Geographic Flexibility

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"I've lived in Sunnydale a couple of years now. You know what I've never noticed before? This big honkin' castle."

The geography of a fictional location becomes extremely flexible as more and more is added to it.

The most common way this occurs is when the story is set in an ostensibly small town. Small towns have their advantages for fiction, but they may not have every location the plot requires. The plot calls for a dock, so the town has one. The plot calls for a university, and it's there. The plot calls for an industrial district, and it's there. None of this is inherently unreasonable, since many small towns do have those, or are even built around them. But having all of them? Suddenly the town's not looking so small anymore.

In Egregious cases, the City of Adventure may gain or lose major geographic features like mountains, or may move to a different climate zone when no one's looking.

Places whose location are never given are particularly prone to this. Compare Chaos Architecture, Traveling At the Speed of Plot.

Examples of Geographic Flexibility include:


  • A Chevy Silverado commercial hung a lampshade on this when a little boy who keeps getting stuck in precarious situations finds himself in a volcano. Dad says, "I didn't even know this town had a volcano", then the camera zooms to a very out-of-place looking volcano.

Comic Books

  • Riverdale from Archie comics sometimes spawns a beach or a mountain, and occasionally gives a hint of where it could be located, just to be able to contradict it later.
    • Its size also seems to fluctuate. Depending on the story, Riverdale's a hick town in the middle of nowhere, or is big enough to support an airport and an international stock exchange.
  • DuckTales (1987): Duckburg is surrounded by desert, prairie, mountains, forest and ocean. It has a spaceport, a cathedral and several other unique buildings, most of which are only seen once.


  • Back to The Future can't seem to decide whether Hill Valley is a decent-sized city or a small town. It's small enough to have a tiny downtown area with no buildings higher than three stories, but it apparently has a large enough population to support at least one very large mall. And that's just in the first film. Part III adds an entire desert within walking distance of the city while stating that there's a lake which freezes over in winter. Still the series didn't really last long enough to produce anything too contradictory, though it likely would have if it'd been allowed to continue.
    • Of course, the fact that you see the movies in four very separate time periods might have something to do with it.
    • The development of Hill Valley over time seems pretty consistent with that of a small town (county seat in this case) enveloped by the suburban expansion of a nearby metropolis.
    • Very big malls tend to locate quite far away from big cities due to land costs.
    • The hills visible in the background of 20th-Century Hill Valley are completely absent back in the Wild West.
    • There is a small city in California named Mill Valley, which is in Marin County, but there is no desert within walking distance of it.


  • Nancy Drew‍'‍s small hometown of River Heights seems to have whatever experts, businesses, universities, or other resources that are needed for any particular book.
    • Ditto for the Hardy Boys and their hometown of Bayport, they've done a little better in more recent stories, ever since they pinned down where the two towns actually are. Now, they've made the two towns suburbs withing one-day's driving distance from Chicago (River Heights) and New York (Bayport.) Nowadays they just go visit, call, or e-mail when they need help.
  • In the first Harry Potter book, it's stated that the geography of Hogwarts magically changes around from time to time - staircases move, steps vanish, doors don't always open and sometimes pretend to be solid walls. J. K. Rowling has explained that she established this early on as a ready-to-fire justification in case this problem ever manifested itself, which, of course, it did.
    • This is especially true in the movies. Throughout the films, Hogwarts has changed in the following ways:
      • Second film: The sand pit around the Quidditch pitch is replaced with a trench. The hospital wing is changed.
      • Third film: The location of the Fat Lady's portrait is changed (as is the Fat Lady). Hagrid's hut is moved next to a newly-added giant sundial, which is accessed across a newly-added bridge attached to a newly-added courtyard at the foot of a newly-added Clock Tower. The hospital wing is moved to the top of this tower. The Whomping Willow position has changed: it's still very close to the woods, but now it's farther away from the main building and in a more mountainous area.
      • Fourth film: The entrance hall is replaced with an entrance courtyard.
      • Fifth film: The Potions classroom (unseen since the first film) uses the set built in the second film as Snape's office. The giant sundial introduced in the third film disappears, although the bridge, courtyard, and clock tower remain.
      • Sixth film: The Astronomy Tower is a new set after being represented in the third film as a redress of the Dumbledore's Office set.
      • Final film: The viaduct connecting the entrance courtyard to the other side of the castle is reangled so that it instead connects the entrance courtyard to a cliff in front of the school.
  • Dragonriders of Pern does this with an entire planet: The time to walk/ride-a-horse/fly-a-dragon/sail between locations varies as the plot demands—sometimes by what would be hundreds of miles. Amongst fans, it's called the "rubber ruler".
    • Of course, an adult dragon can travel between any two points on the planet in eight seconds flat, so in many situations travel time is negligible.
  • Stephen King does this often. A good many of his books are prefaced with the statement that parts of the city, state, or country that is featured are straight made up.
    • Made very well explicit in The Dark Tower. The geography and distances are stated in-story to actually change. This is probably our first clue that something is seriously wrong with the world.
  • The Discworld. Ankh-Morpork is concisely plotted, but everywhere else can be pretty vague. Fortunately, any possible continuity errors were explained away in Thief of Time as alternate pasts from the badly-repaired fabric of history.
  • The Land of Oz takes this trope up to eleven, to the point of being inconsistent about which direction is east versus west. It's inconsistent whether there's a large river running past the Emerald City to its east, or to its west.
  • Fantasia in The Neverending Story is made of this trope, literally. It is acknowledged in-universe that distances and directions depend on the mental state of the traveler. This is not quite attributed to "the needs of the plot", but only by the very narrowest of margins.
  • In the author's notes for The Guns of the South, Harry Turtledove admits that he took a degree of Artistic License for a scene where the Confederates look into Washington D.C. from atop a nearby hill and see buildings like the War Department and the White House.

