Big, stony, nigh impassable slabs of stone, pushed up over thousands of years. Useful only as a setting for uncivilized tribes and the borders of great empires. Second only to seas in their uniformity in fantasy. But they don’t have to be. They aren’t here, by a long shot.
There is one thing that all mountains share. Their altitude. No matter what you do, you can’t really get around the fact that mountains are high up. This leads to a whole slew of problem for characters in a story, which is why I think they are so underused.
If you’re not a native to the thin air of high mountains, you’re more like to lose your breath at higher altitudes than anything else. Traveling is difficult, as horses, and most riding creatures, don’t do well on the steep slopes of the mountains. The weather is generally more dangerous than at lower altitudes. All in all, it is difficult to work with.
However, those difficulties are useful for character building, plots, and all those things that people put into books.
So, let’s say you want to have mountains in your world.
A Mountain by Any Other Name Would Be as Dull?
While there are parts of most mountain chains that look just like the stony, treeless facades that dominate fantasy landscapes, there is also great diversity in mountains and mountain chains below the treeline. Let’s look towards the Andes for our first foray into mountain diversity.
There are high, snow covered mountains there, sure, but to the west there is desert and coast land, while the hinterlands to the east are filled with rain forest. These rain forests are even more diverse than the rest of the Amazon due to the rapidly changing elevation on the Andean slopes. There are jungles, deserts, plains, and fertile valleys scattered throughout mountain chains, and diversity, like an island in a stone sea, shines through.
Another example is the Himalayas. While they are home to some of the tallest mountains in the world, it is also home to a great many warm valleys, and to a dizzying array of life. Aside from the humans native to Nepal and Tibet, bears, leopards, yak, fox, and a ridiculous number of birds make the Himalayas their home.
These examples are but two of the more lively mountain chains around. Most of them are equally complex and diverse. However, in fantasy, geography, as much as any other facet, can be twisted, faded, or otherwise shaped into beautiful and maddening forms.
Fantastic Mountains: Real and Surreal
Aside from your normal mountains, with their varied landscapes, flora, and fauna, there are many other avenues open to fantasy. Something I’ve always been interested in are the great sea mounts below the surface of our oceans. Oceans are such vast and mysterious places that you could really make anything happen down there, such as having new races of people, or having a society with some magic or technology that allows them to thrive in an otherwise airless space, or even the realization that the sea mounts themselves are nothing more than massive diving bells, housing entire civilizations.
Then there are those mountains much further removed from the likes of our world. Mountains that move, mountains that have personality. Mountains that are somehow enchanted . There are infinite ways of going about this, from the naturalistic, a la Ent, to the fully man made. The man made method is more challenging, as it requires much more explanation, as in what kind of magic did this, or what powerful being was able to accomplish such a feat.
While the geography itself is useful, and geography is fun to write about, the ways in which geography affects the cultures that spring up within them are much more interesting for both the reader and the writer.
Mountains. Not Just For Unwashed Barbarians.
So, your continental plates have collided, or the gods have raised these mountains up, or whatever reason that there are mountains. What is it that mountains do to people?
Like any geographic milieu, there are hallmarks of mountain cultures that do not go away. The one that, regardless of what your mountains look like, can always shine through as the familiar aspect to tie the created world to something tangible is economy of space. Any pre-modern society that exists in the mountains can either utilize their space economically, like Incan terrace farms, or accept a low level of societal complexity. With that in mind, let’s look at an example of how mountains can help create interesting societies, and therefore interesting characters.
Let’s say you made a fairly realistic mountain chain, except for the fact that, for geologic reasons otherwise unknown to the characters, a small continental plate was pushed up mostly wholesale, in between two others. Assuming that this happens, and assuming some humanoids make their way up to this craggy plateau, there might be some interesting societal facets to be had.
First off, even on a high plain like this, it is going to be dry. Maybe not a desert, but certainly much drier than anything down below. it is likely that a formation like this would take the form of fertile valleys pock marking an otherwise alien terrain. Agriculture would only be possible in the valleys, and there wouldn’t be enough room down there to do much else. So already we see that any society advanced enough to have communication between valleys would need administrative, trade, and defense to happen near the tops of these valleys, or on the dry plain itself.
This societal dichotomy would likely lead to increasingly distinct cultures in the valley farms and the plain cities. Varying dress, societal norms and values, and overall governmental and economic systems would develop to deal with the differing environments. The relationship may be symbiotic or parasitic. From here, conflicts, important players, and culture generally emerge from the environmental chrysalis.
Once a single, basic concession is made in the environment, or any other basic premise, a whole society can spring forth in no time. With society comes conflict and characters, from which spring forth good storytelling.
I hope to see you back here for my next part in this series, which will be on Taiga and otherwise chilled forests.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out the original major world building series I’m working on, which starts here.