World-Building Website by Daniel-André Sørensen

The Personal Website of Daniel A. Sørensen

 

||  Part One - In the Beginning  ||  Part Two - Mapping the World  ||

 

I was a map-maker long before I started calling myself a world-builder, although one can easily argue that the two are, more or less, the same thing.


I would doodle maps in a small notebook, which I also used to write about my adventures in Heroes III. Eventually I moved on to A4, and drew made up worlds from my imagination. Some were quite original. Some weren't. Some were just plain awful, but, of course, I didn't think so at the time.


I was about ten or eleven or so. I can’t quite remember exactly when I started, or why I started drawing maps. Something about it was just very enjoyable to me. It was a fun hobby, which I ended up forgetting about for a few years later before I eventually picked it up again around the age of eighteen or so. At this point I wanted to be a professional writer, and I had observed that many books contained maps of their worlds.

“Well, me too” I said. “I too shall have maps of my world”.


And so restarted a hobby which, later devoid of a purposeful wish to write books, just evolved from there. Over the last few years I’ve gotten quite decent at making maps. So much to the point where I actually now feel comfortable giving some advice and pointers in regards to map-making, which is what I intend to do here. I find that maps are the perfect way of visually sharing one’s world, rather than expressing it through text, which, let’s be honest here, can often be dull to read.


Again I would like to profess how I am not a professional, but simply an enthusiast on the subject. There are also many different ways of drawing maps, which teach the various styles and methods of map-making. 


I’ll be sharing from my own experiences and my own thoughts on map-making, and I’ll be trying my best to not exactly teach you a singular, chosen way of map-making, but rather give you a guided path you can choose to follow until it branches off into your own path. I’m not making tutorials here, as I’m more interested in providing useful tips for those of you who aren’t so savvy at the whole cartography business. I simply don't do hand-holding, step-by-step tutorials.


To many of you this will be the most important post I write in this series. This will all be very lengthy, but there's a lot to cover, so bear with me. Hopefully what I'm about to reveal and explain below here will be a valuable and insightful read for you world-builders and cartographers out there.

the first version of my world, Tariel, 2001,
when I was eleven years old

 
 

SOME MAP EXAMPLES

 
 

C A R T O G R A P H Y , H O !

So the question at hand is this: how do you bait interest from would-be fans and onlookers? 


How do you get them to become interested, even invested in your world? It has to start from somewhere, and while you can write an entire book about your world with ease, it’s not typically the greatest way to introduce your world to potential fans. We live in an age now where people aren’t usually very interested in reading a lot, so the trick is to find a hook that draws them in. Writers will teach you that it’s all about the introduction, those first few sentences, if not paragraphs of words that are important. This is definitely true, but your introduction doesn’t have to consist of text alone.


So what do you do? You provide your readers with a visual representation of your world. In other words; you give them a map. Maps are, in my opinion, the greatest gateway for your world, as they provide a simple yet effective way of showing your world to (at the lack of a better word) the World without having to go too far in depth. Generally speaking, people respond better to images than they do to text, or at least initially so.


All worlds should have a map of some sort. It doesn’t have to be detailed to the smallest stone, as long as it gives a comprehensive understanding of your world’s shape, appearance and sense of being. Your world’s map could be as small and simple has only showing a small city or minor region, to showcasing entire continents or even clusters of various solar systems.


Another good use for a map is, and I think this is rather important for a world-builder, is to lay out and maintain an overview for yourself. It’s easy to get lost and forgetful if all your work and ideas are contained within text documents or, worse, your mind alone. They say that every time you remember something, it gets gradually altered each time you do so, eventually to the point where it’s nothing like what you initially planned it to be like.


By utilizing a map of your own making, you’ll have a quick and easy way of viewing your world for when you need to gain a general picture of it. Building an image in your head from text and imagination is fine too, but a map gives you a definite answer to any geographical questions you (and your peers) might have of your world. Fantasy Writer Tamora Pierce said "With each book, in each place, I have to keep an ongoing map as I write because otherwise I don't know where I am".


You don't have to put down all of your ideas into your map to begin with. You can easily just add to it later when necessary. My typical method is to draw a world map, then develop its regions later on through regional maps.


There are many, many types of different maps out there, all of which have their own style, purpose and quality. You don't need a extremely pretty map to make use of it, although, admittedly, it does help if it is visually appealing. I won't be teaching you specifically how to draw maps, but I will be giving some guidance based on my own experiences and observations.


Below I’ll mainly be focusing on overland maps of a Fantasy persuasion, since those are the ones I most frequently make use of. My program of choice is Photoshop when I create maps, but you can usually just use whatever program you wish to utilize, as long as you know that you can make maps with it. I also have in my possession an Intuos drawing tablet, which is quite useful, but before I got one I easily just drew maps with a mouse.

