E is for Ecosystem
Taryn put her pen down and smiled around at the camp in question, deeply satisfied by everything she saw. She had a nice little copse of trees maybe a mile across behind her tent to block the winds that combed constantly through the plains, and it was full of wonderful things like firewood, and even some late-season berries and wild grapes. Two hundred paces before her (she’d counted them off assiduously because her Wilderness Survival Handbook had instructed her to do all her laundry and toiletries two hundred feet from her water source, and this book was rapidly becoming her Bible out here in this strange new world), was the river she had known she’d find. The greenbelt that had led her to it was on the other side and the waters were wide and fast-flowing, but there were fish leaping all over down there and as soon as she figured out how to tickle them out onto the bank, she would be one happy and well-fed woman. Not that she was starving now. A few rocks gathered from the riverbank and her trusty slingshot had eventually brought down two of the pheasant-like, yellow-breasted birds and both she and Aisling were currently stuffed just as full as could be. Beyond the river and the thick growth that grew on the far bank were the mountains, rising jaggedly into the low clouds and just as pretty as any postcard. There were numerous little courses running off the rock and into the river, and not far to the east, the distant mutter of some truly magnificent falls kept her easy company. It was a good spot. It was the best spot. She was going to be okay. –The Care and Feeding of Griffins
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Okay, so we’ve had a couple of fun articles (death is fun, right?) and it’s time to get serious. For those of you who have forgotten fifth-grade science and those of you whose notes for that period consist of several dozen heart-and-flower adorned repetitions of “Mrs. Tommy Badgerbottom” and doodles of cheeseburgers, let me refresh some memories. An ecosystem is the balance that is formed by the living and non-living things of a specific environment. Plants, animals, water, weather and minerals all combine to function more or less as a single “typical” system. Pretty much any habitat in which organisms are dependant upon the conditions of that habitat for survival and whose life cycles in some way maintain the function of the habitat can be called an ecosystem. In this way, you get a river which is part of a rainforest which is part of this little ecosystem we call Earth. Humans are also a key element of ecosystems, much as we like to pretend we’re not—
—but for the purposes of this article, I’m just going to talk about ecosystems as they pertain to worldbuilding.
“Sweet mother of pie!” I hear you cry. “Who cares about the stupid ecosystem? The story is about an alien bounty hunter and his sexy target getting marooned on a hostile planet! I just want them to go at it like angry minks, not gawp at the delicate balance of life in the indigenous watershed!”
Okay, first off? Use your inside voice. Secondly, good word usage. And third, good books are rarely good because of the plot. By now, every possible plot has been done and twisted and pulled apart and sewn together and done some more. Good books are good because they come to life in the reader’s head, and that only happens when there’s a thoughtful approach to the story, real emotion in the characters and depth to the world around them. When you’re writing on Earth, that’s one thing; we all tend to take Earth for granted.
But when you’re writing on another world and especially when your characters interact with that world, that world must be as fully-developed and alive as any other character or it just doesn’t work.
Example. I saw Riddick when it came out, because I love B movies (and the Riddick franchise is as B as they come. Spoiler alert: B does not stand for blockbuster). I liked the first two well enough as eye candy, but never really got into them, and I expected the third to be about the same. About halfway through the movie, my suspension of disbelief was on the floor between my feet. Oh, Vin Diesel is still a mumbly badass and even gets naked once, but I couldn’t stay in it. All the testosterone-soaked fight scenes in the universe can’t make up for the fact that that planet could not support the kind of life it was supporting. We saw four animals—five if you count a haunch of unidentified meat—one eel-like thing that lived in what I presumed to be sulpheric pools, two top-tier predators and one flying scavenger. Oh, and one of those top-tier predators? They come by the millions. So I have a question for you, makers-of-Riddick: What the hell were they all eating? Don’t say each other, because there was none of that onscreen. There was no prey and not a lot for prey animals to eat either. Just millions of huge bitey-things milling around on a lifeless world, waiting for aliens to drop by. If this sounds familiar, that was also the plot of the first movie. Thirteen years and they couldn’t build a better world!
Who cares, you stubbornly mutter? Well, I care! When I throw down ten bucks to see a movie, I want two hours of in-the-movie, not two hours of oh-give-me-a-break! More importantly, when your readers throw down their hard-earned cash, they want to fall into your vision, not sit there thinking, ‘What are all those things eating when no one crashes on the planet?’ Your world is more than a static painting on the back wall of the stage, it is the world your characters live in. It has to feel real. It has to work.
Okay. So ecosystems are made up of non-living elements like soil and other minerals, availability of sunlight and water, and climate, as well as living organisms. The living side of the equation also maintains its own balance as part of three separate groups: producers, consumers and decomposers. Producers are mainly your plants, but on an alien world, it could be an animal too; these organisms make their own food by absorbing nutrients from sunlight or conceivably from the soil or whatever non-living element you feel like giving them. Consumers go get their food; these are mostly animals, but occasionally can be plants who either eat plants, other animals or both. Finally, the decomposers, which are all the dead plants and animals who slowly breakdown and revitalize the soil. If any link in this simple chain is broken, the whole ecosystem collapses.
When you lump a bunch of compatible ecosystems together, you get a biome, which are mostly categorized by three things: plant type, plant density and climate. Just remember that a planet is made up of many biomes. Although your entire story may take place in one specific area, avoid creating desert worlds, ice planets or forest moons. (I hope you’re reading this, George Lucas.)
There are a lot of different systems for categorizing biomes, but I use the WWF system. Not that WWF. The World Wide Fund for Nature. You know, the panda people.
WWF recognizes 14 terrestrial (meaning land, not Earth) biomes—three kinds of tropical forest, two kinds of temperate forest, boreal forest, four kinds of grassland, tundra, woodland, desert and mangrove—which can be further divided down into over 800 ecoregions—no, I’m not going to list them. Additionally, there are a number of freshwater and saltwater biomes, but I’ve never needed to study them beyond what it took to successfully raise marine animals in Zoo Tycoon 2.
Biomes act as a ready-made template for any fantasy or alien setting, giving you, the writer, a good idea of the biodiversity you should have, the kind of weather your characters will be trudging through and what biomes they’re likely to run into if they keep trudging long enough. Do you have to fill pages of valuable printing space with descriptions of each kind of flowering fifflepod or grazing grubsnak your characters encounter? No, of course not. But the fragrance of a fifflepod wafting on the breeze or a herd of grubsnaks wading through the moonlit grass can add rich atmosphere to a poignant moment. Even better, a ferocious fanged fnarl taking out an entire herd of bawling grubsnaks in Chapter Four really revs up the tension when the heroine faces off against one in Chapter Eight. The idea is to use your world’s environment not merely as a backdrop, but as a key element of the story with real consequences for your characters.