Live-Action TV

  • Sunnydale in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    • It started off being described as a "one Starbucks town" and gradually acquired more buildings, an entire waterfront district, airport, train station, zoo, dam, a community college and a campus of the University of California.
    • It also lost the entire beach/waterfront portions when the finale needed it to be landlocked.
    • Lampshaded in the episode "Buffy vs Dracula" when Riley wondered how he'd never noticed Sunnydale had its own gothic castle. In that case it's presumed that either Dracula teleported his own castle to Sunnydale, assuming residents wouldn't notice or care, or that the entire episode was caused by reality alteration due to the retroactive creation of Buffy's sister Dawn.
    • Common theory is that the fact that Sunnydale is directly on top of a Hellmouth does all sorts of screwy things with the geography.
  • Pine Valley, PA, setting of All My Children, ostensibly a small town, has a university with every graduate program you may need, a television station where national network shows are shot, an international airport, a casino (which were illegal in Pennsylvania until the early 2000s), and the headquarters of several major corporations. It also has a beach. In Pennsylvania. An ad for the show on Soapnet parodied all this.
    • Let's not forget that there are several uncharted islands off this beach. In Pennsylvania.
      • Does Lake Erie not exist in this particular TV universe?
  • Craggy Island, in Father Ted parodies this trope. Usually it seems there are only a handful of people living on the island, but in one episode there's an entire Chinatown district Ted never knew about. Even weirder, a hugely disproportionate number of those inhabitants are priests. (For reference, the island of Inishbofin, which is in roughly the same place has about 200 inhabitants. No word on how many of those are priests).
    • There is one constant: it has no west side. "It just broke loose during some bad weather and floated off."
  • The size of Rutherford in 3rd Rock from the Sun seemed to change between episodes. Sometimes it was implied to be a tiny College town and other times it seemed to be a decent-sized city.
    • I always thought it was Oberlin or Kent, and that the decent sized city was nearby Akron.
  • Residents of Dog River, Saskatchewan on Corner Gas often refer to (and drive to) "the city" but it's unclear whether it's Saskatoon or Regina they're going to. In some cases Regina is implied, but in one case Saskatoon is mentioned explicitly, i.e., "You went to Saskatoon for a morning swim?" The show also subverts the trope, often having a character declare emphatically that Dog River doesn't have an item that many sitcom towns tend to have for story convenience. For example, the above-mentioned "morning swim" comment was the result of Brent pretending that his case of pink eye was the result of taking a dip in an over-chlorinated pool, but Hank and Wanda point out that there's not a swimming pool anywhere in Dog River.
  • The island on Lost, while admittedly a Genius Loci with many mysterious and magical properties, features many locations that you'd think the survivors would have encountered during their first month or so, like an entire village surrounded by a big sonic fence, the various Dharma stations, the ruins of a giant statue, and a whole 'nother island right next to it! This could also be attributed to the fact that the losties were somewhat fearful of exploring the jungle because of the monster, the Others, and the various strange whispers and apparitions, but still.
    • The Losties not finding these things is at least moderately plausible, but Rousseau had been on the Island for 16 years and claimed never to see a lot of the stuff she came across when with the Losties. Granted, she was mad, but hadn't she supposedly been obsessed with finding her daughter? And she never came across the death pylons set in the incredible obvious grassy plain area near the centre?
