How to make & design fantasy maps

Written by mark keller
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How to make & design fantasy maps
Maps have a strange attraction that sparks imagination and mythmaking. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Making a map is one of the most important steps in fantasy world-building. The locations of natural features and the relative positions of countries and cities play an important part in the development of both culture and climate. If you're writing a story about characters in this world, knowing where they are and where they will go is just as important. Even if you're not an artist, don't be afraid of drawing a fantasy map: There's no need for anyone else to ever see it, and it will be invaluable for the ongoing development of your fantasy world.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

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  1. 1

    Study maps of all varieties. The best way to learn is by observation. Look at modern and ancient maps of the Earth and individual countries. Maps from antiquity or the Middle Ages are particularly useful in designing a fantasy map. Have a look at other authors' fantasy maps, as well, particularly those by J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Weis, Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan.

  2. 2

    Sketch the basic shapes of your world or kingdom. Rough rectangles and ovals will do, allowing you to visualise the relative position of the various people groups or terrain types on your map.

  3. 3

    Determine a style for your map. For example, a modern realistic map depicts mountains roughly the way they look from space, while Tolkien's maps show them as a series of pyramid shapes. Mountain ranges in real medieval maps, on the other hand, often looked like the serrated ridge on the back of a dinosaur. The scale of your map is also important: a small map of any sort can show individual buildings, but they will only appear on a large map that is very stylised.

  4. 4

    Draw the coastline, if your map contains one. Use squiggly lines and a shaky hand to reflect the natural curves of a real coastline, unless this doesn't match the topography of your world. Create bays and peninsulas to give even greater shape to the coast. Add some islands offshore, if you like, and draw any inland bodies of water as well.

  5. 5

    Add any mountain ranges. In the real world, such ranges usually go in the same direction as the coastline, but if the geology of your world is different, feel free to ignore nature. Draw rivers and streams, originating in the mountains or other high ground and travelling downhill to the sea, a lake or another river.

  6. 6

    Draw other terrain features if you so desire, adding in information about the climate, major flora and fauna or other important natural phenomena. The forests of a typical fantasy map fall under this category, but don't limit yourself to what has been done before.

  7. 7

    Add in the artificial landmarks created by man, elf-kind, aliens or other intelligent life. Draw cities, major roads, towns, castles, bridges, fortified walls, canals, mines or even individual buildings, depending on the scale of your map. Give them all names. Draw political and cultural boundaries and name the regions, nations, states, satrapies, parishes or counties so divided.

  8. 8

    Break all the rules. This is your own fantasy map, so there is no need to conform to the conventions of either Tolkien or Rand McNally unless you have a good reason to do so. If your world contains natural or man-made features that are unprecedented in the history of cartography, draw them on anyway.

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