Fantasy Maps

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.

Map MiddleEarth

Most would agree that Tolkien’s maps are fudgin’ cool

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).

Map Lockwood

A very pretty map by Todd Lockwood

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.

Tea Stained

Plastic dagger and chocolate coins added for dramatic effect

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!

Black Alchemist 3Black Alchemist 2

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.

CC3+ Map

Ohhhhhh fancy! Much better than mine haha. You can find this map and others here –

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?








38 thoughts on “Fantasy Maps

  1. Sounds like you are having a lot of fun doing this. Glad you found some programs do help you out so you don’t have to do it all by hand. That just makes my hand cramp up thinking about it.

    I never look at a map in my books. I’m reading along and the characters are in the Godrobi hills. Great. Next thing I know they’re in the Tarthenal plains. Great. Then they end up in the Seti jungles. Great again.
    I think it is too much detail for me to figure out where they are in relationship to the rest of the world 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Me too, I never spend more than a glance or two looking at the map before I start the book. Especially in an ebook it is too difficult to keep switching back and forth. I feel like it takes me out of the story rather than enhance it.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Yeah, fair enough. The story is definitely the most important part. When I really got into a series I used to want to learn as much about the world and setting as possible and that led me to start looking at the maps more closely. I think that’s how it all began…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really nice reading. I am also fascinated by maps, probably since childhood, and in my writing attempts, I got really better perspective when I drew my own map. Well, calling it map is probably insult given my drawing skills…
    Anyway, you are also right that they are helpful. My alpha reader asked me for a map when the main character started traveling – with me being slightly embarrassed, because I promised a map like half a year before…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sounds as though we are alike! I was also fascinated by maps as a kid. My grandparents would buy me atlases and globes and I would try and trace the outlines of countries. I’m hoping that my drawing skills will improve so I can eventually make the maps I have envisioned.

      Have you had a crack at making one for your alpha reader?


      1. I made the sketch mostly for myself several months ago, and only did some quick adjustments (like adding notes) for the alpha reader as it was still incomplete. Which made it quite weird mix of pencil sketch with poorly hand-drawn markers in mspaint.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Mr NW, having read your previous post where you mentioned mapping/cartography, you got me interested! As a Star Wars fan it occurred to me that a lot of the planets we see and read about lack maps. We hear and read about Mos Eisley and The Jundland Wastes (on Tatooine) but I don’t recall any maps showing their locations in relation to each other. So I have taken on the task of creating a map for the planet Bal’Demnic which has been mentioned in canon material and is the main planet I write about in my Jedi character’s backstory. When I have something to share I will post links…just trying out some of the free software options online.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Hello again, I have downloaded a copy of AutoREALM and I already had GIMP (freeware clone of Photoshop) and have started a map. I’ve already discovered that I am going to have to use both software packages.
        I am going to create a line drawing (black/white) of the map in Auto, then save and copy the image to GIMP to add the landmass colours and water so I can blend the colours to create contours. I’ll then save the coloured base image.
        Then using Auto again I can place all the icons onto the line drawing and position them where I want, then save that image (still with a white background). The next step is to add the AutoREALM image as a transparent layer onto the coloured GIMP base image (I can set GIMP to erase the white background of the new layer so it is transparent) And hopefully the two layers will line up.
        Once that is done I should have a coloured, contoured base with the AutoREALM icons on top.
        All I then have to do is add the labels, legend, border frame and oh yes, I might add a few whisps of cloud! I’ll get back to you with it as soon as I can!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I started working on a map for my story, because I need it for tactical purposes. Kinda hard to write out battles and strategy without clear geographical details. Honestly, it’s not my thing, creating maps. If anyone wants to volunteer for the task, then step right up! 😜

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes. I tried map generators online, but that didn’t work out for me, so I’ve done a hand drawn one for one of the dark elven kingdoms. I’d be glad to include maps in my books if I can get someone else to do them for me. My own attempts aren’t up to par.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A crucial thing you need to ensure with fantasy maps is to add places that never occur in your story. Maps that only have the places that are visited by the reader kind of destroys some of the magic. I need to be kept guessing – “what about this town over here on the edge of the map? Is it important? Or a red herring?”

    Liked by 3 people

  6. The maps of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were my first introduction to this wondrous art-form. 🙂

    Technical question: Do you consider geographical/geological info when you’re plotting out your maps? (perhaps not the pirate ones 😀 ) Things like tectonic plate movement, soil erosion creating river deltas, etc. I once saw a map that had a river flowing up over a mountain range that was permanently encased in ice. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always try to be as accurate as possible with my geographical/geological stuff. I even used to draw out the plates first before putting the landmasses on the page which would help me plan out where mountain ranges will go etc. There are some guides out there about how to incorporate these things which I am going to try and use more when I make more maps.

      Was the river flowing up a mountain powered by magic or something?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a lovely post!
    For someone who contracted the “map virus” at an early age (thanks, Professor Tolkien!) this was indeed a delightful read, and I love that you and Mrs. NW both are teaching your son to love maps – by the way, the pirate map is amazing!
    And now I’m going to take a look at that software… 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I love maps and also refer to them constantly. Your handmade treasure map is awesome, and I can imagine it improves all pirate-couch adventures. It’s very Tolkienesque! I use Campaign Cartographer and have used it for about 8 years. I find it fairly easy to pick up and there are great tutorials on Youtube (which is how I learned it). I hadn’t considered further photo-editing and that is a GREAT idea. Thanks!

    The main challenge I have is getting the right balance – enough information but not so crowded it’s tough to read. Ebook screens are dinky and map details tend to get really small fast. In the Wheel of Time series, Jordan had a large map and then smaller close-ups throughout the book as the story focused on certain areas. I’m considering trying this for my WIP. Lots of map-making ahead. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Good information, I have just started my own web novel and am in dire need for a map. It helps the writer very much indeed because most of the information is displayed on one page. Those software recommendations are perfect for fantasy writers like me.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I just adore maps, and I make my own for my own novels! You have great feedback here on how to make a good map of your own! I tend to simply draw on paper, then distress the paper either digitally or manually.
    P.S. I feel you. My heart just flutters when I see a decent map in the front or back of a book. Tolkien was by far one of my favorites!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve always thought that the map is very important for any fantastical world as well, though I don’t refer to them as I read like you do. I read the book, them stare at the map for hours piecing the events together.
    I’m actually writing a fantasy story myself, and I have found mapmaking to be essential for the process. I’m nowhere near as good as you, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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