 
 

when I make maps, these are the points I tend to go through:

Size & Lines, Shapes & Sketching, Style & Colour, Coastlines, Climates, Mountains & Rivers, Vegetation, Settlements & Fonts, Map Features

 
 

SIZE & LINES

The first thing you might want to settle is the business of the size of your map.


This is all dependent on how large your world is, or how much of your world has been explored by its inhabitants. Larger maps take a lot of time to make, even if there’s not a lot of detail, and a huge map with little detail often comes off as quite bare and boring. So essentially you should be careful about overdoing and underdoing it. A small to medium sized map is more or less just as effective as a huge one. Though again, it all depends on the size of your world and what you might think is important to convey through its size.

Another aspect which you might want to put some consideration into are your lines, which I typically just call outline. A lot of, let’s say amateur maps have a tendency to draw lines that are either too sharp or too smooth. It wholly depends on what kind of map you want to make, but generally speaking it is a lot more visually appealing if your outline covers a more realistic shape.


The illustration to the right shows some common lines. The first (1) has some rather sharp turns, the second (2) some very smooth lines, whilst the third (3) is far more squiggly and erratic. Try to find a balance between the three, depending on how close to the map you want to draw. Maps that portray a larger landscape, like entire continents or so, tend to have longer lines of smooth, with the occasional sharp, erratic turns. Up close maps are the opposite.


As a general rule, the closer the view is of the map, the more erratic the lines should be, and vice versa.

 

This is all also dependent on the style you're going for. Who drew this map? Maps are often drawn from the perspective of an inhabitant of your world, so it should likely reflect the skills and style of that inhabitant, which I'll get more into later down the line.

 

SHAPES & SKETCHING

 

Your world needs a shape. Otherwise you’re just drawing a map of nothing: a blank piece of paper. 


You’ll want to create a shape that somewhat makes sense, doesn’t look too silly and is appealing to look at. In other words, if you want to really garner attention for your map and world, you should invest time in creating a shape that draws interest; something cool and, even better, unusual. This is all of course very subjective, so ideally you should just shape your world in a way that you yourself won’t dislike it. In the end it’s all about what you want to do, and not what others want.


There are many different shapes, but I’ll be mainly highlighting the below three, as I find these are the most relevant and the ones that cover the most bases.

 

Revealed

Your most common maps, usually ones that portray the entire world, are often Revealed. Basically this just means that you can see all there is to see of your world’s geography. There are some variations to this typical shape, where you show the majority of the world but hide smaller parts of it. Perhaps there’s an undiscovered continent hiding somewhere at the edge of the map, or one of your islands or continents have portions of them where explorers have yet to reach. But generally speaking, your Revealed map will more or less show everything your world has to offer.
 

Terra Incognita

A Terra Incognita map only shows a small area of your world at large. A great example is Middle-Earth, which takes place in a very small portion of the larger world. If you find the time to look up the entire map of Middle-Earth, you’ll find that there is a massive world outside of the usual little square from the books, films and games.

These types of maps are often preferred for regional maps which portray nations or smaller regions of your world, and as such they are also usually more detailed than larger maps that showcase entire continents.

 

Free Design

A Designed map is where you can just let your imagination run wild. Here you don’t need to think about logic and sense, since your world is exactly the shape you want it to be. Does your world take place on the back of a giant turtle? Perhaps it is a world where there are several circular islands, or it’s a world consistent purely of geometrical shapes? Your imagination is your limit. These types of maps often entail worlds that are entirely magical, such as planar realms or worlds not bound by natural laws.
 

Before you start drawing your world's shape, I strongly advise that you first begin by drawing a general sketch of your world. This is something I must do most of the time, as my attempts at drawing the actual lines without a sketch first just don't work out the way I want them to. It's much easier to build a quick picture of your world if you sketch it first.


Unless you're going for a Designed shape, you should try to be random and non-specific with your shapes, although you'll likely want to ensure that your shapes do fit together tectonically, if you're worried about natural logic. You can easily change things around to find shapes that you prefer, or to draw areas of your map where you have a specific shape in mind. Once you have a general outline that you think works, you can start to draw the proper lines. Simply just draw over your sketch and remove the old lines once you're sufficiently satisfied with your shapes.

1. Sketch

2. Profit

 

STYLE & COLOUR

What kind of world is it that you want to convey here?


Your world map should reflect the genre and style of your chosen setting. Science Fiction maps are often simple and very clean, whilst maps from a Fantasy setting are reminiscent of medieval maps, with lots of detail and tear, although they are usually not necessarily very accurate portrayals of the actual world. You want to make your map reflect the general feeling of your world. Is it a very dark world? Make sure that your map portrays this in some way.

