Anybody Have A Map?

by Kipp Miller

Do you have a story set in a different world? Do you need a map for this fantasy world? In this article, you’ll learn how to draw a story-based map of your fantasy world. To use this method, it is assumed that you have some idea of where you want nations, cities, or any landmarks. All you’ll need for this project is a ruled notebook, a pencil, and a sheet of white paper.

detailed large map of city berlin. 3d illustration, photo credit: Unsplash
  1. Start with bubbles

To begin, open up your ruled notebook and draw “bubbles” where you think you want different things to go. These bubbles should take on odd shapes as you plan out geopolitical regions. Sketch a first draft; likely you won’t be entirely happy with where you put at least one thing. You can either correct the problem on that page or flip to another page and start again, correcting anything you didn’t like. Do this until you have an outline you completely like.

Let’s say you’re writing about Dave from Mador and he needs to get to Botor, but those nations don’t share a border so he must go through Edor. You also want Botor and Edor to be separated by a mountain range. Finally, you want a large unexplored desert to the south of Mador. You might make a map like this.

  • Refine the bubbles

Now that you’ve settled on a general layout of the nations, it’s time to refine the bubbles to get a better idea of what these countries will look like. Make more defined borders and shapes out of your bubbles. You can also add significant landmarks in this step.

For the story of Dave, you want Mador to be significantly larger than Edor; Edor only exists as a barrier between the more powerful nations Botor and Mador. Also, the desert is connected to a larger landmass that has Botoran colonies, so the desert should curl up to be closer to Botor, but also has a large bay. The mountain range continues through a chain of islands. For landmarks, you want Dave to come from Dunville, a village in northern Mador, and he must cross the Devil’s River to enter Edor. Finally, Dave rides the Ice River into Botor. The refined map may look like this.

  • Draw Coastlines

Now you will break out that pristine white sheet of paper. Draw jagged lines roughly following the blueprint of your refined bubble map. It’s important that you include variations, like peninsulas and bays while you do this because they add realism to the coastline. If you finish the coastline and realize you need more peninsulas and bays, erase small sections of the coast and add them.

  • Add Mountains

Mountains are one of the most important geographical markers in map-making. Since you predetermined a mountain range between Edor and Botor, that one is easy, but there should be more than one mountain range in your world. Mountains should appear in ranges, but a volcano may exist without neighbors. Mountains can often be found on or near coastlines, and while this is an easy rule to apply, there is no problem with placing mountains inland. There are many ways to draw mountains for your fantasy map, but that’s a subject for another article. For this map, you’ll use triangles that are shaded on one side.

Now is also a good time to add islands. Islands add another element of realism to your map. They appear off peninsulas, in bays, and trailing off mountain ranges.

  • Add Rivers and Lakes

Rivers always flow from high points to low points. If a river starts from the ocean and ends at the ocean, it’s a strait and the landmasses on either side are separated. Furthermore, rivers rarely (if ever) diverge but always converge because they are seeking the lowest point. This is a simple rule that fantasy mapmakers often forget. So, rivers should start in the mountains (high points and water sources) and end at lakes or the ocean. Bays are good places for rivers to end. How it gets there is more or less up to you, as long as it makes sense. Also, if a lake drains through a river, likely it will only have one drainage point.

With these things in mind, you can add rivers and lakes. For example, there is the Devil’s River and Ice River. After that, rivers and lakes can be added wherever it makes sense. In the desert, there should be few rivers and lakes.

  • Add Forests

The next step is to plant forests in well-watered areas. Like mountains, there are multiple ways of drawing forests, but that’s unimportant. Forests can be found anywhere there’s sufficient water and in any size. Throw some forests in and see how it looks (If you have forests that are relevant to your story, place them first).

  • Add Towns.

People settle where there are resources and trade opportunities. This is why many towns are built on rivers and coasts. Towns may also be built at the feet of mountains for the opportunity to mine. Large cities, like nations’ capitals, should be built on accessible rivers. Smaller towns should be built on tributaries or between large cities.

Dunville will go near Devil’s River, and we’ll put Mador’s capital on one of the southern rivers. Botor’s capital will be on a northern river. Edor doesn’t have a capital. The Botoran colonies will be built on the rivers, coast, and the lake.

  • Name Things

Name all towns and name mountain ranges. Name a few rivers and forests. Name bodies of water. Maybe name a few islands. Name regions. You can come up with names on your own or use a generator.

Congratulations, you now have a map for your story! Maps can help you stay geographically consistent in your storytelling and help the audience visualize where characters are and where they are going. Start with what you want where you want it, and refine it until it’s a realistic fantasy map.

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