One of the more expounded topics in novice writers is that of vegetation and animal life in your settings. Both can be hindrances and aids to your characters. Both can even be utilized towards the plot. But it takes experience to know how to craft both well, and to keep them in line with climate and geography. In the third installment of the landscaping series, I want to take you deeper into each terrain we’ve so far explored, and look into the possible outlets for your writing capabilities. Though you may not know it, you’re dealing with far much more than filler for your forests and oceans. You are in a sense building an entire ecosystem and it’s incredible important that you reflect that in your writing. Your character’s health and habitat will depend upon it.
For this segment, since we’re covering both vegetation and wildlife, we’ll divide the article into two and from there look at each terrain in depth. As we’ve explored in the prior chapter, terrains are expansive and came by chopped up into tiny differences simply because of a minute difference in rainfall and hotter months. We’ll therefore try for larger groupings to keep this article from stretching too long. We’ll look at mountains, fresh water habitats, caves, deserts, polar habitats, grass plains, jungles, and islands.
Mountains: Remember how in the last segment we spoke about altitude and latitude affecting climate? I think you’ll be unsurprised to learn it once again affects vegetation and wildlife too. The fact of the matter is that mountains can form anywhere, given the right geological basis, so you can have deserts in forests or deserts in tropical rain forests. For the sake of diversity, we’ll therefore consider mountains in a more temperate climate zone, which have the largest abundance of flora and fauna. Mountains are primarily dominated by conifer trees (trees whose leaves are sealed with a distasteful wax to keep in moisture). Consider such species as pine, spruces, and even larches. Birches and aspens are likewise excellent tree types to include, but don’t just focus on the taller vegetations. Consider the bases of the trees, and what vegetation will seek shelter in the shade. Plants are just as alive as animals, and where they see an opportunity, they’ll take it. Trees suck up enormous amounts of moisture and light (particularly in areas where the trees can grow as large as thirty story buildings). The roots of trees will be lightly moist, an excellent spot for shrubs to grow. Heathers and mosses aren’t uncommon but what’s more important for your characters and plot are the healing plants that can grow at higher altitudes. Jack-in-the-pulpit and witch hazel are common in mountains. Bee balm is likewise found in the mountains. But be aware of the dangers of the mountains as well. Monkshood can be found among the foliage. Consider the plot points to be found in common poisons. I’ll leave it up to your good graces to do the research, but I’m sure you can see the value of mountain arsenal.
Fresh Waters: Massive lakes, rivers, and streams can produce large amounts of vegetation no matter the latitude or climate (albeit not polar). Be aware that lakes are not constrained to the dynamics of walking distance. The largest lake on earth, Lake Baikal in central Aisa, is the biggest lake on Earth. It contains close to 1/5 of the world’s freshwater and has a maximum depth of 5,315 feet! Whether or not you want to create a lake that large is up to you, but if you do you’ll find yourself in an abundance of vegetation. You’re going to want to include algae as a basic building block. These plants re-oxygenate their environments, and provide large amounts of food for the animals that live on fresh water. The faster a stream or river flowers, the hardier the stems of plants will become to keep from being swept in the current. Certain vegetations cling to rocks, like mosses, but most plant life adapted for slower life will tend to float on the surface. Think of water lilies, duckweed, cattails, reeds, etc. Be aware that the edges of your lake will not be simple and well lined. There will be a shady border of reeds and rushes, taking advantage of the popular soil and easy water source. If your character lives on the water, they might bend the environment to their will but for the most part your cast will have to contend with shoving their way through the fronds.
Caves: This one is a tricky topic, mainly because the deeper down you get in a cave the less sunlight you have access too. Without sunlight, plants cannot grow. If you’re thinking of a character that grows their crops deep underground, I fear you’re going to lose reader allegiance. Of course, trees and grasses can grow abundantly around caves, but the farther down into the
cave you go the more you’ll notice things like mosses and ferns. Liverworts are likewise quite common in the twilight zone of caves. Caves are moist places, and typically exist near a constant temperature due to their position away from the open air and sun. What’s important to remember, however, is that the plants around the cave are incredibly important to the cave ecology beneath. Roots, growing from large trees above the cave will eventually push through the cave walls to drink on the moisture found inside.
