Introduction to Creating Fantasy Maps
Updated: Jun 30
Introduction to Creating Fantasy Maps Welcome to an introduction to fantasy cartography, in this article I go over the basic elements you need to consider before creating your fantasy map. I cover everything from artistic style to fonts. This is the first lesson in a series on fantasy cartography.
The style of a map sets the tone for the world that it represents. If you go for stylized that will tell something to your viewer. If it is very realistic that also says something about the world you have created and what you want the viewer to know about your world.
A stylized map is essentially a map that favors artistic style over geographic accuracy. A good example is the Wizard of Oz map. The artistic choices you make in terms of style can really tell you a lot about a world. A cartoon style will convey a less serious tone, whereas something that really emphasizes the cities and castles will show the importance of those locations, versus the spaces in between.
Pros: A stylized map can really set your map apart from others. They are usually more memorable to a viewer/reader. A stylized map can usually get away with including more Easter eggs and little details for readers to find later, a little monster hidden in the woods etc. Stylized maps can also get away with less realistic geography. Cons: Usually stylized maps sacrifice accuracy in terms of geography. The distances between locations is usually distorted and so the map won't serve certain functions as well. A stylized map that doesn't match the tone or setting of your work can really affect the cohesiveness of the story overall.
A realistic map is likely one most readers are more familiar with. These maps go for geographical accuracy and usually don't have as much stylized elements. The accuracy of the map comes first. These kinds of maps are common in fantasy, mimicking the way that we on earth practice cartography.
Pros: A more realistic map will give the readers a very good idea of the scale of your world as well as the distances between locations. Realistic maps are popular and are what many readers are used to seeing in modern fantasy. Cons: A realistic map can lack personality and feel very similar to dozens of other fantasy maps that came before it. A pitfall of realistic maps is that readers will hold you to that standard, as they will be able to tell if your distance measurements are off or if there are glaring errors in your geography. A realistic map definitely requires a lot of attention to detail in terms of measurements.
Shape and scale
Shape There are a lot of different methods to come up with the shapes for the landmasses of your fantasy map.
Imagination: If you have written a story you may have a pretty clear idea of what the landscape needs to look like for what you wrote to make sense in terms of distances and place locations. If you are creating geography from your imagination make sure you know the basics of geography so there aren't glaring errors in your map.
Nature: Finding shapes naturally occurring the world is pretty easy. Anything from the shape of a coffee stain to a cloud can be a good source to get ideas for landmass shapes. Go outside and look around for anything with irregular edges if you are needing some inspiration.
Google Earth: Google Earth is an amazing resource for fantasy map makers. It is my personal favorite when it comes to creating landmass shapes. Zoom in on areas that you are interested in and manipulate the map by rotating the globe for a different perspective. When using this approach really zoom into a location, coastlines are like fractals, they don't lose detail when you zoom in. It is important to be zoomed in enough so that people don't recognize the coastlines and landmasses you are using. I recommend zooming in on the city size level. With this size you can really sample any coastline and it will not be recognizable as a location from Earth. Additionally I like to rotate the globe to get an even more foreign look for my maps.
Minecraft: Yes, Minecraft. More specifically the biome finder app. This app allows you to generate world maps in Minecraft. This tool can be a good way to get some interesting landmass shapes, and even give a more fantasy feel as Minecraft follows its own rules regarding terrain generation. This is a unique resource for interesting landmass shapes or just for coastlines and islands. You will have to do a bit of smoothing on the coastlines because Minecraft is made up of cubes.
When creating a map(and your story) you need to first consider the scale. Are you going to be mapping the entire world, just one continent, country, or a single city?
The map of Middle Earth From Tolkien Lord of the Rings shows a portion of a larger continent which contains multiple countries, and only has a single coastline. Camorr is a good example of a single city map from Scott Lynch's the Lies of Locke Lamora. Roshar, of Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series is one of the best examples of a map that shows the entire world, which is a single super-continent.
Most maps are a chunk of land that encompasses a few countries. The scale of the story really determines the scale of the map. You should not be showing a ton of locations on your map that are not discussed or visited in your story.
