World-Building: Countries

The next step in making a world map is to move away from the science and look more at the human side of things.  Countries can make the world come alive.  But how do we map out the countries?  The simplest way is to just draw the borders and make big, medium, and small countries.  But doing it arbitrarily may not be the best way, and certainly not realistic.  Countries form for many reasons, and the boundary locations are also chosen for a reason.

CIA_WorldFactBook-Political_world.pdfLooking at the world map of our world, you can see a large variety of countries.  There are many large ones, but not all of them formed that way.  China used to be many smaller kingdoms at one time, for example.  There are also many small countries.  Europe is filled with countries, but many of them used to be one larger empire.  Countries change over time, the borders shift, disappear, and then appear.  In recent years, we’ve seen the formation of countries such as South Sudan, Timor L’est, and the breakup of former Yugoslavia.  Studying the map of the real world can help with the creation of your fictional world.

However, our world has a long history in some parts, but a much shorter recorded history in others.  So, we’ll take a couple of different approaches to this, the Old World and the New World.

New World Approach

The New World is the simpler method, so we’ll look at that first.  On our world, the Americas make up the New World, and have had a relatively short European history.  There is a very long aboriginal history, though.  But the nations that existed then have been obliterated by the European settlers bearing gifts such as disease and devastating war.  So, because of this, we can start from scratch.  This method is best for use with previously undiscovered land or colonisation of a planet.

We begin with the initial landing point, or the first settlement. It’s best to choose a place that has a good climate or conditions for growing food.  From there, you can draw the proposed boundaries for the first country.  Remember, this can change as you go along.  After that, choose a logical location for the next country.  It’s a good idea to keep track of the order and date for each country’s founding.  This will come in useful later for when we talk about history.  It’s most likely that you’ll follow coastlines, major rivers, and fill up land that’s got plenty of space for farming and building.

Peace Arch at the Canada-United States border.
Peace Arch at the Canada-United States border.

Naming countries is not the easiest thing to do.  If it’s a colony on another planet, you’re most likely going to use names that are English or whichever language the colonists speak.  If it’s undiscovered land in a fantasy world, you can be more creative with your own created languages.  In either case, have some fun with the names.  Consistency is the important thing, though.

One thing to remember is that the borders can change.  So if you work on this along with a general history involving wars, you can keep track of the changes and draw new countries.  Record keeping is very valuable here.

Old World Approach

Over time, the New World can become an Old World.  But if you start with a world with a very long history, you may have to look at things in a different way.  The biggest differences between New and Old Worlds is culture and language.  The cultures are more established with long histories.  Languages change over time, so several countries may have the same roots, but have developed into different languages.  Neighbouring countries are more likely to share common histories in language and culture.  So rather than basing your countries on expansion, base them on culture.

For this, you need to figure out where your cultures are.  Place them around your map, keeping in mind that older cultures were often restricted by physical landmarks such as mountains.  For ancient cultures, they most likely didn’t cross major mountain ranges unless necessary.  They also provided a good defense from neighbouring cultures that may be aggressive.  But even for New World countries, mountains are a good place to put boundaries.

The Andes in South America separate Argentina and Chile.
The Andes in South America separate Argentina and Chile.

Another natural boundary is the river.  Major rivers (and sometimes lakes) are sometimes used for borders, and have been used on Earth by many countries, including Canada and the United States (Great Lakes, Niagara River) in the New World and the two Congos (Congo River) in the Old World.

The Congo River is a natural boundary between Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo.
The Congo River is a natural boundary between Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo.

In some cases, these natural boundaries will separate cultures, but not always.  Sometimes the separation is convenient for political reasons, or it could be strategic.  There are many reasons that boundaries are placed there.

It’s important to remember that for Old World countries, working with cultures and languages are a good idea.  Knowing the history is very useful, as well.  And of course, regions with fertile land are great for strong, well-fed nations.

When you’ve divided the map into cultural regions, you can further create smaller countries or kingdoms in those regions.  Or you can make the entire cultural region a large empire.  Through war or conquest, they can even be expanded into other regions, which would create a very interesting dynamic within the empire.  But that’s a topic for another time.

Country names will definitely be based on the country’s language and culture.  Try to keep that in mind, but for a fantasy world, you can be very creative.

Things to Remember

Creating countries can be as simple as drawing the lines.  You’re welcome to do that.  However, if you want it to be more realistic, take history, culture, language, and physical geography into account.  You may want to work on all of these at the same time.  They’ll be covered in other articles.

Boundary lines should also not be straight lines, unless it’s a New World.  But in most cases, this isn’t practical.  Use the land to guide you in these cases.

What I Did

For Ariadne, I initially did the simple approach.  I just drew border lines on my small map.  I already had the physical map, and I chose the locations of the first and second colony sites.  There was a lot of land between them, so while expanding the countries along the coastlines, I also created new ones bridging the span between the original colonies.  Luckily, there was a major river.  I was more concerned with encompassing areas of fertile land, since the people of the colony needed to be able to grow their food.  Access to transportation (rivers are extremely useful, as is the ocean) also dictated where I put the initial countries.

This is the ecosystems map, but you can see country borders in it.
This is the ecosystems map, but you can see country borders in it.

After the early days of Ariadne, the countries expanded outward to cover the continents.  The mountainous regions were natural barriers to expansion, but they were crossed, which led to massive expansion on the other side of the range.  The tropical and sub-tropical regions were filled up the fastest, with temperate regions gaining quickly afterward.  The more arctic climate areas were among the last to be colonised, along with the islands in the oceans.

I kept track of the order of country foundations, as well as the years and major events.  I didn’t change the borders much at all, but I will do some changes when I work on the history.

As for country names, the colonies were based on Earth names, words from common languages, or people’s names.  As time went on, the names tended to get more unusual.  Language shifts can result in this, but also just what sounded good.  Some were based on nothing but my own imagination.

This entire process can be simple or as complicated as you like.  Just have fun with it.  Please check out the Worldbuilding main page for more posts on this topic.

4 thoughts on “World-Building: Countries”

  1. Because my world has been so long in development, I had my countries/cultures all decided before I had a final map. In order to not give any of them preferential treatment, I made the topographical map by compositing a bunch of the ones I’d already had, then puzzling over it to figure out where the boundaries would be — kind of reverse-deriving the shapes from the information I already had.

    Then, because I have several story-ready eras in the world’s history, I made a few older maps to show how the world was before the slate of tectonic disasters and imperial breakups that created the current one. The variance between the two actually helped me explain a lot of things to myself. Sometimes working on projects like these feels more like archaeological excavation than actual creation, since random ideas can suddenly link up and show everything in a new light.

    1. Interesting approach. I had nothing decided other than a basic premise when I started drawing the map. The world was developed because of my map. I guess for yours, it would be interesting to look back at the history. It’s like archaeology, as you said. Very interesting how it can help you make sense of your own created history.

  2. One of the many ways I wasted time as a kid was to sketch imaginary worlds and their changing political maps. I’d envision wars, rebellions, and mass migrations.

    Little did I know I’d get to see a lot of that for real…

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