Written on 2004-02-23; Read the original post on LiveJournal
Vary the desert landscape. The deserts in fantasy seem to be dunes, dunes, dunes, and sometimes flat plains of sand, with an oasis or two. Boring, boring, boring.
There are other types of desert landscape. Look at the American West, for instance. There are sometimes large rocks in deserts, as well as dunes! Or valleys, though admittedly dry valleys! Or canyons. Or there are clay deserts, which do support some life. And there are deserts with salt lakes. And there are saltpans.
Dunes are nice, admittedly, and can provide a lot of excitement in the hands of a good author. But there is more to the desert landscape than that. Even dunes don't often get the full range of what they could be. They don't move with the wind, which they do in real deserts. No one ever has trouble getting up them. They're never even made into interesting shapes by the wind.
It's the fantasy author's job to make them interesting. So do so.
Temperatures in a desert vary extremely. There's the heat during the day, which most authors make some attempt to take notice of, but there's also the cold at night. If your characters aren't used to traveling in the desert, one or the other should inconvenience them at least, and terrify them at best. I always roll my eyes impatiently when I read about characters from forests, jungles, or northern landscapes adapting seamlessly to a desert. The rules of survival are almost entirely different, but, of course, the heroes of a fantasy novel can't be seen making mistakes, so they know what to do, as if they'd been living there their entire lives.
Here are some tips to insure that you're not accidentally giving your heroes a free pass:
- Sand gets everywhere and in everything.
- Black clothes attract heat. White clothes reflect it.
- Panting, crying, spitting, sweating, vomiting, and urination are all losses of moisture. Your teenage heroine should get smacked around (more than usual, anyway) for having a hissy fit in the desert. And I always wanted to see fantasy characters have to gather their urine and drink it.
- Moving during noon, the hottest and least shadowy time, is not a good idea.
- Just stumbling on an oasis when you don't know the desert routes is extremely unlikely.
- A head covering will be necessary to stop the sweat from rolling down into the hero's eyes.
- The cold will necessitate some means of dealing with it- blankets, fires, a cave- and that means that blankets and firewood will have to be brought along.
All desert mounts have some disadvantage. Horses can manage deserts- Arabian horses were originally specifically bred as raiding mounts in such environments- but they drink a lot, so a large part of their strength and time will be spent carrying water along. Some breeds of horses can get along with less water, but they will be correspondingly smaller and weaker. Arabian-like mounts are your best choice. Draft horses or destriers would be a huge mistake, and would probably end up dying along the route.
Camels are, of course, more adapted to deserts, but their jerky, swaying pace makes them harder to ride, and characters used to riding horses shouldn't be able to just jump on a camel's back and ride merrily along. They're also slower and more stubborn than horses. However, they can get along with much less water (partially by drinking like maniacs every chance they get and partially by browsing water-carrying plants) and survive sandstorms better because they can close their eyes and nostrils and prevent sand from getting in. They're of most use when your characters aren't familiar with the desert and want to survive it.
Donkeys and mules are also possible mounts, though they suffer some of the corresponding disadvantages- not being able to carry as much as horses, for example, and needing to drink more than camels.
Every time I see a fantasy character crossing a desert on a Clydesdale lookalike, with no mention of extra water, I daydream wistfully about being able to reach into the book, break the horse's legs, spill all the water, and then leave the character wondering what to do. That might give him or her some real problems, since the author won't.
Vary the desert wildlife. Sometimes it seems as though the only desert animals that exist in fantasy are camels, those impossibly small-drinking horses, and sidewinders or scorpions. More animals than those do live in deserts, and they aren't impossible to trap or hunt.
In areas where there are giant cacti, there will probably be elf owls, tiny birds who make their nests in hollow holes in the cacti. In areas with ponds, no matter how small, or just after a rainfall when the desert blooms (see below), there will be toads and other creatures that live near water, taking advantage of it as quickly as they can. In the appropriate areas, there are fennec foxes, the insects they feast on, jackrabbits, packrats, jerboas, rattlesnakes, mice, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, termites, wild cattle, ravens, various kinds of hawks, lizards, pumas, and others.
If your characters have any experience in hunting, they won't be utterly helpless in these environments, and your deserts have no excuse for being lifeless.
Deserts do get rainfall occasionally. It's very rare, but it happens. There are two occurrences I've almost never seen in fantasy books, but which can add color to a desert adventure:
- Flash floods. If your characters are camping in a canyon or an arroyo when the rain comes, they'll have an adventure on their hands whether they want one or not. The water is channeled between the walls with enormous speed, especially in places where the ground and the rocks are both very steep, and it can slam into your characters and sweep them away before they know what's happening. Crossing rivers on shaky log bridges was never this exciting.
- Flowers. Many deserts have flower seeds that are waiting for that swift rainfall to bloom. It's more likely to happen in spring, but the season varies. It doesn't last very long, but while it does, blossoms of many and varied colors spring across the desert, and the change can be overwhelming. Animals also flourish during this time, especially the water-dwelling ones like toads, frantically breeding and laying eggs. Characters traveling across the desert could find themselves in a land much different than they expected. Perhaps it could even become linked to magic in your world; perhaps mages get rare ingredients from a desert wildflower, or perhaps a journey there during the growing season is necessary for a young woman to begin to awaken to her magical power.
Don't make every desert culture exactly the same. There are good reasons for some of the similarities- such as care with water and head coverings- but don't make every fantasy culture a copy of Arabic or Islamic culture in our own world. There are too many of these, even when the presence of magic, a lack of religion, or the influence of other cultures close to them would give the fantasy desert-dwellers a good reason to be different.
If you need examples of how different real-world cultures, without magic and close to the same area, can be, keep in mind that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all flourished in deserts, but emerged with distinctly different religious traditions, naming traditions, and emphases.
Why do so many fantasy authors think deserts= hot and lack of water, and nothing else?