Challenging environments

A couple of years ago I walked part of the Grand Canyon – apart from helicopter, the only way in and out was by foot or horse.  While I was there the local people spoke of a flash flood that had happened only 2 weeks before.  It had rushed down the narrow canyon we’d just walked and took a young boy by surprise as he was bringing his horses up to the carpark.  All around him were cliffs and the water was rising higher second by second.   There was nowhere for him to take his horses to safety in time.  All he could do was clamber up a cliff and watch helplessly as his animals were washed away; screaming and struggling in the swirling red water.  A challenging environment to begin with had been made all the more difficult by a flood, and had led to an unexpected and heart-rending choice.

Similarly, you can provide natural barriers in the path of your fantasy characters to present them with obstacles at best and a life-threatening impasse at worst.  But the wonderful thing about providing challenging environments in this genre is how creative you can be to overcome them.  Fantasy provides you with the freedom to do practically anything you can dream of to get past a physical barrier, but there still has to be an air of realism to it to make sure your readers don’t feel as if they’ve been robbed.  For example, if the horses in my Grand Canyon story had taken flight you might cheer, but would it provide a satisfying conclusion?

So what do I mean by a natural barrier or challenging environment?

  • Deserts, dry wasteland, extreme heat and arid conditions.
  • Ice, icebergs, arctic conditions, extreme cold.
  • Deep fast flowing rivers, turbulent oceans, massive waterfalls, large lakes or fenlands.
  • Cliffs, chasms, canyons.
  • Caves, mines, sinkholes – particularly those with crumbling walls, a lack of air or filled with water.
  • Volcanoes, lava flows, lava lakes – don’t forget these give off noxious gases.
  • Jungles, thick undergrowth (full of dangerous unseen creatures), flood conditions.
  • Mountains, boulders, extremely rocky conditions.

I’m sure you can think of more (I’ve started a Pinterest page to assist) but all of these natural barriers present different types of challenges for your characters.  How they deal with a desert will be vastly different to how they overcome a landscape of ice or get across a lava-filled chasm.  So I’ve compiled a few suggestions to help you push your characters to their limits.

  • How did they get there? – Usually people end up in a terrible place because of a series of poor, hasty or difficult decisions, rather than by accident.  It’s not often people drop out of the sky directly into a fight-for-survival situation.  Ensure you work through these decisions as you zig-zag through your plot. Then once your characters are in the challenging environment, get them to make even more bad decisions so that things just keep getting worse.
  • Know the environment – I would be the first to admit that I can’t write about extreme cold particularly well because I haven’t lived through it.  But I know a good deal about arid conditions, deserts and extreme heat.  I’m sure you’ve heard people say “write what you know”, well it can be sage advice when describing a specific environment as you know exactly what it is like using all your senses and you know what it does to your body.  But if you do want to know more about a challenging environment it’s worth putting in some research if you can’t get to it in person.  Personal stories of survival in harsh environments are definitely worth a read to understand them better.
  • Isolate them – If your characters have no access to the normal avenues of help their chances of survival become slimmer, making the reader turn the pages to find out what happens to them.  Some of your characters may go mad, give up, get sick or die, while those with them will have to make difficult decisions about what to do next.
  • Injure them – An injury can definitely be a turning point as even a small injury may be life-threatening in the wrong environment and can push the other characters to new extremes or perform hasty actions to try to save them.
  • Don’t make it easy – Once your characters have overcome one challenge, present them with another.  Don’t let them get off too easily.  And when it looks like everything is going to be OK, throw in one last challenge.
  • The natives aren’t friendly – There’s always someone or something living in any challenging environment who might be a threat.  You may like to build up a bit of tension in advance by having your characters talk about their fears of what may live “down there” or just add them in as a surprise.
  • Suffer – Your characters are going through a tough time, some may be injured, some thirsty, hungry, nutty, etc.  Write about how they feel and what they’re thinking about, which is more likely to be about the ‘here and now’ rather than what they’re missing at home.  Do they want to steal that last water bottle?  Do they think that one of their companions are taking it too easy while they slave for survival?  Or are they so hungry they could kill one of their fellows and eat them?
  • Throw in a natural disaster – So your characters are walking through a volcanic region, why not have one of the volcanoes explode? Or add a tornado or two, or a flood, earthquake, etc.
  • Make survival a surprise – If your characters have survived extraordinary challenges so far and they’re lying on the ground thinking they can’t go any further, could their saviours simply appear out of the desert or erupt from the earth?  Could the one thing they need finally be apparent through a daze of hypothermia.  Is that light at the end of the tunnel death or someone with a torch?  It may be, or it could be a brief reprieve (enter the unfriendly natives).  As long as the surprise is in keeping with the “rules” of your fantasy world and satisfying for your readers, it will be fine.

Some masters of overcoming challenging environments in fantasy:  Wilbur Smith, J.V. Jones, Raymond E Feist, Juliet Marillier, Terry Jones.

Personal real accounts of survival in challenging environments: Touching the Void (Joe Simpson), Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Aron Ralston), Sufferings in Africa (James Riley), Alive (Piers Paul Read).


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