The medium of a map is the artistic tool used to create that map which could be a pen and paper or a computer.
A full color painting is a beautiful way to depict a map. One of my favorite examples of this is the map for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. It is entirely paint and this allows for a feel of vibrancy in the world. Going the all paint route can also allow for the greatest amount of realism.
Painting is also extremely versatile, so it allows for a lot of options. You can go realistic, or hyper stylized.
In this case mixed media mostly refers to combining paint and ink. I really like using ink to serve as outlines for my continents and to add my details(trees, mountains, etc). Then I go in with watercolor to add color to my map. There are a lot of possibilities with mixed media that allow for a lot of artistic creativity with your map.
Here is an example of my ink, watercolor and acrylic map.
Pen and Ink
This is the most common medium for maps in fantasy books. Many have an ink map that can easily be printed as it is in black and white. That doesn't mean that ink maps are the simplest. A lot of detail can be captured in ink, and it will give an in world feel to the map as many maps throughout history were made with just ink. Ink can also allow for some cool texture and stylization that can be difficult to capture with paint.
As so many fantasy maps use ink you may struggle with making your map look original. I recommend getting creative with ink techniques to add texture to your world.
Fantasy maps can also be created digitally either with an online map making tool, or by hand in Photoshop or a similar program. This is the area where I have the least experience. Digital can allow you to easily manipulate your map and it is easily the most forgiving in terms of mistakes. However for most of history maps were made by hand, and going digital can lose that handmade touch. A digitally generated map could be good for a sci-fi story as that would reflect the genre well.
Details on a map range from forests and mountains to cities and even elevation lines. The level of detail on a map is usually determined in part by the scale, a world map will have fewer place details than a regional or city map.
With any map you need to decide which details will be shown. Are you going to draw mountains but not forests? How big does a river have to be to get included on the map? These are important things to consider. Most important will be if these details are pertinent to the story.
Here are some common details added to maps: Forests, Mountains, Cities, Castles, Rivers, Towns, Country borders, Disputed borders, Unique locations(a single house etc), Lakes, Seas, Coves, Bays, Roads, Unique terrain(unusual geographical formations), Marshes, Deserts
This list could be a lot longer but this is just to give an idea of the kinds of things that can be included on a map. Lets look at the map of Roshar again. This is a world scale map that shows country borders, mountains, major cities and rivers. However if you look closely you will see that a special location is labeled, the Shattered Plains. This location is very important to the plot of the story, and is unique terrain. It shows a good example of when a special location should be included even if you are making a map on a large scale.
Fonts are important. They can set the tone and style for an entire map. Furthermore they must be legible from at least some distance. Labels are no good if you can't read them. Most maps in books have the labels added digitally after the art is complete. A font choice can make or break a map. Imagine the map of Westeros of George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, being labeled entirely in comic sans(it isn't pretty). Look at the font styles of maps that you like and find something similar to use on yours.
Hand lettering is also an option, one which I prefer. I think that hand lettering gives the impression that an in world map maker created the map. Computer fonts can give a digital feel to a beautifully handcrafted map. Hand lettering is a good deal more difficult. It is something that not many artists learn, and can take some practice to master. If you are going to hand letter a map you need to be very consistent in lettering style and size to pull it off. I think that hand lettering is worth it for the final result. Tolkien's map for Lord of the Rings is an amazing example of hand lettering in a map. Tolkien's maps are beloved in part because they feel like maps that you would find in middle earth, that is due in part to the hand lettering.
You also need to decide what on your map will be labeled. Will you only label countries and their capitols? Or is every forest river and mountain range going to need a label. This relates back to the level of detail on your map. It is critical to label locations that are relevant to your story, the rest are technically optional(although I wouldn't leave countries un-labeled). There is a lot more to discuss about fantasy maps, which I will cover in future lessons. These are the big picture things that you should think about before you start designing your map. In later lessons I will get into more fantasyish elements involved in maps as well as the actual art of creating the maps.