How to Create a Map for Your Fantasy World
One of the things fantasy authors end up doing (whether they intended it or not) is creating a physical map of the world they’ve created. It’s become somewhat of a staple for the genre, but in my mind, it’s an essential one. Since we’re dealing with worlds that don’t exist, a map is just another way to visually present it to your reader. But, before you start scribbling out a bunch of mountains and rivers, there are some geographical laws that you should probably think about.
Planets are round.
It’s very easy to focus on one or two continents and then fill the rest with water. For your characters, the world is much bigger than it needs to be, but when it’s drawn on a piece of paper, it suddenly becomes very small. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to map out the equivalent of an entire planet, but it does mean you should give consideration to what might be on the other side. Maybe you imagine it as an ocean, or an undiscovered land mass. Maybe it even occupies legends among the people in your world. Conceptualizing this unseen land can even lead to later books when, suddenly, you need a new place for characters to come from (or go to).
But, don’t think you’re limited to the planet structure. I suggest it because it’s the easiest to visualize for you, and your reader. But there is probably no better example of ‘thinking outside the box’ than Terry Pratchett who decided to make his world a flat disc that balances on the back of four elephants standing on a giant space turtle. If you think that such an absurd concept is un-map-able, then just do a quick search for ‘the discworld’ and you’ll see some truly imaginative artist creations.
Even having a giant turtle on the other side of your world is enough to round it out and create potential storylines you might never have thought of.
Where it’s hot and where it’s cold.
There is a tendency, with fantasy worlds, to follow an invisible checklist. Do I have my desert? Do I have my frozen north? Do I have a swamp? Don’t worry about being cliché if you’ve done this, because these are real environments in the real world. Emulating them is not a bad thing. But you’ll have to give some thought about their placement in relation to each other in your fantasy world. It’s colder near the poles and hotter near the equator. Your fantasy world doesn’t have to mimic Earth perfectly, but there should be some semblance of order (whether magical or otherwise). Again, it’s a very quick and easy way to establish some sense of familiarity for your reader, which they will already be struggling with because this is the first time they’ve been introduced to your world.
The transition from one ecosystem to the next is also important. There isn’t a definitive line between a snowy place and a tropical place. There is all kinds of mixed weather in between. And, while it can seem tedious to map out these areas (particularly if they don’t take center stage in your novel), just remember how useful they might be in the future and how much more credible your map will look. This will also help with city placement later because settlements tend to avoid the harsher climates, but they can easily occupy the milder areas in between to give your character a place to rest, eat, and meet new companions.
As I said, the checklist of environments isn’t a bad thing, but you can get creative with how they integrate with your world. For example, a swamp might force roads to travel out of the way for safe passage. And, people who live in the swamp will act differently than people who live in the mountains. Some of this will be more obvious than others (like forest people versus mountain people). But, villagers who tell your protagonist that they ‘never go into that forest’ are a story in and of themselves.
Weathering isn’t the same everywhere.
One of the mistakes I made when I first created my own fantasy map was putting a canyon right next to a giant lake. You can probably guess why this was a mistake if you have even a passing knowledge of water tables and erosion. And, the reason I made this mistake is because I was going over that invisible checklist I mentioned above. Had it not been a canyon, I might have gotten away with some other land form, but knowing how things erode in each type of environment will help you properly place landforms that are plot specific. The same is true of what is causing that weathering. A place that gets heavy rainfall will be more eroded than a place that is mostly dry (unless it has sand storms). This leads me to another error I made early on since I inadvertently directed a river to flow uphill. We may want to be creative with our maps, but that doesn’t mean we should reinvent how gravity works. Similarly, that water in that river should be coming from somewhere. The rain should be heavy in that area because of something. And that volcano spewing lava should probably be over some kind of hot spot or tectonic activity.
A lot of this might sound like you need some kind of degree in geology, but most of us know this stuff in passing, even if we don’t have all the names for them. The easiest way to check if it makes sense is to ask yourself if such a combination of land forms exists anywhere in the real world.
One of the easiest trump cards when building a fantasy world is magic. Someone might ask, “why is that canyon right next to that lake; it doesn’t make any sense.” To which you would reply “Magic.” While it’s a viable excuse in this particular genre, it can easily be abused. Your patchwork world shouldn’t be held together exclusively by magic, unless you created that concept from the get-go as part of the narrative. Your audience isn’t going to buy it if all of your topographical mistakes are explained away with magic. So, try to use it sparingly and deliberately. If something is off about your world, don’t use magic as an excuse not to fix it.
Having said that, magic is a great resource for creating landforms that can’t exist in the real world. Things like floating islands, portals and underworlds can all be made a part of your world with the help of magic. They too will need explanations, but that falls more into the realm of the creation myth and origin of magic than it does your map. So, it can be designated for a different time.
Towns and cities.