There are several different kinds of styles, and typically you can find that a style often depends wholly on the map-maker, which I personally find wonderful, as it means that the style of a map can often reveal the artist who made it. I often get asked about how I do things when I make maps, and people tend to expect me to be detailed in my explanations so that they can more or less copy my style. I think it’s more impressive if one adopts and develops a style which they can call their own, as a sort of signature of their work.

Your map’s style should also reflect the person who made it, by which I am referring to the individual of your world who supposedly drew it. You don’t need to have a name for this person, but you should take into account this person’s supposed perspective and knowledge of the world. Was he some aristocratic explorer of the world in a Renaissance Era age? Or perhaps a cave-man? Maps of one’s world tend to be made from the perspective of an inhabitant of the world, which you should keep in mind when creating your map.

 

I often find that the key in style usually depends on the texture you use. Of course, you don’t need to use an overlaying texture for your map, but generally speaking it does look much better if you do. I’m mainly talking about old paper textures here, as those are the most commonly used textures for fantasy maps. You can make your own if you consider yourself skilled enough to do so, or you can find hundreds of free textures around the internet, the latter of which I admittedly prefer, as it saves time and effort. Be careful that you actually use free textures.
 

Simple

Simple maps are just that: simple. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's an ugly style. This style is the easiest of the bunch, as it takes less time and effort to make a map of its kind. You’ll often find larger maps utilize this style as it is simple and much more readable than a map that is fully detailed.

Commonly a simple style doesn’t really look all that impressive or appealing, although it often rides on how simple it is. There are completely bare maps with no colour, no texture and little thought to shape, and then there are those that make use of colours and textures in a way that is efficient and beautiful, not needing to take into account much detail at all. In essence this is a style which is very clean, and so it makes it easier to read it.
 

Detailed

Very beautiful and sometimes complex maps tend to be extremely detailed. These maps try to showcase everything there is to show about your world, including all the rivers, trees, mountains, stones and grassy plains as a form of land detail. It’s a fitting style for smaller maps of regions, islands and nations, but I’ve often used it on very large maps as well, although that does take a lot more time; and this is one of the downsides to a detailed map.


A well-made, detailed map demands skill and effort, with a risk of becoming, as it were, too detailed. Details are nice, but often a simple map is more sufficient and better when you just want to make a general map. Too many things going on at the same time makes your map feel messy and tiresome, so it’s important to not overdo your details unnecessarily. Be moderate about your choices in this style.

 

Satellite

I like to refer to realistic maps as Satellite maps. These maps are most common in futuristic or modern settings, although you’ll find a large number of these maps used in Fantasy settings as well. I’m not entirely familiar with this style as I’ve only attempted it a few times, but I’d say it’s not a very difficult style to pull off, so it's easy to learn for beginners. You'll need to know how to use bevel in your images for mountains and general elevation, although I'm sure there are other ways of pulling off the same effect.

In a sense this style is sort of a mix between Simple and Detailed styles, although it does lean more towards the simpler side, since there’s less room for illustrative details when the idea is to portray your world realistically.
 

Colour & Lighting

When using colour and light, you should keep in mind that your map has to be readable. I’ve often erred on this aspect of map-making, where I have made some very dark maps that are difficult to read. You don’t want your peers to have to squint their eyes every time they want to look at your map. Ideally you want to find a balance between light and dark, colourful and colourless. 


In the end it’s all about the visuals, and if your map isn’t visually appealing to look at, you’ll lose potential viewers and fans. It’s all subjective, of course, but try to make a map that doesn’t make one’s eyes bleed or cause a sickening session of vomiting. The balance is difficult to find, and I often scrap maps because I just can’t find a style or colour mix that works.


Also, be consistent with your style and colours. I'm not really saying that you have to, because, again, you can do whatever you like if it makes sense to do so for your world, but generally speaking you want a map that is consistent in its appearance. Having it suddenly transition from a coloured, detailed style to a simple, dark and old style between continents or regions often doesn't look that great overall. It can work, sure, but I think it better if your map shows consistency, especially if it doesn't portray an entirely magical, illogical world.


When you're colouring your map, try to make the various colours blend into each other rather than cut sharply between transitions. This is especially true of mountains, where the stone-colour should merge discretely with the colours of the land. This rule is more or less true of transitions between climates as well.

 

Coloured

Aged

Light

Dark

 

COASTLINES

 

Coastlines aren’t all that important, but like most additional detail it helps to up your map’s attractiveness and ease of reading.


By coastlines I mainly mean the waves where sea and land meet. I find that coastlines help to merge land and sea, rather than divide them. Some maps tend to omit having detail on their coastlines, and so the cut between land and sea feels either too simple or too sharp. There are many ways you can solve this, I have highlighted four of the ones that I most commonly use.

