the mountains on the eastern side of the United States are in the roughly 3,000 to 4,000 foot range, whereas the tallest mountains on the western coast are in that 14,000 range. This might sound contradictory, but basically, that’s the way nature works. Nothing is really a law set in stone, and the great thing about this is that this gives us flexibility to decide what we want to do. We can be informed by science instead of restricted by it.

The lower mountains are less likely to cause the rain shadow that we’ve talked about in a couple episodes here. On the other hand, taller mountains will definitely cause one. This is why we see rain shadows on the western side of the United States, but we do not see them on the eastern side.

Tall mountains are obviously harder to get over, not only for those on land, but even for birds. It may surprise you to know that in the Himalayas, there are species of birds that try to traverse those mountains and they have a lot of difficulty flying that high to do so. If you have dragons in your world, or enormous birds like eagles that you see in The Lord of the Rings, this is also going to affect them. And it might affect them even more than the smaller birds.

So, if you’re trying to decide how tall the mountains should be for your story, then this is one way to make a decision. If you would like the dragons to have to also go around, then there you go. You could just make these mountains very tall. That said, we do like the idea that dragons are all-powerful, but it’s really a good idea in any sort of storytelling to give even something supposedly that powerful some sort of weakness. This is a very realistic and believable one for dragons.

The higher the mountains, the less likely they are traversed, which means that there may be fewer trade routes or settlements there. This, in turn, makes it a good place for a hideout for something like a wizard. In science fiction, this is less true because, of course, we usually have spacecraft and something like that is not really an issue.

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Let’s talk a little bit about rivers. They obviously flow downhill because that’s the way gravity works. And, usually, they end up either in a lake or an ocean. But, sometimes, they actually dry up first. They can also fall into something like a sinkhole in the ground and become an underground river. This is something we can leverage if we have a humanoid species, for example, who lives in water. The result could be that the species is found in places where people might not be expecting them. There could be an underground river nearby.

As for what determines where a river flows, it’s generally going to go through the softest material. In other words, it’s going to erode dirt before it’s going to erode rock. We may also want to keep in mind something called a flood plain. This is where the water goes when the river overflows its banks, and a flood plain can be many miles wide and have settlements in it. So, this is where we want to focus on this. Decide if you have any settlements that are built in a flood plain near a major wide river. If so, they have likely been flooded repeatedly, and this is something that you can add to their history file and it’s part of their life there that they expect this. Maybe they’ve even built their houses on stilts because of it.

The age of a river is also something else to consider. If a river is steep and fast, it also tends to be relatively straight. So, if you draw a straight river on your map, you are implying that it’s a young river that is steep and fast. It might also be deep instead of broad because the water is going through there so quickly that it’s carving a deeper channel.

Then there are mature rivers which are less steep and they flow more slowly. And this is going to mean that they have a wider channel and more tributaries.

And then there are the old rivers. These are slow and they don’t erode much anymore. And they usually have a flood plain.

If we are drawing a map, we should also be aware that there are going to be many more waterways than the ones that we’re going to draw, especially if we’re doing a continent-sized map. If we were to draw every little river or stream, the entire thing would be covered in rivers. What this means is that we usually want to make a decision on what the major rivers are, and only depict those. Don’t get carried away with putting every other little river onto the map.

When it comes to lakes, sometimes we have a hard time deciding where a lake should be when we’re drawing a map. Well, one thing to consider is that they tend to be at higher elevations. This means that we might want to draw it closer to the mountain range than the sea, for example. However, we can really get away with doing almost anything we want here and not explain it. All that really matters is that there is an area of depressed land, and that is where the water has begun to collect.

On Earth, most lakes are freshwater, but not all of them are. So, it is possible to have a saltwater lake. It’s also possible to have a lake that does not have a river flowing out the other side. Most of them do because this is how the river maintains its water level. The lakes that don’t have a river causing this outflow of water are going to lose their water through evaporation. This is, again, something we don’t need to explain to anyone, but there is a tendency to always want to have a river coming out of a lake on one side and going in on the other. And we don’t necessarily have to do that. Generally, you will want to do it, however.

There are some other interesting details on lakes and rivers that are found in Creating Places, but I’m not going to cover them here.


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Types of Forests

Arguably, most of us are not that familiar with the different types of forests. And, as a result, we tend to make all of them mostly be the same in our work. So, what we’re going to focus on here is discussing some of the differences of the main types. In Episode 8, I talked about the different types of trees. So, we’re not going to cover that. We’re just going to focus on the different types of forests. That said, it does help to know the basic types of trees. There are evergreens, which are literally green all year. Then there are coniferous ones, which have needle-like leaves such as pine trees. And then there are the deciduous ones, which have seasonal loss of flowers, leaves and fruit ripening.

