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How to design a map for a fictional fantasy world - simple steps

Updated on December 9, 2012

Map of Alagaesia (Eragon series)

Source

Many books, from The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R.Tolkien to Eragon by Christopher Paolini feature a detailed map of the environment in which the story takes place, be it in middle earth or in Alagaesia. You may be asking yourself "how do i draw a map?" or "how do i create a map without a plan?" If so you will be glad to find that this short and simple guide, uses innovative techniques to draw up a simple, practical and thought provoking map that will get the creative juices flowing and help you write a book. Following a few steps that start simple and allow you to flow into a well thought out map.

Before beginning, If your story takes place on an island or very small continent, draw a wavey line about an inch in from the edge of the paper (or drawing app) for the coast and continue as though that was the edge of the paper for now.


IMPORTANT: if on any occasion you make a mistake or blunder, leave it be, by the end of the day you will have thought of what that mistake may represent, be it a dam in a river or a castle in the mountains. This is key to creating original, innovative maps.

Note that if you are going to name any elements of your map, such as rivers, forests or mountains, you may want to do this at the very end of you map-making, as it will impede the flow of the creative process. (Or of course at another time entirely, but it's nice to do while the map is fresh in your mind and the key features are still in memory )

Step 1:

First, choose a random point (but not the direct center) and draw a line, roughly (though of course it is up to you) 1/3 of your paper width. Then, choose a point on the line, and draw a second line away from the first, these lines will be the core of a mountain range. Shade in (or otherwise) the space around the two lines to show that the mountains aren't as thin as a stick, and you have your mountains.
Repeat if you would like a second mountain range, though this time make the first line a circle.

Step 2:

There are two ways of doing this:

1: (and this is my preferred way) Imagine the mountain range you created in step 1, imagine you're stood on the edge of a specific point of those mountains, looking into the heart of your new world. If you look down, you see a forest spreading away from the base of the mountain before coming to a stop a large distance away.
Try to draw the outline of the exact forest you saw, without making a single change (however tempting it may be) until you have a nice forest or woodland area on your map. This may take a second attempt, and a good visualisation ability.

2: Select a point on your mountain range (i like my forest to run off of the base of my mountains, but if you do not, feel free to choose a non-mountainous area of your map) and sketch lightly the outline of an oval with waved or jagged outlines to create the borders of a jungle or forest. Add a second, smaller oval onto the side, following a similar technique and voila! And if you want, a third or fourth, it's your map after all.


Repeat either step as necessary and don't let it be to square or geometric, no natural forest is any given shape, it flows to the course of a river or sea.

Step 3:

Again, if you have decided to create an island, or small continent, this may not all be needed.
Choose one side of you paper (one with no mountains or forest running over the edge) and move the edge of the paper inwards about an inch or so. this is the coast of your country/continent, add an island or two, feel free to make them round or oval at first and later on modify it slightly until it becomes more of a geographical land-mass than a geometric shape on some paper.

Then, from the side of the mountain closest to the newly founded seafront, draw a large meandering (almost zig-zaging) line across the map until it reaches the sea. Do another from the opposite side of the mountain range leading out of the side of the map into the un-drawn part of your country. These of course are the main rivers, if you want a third add it now.

After the main rivers are done, add a few smaller detachments trailing away from the main rivers or the sides of the mountains and into the world. Some rivers may end without the sea, other may lead to the sea, this is up to you.
Google famous rivers or small water sources and see how they move through the land if you think it will help.

Wherever you feel you have the largest gathering of water, perhaps where two or more rivers cross path or split-up consider forming a lake or dam.

Step 4:

For the last natural element of the map, find the largest unused part of your drawing, away from rivers and lakes if possible. Shade in (or otherwise) the entire area, saving a centimeter or so between any pre-drawn elements (forest, mountains, rivers....)
This is a large desert (or maybe small, depending on your current map) and will be far away from water sources. if you want to name the desert, try to give it a name that is sharp and hard to reflect it's traits. (Though I am no expert on names,)

Step 5:

Once all the natural elements of your map are completed, it is time to add civilization into the mix.First things first, select a location for the capital of an empire, I suggest alongside a source of water (sea, lake or river.) Next add two or three smaller but nevertheless sizable towns in similar locations around the map.