Once you have your landmasses mapped out, you can start placing your settlements. And, I do recommend doing it in this order. You can come up with your settlements before your landmasses, but it might be harder to fit them into the flow of things. But don’t panic if your cities came first. It is possible to integrate them or build around them.
As I said above, settlements tend to favor milder climates, so areas that aren’t too hot or cold will probably house your largest groups of population. Those people (or creatures) that do live in the harsher climates must reflect it, not just in what they look like and live in, but how they act. Settlements are also generally established near places of plentiful resources like rivers, lakes and crop land. The same thought should be given to ruins, which is another staple of fantasy novels. If there are ruins of a city somewhere, there was probably a good reason for it being there in the first place. Maybe a river used to run by it but it was re-routed. Maybe it used to be good hunting ground, but the animals were hunted to extinction. Obviously there are many other reasons a city might have fallen to ruin, but these are just considerations from a geographical perspective. And, once you have all these things in your head, they will influence your designs naturally, so don’t worry about having to write two chapters of exposition about the placement of that river.
Chosen method of illustration.
By now you’ve probably already drawn some sketches of what your world looks like. But, at some point, you might want a nice version that could, conceivably, be put in the book. This is particularly true if you are self publishing and don’t have the money to commission an artist. If you have drawing talent, then I would recommend going that route as a nicely hand-drawn map would be a great addition to any fantasy novel. If you don’t draw so well, then consider taking a minimalist approach using a photo editing program like Photoshop, Gimp, or even MS Paint. The quickest, and easiest, way to do this is by building each component separately. For mine I created a mountain, a treetop, a house and a lake using just the paintbrush, eraser and dodge/burn tool in Photoshop. They might look kind of silly and basic in the example, but bear with me.
- The mountain kind of stands out like a shark’s tooth, but in a more detailed map one could create a gradient of the base color (in my case green) to make it look more like it’s rising up from the land. If working with a colorless map, really all one would need is to create a series of tooth-like shapes that are darker near the top and lighter at the edges, to suggest a similar gradient. Just be aware that, when duplicating mountains specifically, they can sometimes overlap in a funny way. A good rule of thumb is to copy in a downward motion so that the top of the mountain (not the bottom) is visible behind the ones above it.
- The tree I created, which looks kind of like a green potato, was made in such a way that no trunk was visible. I did this on purpose because most maps, fantasy or otherwise, do not depict tree trunks, instead opting to show a forest as one giant mass. Creating just the top of a tree, I made it easier on myself to duplicate it. However, drawing one giant blob will also work, if you know what the parameters of your forest are in advance.
- As for the settlements, you honestly don’t have to create any kind of picture since a lot of maps just use dots or stars to depict cities. You can create a detailed picture for castles and towns, but the bigger the map gets, the harder they will be to see and the more likely they are to look disproportionate in comparison to everything else. Even my little house is way too big to represent one structure. So, I decided to instead use it as a general representation, which is another option if you decide to use a universal settlement symbol rather than a dot or a star. Also, I don’t really recommend depicting roads as they can easily get confused with rivers and quickly make your map look like it’s covered with a spider web. Just remember, while you’re writing, that there are in fact roads there.
- Water is relatively self explanatory, whether it’s a lake, ocean or river. I like to make it darker than the color of the land, so it shows up better in black and white, and I also give it a darker shading around the edges (using the ‘inner glow’ blending option from Photoshop). And, while it can seem like larger bodies of water are ‘blank’ in comparison to everything else, don’t forget that you can add islands, mark off underwater cities or use it as a space to draw a decorative sea monster. Every little touch you add will help to convey the theme of your world and catch the reader’s eye.
After creating my basic shapes, I can now shrink and copy them as many times as I want, building a mountain range, forest, or large settlement. I specifically did it in color first because it’s harder to do it after-the-fact, but doing it in black and white isn’t a bad idea, especially if it’s printed inside a book that otherwise has no color. Once I had everything placed, I added a little bit of shading beneath each to give it some impact on its surroundings. For the first version of your map, I would recommend not using any kind of texture (like grass on the plains or waves on the water). It has a tendency to clutter everything and make text harder to read. Plus, if you do make a color version into black and white, it can muddle everything together. You can see in the first picture I added a bit of sepia tone, and the parchment-like texture was added after it was complete to give it more of a map-look. The most important thing is legibility; there is no point making a map if you and your reader can’t understand it.
Don’t be afraid to rework and expand.
As I said earlier, I made quite a few mistakes on my first go-around. But one of the nice things about having a digital version of your map is that it’s fairly easy to fix or expand. After my initial drawings, my map eventually tripled in size thanks to what I had learned and where new stories wanted to go. Don’t think of your map as something that is unchangeable. Much like the many drafts of your novel, there are going to be numerous edits and re-writes and there is no reason why your map can’t also benefit from this added polishing. Plus, a well plotted map can even help you conceptualize and implement new story ideas you might never have thought of before.