Ever notice how, when watching science fiction shows, that when encountering the strange, alien race from Tau Celtic 4 or wherever, the aliens all look and sound exactly the same? Like, the entire population of the planet dress alike, speak the same language, and appear to share the same societal mores?
Whereas, here on messy old Earth, folks that live on opposite ends of one street in a middling size city can look, sound and behave in manners so different that they might as well be from different planets?
Perhaps this makes you think “ How very curious” and go on watching the movie/show in question.
Me, I tend to throw the remote at the television and cuss out the poor writing. This has resulted in my wife confiscating all our remotes, though that topic is probably beyond the scope of this article.
But, seriously now, nothing will kill immersion faster and more thoroughly than ignoring cultural differentiation in your setting. And nothing creates cultural differences quite as well as Geography.
The Lay of the Land
So, what type of geography creates cultural differences in the first place?
Oceans are a good example. Japan developed a culture pretty much unlike any other in the world, on the basis of having a nice, deep ocean surrounding the home islands. Despite their limited interaction with the cultures in the proximity, they still developed a deep sense of national identity, to the point that they believed that they were the chosen people of the gods (a not unusual belief in insulated cultures, by the way) and that the rest of the world were barbarians. This national insulation was maintained until their door was forcibly kicked open by the US Navy in 1852, and the belief of cultural superiority remained intact until World War II, though remnants of it are still found to this day.
Mountains, of course, are another fabulous division between nations and cultures. The folks living on one side of the Himalayas are pretty much nothing like those living on the other. The same can be said for just about any major mountain range. The mountains themselves may act as a home for independent cultures or even some physiological differentiation, like the Basque in the Pyrenees or the Sherpa peoples that populate Nepal.
Rivers tend to act as national boundaries more often than not, for no other reason than the ease of determining who lives on which side of the river - our kingdom lives on THIS side, your "culturally inferior" representative democracy lives on THAT side. Rivers crossings provide ease of controlled access to and from a country, not to mention control of the flow of goods, collection of taxes, and repression of the entry of "undesirable elements." Within your setting, there is a very good chance that there are major differences on either side of the river flowing through the center of your story.
Boundaries don't always need to apply at the macro level. The shared setting I write in, Ash Falls, is a medium-sized city in the Pacific Northwest. However, it is a port city, and as such has a large amount of cultural differentiation despite its relatively small size. Accordingly, there are boundaries even within the city, usually designated by certain intersections or small areas within the city. There is an area occupied by the better off families (known as "The Heights"), there is a slum area existing along empty factories and warehouses built along the railroad tracks (know colloquially as "The Tracks"), and there are enclaves that have grown up around families sharing national or cultural backgrounds ("Chinatown", "Little Turkey", "La Plaza", etc..) These are not good places to hang around if you are not of the appropriate group.
This huddling of groups that share a similar language or national identity also creates a very strong sense of pride of place. And, where two competing "prides" run into one another, you have conflict - the cornerstone upon which any good story is built.
The history of human development is a history of conflict between groups of people who have coalesced around some common element. Once upon a time, this common identifier would be a common ancestor, but it eventually evolved into language, then nationality, and eventually even ethnicity. Why would the residents of your setting be any different?
Understanding the historical development of your setting should incorporate geography. Earliest recorded human history all takes place in relatively small areas. In Asia, for example, exists an area known as the "Fertile Crescent." It is significant because, in an area surrounded by oceans and deserts, a relatively small oasis of cultivatable land existed in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins.
This, then, becomes the source of some of our earliest known written history, as the transition from hunting and gathering developed into farming. Farming, in turn developed excess food, which then enabled the division of labor. The minute division of labor took place, a ruling class was created who was able to look over their domains and then start to wonder what might be over there...and expansion and colonialism followed. Meanwhile, the exact same thing was happening over in the Nile river valley...leaving what we now know as the Middle East to become one of the most hotly contested areas of Geography in human history - a status it retains still today.
International politics may boil down to this: your cultures may hate each other because they have ALWAYS hated each other.
Mapping It All Out
When creating your map for your setting, it should be tailored to your story. While a map can be useful for your reader to flip back to and track where the action is taking place, it can also trip you up in a few ways.
First, a map acts as one gigantic "spoiler" for your story. Go take one look at the beautiful map in your copy of "The Hobbit" and you will see what I mean. A cursory glance at the map will tell you that there's a dragon coming somewhere in this story. Well, of course there is, they mention it in the very first chapter, you might say. But, also, there is an Elven King coming. And giant spiders. And interactions with some riverfolk. It is all right there on the map before you've ever turned a page of text. If you are satisfied with that as an author (which Professor Tolkien assuredly was), then carry on. If you want a little more suspense built into the story, you are going to have to be selective about what elements appear on your lay of the land.
Secondly, a map gives you multiple points of potential restriction for your story. Terry Pratchett famously refused to create a map for his city of Ankh-Morpork, wanting to give the reader the ability to create the city entirely in their imagination. Once your geographical elements are immortalized on paper, you had best believe that eagle-eyed readers will call you on any discrepancies that crawl into your writing - the map you have created will forever be considered "canon", and things you may describe that do no match that canon will break immersion.
All that being said, maps can go a long way toward making your setting feel "real." Especially in fantasy settings which are more often than not globe-spanning tales of adventure, a map can illustrate one of the challenges facing your characters from the outset - the sheer magnitude of the travels before them.
Your maps should reflect the context, then, of the story being written. Don't make the map of your fantasy setting look like an image from a Rand McNally atlas. Don't place an ominous "Here Be Dragons" at the edge of the map for your police procedural. Be sensitive to the readers' expectations for your novel from the outset.
And, also, unless you are a professional graphical artist, do NOT attempt to draw your own map and insert it into your work. Create your sketch and notes on the elements you would like to see, then pay a pro to create it for you. Your map will likely be at the very front of your work, and along with the title will be one of the first things that create expectations for your readers about the experience they should expect from your work. Make sure you are putting your best foot forward.
The world that we live in ultimately acts as the springboard for the stories we tell. Our stories either illustrate tales that could be happening right next door, or they point out the differences that could exist in the case of "What If?" Our world is filled with cultural variance, thousands of languages, and international tensions. If you want your writing to feel as real as possible, make sure the world you are creating feels the same. Painting all your characters and places with the same broad brush not only detracts from the realism of your setting, but it also deprives of valuable tools in creating descriptions, history, and conflict. Make sure that your setting and your story reflect the grand, glorious chaos that is human interaction - even if your characters aren't quite human.