Once the larger towns are present, add smaller towns nearby and down the rivers. Keep in mind plausible trade routes that would have formed (roads/rivers) between these town to supply food and other resources. These may not be in your book, but they will help keep the location of your settlements realistic and accurate.

Step 6:

Now is the time to go over any mistakes that have been made and turn them into innovative and creative landmarks or elements of your book. For example, a thick bit of river may be a dam, or a smudges mountain may be a temple of an older civilization. Whatever your mind comes up with.

Once you have used any mistakes you have made (though if they are plenty full not all must be used) consider re-visiting step 5, and adding small towns near a dam that you added in step 6 or similar.

As you change mistakes into elements of your map, allow the creative juices of your mind to invent a history for your country or legends your character may hear about in your book, all of which adds to the authenticity of your adventure, if the reader feels as though this world has fought many battles and lived through tough times it will engage the reader all the more.
For example if you accidentally smudge a section of map and decide it was a battle-field that no-one ever sets foot in, you can invent an entire historical event surrounding said battle and the outcome.


Do not forget to check the comments section below, as i am sure there will be more suggestions for various features of map design down there. Thank you.

This guide should have helped you draw a map and create a rough history for certain events or landmarks. If you have any suggestion or queries please comment and i will address them swiftly. Thank You.


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    • memymoi profile image
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      memymoi 5 years ago

      Thanks for the comment beata stasak :) I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 5 years ago from Western Australia

      What an interesting spin on Lord of Rings' mapmaking:) Enjoyed a lot, thanks:)

    • memymoi profile image
      Author

      memymoi 5 years ago

      Thanks for the comment saitam :)

      I too spent a long time looking at the maps before reading, it's one of the reasons I made this article. I always like to see a map in a book I read.

    • saitam profile image

      saitam 5 years ago from Lisbon

      I think I will try it someday. I played Civ IV also but I prefer Europa Universalis without turns.

      When I read books like Lord of Rings and Game of Thrones I spent some time just looking at the map and imagine a more realistic map, adapted to Earth.

    • memymoi profile image
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      memymoi 5 years ago

      Thanks for the comment WritingPrompts, and I play Civ IV so often that I'm surprised i haven't thought of that. Definitely in easier option, though could be too large a scale if all you need is a country or something small.

      If you ever get round to drawing one by hand don't forget to check this hub for any additions :)

    • WritingPrompts profile image

      Karen 5 years ago from The Garden of Eugene (Oregon)

      I cheated by using a random map from Civ IV... the game has a world builder with it so you can draw or edit maps too. I was really disappointed when I couldn't find that feature in Civ V. Love your hub. One of these days I'm going to get around to drawing some maps by hand so I can look at them without needing my computer!

    • memymoi profile image
      Author

      memymoi 5 years ago

      Thank you for your feedback M.T.dremer, I agree entirely with what you say as I have fallen into similar pitfalls myself. This is more a first draft guide, for the reasons you have stated, it is fairly likely to cause an unlikely positioning, but with a bit of intuition and luck a good map may come to readers, and I hope this article is of help.

      I hope that people read your comment along with the article and draw from it insightful ideas.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 5 years ago from United States

      I find that it helps to consider real world geology while creating fantasy maps. For example, mountains are likely to occur where the tectonic plates collide, or under volcanic hot spots. And deserts/hot tropical locations tend to occur in a band where the equator would be. Obviously this fantasy world can function differently than Earth, but the idea is to have some form to it. Otherwise you'll end up doing what I did and putting a canyon next to a lake, which makes no sense at all. Some of these things can be explained away with magic, but too many excuses and the world just feels like a mish-mash of ideas. I also think it's important to consider distances. Is your world the size of a county? A State? A Country? A Continent? Knowing this will greatly affect the story because it's unlikely a character could travel an entire continent within the confines of one book (without magic). That was another mistake I had made early on, which caused my entire world to shrink for later drafts. Good suggestions!