As it turns out, all trees are actually losing their leaves throughout the year. The issue with deciduous trees is that they do so all at once in a dry season or a winter season, and that’s the one that we associate with losing leaves. But, as someone who has a pine tree in his back yard, I can tell you that I spend all year sweeping off my deck because the pine needles just keep falling off. This is on my mind because I literally did this about three hours ago.

Regular Forests

To talk about the other types of forests, we need to establish a baseline that we will just call the run-of-the-mill forest. This is the one that we will distinguish the other types from. So, what’s a forest? Well, that means it has a tree canopy covering roughly 60 to 100 percent of the land under it. In other words, this has one of the thickest tree canopies and, as a result, the most shade is found under it. If we have decided to invent a plant that needs full sun to grow, then it’s probably not going to be found in this forest unless it’s along the edge of a clearing, for example. There may not be enough sunlight, but it depends on how thick that canopy is. If we’ve decided that it’s covering 100 percent of the land, then yes, that’s true. On the other hand, if it’s only covering 60 percent of the land, well then, there’s probably enough sunlight in certain areas for that to grow.

This is the kind of detail that can add some realism to our story if we’ve decided the characters are hunting for that plant, but they have to go, say, further into the forest to get to an area that is less full of canopy, and it has more sunlight. But, by doing so, they’re going to run into some nasty thing that they’re going to have to fight. Why would they want that plant? Well, because it has some sort of property, like magical or poison, that we need for our story. This amount of tree canopy also means that there will be some underbrush, but it’s not going to be impenetrable.


The next thing we want to talk about is the woodland. Now, we might not call it that on our map. We might just still write the word “forest” or “woods,” but we should note in our files that this is a woodland once we understand what that is and why we would want to create one.

The trees in a woodland are spaced further out, and that means that the canopy is less and, therefore, it’s relatively sunny. Rather than calling a forest a light forest, we should call it a woodland because that’s what it is. There tends to be less underbrush and, therefore, it’s relatively easy to ride horses or other animals through a woodland than a forest, or a jungle, certainly. Keep this in mind when deciding what type of forest is in your story. If you want the characters to be able to ride through there relatively quickly, then you say it’s a woodland. If you want it to be harder to get through, then maybe it’s a forest with more underbrush. Of course, in both cases, they may have trails going through there that bypass this problem, but you get the idea. If they leave the trail, then they have a different degree of difficulty going through the land anyway.

This would also be true for anything living in there that might want to attack our characters. Is the road needed or do they have the ability to go off that road without suffering any major consequences to their travel time? As you might imagine, if you’re a creature who would like to attack travelers, it’s easier to do so in a forest than a woodland, partly because there’s less to hide behind, but, in a forest, the characters you want to attack might be more restricted to the road and, therefore, it’s easier to know where they’re going to be. If we’ve invented a species that is known for attacking travelers in forests, they probably aren’t known for doing that in a woodland. So, if you’ve created two forests – well, one’s a forest and one’s a woodland, that species might be in one, but not in the other so much.


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And then there’s a savanna, which has almost no tree canopy at all, despite the trees. One result is that there could be grass, and it could be rather tall grass that could be hiding things like a lion, for example. If you’re wondering where a savanna would be located, well, it’s usually between a forest and a grassland. In other words, the thick trees have given away to sparser trees of the savanna, and those eventually give way to the grassland. We shouldn’t be afraid to create a savanna because a fifth of the worlds land surface is actually comprised of savannas.


The last type I want to talk about is the jungle. And this is a term that can be poorly understood for a number of reasons. Sometimes the word “jungle” is confused for the word “rainforest,” but to understand that explanation, you’d first need to understand what a jungle is.

It’s basically a very dense forest with enough underbrush for it to be difficult, if not impossible, to get through unless you cut your way through. By contrast, a rainforest has very little underbrush because the tree canopy prevents light from reaching the ground, which means that it isn’t going to grow. So, the impassable jungle often borders a rainforest because there is enough light at the edge to allow that thick underbrush to grow. You would have to cut your way through it in order to reach the deeper area where it’s going to be a rainforest, and there is not going to be all that underbrush.

So, why does a jungle and a rainforest get confused for each other? Well, it’s because European explorers were initially traveling through tropical rainforests by river, and what happened is that because the river is opening up the forest there, there is enough sunlight to cause a jungle. It’s growing on the edge. So, basically, they thought, wrongly, that the jungle continued miles in each direction away from the river when the reality is if they had just cut their way through a little bit more, they would have seen that it’s just a rainforest and that the jungle is only by the river.

We can use this in our stories by having our characters basically make the same mistake. So, we could have a settlement that’s in a rainforest and that’s only reachable by boat on a river, and people assume that you have to get through this incredibly hard jungle underbrush to get there. And, therefore, people don’t even try without even realizing that maybe they only have to cut their way through, I don’t know, maybe 1,000 yards of jungle before they suddenly have much easier travel time through the rainforest for the rest of the trip.


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