World-Building: Mapmaking

Here’s where the fun starts with your world.  I assume you’ve chosen the type of world to create, whether it’s Earth-like, a waterworld, or a dry world.  All of these need a map.  This section is more important for fantasy worlds, though it is quite useful for science fiction worlds if you’re creating a whole world.

Making a Basic Physical Map

To start off, a simple map will do.  Make the continents first.  But don’t just make them blobs.  They need intricate coastlines.  The more complex, the more realistic.  Look at a map of Earth.  Take a look at coastal regions and you’ll see that they’re not straight lines.  They’re not curves.  They’re very organic looking with lots of inlets and peninsulas.  That’s what you want to draw.


What you need to do next is add the mountain ranges, lakes, and rivers.  Keep in mind that large mountain ranges form continental divides.  The rivers should flow from the mountains, not cut through an entire mountain range from one side to the other.  Mountains aren’t random, either.  What is useful is to create a map showing the tectonic plates, and show the direction of movement of each plate. This will allow you to determine where the mountain ranges go, as well as pinpoint the seismically active regions.  You can indicate where volcanoes are in this step, as well as the mountains.

A Fantasy Reader has an index of maps that shows a long list of fantasy novel maps.  Definitely worth going through for some ideas about style.  The style is up to you.  The easiest is to use a bunch of triangles for the mountains.  Even the best did it.

The map gives you a lot of possibilities for stories, especially if you’re writing a long series.  It also gives you an image of what the world is like.  It’s a very powerful tool.  I love looking at maps in fantasy novels.  I love making them, too.

What I Did

For Ariadne, I did just what I said above.  However, I drew the tectonic plates map after I drew the mountains.  I just imagined how they would be arranged with the mountains already drawn.  But this gave me the idea of where to put the volcanoes and which areas are prone to earthquakes.  I also included some hotspot volcanoes, similar to Hawaii.

Ariadne map editing

I’ve posted the above image before, and this is my work in progress, the map of Ariadne I’m digitizing.  Whether you do the map on paper or computer is up to you.  I prefer doing it on paper.

My map contains four continents and two major oceans with some large bays.  There are also ice caps, but I’ll talk about this on a later mapmaking topic when we deal with climate and ecosystems.  To read more about Ariadne’s mapmaking process, please check out this post.


13 thoughts on “World-Building: Mapmaking”

  1. I used to do my maps on paper, but I got shown a good tutorial for mapmaking via GIMP 2 and have been really liking it. In fact, I might have gone a bit nuts in creating overlays for dozens of topics, but I like having that visual information — it helps me stay internally consistent in my writing. Yay for maps!

    1. Nothing nuts about the overlays. I think it’s a very useful tool to have a lot of information. I agree that it helps you stay consistent.

  2. I once attended a panel where an author revealed that coastal edges scale very well. They said that one of their favorite tricks was to take a section of coastal edge the size of New York City, and enlarge it to represent the entire continent on their fictional world.
    They also advised us to pay attention to latitude, citing that certain types of ecosystem typically only occur at certain latitudes.
    Their last piece of advice was to be mindful of rain shadows, particularly in light of where mountain ranges were located.
    It was a very interesting talk. I often find that the real barrier to learning is not knowing enough key words to ask the right questions, or perform the right searches.

    1. The whole topic is interesting to me. I like coastlines like Norway has, but that can’t be applied to everywhere. Fjords are created by glaciers, which mostly exist at high latitudes. I have fun with it, though. In my maps, I’m not incredibly detailed at the moment, but I’ll be making many more maps with realist coastlines.

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