    • Season six has the gigantic Temple be practically next to the barracks, judging by how quickly Kate and Sawyer can go from it to the latter.
    • Lampshaded in season six when Jack wonders how they had never managed to discover a giant stone lighthouse before.
  • Angel Grove for the first six seasons of Power Rangers, largely due to the mix of varying Stock Footage from Super Sentai and on-location footage from LA. There's the city proper, the beach, the adjacent vast desert, a large forested nature preserve, the park (which got bigger as time went on, eventually developing a massive lake that wasn't there before), snow-capped mountains not too far away, and, of course, innumerable suspiciously similar quarries scattered throughout all of the above for convenient fight-scening.
    • It also has historical flexibility, with matching scenery. It was settled by the British in the early 1700s (despite being in California), and was mostly grassy fields. In the late 1800s, it was full of prospectors, cowboys, and other Wild West stereotypes, and was mostly barren desert.
    • This has led to an interesting (if wrong) assumption by fans that the town is Los Angeles. Power Rangers takes place in an alternate universe, and since the British found California before the Spanish, the town was given an English name instead of a Spanish one.
  • In Robin Hood, a convenient orphanage pops up on the outskirts of Locksley right when the outlaws need to dispose of a group of kids. Did they even have orphanages in those days?
    • They were mostly located in monasteries.
  • In Scrubs, the hospital gains and loses aisles right as the plot demands.
  • Smallville didn't do too badly, the titular town's geography remain stable, as did Metropolis. But it still cropped up from time to time; the Smallville Luthorcorp plant seemed to grow an entire research wing (on a waste treatment plant) and Metropolis was sometimes so close to Smallville you could see it from a not very tall windmill and sometimes far enough away even Super Speed took a while to get you there.
    • On the other hand, the geography was not at all plausible for central Kansas, both for plot reasons and because they were actually in British Columbia. Metropolis acquired a harbor at some point (in Kansas!), and Smallville was full of whatever cliffs, valleys and rivers were required by this week's adventure. Also, the size of the town seemed to fluctuate to suit the plot—sometimes it was Dogpatch, and sometimes it was a fairly vibrant town. (Indeed, in season 5 it was explicitly a university town.) A road sign in the pilot episode lists a population of 45,001. That's not very big, but it's not tiny.
  • Midsomer Murders used this trope a lot, considering that it's one of the Long Runners of British TV and is set in a small fictional English county with a predominantly rural, old-timey character.

Newspaper Comics

  • Bloom County, from the comic strip of the same name, was first presented in 1980 as a small backwater with a general store and a few farms. Later on it gained a small urban setting that appeared whenever the plot required it; and by the strip's end, Milo's Meadow was drawn quite bizarrely, and the county had a full-fledged Wrong Side of the Tracks.
    • The same thing happened in its spinoff strip, Outland, except in reverse. The Outland was originally supposed to be Another Dimension that featured wacky, Krazy Kat-inspired landscapes. It quietly shifted to feature more normal surroundings, and even became a segment of Bloom County itself in the final strip.
  • Speaking of Krazy Kat, Coconino County even changes before your very eyes.


  • Simply because the sheer length of the Adventures in Odyssey (thirty years and they're still making new episodes), the town of Odyssey has gone from a small quaint Midwestern town to a place complete with a full scale downtown (with skyscrapers), its own suburb, an international airport, multiple malls, a community college, at least one full-scale amusement park, and a zoo. (And everything still seems to be within walking distance.)

