How to create fantasy maps

Written by jonathan langdon
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How to create fantasy maps
The border is about 1.5cm around

A great fantasy world reminds us of home. If we cannot see ourselves in the world, then it will only ever tickle the imagination without leaving a lasting impression. Fantasy novels sometimes help ground their settings by presenting a map as if to say "Yes, this place is solid". The best way to create a map of a fantasy setting is by taking cues from real world maps. This guide will give you a basic overview of making a simple fantasy map.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Paper
  • Stand-alone eraser
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Pen or marker

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  1. 1

    Draw the border for your map. Traditional maps use the border of the map as a space for art to make the map more appealing. However, the border could also be left blank for the white space. At least three of the sides should have an equal size border.

    How to create fantasy maps
    The border is about 1.5cm around
  2. 2

    Create a grid. Nautical maps use a grid of actual longitude and latitude lines for reference, but a grid works well for land maps too. Whether you decide to keep the grid in the final map, create a grid for guidance while drawing. An ideal grid for reference divides the map area by powers of four ( e.g. four, 16, 64), but the original dimensions of the paper will ultimately decide the grid.

    How to create fantasy maps
    If the grid does not come out evenly, one border can be larger.
  3. 3

    Draw an area for the compass rose. The compass rose defines the directions (north, south, east and west). The style of the compass rose is up to you, but north must be designated. You can refine the art for the compass rose later. For now, a rough sketch is sufficient.

    How to create fantasy maps
    The compass rose adds needed perspective.
  4. 4

    Draw the area for the title of the map. You could place the title within the border, but maps tend to have the title in a corner of the map area. Because you are still sketching the map, the title does not have to be fancy. Draw a place holder for the title and refine it later.

    How to create fantasy maps
    The title box is often the fanciest part of the map.
  5. 5

    Set the scale for your map. Part of setting the scale includes deciding whether or not to have a scale. A global map would rely on longitudinal and latitudinal lines while the map of a village would have a bar representing 500 yards. Consider the area your map will represent, then set a scale if only for reference as you continue drawing. The grid is helpful for perspective in setting the scale.

    How to create fantasy maps
    Many maps use a simple scale bar at the bottom.
  6. 6

    Determine how you will key the map. Think of the directory of your local mall. Depending on the style, stores are marked with numbers while a separate panel describes what each number represents. Larger scale maps usually have the names of areas written within the map. Sample town would have "Sample Town" written across the area for the town's name. However, much like the mall directory, maps noting numerous locations would benefit from having a separate key to avoid names running over each other and cluttering up the map.

    How to create fantasy maps
    Keys can take away or preserve visual appeal.
  7. 7

    Draw the main geographical features of your map. Does your map represent an island nation? A continent? A farming village settled between mountains? Use rough shapes to create the general area of your map. Draw into the borders if you have to for further reference of what lands lie beyond your map. Do not worry about line quality for now. You are still in the rough sketch stage of drawing.

    How to create fantasy maps
    Remember, it does not have to look pretty yet.
  8. 8

    Draw rough areas for major sites on your map. Where is the lake? The capital city? The forest? Use plain shapes to mark the general area of significant locations. Everything else you draw on your map will focus around the major sites.

    How to create fantasy maps
    Keep the areas general for now, refine later.
  9. 9

    Draw the minor sites, roads and rivers. Add locations of interest and major routes to further fill out your map. The roads and rivers should be rough lines for now.

    How to create fantasy maps
    Make sure not to confuse your roads and waterways.
  10. 10

    Refine the artwork for the title, compass rose and border. Work on the title and the compass rose before the border because the border is less important. If you think of them as layers, the title and compass rose are placed on top of the border. Finish the title, compass rose and border in pen before moving on. When the ink is dry, erase the pencil lines underneath and retouch the pen lines if needed. Protractors and templates are helpful for this step.

  11. 11

    Finish the main geographical features. The edges of landmasses on typical maps rarely have straight lines. Use a state or country map for reference as you draw the jagged edges of the landmass.

  12. 12

    Draw in the mountains, water, forest and settlements. On larger scale maps, significant features are given general representations. Mountains are given a number of hills, forests trees and oceans waves. Even towns are given either just a circle or a symbol. Draw enough hills, trees and waves to give the basic idea of the area. Make as few drawings as possible.

  13. 13

    Draw in the major areas of interest. As you are drawing settlements, fortresses or whatever, consider writing in the name of the locale then draw around the letters. General areas are labelled with a name stretched across the area, but smaller areas of interest must be clearly labelled.

  14. 14

    Draw in the roads and rivers, then refine the other elements of your map. Think of real life roads and rivers. They seem straight as you travel along them, but from a higher perspective, roads and rivers are not straight at all. Like the edges of the land mass, use inconsistent lines. Make sure there is an obvious difference between roads and rivers.

    After you finish the roads and rivers, you should erase any remaining pencil marks. With each map you draw, you will refine your technique and skill. The maps you see in fantasy novels and for video games are drawn by professionals, so do not expect to make a spectacular map on the first attempt. Patience and determination will help you make truly fantastic maps.

  1. 1
    How to create fantasy maps
  1. 1
    How to create fantasy maps
  1. 1
    How to create fantasy maps
  1. 1
    How to create fantasy maps
  1. 1
    How to create fantasy maps

Tips and warnings

  • Use a similarly scaled map for reference while drawing.
  • Wear gloves while drawing to prevent smudging.
  • Use a feather brush or compressed air to remove erase leavings.
  • Use parchment and an inkwell pen to give the map an older feel.
  • Use a heavy paper when using ink.
  • If you cannot tell the difference between a fantasy map and a real one, then that is a great fantasy map.
  • Cramming too many details onto a map will kill its appeal.
  • Leaving too many blank spaces will make the map look bland.
  • Drawing a map is more difficult than it looks.

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