World Development: Ecology (part one – habitat)

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For your fantasy novel to truly work, you need to develop the world as fully as possible. This does not mean you need to spend half the novel describing the geographic formations, the flora and fauna, the rainfall and plate tectonics, of course, but it does mean that you need to have at least some inkling of what it is going to be like, so that your story remains consistent and becomes more vividly alive in the reader’s mind.

Now, although I have written a number of stories, very few of them actually involve fantastical worlds – or at least, very few involve fantastical worlds that do not bear a resemblance to Earth. My latest novels, and first trilogy: “Lemurs: A Saga”, is set in an alternate-world Madagascar, where the sentient life forms are primates – in the case of the island of Madigaska, lemurs, but there are also monkeys over on the mainland and that once played the part of Missionaries (but I decided not to make them following our world religions: although the irony was amusing, I do not wish to cause that sort of controversy). I also have a futuristic Furry/Steampunk/Magic School novel in the works – which required me to figure out a post-apocalyptic environment for earth, and which I keep abandoning because my scientific brain keeps pointing out problems with the fact that the characters are anthropomorphic animals of various species.

Anyhow, as someone who has studied ecology, I feel I can at least look a little authorative on the topic, so let us begin:

Designing a Convincing Ecology for your Fantastical World

Firstly: What is Ecology?

Ecology is the scientific study of how living organisms interact in their natural environment. Ecology is made up of various parts, the simplist components of which are:

Habitat + Flora (plant and tree life) + Fauna (animals)

For the purposes of this, let us assume that Habitat refers to both the fixed geographic features (desert, swamp, grassland etc) and the variable features (weather patterns). To begin creating your fantasy world, you must first decide on these geographic features and determine what the general environment involves – is it a tropical forest? Savannah? A post-apocalyptic future where the world has been wiped clear of most sentient life?


Sticking with environments that we have on Earth will make this easier, and also more convincing to the Reader. Essentially, the closer you make your world to the world we all know and love, the easier it will be for the Reader to delve into the world and better experience it. This doesn’t mean that you need to make it a carbon copy of Earth – just that some facts like: rain falls down from the sky, there are day/night cycles, the world is round (or flat)* etc, will make for more time for the actual plot and less time spent on trying to make the Reader understand what the heck is going on. I am an avid Reader, but I struggle with books that distort reality out of my comfort zone – such as Graham Edwards’ “Stone” series where the world is essentially a wall, and any books where the main setting is a house where each room is somewhat like a different kingdom. Discworld, however, I am fine with. And you might be able to make a world of floating rocks over a lake of molten lava** work – and if so, kudos to you! There are Fantastical Worlds compromised of islands (Clive Barker’s Abarat), set in a carpet (Clive Barker’s Weaveworld), shaped like a ring (Larry Niven’s Ringworld) and I’m sure there is at least one that is the inside of a sphere, not to mention various worlds made of houses (Garth Nix’s House, plus another that is so obscure I can’t remember it, except that it was weird), the aforementioned Wall series and many, many more. But essentially, I prefer ones that mirror Earth, at least insofar as general environment goes.


  • Cold, barren.
  • Low plants, no trees (environment doesn’t support tree growth – too cold for most of the year).
  • Either frozen or wet, depending on season.
  • Few animal species.
  • Dark and cold for a lot of the winter months, food scarce.
  • In spring, everything comes suddenly to life, and many birds come here to breed, then migrate away for the colder months.


  • Cold and relatively dry, except during the wet seasons.
  • Supports trees and plants, but not a great range of species.
  • Range of different species, much of it fairly large (wolves, bears, deer, along with rodents and birds.)

Alpine Tundra (High Altitude scrubland):

  • Harsh, windy conditions.
  • Does not support much tree growth.
  • Trees stunted and windswept.
  • Animals hardy and opportunistic (in New Zealand, we have the kea, the only alpine parrot in the world).
  • Some are drier than others, leading to high altitude grasslands.
  • High altitude – air is thinner, making it harder to breathe.

Temperate Grasslands similar but less harsh. Warmer, but still cold in winter. (Prairies)

Temperate Forest:

  • Wet and cool.
  • Produces lush forest, with a variety of different Evergreen tree and plant species.
  • Range of different animal species.
  • Two layers – overstory and understory.

Temperate Rainforest similar but with three levels and supporting more range of species. Wetter and warmer.

Dry Woodland

  • Warm and dry summers.
  • Wet winters.
  • Diverse range of plants and species.

Tropical Rainforest:

  • Wet and warm.
  • Lush rainforest, with a vast range of Evergreen tree and plant species.
  • Diverse range of different animal species.

Savannah (grasslands and shrublands):

  • Dry and warm.
  • Predominent vegetation is grass or small shrubs, occasional trees.
  • Trees are deciduous to conserve moisture (acacia), or store water in their trunk (baobab).
  • Plants have thorns (to protect them from plant predation), not leaves (which lose moisture).
  • Support a large range of animal species, some of which can be quite large.
  • Rainfall seasonal, often all occuring in a short period of time.


  • Hot, barren, dry.
  • Not many plants.
  • Few animal species, most of which are nocturnal.
  • Lots of rocks.


  • Wet.
  • Warm or cool, depending on latitude.
  • Considered the most biologically diverse ecostystem.

Other environmental effects that may affect your environment:

Volcanoes: volcanic soil is very rich in nutrients, but lava rock from recent eruptions radiates heat and almost forms a barren desert of its own.

Fire: can do great damage to the wetter forests, which are not adapted to survive its onslaught, leaving the landscape barren – and in some cases (as in Madagascar), almost infertile. This can also lead to soil erosion, which leads to the hills sliding into the lakes.

Earthquakes: The moving of tectonic plates shapes mountains.

After determining what your habitat is like, select a real world one that resembles it. Sometimes this is easy – it’s a rainforest or temperate woodland, but what of more complex worlds – say, your habitat is a barren, frozen wasteland (Arctic tundra) or bubbling pools of molten rock (look into the life found in hotsprings or highly sulphurous underwater sites)?

My Furritasia world – the futuristic one with the anthro animal-people, is set in a post-nuclear world. Vast tracts of land were rendered barren and poisonous by the nuclear radiation***. Whilst I cannot, yet, come up with a plausible explanation behind the animal-people, a coral-life fungoid now blankets the post-nuclear wasteland and the main natural inhabitants were various species evolved from cockroaches, including several massive fungus eating species, and a carnivous type that hunt in pairs or packs. Cockroaches, it is said, can survive anything, and even radiation will not defeat them.


* One of the first worlds I ever invented, back in my Discworld obsessed early teenage years was called “Dyce” and it was six-sided (well, seven sided really, cos it had a sphere in the center). Gravity worked weird in that world – each side had a different environment and sentient life form, and each sentient life form thought that their side of Dyce was the top. This was because when you approached the edge (which looked like a steep cliff), you could actually just walk around it, like step over the edge and onto the next surface, without falling off. However, because your equilibrium was used to you being on the flat, you would forever feel like you were walking horiontally down a wall. Or perhaps even upside down, if you got that far. I never did go very far with that idea, but it’s kinda nifty, and possibly worth exploring again at a later date.

** This was an idea I submitted to a “World Design” competition once. It didn’t win, possibly because it would be too difficult to use as a roleplaying world setting.

*** If I had actually studied Chernobyl and other real world situations before writing this book, I would have understood that plants and even wildlife are not easily beaten by radiation, but so be it.

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