Video Games

  • In Diablo II's multiplayer, the wilderness areas outside of towns change shape everytime one plays.
  • The American localization of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney apparently takes place in Los Angeles, California (Pacific time zone, near a movie studio). The sequel introduces the extremely Japanese Kurain Village, which is two hours away by train. The 3rd game introduces a snow covered mountain expanse with another extremely Japanese Kurain Temple located not much further beyond that. The reason, of course, is that it was an extremely Japanese game series before being localized. Fan Wank would indicate that there was simply a lot more cultural exchange between Japan and California in the series' Alternate Universe, which is why no one bats an eye at people in Japanese clothing walking around in LA.
  • The Mushroom Kingdom in the Super Mario Bros. series. Yeah, totally different in layout, features and just about everything in literally every single game and adaption, has possibly a more flexible geography situation than even Springfield in The Simpsons, and more... stuff than many series have in the entire universe. Heck, even the interiors totally change per game.
    • Of course, the Mushroom Kingdom is an entire country, so it is conceivable that it could include all of those different areas. That doesn't excuse the architecture of buildings changing from game to game, though.
      • That one is plausibly justified by Bowser tending to wreck the place in every game, so it's not improbable that they simply change the architecture as they rebuild.
  • The Legend of Zelda series has a significantly different Hyrule every game (going so far as to submerge it for The Legend of Zelda the Wind Waker and build a new one by the time of The Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks), but it's justified as significant period of time and/or space separate most of the games.
    • Hyrule is a less extreme version of this trope, as while Hyrule's topography is unmistakably different in each game, the major landmarks and their positions relative to each other remain fairly consistent from The Legend of Zelda a Link To T He Past on (although Kakariko Village appears to have picked itself up and moved to the far end of the kingdom at some point, and in The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, Hyrule Castle is to the north, when in all the others it's nearer to the centre).
    • Oddly enough, the Wii version of The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess, which made Link right-handed and flipped the map over, has Lake Hylia (southeast of the castle) and Kakariko (southwest) roughly where it is in comparison to A Link to the Past, while the GameCube version has the Lake and Gerudo Desert (southwest) and the Lost Woods [by a different name] (south-southeast) analogous to Ocarina of Time.
  • Partially averted in Super Metroid, where the parts of the game that were featured in the NES prequel remain pretty much the same, but much of the geography had considerably changed.
    • The changes can be handily explained by the original base having blown up.
  • Castlevania. This was eventually lampshaded and explained in Aria of Sorrow. Chaos, the true master of the castle (Bestiary be damned!), rebuilds the entirety of... whatever the castle is called at that particular time from scratch if for no other reason than aesthetics, like some otherworldly interior decorator run amok.
    • In Symphony of the Night, Alucard says the castle is a creature of chaos itself, changing its shape every time it is rebuilt.
  • Resident Evil's Raccoon City is supposed to be a relatively small mountain town in the middle of "The Arklay Mountains", but over the course of the games gains a subway system, a university, all the way up to Outbreak: File #2's sudden addition of the Raccoon City Zoo. Complete with only that which could become extremely dangerous when zombified or pissed off. If the ending of Resident Evil 2 is any indication, characters in the series travel far enough to reach an arid desert-like valley, among other places. At least with Code: Veronica, the game tells you that you're traveling to Antarctica. In Resident Evil 5, it seems to be indicated that Chris and Sheva travel from South Africa to Kenya, though they do travel by boat, jeep, and plane along the way.
  • Backyard Sports has different stadiums every game, but is always assumed to be a small town (confirmed in Skateboarding), so it is an example of this trope.
  • Gensoukyou, the setting of Touhou, has had many things added to it over the years that were apparently only discovered in the game in which they debut, including Misty Lake, the Garden of the Sun, Mayohiga, part of the Sanzu River, and both Koumakan and Eientei. More recent games have managed to avoid this though, with locations either mentioned before (Youkai Mountain) or explicitly stated to have recently arrived in Gensoukyou (a second lake, the Moriya Shrine, and even a nuclear fusion plant).
  • This is a gameplay mechanic in Legend of Mana: you get to place... places on the World Map. Each place emanates Mana of certain colors, which affects immediate previously placed places.

Web Animation

  • Free Country USA in Homestar Runner is whatever size and sophistication level it needs to be for the current cartoon.
    • This is even parodied in Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People, where Strong Bad can put other Free Country USA landmarks anywhere he wants on the map, and even rearrange them as he sees fit. His own house starts in the middle, but it's just as mobile. In the second game, he makes a new map by drawing on a Risk-like game map.
    • Free Country USA usually appears to be about half a dozen buildings (three houses, the King of Town's castle, the Concession Stand, Coach Z's locker room) in the middle of nowhere, explicitly told not to have roads (or functioning cars), and yet the houses are decently sized, there's utilities, a postal service (and presumably a zip code), Internet access, a few in-story television shows and commercials filmed there, and so forth. Best not to think too hard about it.

