Worldbuilding—Constructing a Map

As you’ll know if you follow this blog, I’m a fan of the art of worldbuilding—that act of creating a fictional setting, be it for fantasy, science fiction, or anything in between. It serves as an outlet for creativity and as grounds for collaboration. Many of our favorite tales are set in grand worlds with complex nations and exotic locations. A month ago, I published a post concerning the art of worldbuilding, specifically the creation of fictional nations and cultures. Today, I’ll be exploring another side of the art: the highly artistic side of creating a physical representation of your world.

For some time now, I’ve had a keen interest and fascination with fantasy maps. They tend to pop up in the books I like to read—those by authors like Sanderson, Tolkien, and Martin. When I read the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, I found myself wishing for a map of the world Atwood was developing. So I hit the internet, and eventually found that map, which hadn’t been present in the book.

I believe we have been brought up to be attracted to maps. We use them so often, and tend to take them for granted. (Of course, this is but one of the many things we take for granted now with the internet at our command.) Maps were first developed incredibly early and date back far in human history; many different representations of the earth were created before we finally settled on something we could call universal. It is safe to say that we depend on maps, as our ancestors have for hundreds of generations. Maps hold a great deal of weight in society, and in politics as well. The cartographers of older nations often worked to make their land appear larger that that of other countries. The first known map to have been recorded, dating back to 600 BCE, was a Mesopotamian clay tablet. The tablet depicted Babylon as the centerpiece of the known world, bisected by the great Euphrates River and surrounded completely by the ocean. While perhaps not containing great bias against other nations, this early map still worked to make its empire appear greater than it actually was; many other instances of such biases are known.

The accurate portrayal of the world is an incredibly challenging task. But all this is to say that we still heavily depend on maps. We know them, and many of us are drawn to them. They simplify what is otherwise incredibly intricate and complex, and that which is otherwise hard to comprehend.

When this concept is combined with a vibrant imaginary world and the journeys of developed characters, we—and I do hope I speak not only for myself—begin to get excited. We ask questions, pointing: What does that city contain? Often we’ll see more than is elaborated upon in the story. This will lead us to wonder, and to imagine. What horrors could await the characters within the next installment? The mere idea of new adventure and unexplored territory makes us exited.

If you’re writing a fantasy tale, you may wish to create your own map to accompany the physical progression of your characters and to represent the distance between locations. Or you may simply wish to create one because you find the idea exiting. Or because you consider yourself to be artistic and wish for a new means of channeling your passion for art.

Here’s a map I drew shortly after I first became invested in the art of worldbuilding. The original purpose of the map matters not.

Though perhaps appearing complicated at first (and don’t quote me on that—there are far, far superior and more complex fantasy maps out there), all I really needed was an incredibly basic understanding of how rivers flow and a 15-minuet tutorial on how to draw Tolkien-esc mountains. (You can find that tutorial here, but don’t feel obligated to: mountains can be as simple as sets of triangles.) Then I spent some time coming up with names that sounded like they came from another world, and got a little creative with the coastlines.

There are an array common mapmaking mistakes to be aware of. The idea of the splitting river, for example, is something that often irks cartographers. Rivers very rarely split; they far more often come together, flowing from the high ground of a mountain or hill and coming together into larger rivers where the land is lowest. Another mistake is that of the solitary mountain. Mountains form in ranges, most commonly as a result of the shifting of plate tectonics. There are other pitfalls to be discussed, however that is not the primary purpose of this post. My main purpose here is to give you a little inspiration and some ideas to consider, and to convey what I believe is “cool” about the art of fantastical cartography.

Here’s another map I made, this one more recent. I elaborated on the idea of mountain chains by deciding that the main chain continued into the sea, making for a scattering of islands with sharp peaks. The central piece of land folds over the range, with rivers running down through valleys on both sides, eventually out into the sea. The whole idea behind the map was the significance of the islands: I imagined that each small isle was ruled over by a completely different nation, with each battling for control over different parts of the mainland.

In worldbuilding—and this is no different when it comes to creating maps for your world—elaboration is key. Use what you know to create realistic geographical circumstances, then combine these ideas in interesting ways. See how these features will affect how you build your cultures. Some people like to build their world out from a map, using geographical effects to determine how their nations are shaped. (The borders of countries and states, for instance, are often placed on rivers.) Others like to start from smaller locations, working their way through building their base setting before placing cities on a map. You certainly don’t have to be a geographer to make this work. Choose the method you think you’ll do best with, and spend as little or as much time as you’d like. Anything from a basic display of your story’s locations to a full-blown planet with every nation marked will do just fine.

Here’s one more example—this one depicts a mountain chain that is uniquely stationed away from the mainland. The chain provides protection for the southeastern coast from enemy vessels, but it also blocks rain winds, leaving that coast relatively bare and desert-like. The rivers on the mainland flow from mountains into valleys, and eventually out into the sea. Trade might be most common where two nations stand on the same river, or along the same coast. (Seafaring was incredibly important as an early means of trade between kingdoms; this fact alone can provide a hearty jumping-off point for the development of fantastical nations.)

Each of these maps was created using a basic #2 pencil and a sheet of blank paper. If you’d like to view a sped-up version of my process, you can do so here. There is a great deal of software out there which you can use to similar ends, but it’s important to remember that you need near nothing to create an effective representation of your world. Try not to hold yourself to standards provided by published works—chances are, a professional artist was hired to re-create the map in the process of publication. There will always be time in the future to share, develop, and improve upon your map.

The opportunities are endless. In the art of worldbuilding, you are god. So what are you waiting for?

Published by J. Dan Goodberry

Writer, blogger, composer of music and fan of the genres of fantasy and historical fiction.

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