I love browsing the fantasy and science fiction sections of bookshops. One of the first things I look at when I leaf through a fantasy book is the map. As much as it irks me to say it, the map (or lack thereof) has a big impact on my initial impression of the book. It really shouldn’t. There are plenty of good books with no maps, and books with great maps and rather plain stories. I just can’t help it! I have a thing for good fantasy maps. Do you remember when you first read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings and you looked at one of Tolkien’s amazingly detailed maps? A great moment. It’s the first inkling you get that this world he has created has real depth and history to it.
A good map instills a sense of awe and wonder. It lets you know what kind of fantasy world you’re dealing with and it fills your head with ideas and thoughts about what might be going to happen and what experiences the characters will have at given locations. “Look at that shadowy place with a volcano and a skull next to it! Bet that’s where the bad guy lives. And those are some nice mountain bumps right there. Mmmmmm yeah… mountain bumps.”
I like following along on the map as the characters go walkabouts. Often this means madly switching back to the front of the book regularly to get my bearings and study the map – but it’s well worth it. Patrick Rothfuss played a cruel trick on readers like me. He endlessly mentions town names and locations but has all the names completely hidden on the actual map. You have no idea where the Waystone Inn is. You don’t even know where he spends his childhood being tutored by Ben! Oh yeah, that’s right, The Commonwealth. You flick to the map and it takes up a quarter of the entire freakin’ continent. What is with that!? Of course, his books are still brilliant. One of my main motivations for getting the 10th anniversary edition of The Name of the Wind was to view the detailed maps and notes on world-building.
Then of course you have the maps that are works of art. They are just plain nice to look at (see below).
For a lot of the creative types out there, the map and layout of the world is an integral part of the world-building process and helps readers learn a bit more about what you have created. If you’re anything like me (maybe someone out there is?), you will be doing some world-building of your own. For some this is just daydreaming now and then, and for others it will be getting all your ideas down on paper and thinking through the details and history of your world. And maybe you will even write a book or make some art that is inspired by your world-building. I can’t write. But I still enjoy world-building and I do this by creating maps, making up the history, and filling it with people and stories. I failed horribly at hiding this secret hobby of mine from Mrs. NW haha!
I have experimented with a few different methods for creating maps. I am by no means an expert, in fact I’m rather useless actually. It is all a work in progress though. I am hoping to make the perfect map one day and rest assured I will be posting it on here if I ever manage it! I started out doing hand drawn ones and have recently started dabbling in some of the software that is available out there. Of course the professional artists will just create theirs from scratch using their magical digital art skills. This is probably the best route if you want the best and most epic outcome, but it’s not very convenient as you’ll have to spend thousands of hours becoming a competent artist. For us mere humans, the following info might be somewhat helpful.
Hand Drawn Maps
My four year old son spends his days jumping around pirate ships (which are actually just couches) and finding treasure (his green toy box). The most important thing you need when finding treasure is a quality treasure map. He is always demanding that I draw him new treasure maps. I use tea-staining to make it look like the map has been taken form some old wizard’s archives. Below is a recent example of one such map I drew. This one is fairly simple and light on detail because they tend to get shredded pretty quickly on the pirate ships in our lounge as they get attacked by sharks on a fairly regular basis that must be swatted away with cutlasses and pistols.
Some little tricks I have picked are to use a border (you can even make it fancy with patterns and artwork), keep things simple where possible, and make the compass-thingy-majiggy look as badass as possible. You can also scan your map onto your computer and add interesting fonts which can be very challenging to do by hand.
There are quite a few options out there for map-making software. The two that I have found the easiest to use are AutoRealm and Campaign Cartographer 3+. AutoRealm is free but CC3+ will cost you some of your hard-earned pirate treasure. These ones are designed for people to design their fantasy roleplaying maps (D&D etc.) and the best part is you can mostly just pick things from a menu and point and click to create your maps. Using software does mean you can create maps relatively quickly in comparison to hand-drawing and it is also easy to add lots of detail. It can however be infinitely frustrating when you are trying to do something simple, like delete a tree, or work out why all your symbols have suddenly become gigantic. It can also be difficult to capture the kind of art style you’re going for as you are stuck with what they provide. See below two examples of CC3+ maps I have created which took about an hour each with very little learning involved. Please ignore the lame placeholder names!
The more you learn with CC3+, the better your maps look. Especially if you know how to touch things up in Photoshop later. I am new to this sort of thing but I expect my maps to look much better as I learn to use the software to its full potential. AutoRealm is older and somewhat limited by comparison. The makers of CC3+, ProFantasy Software Ltd, also sell software for making city maps, galaxy maps and even planet maps too. I haven’t looked into all of them yet but I expect I will at some stage. The map below is a good example of the potential of ProFantasy map-making software.
I plan to revisit this topic once I have mastered the art of digital map-making. I hope this has been interesting and somewhat helpful for anybody out there who is thinking about trying to make fantasy maps. If there are any experts out there please feel free to share your knowledge in the comments section below.
Have you got any examples of epic maps from books? Are any of you working on making maps of your own?