Worldbuilding: Northern Environments in Fantasy

This is a pretty specific and borderline nitpicky topic, but hear me out. Instead of focussing on what authors might do that is “wrong” or “doesn’t make a lot of sense”, I’m going to give options, explanations, and things to consider. I’m also going to focus on it from character perspective even though this is a worldbuilding topic.

Northern environments in fantasy worlds is often used in fantasy writing. Lots of the action happens there. Why, I don’t know, but I dig it. So we’re going to go into stuff that might help shape your northern environments.

Background

A character’s background is going to influence how they feel about different climates. I have relatives who live further south who put on parkas when it’s 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside, but where I’m from that’s often considered warm (unless it’s summer time).

You need to figure out how your characters feel about this cold climate. If they’re from there, they’re going to know more, be able to survive better, and so on. Someone from a warmer climate may have a rough time of it at first if they’ve never experienced that level of cold.

So use your characters as a way to tell the reader how cold it is and what’s going on.

What Exactly Is This Place?

Is this a mountainous region? Is this the northern woods? Is this a desolate tundra? Is it cold all year round?

Do you have to use real-word knowledge about climate and geography? Absolutely not. But if you’re drawing from that, thinking about what exactly this cold place is will help you. If this is a mountain, you can describe how the air is thinner. If it’s a north woods, you can describe the wildlife, the smell of the trees, etc.

Figure out what exactly this cold place is, and build from there.

EVERYTHING Takes Longer

If you’ve ever done any winter/snow activities (skiing, camping, ice skating, sledding, and so on) you know that everything takes longer. Even getting ready to take a stroll will take longer: putting on proper gear, lacing up your boots, making sure everything is tucked in to keep the cold out, etc.

If your characters are spending enough time outdoors in a cold environment, it’s going to take longer for them to do things that are easier to do otherwise. Travel takes longer, setting up camp takes longer, even work/chores that are outside takes longer.

They will also need to consume more food for energy to stay warm. Your stomach acts like your body’s furnace, so think of it like that. The more fuel you put into it, the warmer you’ll be for longer.

I’m saying this because I’ve read stories where characters maybe encountered one blizzard or obstacle but still got to where they were going on time without the environment causing (barely) any hiccups. Unless your characters are a specially adapted race/species, they’re going to need to take their time in the cold.

Daylight

Depending on the way your world is set up, daylight hours may differ by season. There are places in the real world that only get 3 hours of daylight per day in the winter months. So depending where they are and how the world is set up, consider how daylight has an impact on your characters and their journey.

Remember that in a world without electricity and stuff, those daylight hours are even more precious.

Water is the Enemy

When I was a kid, I once fell through thin ice. A few years ago, I participated in a challenge in which a bunch of people swam in a lake in the middle of winter (another story for another time). Both of those events are the some of the coldest I have ever been and it took my hours to a full day to fully recover.

When you get wet in cold environments, the heat gets sucked from your body, and depending on the severity, your body can go numb. If your characters are in water for an extended amount of time (in this environment), they probably have around 15 minutes or so until they’re in really, really bad shape.

Even sweating can be dangerous. That being said, you characters do need to stay hydrated to survive since your blood can thicken otherwise.

If your characters do get wet, show the impact. They shouldn’t be able to cross a cold water river in a blizzard, grab a blanket, and be fine. If they get really drenched like that, it can take them hours to recover.

Transportation

Horses have a lot of trouble in snow. Your character isn’t going to able to cross a frozen landscape on a horse and be fine. Horses aren’t cars, they need rest, food, and have wills of their own.

There are other options here: dog sleds, reindeer, horses that are better at winter travel (but still limited) and so on. But this will depend on landscape to. If there’s mountains, dog sleds are going to have more problems, for example. You can even make up a new species for your environment to help solve this problem. It’s fantasy so go wild!

Biology

Your characters need to have physical limits, and this applies to any extreme climate. Things like hypothermia, starvation, falling into a crevasse (if they’re walking across glaciers and stuff), should be real threats.