Deserts: While you’d initially think that deserts would be void of vegetation, you’d be wrong. Despite the lack of abundant rainfall and the shocking range of temperatures, desert flora can exist. Elephant trees have trunks that can store water for days, organ pipe cacti are slow growing and desert sage has the shocking ability to conserve solar energy. Much like the people who live in deserts, plants residing in the sweltering terrain take on incredible adaptations to persist
despite the elements. Desert marigold, lilies, willow trees, and a whole plethora of cacti are common in deserts. Saguaro, much like the organ pipe cacti, had enormous life spans. If you’re noticing a running theme in desert vegetation, you’d be right: if you’re going to find a plant in the desert it is not going to grow fast. Be aware when you write about your deserts that the literal lifeblood of your cast will be their ability to harvest what vegetation and animals they can find, as well as their ability to navigate to fresh water. If you’ve got your characters living in a barren land with absolutely no vegetation, you’re dwelling in the realm of fantasy. Far be it from me to burst your bubble, but you’re going to need to include something green to keep reader loyalty.
Polar Habitats: Once more, when you’re dealing with the extreme climates of the polar ice caps, you’re not going to be finding a wide diversity of plants. Indeed, the polar areas of our world receive less vegetation than deserts. There are no trees, no shrugs, and only two species of flowering plants. These are hair grass and pearlwort. Even so, these plants aren’t going to be found in the ice caps. They’ll be found on the fringe (think of the islands on the coast of Antarctica) and even then only rarely. Now, the good news is that the tundra can have larger amounts of plant life, not that that counts for much. You’re looking at dwarf shrubs, herbs, grasses, and mosses mostly. No large trees (heck, no short trees either). Why so little in the way of plants? The answer lies in the lack of birds and bees (we’ll discuss this later on in the article). You can’t have plants if they aren’t being pollinated (not to mention the layer of permafrost in the soil which remains frozen all year round). Once again, if your cast is living in an area near the polar ice caps, you’re going to be facing stiff opposition in regards of viable vegetation to consume. Arctic willow, pasque flower, bearberry, purple saxifrage, and cottongrass might grow in the tundra (along with a plethora of lichen) but your characters won’t be able to eat them.
Grass Plains: Despite the fact that grass lands are abundant in grasses (hence the name) you’ll find that there aren’t a great deal of trees or even large shrubs. A mass of migrating animals find abundant food in wild oats, foxtail, ryegrass, and buffalo grass. The trees that do grow consist of species such as cottonwoods, oaks, and willows. Be aware that grass plains will go through seasonal drought, not to mention occasional large fires. These reasons, along with heavy grazings, cause trees to never reach their full potential.
Jungles: If ever there was a landmass meant for vegetation, it was a jungle. The common meaning of the word jungle is that of a land overgrown with tangled vegetation. You’re looking at the earth’s hot house, and as many as 86 different species of plant can pack into one acre of rainforest. The problem with jungles, inevitably, is that space will run out. Plants have to race for the top, to get as much sunlight as they possibly can, before gaps in the canopies close. Because of this, you’re going to have to imply in your writing that the lower levels of your jungles are less
populated with heavy vegetation than the top. Most of the consumable produce and wildlife will be found in the canopies. I mention the word ‘produce’ for a reason, because besides being packed with animals, jungles are likewise packed with vegetation you could actually eat. Unfortunately, they’re also filled with vegetation that can kill you… but that’s just a hair you’re going to have to make peace with splitting. You’re looking at Kapok, Brazil nut, cercropia, annatto, chicle, abiu, mountain soursop, ilama, Astrocaryum jauari palm, and the ever functional rubber tree. That’s just the tip of the iceberg; there are over 16,000 tree species alone. Good luck trying to pack them all into your story.