Western Animation

  • The Simpsons openly embraces this problem. See Separate Simpsons Geography Thing.
  • The animated show Code Lyoko suffers from this slightly. Most clues to the location of the show put it in France (satellite photos), despite a few episodes contradicting this (such as the visit of a French foreign exchange student). This however, is an artifact of the dubbing and localization process. The town would be specifically Boulogne-Billancourt, in the suburbs of Paris. However, the French version does obfuscate a bit the exact location too, never mentioning any place name (or that the river is the Seine).
  • Kim Possible: Middleton, apparently a fairly small midwestern town, grew and grew and grew.
    • Lampshaded in the season 4 episode "Clothes Minded", when Kim chases Drakken and Shego through a series of increasingly obscure local technical labs that she didn't know Middleton had.
  • Parodied in the first episode of Clerks the Animated Series; when Leonardo Leonardo is opening his new convenience store-slash-shopping mall only a few doors down from the Quick Stop AND his new skyscraper, both Dante and Randall point out how unlikely it is that they wouldn't have noticed such large buildings constructed around them; especially as Leonardo's skyscraper is the only skyscraper in the entire town.
  • Daria: Lawndale is a suburb of Baltimore according to Word of God, but is still perpetually green and within day-trip distance of both deserts lousy with cactus, cowboys, and redneck bars, and mountains subject to sudden blizzards.
  • Dimmsdale of The Fairly OddParents could be its own country for all that happens there, even without Timmy's interference.
    • Fairy Idol reveals Dimmsdale to be located in southern California, in an area east of Burbank but west of Death Valley. However, there is the fictional snow covered mountainous country of "Tibecuidore" that exists in Central America.
    • Dimmsdale is in Imperial County, California, which is at the southeast corner of the state (east of San Diego County and south of Riverside County). Dimmsdale also seems big enough to have a population in the millions, whereas the real Imperial County has a population of slightly over 100,000.
  • South Park is in Colorado. We hear it's a small redneck town, and it did show it more than The Simpsons that it seemed to be so, but, nowadays, it has malls, supermarkets, baseball parks, TV studios, a "little future" time-travellers' district and several fast food chains, both fictional and real, not to mention a plastic surgeon (Tom's Rhinoplasty appears in a lot of background shots). Strangely enough, some locations, such as Stark's pond and Doctor Mephesto's lab, still exist. Fanon states that the South Park docks were built hastily over Stark's pond for the Halloween party.
  • Danville, and even more the Tri-State Area of Phineas and Ferb could be anywhere, but is shown as having mountains, a desert (literally right next to each other), at least three different museums, two malls, a lake, two separate rivers, and docks on the ocean. Not to mention the easy access to landmarks across the country.
  • Teamo Supremo was constantly summoned by The Governor to save the state, but exactly which state the series takes place in is never revealed/stated.
  • Family Guy: Quahog, Rhode Island is seemingly a suburb of Providence (with its skyline in the background), which has a modest metropolitan population of 1.6 million in real life, and a city proper of less than 200,000. Despite this, Quahog has an international airport, a subway system, and other "big city" features that even Providence lacks. Sometimes the small skyline resembles Providence well, other times it looks like a huge sprawling metropolis. Some could argue that some of the scenes take place in Boston, about 40–50 miles away, but most of these big-city scenes do not resemble Boston either. Earlier episodes resembled the real-life area more (Peter Griffin even jumps off a skyscraper resembling one in Providence), whereas later episodes drifted apart from the real-life counterpart, where Quahog has a split personality between small town and bustling metropolis depending on the nature of the plot.
  • Ponyville in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic seems to acquire a system of gem-loaded caves, a really big mountain, a large cliff, and who knows how much other stuff when the episode calls for it.
    • The most egregious example would have to be the sudden hydroelectric dam, skyscraper construction site and deadly unguarded cliffs in "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well".
  • Bikini Bottom from SpongeBob SquarePants is shown to be this, as well. In most episodes it's a typical small town (small towns are usually underwater, right?), but other episodes have shown that it contains a mall, a racetrack, and an Olympic stadium, among other things.