When I was a kid, I got frostbite. To this day, I still have to wear double wool socks when doing winter activities or else I start feeling this tingling pain in my feet after a while. I didn’t need anything amputated or anything, but it sucked, it hurt, and it was a long time before I fully recovered.

If you want, you can write a race/species that is specially adapted to harsh environments, but you need to be specific about what those adaptations mean. Are they bigger, more robust? More efficient in regards to how their bodies keep warm?  Lower sensitivity to cold or even prosper better in cold climates?

The People Who Live There

There are plenty of people world wide who have lived in harsh, northern environments for thousands of years. The town of Barrow, Alaska has a high population of natives who have a long and rich history there. You should, as with anything, develop the culture of the people who live there and what they do.

From my own experience, there is often, pardon my language, fuck-all to do winter. A lot of winter evenings are spent inside and just hanging out, often times with cocktails. So in your culture, when they’re not working to prepare for the cold and keep warm, what are these people doing?

Diet is also another thing to consider. What do they eat? What’s around? How do they store food/preserve food for winter?

Remember too that in a world without modern conveniences like HVAC systems, electricity, and so on, winter is a much bigger threat. Staying warm is a matter of survival, not just putting on a sweater and sitting inside. If you read folksongs and such, winter is almost always described as a bad, scary thing. Figure out how these people feel about winter, how do they survive, etc.

How does their climate shape their culture?

Food

There are plants that do really well in colder climates. As well, game and meat is good in winter climates. It was also common to preserve food, even meats. Lutefisk is one such instance in which fish was preserved for long journeys.

But remember predators still exist. Wolves are pretty notorious. They usually would avoid people if they can help it, but the humans that eat the deer are in direct competition with the wolves for food. Wolves are also notorious for attacking livestock (sheep and such). So keeping other dangerous predators at bay is going to be important.

Where I’m from the wolves were hunted down to the point where they were endangered. However they are making a come back, since it is against the law to hunt/kill them. Now people are complaining that their livestock is hunted.

This is just one example of how predators can act in your world, but consider thinking about how food and hunting works in this environment.

Belief and Ritual

Many historical cold climate cultures have religions and holidays revolving around the changing of seasons. People put a lot of stock into this in part because, in their mind, being blessed with a good harvest meant survival.

There were also midwinter festivals present in many cultures. The Christmas tree or “yule tree” was used because pines stayed green all year round, meaning it had special significance.

In a northern culture, the climate is going to shape their religion, beliefs, and their celebrations.

How Cold is It?

This ties in with another point but I’m giving it its own spot. You should decide how cold it actually is and talk about it in the story.

Talk about the cold through the characters. Can some tolerate it more? Is this more of a mild-cold, or is it difficult to survive cold?

My area sees harsh winters. There are times where it’s so cold that your skin will literally freeze within 5 minutes of exposure. You can throw boiling water outside and it will turn to snow before it hits the ground. It can get that cold and it becomes incredibly dangerous to go outside.

Decide just how cold it is and discuss it in the story. Which brings me to:

Let the Environment Serve as an Obstacle

This is something I would love to see utilized more. Let the environment itself be an obstacle or an enemy to overcome. Cold climates lend themselves really easily to this. If your characters travel through this environment or live there, bring blizzards, ice, avalanches, freezing rain, polar vortex level cold.

Your characters need to get from Point A to Point B, but there’s a blizzard in the way. Let it hinder them, let them fail to get there in time, and so on. This is a really helpful tool I haven’t seen writers utilize as much as they could.

Parting Words

Winter environments have a special place in my heart with regards to fantasy. Develop them if you use them. Bring them to life!

Writing Prompt:

Write a story or scene that takes place in a snow storm.

Consider:

  • How cold is it?
  • How severe is the storm?
  • How do the characters feel about it? Scared? Confident they can handle it?
  • How much of an obstacle is this thing?
  • What do the characters do about it?
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