Islands: The fun thing about island vegetation is that you get to deal with both salt water and the effects of fresh water that falls on the land. Your best bet is to therefore divide your interests, first looking to the vegetation that surrounds the islands and then looking inland. Seagrasses can often surround the islands underneath the water, with saltbrush sprawling around the land. Beaches can be seen creeping with morning glories and sesuvium. Mangroves
can likewise withstand enormous salt content (they range from black, red, and white). The main question is, what plants can survive intense heat, wind, and salt? Your remaining candidates will often fall into plants found on beaches. With the humid tropical weather of most islands, you’ll find that the forests interior is comprised of broadleaf elements. If your island houses a volcano, congratulations are in order… your soil will be incredibly rich and able to cultivate enormous amounts of vegetation. Coconut palms, taro plants, bananas, papayas, pineapples, and breadfruit can be found in abundance. Of course, a great deal of the islands vegetation depend upon the trade winds that blow through the area, and the latitude upon which the islands sits geographically. Cold islands, with their lack of constant sunlight, will harvest different fruits and trees than warm tropical islands. Be aware of your climate, constantly!
The abundance of animal life in any given area depends upon three things: vegetation, climate, and human harvest. Any are with abundant vegetation is likely to receive a steady amount of fresh rainfall vital for survival. Climates that are not too extreme can lead to animals populating on a regular basis. Provided human’s aren’t hunting them, animals can flourish at a shocking pace. Each pressure point, much like a tripod, is an important leg for the pillar of animal life to stand upon. Should one fall, the other two will not help to stop the crumble. Animals range from the massive to the microscopic, the normal to the bizarre, and can often shape your plot in unforeseen ways. What was Harry Potter without his Hedwig, after all? But the fact of the matter is that building an ecosystem within your novel can be incredibly complex. It’s not a shameful thing to mimic nature (after all, why fix a good thing). At the same time, however, if you’re building from the ground up in your own universe, you need to know how to craft your own without tripping up over the oldest potholes in the book. Namely this: everything must have something to eat, and something that eats it in turn. Now, naturally you’re going to have an apex predator at the top of the food chain, but you might also have animals in competition for a single food source. You might even have two top predators. What then? How do you balance a topsy pyramid and keep it authentic? Once again, your best bet is to look at nature, and see if you can’t find any similar situations. Nature is a magical, beautiful screwball mess of a family reunion. If you thought your lot was dysfunctional, look at some of the animal ecosystems that have been built through evolution and human intervention. If there is a path to be forged, nature will ink it out… for better or worse.
Mountains: The mountains are not a place for the weak or the fearful. Massive mammals, able to contend with the bitterly cold elements of higher altitudes and rocky outcrops dominate the area. Think of bears, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, etc. You’ll find their prey in birds, such as condors, deer that grow fat on the grazing in the valleys below, and flightless insects such as
grasshoppers. Any character which wanders here will need to be well armed, lest they suffer the same fate as those lower on the food chain. Something interesting to note is that mountains can often become isolated, given their high altitudes. As a result, some species can be found on mountains and then no where else. Don’t mistake domination in one range for a good thing though; consider the fate of the panda, doomed to dine exclusively upon bamboo. Human intervention can likewise be a damning factor to apex predators like mountain cats and bears. As for the deer? I’m afraid they’re on everyones hit list.
Fresh Waters: Any area of fresh water is going to see its fair share of insects. Mosquitoes, black flies, ticks, leeches, dragon flies, and chiggers are going to be providing a base for your ecosystem. Your next ladder will be a hefty one, and hardly a surprise: fish! Go wild, friends, but
remember that too many fish competing for the same prize is illogical. Trout, salmon, and bass are your best friends, but even the aren’t without their predators. Depending upon how hot or cold your climate is, you might even see beaver and otter in your fresh waters. Crocodiles can be there too, turtles too, and a birds by the dozen. Ducks, geese, swans, and even the heron and crane can be found by fresh water. The moral of the story? All life depends upon fresh water. As a result, fresh water biomes are by far some of the most populated and diverse.
Caves: Don’t get excited, unless you enjoy a bug or two. Cave entrances can be heavy with animals using the mouths for sleeping and hibernation, but that’s not exactly an animal strictly reliant upon caves. Animals that only use the caves near the mouth are called troglophiles, and can range from woodrats to raccoons. Caves are packed, however, with insects hiding from birds
and smaller mammals just outside. Crickets, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, scorpions, beetles, moths and buckets of cockroaches will all be found in caves. Now, far be it from me to leave out bats (the more famous of cave dwellers), but beware of falling into the trope of having caves without insects and plenty of bat life. Your character might not enjoy stepping on cockroaches, but those bats are going to get hungry without food. Every tier in the food chain is important… even the crawly ones.
Deserts: If you thought vegetation sparse in deserts, you’ll be staggered by the amount of animal life found. Everything from gerbils, to sheep, wild ass, raptors, cobras, and even snails can be found in the dunes. Like the vegetation, life in deserts relies upon rainfall. During the sporadic moments of bounty that deserts can have, animals hibernating through aestivation can come back to life and appear in all corners. Don’t be afraid to show that frogs and skinks live in
your deserts. There are pools in the Sahara, and when rain fall occurs their depths can host life from miles around. Most animals in deserts will have to constantly remain on the move. Prey animals are seeking water, shade, and vegetation; predators are following after their prey, and water as well. Those that cannot travel wide tracks must be willing and able to endure the bleak reality of life in a desert (such as slugs that can go dormant in periods of drought). If you’re creating pyramids all your own, be aware that you will have to make animals capable of undergoing incredible transformations just to keep alive.
Polar Habitats: Just like before, where vegetation was fleeting, life in the polar regions will hang constantly on the climates fluctuation during the season. Many animals will either hibernate or flee entirely in order to be able to eat well all through the year. Those that cannot flee, just like animals in the desert, must be willing and able to endure the harsh winters that block out the sun and keep vegetation frozen in its shoots. If you’re creating your own animals, you would be
wise to endorse them with both heavy coats and cryptic coloration. White is the fashion of the hour; after all, white is the hardest to discern from the snow during a blizzard. Arctic hares, plump and white, are often found in the fringes of the polar region. Snowy owls and arctic terns can both migrate; indeed your land could easily be populated by birds fleeing the premises when the climate turns too harsh to endure. Long term residents like the muskox and polar bear are built to survive the extreme cold. If your polar landmass includes a waters edge, you could likewise include creatures such as beluga whales and narwhals. Walruses are likewise an excellent choice, with their massive tusks and bulky fat keeping them in good spirits despite the frigid winter seasons.
Grass Plains: The abundance of animal life will not fluctuate on grass plains, despite the climate. Temperate grass plains in North America are often looked over, but contain some of the largest array of life in the states. Bison, the awe inspiring symbol of frontier life, are found roaming in great herds even now (they are protected by law). Of course, in your story if the bison are not being hunted, you can show those numbers shooting even higher. They once roamed in herds of 60 million, after all! Pronghorn, migrating along their ancestral routes, are likewise a common sight. Black footed ferrets, greater sage grouse, and mountain plover common sights as well.
Don’t get so excited with the majestic that you forget about the small (many writers make this mistake, forgetting that it’s slightly easier to bring down a grouse than it is to kill a bison… remember your character must eat). Now, if your grass plains are more along the lines of the African majesty, your cast of animals will be more exotic. The elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, cheetah, gazelle, and wildebeest are all common sights. What’s important when you fill your landscapes with animals is that you keep in mind just how much these animals are going to be eating, particularly animals in large herds. If a drought is affecting your story, and the grass plains are without their normal abundance, you’re going to see famine, disease, and death in the larger herds. Even smaller animals like the elephant shrew will suffer. Likewise, remember that fires will be common in the prairies, and will be the death of many animals that are too old or too weak to get out of the way. The grass plains are lands of abundance and carnage… and any character that lives here will have to obey the laws of the balance or suffer for their ignorance.
Jungles: There is incredible biodiversity involved in jungles, but what is peculiar is that on the jungle floor you’re not going to be prone to see much life. Just like with the vegetation, a great deal of the life in a jungle is found in the canopy. Moist, hot climates with stable sunlight that rarely fluctuates throughout the year allows for cold blooded animals like reptiles and amphibians to flourish in abundance. Is there anything quite as unnerving as a massive python wrapped around the trunk of an ancient tree, or the neon coloration of poisonous tree frogs? Parrots and toucans might attempt to keep the amphibian numbers in check, but there still will be a plethora to be found. Monkeys are perhaps one of the best known creatures to flourish in jungles, but it’s important that you establish in your story what herds live in which tree.
Territories are wildly disputed, and result in much carnage between different ‘tribes’. Capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, orangutans, and of course the magnificent gorilla will all be vying for their own tree space (and thus their own vegetation). Something interesting to note is that while monkeys have a
relatively vegetarian diet, they have been known to indulge in cannibalism, particularly during conquests against other territories. Another important thing to mention is that jungles are practically swarming with insects, particularly types of ants, beetles, and spiders. By numbers alone, most animals in the rainforest are going to be invertebrates. Be aware that your character (whether crossing through or living in a jungle will have to deal with bugs. A lack of them in your environment will result in a collapse of the jungle hierarchy. All those amphibians and reptiles need things to eat, and without them a great deal of animals who prey on their flesh will likewise fall victim. Don’t leave out the creepy crawlies just because they are…well… creepy and crawly.
Islands: Depending upon the climate of your island, you’ll find an abundance of life in migratory birds and fish. Those that stay on the island all year round will mostly consist of reptiles and small mammals. The problem with islands, ecosystem wise, is that there isn’t much room or food to hold large mammal life. Those mammals that are large on islands tend to find their food in the sea, such as seals and sea lions. Otherwise, you’re looking at rats and bats… anything much bigger will have a serious problem finding constant nutritious food to eat. Now avian wise, you’ll be finding an incredible amount of birds to work from. Everything from blue-footed boobies, gulls, herons, frigates, albatrosses, egrets, and even flamingos could be present upon your land mass. Most sea birds return to islands in order to mate and rear their young, so your character will likewise see an expanse of birds return during schedule points of the year. The temperature of the water surrounding your landmass is likewise important. If your water is warm, you can look forward to your waters being populated by an array of colorful fish and large predators. Sharks in particular look for the schooling fish that feed on the rocks around islands. Hammerheads and whitetips might be a common sight, but remember that just like large mammals on land, large fish are going to be fighting for territory and will likely come into conflict with one another. They won’t be alone trolling the schools; rays are common as well. They certainly won’t stay around islands either; if the food goes, they’ll go too. Insects can, of course, flourish on islands just as they do everywhere else. If there’s a niche to be filled, chances are there’s an insect to fill it. Birds will feed on the insects, just as they will on the fish. You’ll probably likewise find crabs on your island, though they won’t find peace from their many predators. Claws up, friends!
So! After this enormous article, a few closing comments wouldn't go amiss. The most important thing that I want to say, however, is that you have to research constantly when you're building your own ecosystem. If you're building something from ground zero with fictional animals, you're not off the hook either. Mimic from real life or risk having your imaginary pyramids falling flat. The balance of nature is precarious, and dangerous shifts in climate or human encroachment can ruin everything. That doesn't get to change just because you're tagging it with a made up name and trees that glow pink at night. But I digress.
In the next, and last article on the landscaping article, we'll take everything that we've learned in the past three topics and learn how humans can exist and flourish in each landscape. We know what the landscapes look like, what weather they endure, what plants grow on them, and what animals flock there... so what does this mean for the human populations of the area? I'll use my expertise and pull from real life to show you the way. Until then, keep writing!