These are all very simple, but typically the first three tend to take some time, and especially so when it comes to the third (3) example. The third one would be the most detailed, where you make effort to draw not only the waves near the coast, but the cliffs and beaches as well. The one I use the most is the fourth (4) one, as it is the one that takes virtually no time to add to your map. You can simply use Photoshop (assuming that you are using Photoshop) and add a Stroke line via the blend options of your chosen layer, and adjust the transparency as you see fit. Sometimes I combine the fourth with one of the three others, but the eventual results depend on your chosen style.

I might as well also mention waves here. I tend to avoid drawing waves for the general sea and ocean. It's very time consuming, and it often feels very cluttered for the overall map. If you have to have waves for your seas, I suggest that you don't overdo it. Keep the waves at a minimum.
 

1.

2.

3.

4.

 

CLIMATES

Unless your world is entirely a barren desert, it likely has a few various climates to speak of.


Climates are most easily shown when using colours and lighting. White for snow, green for temperate, and so on, and then you use different shades and brightness to show warmth or cold. If your map doesn’t have colour, you can utilize light and shadows, or you can spend time on drawing details that explain a region’s chosen climate.

 

When you decide where you want your jungles and your arctic landscapes and such, it might be wise to read up on how it works in the real world. It’s unusual if a desert finds itself bordering a colder region of your map, or if there’s a tropical jungle in the middle of a temperate zone. Generally speaking colder climates are near the poles, with the warmest around the equator; assuming, of course, if your world is globular and built on logic.

 

I’m not saying that you can’t be strange and creative with your world’s climates, but to many it won’t seem sensible or logical. Although, admittedly, that might in itself be an interesting twist of your world, which people might find alluring.

 
Also ensure that when your climates meet you make the transition between them merge smoothly. A desert, if near a tropical or temperate region, often fades into a savannah first. I also find that mountains, large lakes and wide rivers often serve a useful purpose as climate dividers, although it's advisable that it be done with moderation in mind.

It should be mentioned that you don't necessarily need to show your climates obviously. Sometimes it's sufficient to reveal them through names and text on the map, rather than through colour and detail. But it's just much cooler if you decide to put the effort in.

Climates are great because they'll allow you to show a world of variety, and it often helps to make your map look less dull and singular in its appearance.

 

MOUNTAINS & RIVERS

Some of the most prominent features of any detailed map is the presence of mountains.


Typically you’ll have mountains formed in chains, with the odd lone peak here and there, if you’re really into the Lonely Mountain deal. There are entire sciences for how mountains should be, especially if you aim for logic and realism. I won’t be touching upon fully realistic mountains here, but there are many reads to be found in regards to the subject. I suggest starting by having a quick study of tectonic plates.

Regardless, the main purpose of mountains on maps, to me, is to have them serve as natural borders. If you want a certain area to be hard to reach, or, indeed, entirely impassable, mountains are your friends. I like having a lot of mountains, which isn’t really a good thing, as you should try to be moderate, although that depends wholly on the scale of your map.


The smaller the mountains are drawn, the larger your world will feel. As such they’re also quite nifty for demonstrating your world’s size, as you don’t necessarily need to undergo the mind-bogglingly confusing business of using and calculating Map Scales (note: It’s likely that I am the only one who finds them difficult to understand).

 

But to touch briefly on the issue of overusing mountains, it’s a good idea to keep the usage balanced, as a map full of mountains might feel too crowded and mountainous. In the end it’s up to you and the type of world you’re building.

 

Also, like I’ve mentioned above in Climates, mountains are quite useful for dividing climates, wherever it should be necessary. And even more additionally, when you're drawing mountains, remember to put some snow on top of them, should the local climate be fitting. If the climate is typically temperate or arctic, I put snow on top. In other climates however, such as tropical, I prefer to show stone. In deserts I use sand, or sandy stone, and on volcanoes I use (you guessed it) lava.


Just below here I've put together a small list of mountain types that I tend to use quite a lot in my maps.

 

Simple

You can't go wrong with simplicity. Even a child could competently draw mountains like these, it's that simple. This style is quite useful for those of you who don't necessarily carry sufficient artistic skill for more detailed styles. I like this style when I create very simple maps, where detail isn't the important aspect, but rather the information you want to relay with your map. These mountains are quick and easy to draw, and won't take up much of your time and effort. It might come off as amateurish, but it's better than just leaving a map devoid of any mountains at all.

 

Fancy

This is sort of a slightly more advanced version of Simple mountains. The main difference here is that this style makes use of curves to make the mountains seem fancier than they really are. The general aim here is to make your mountains seem pleasing to one's eyes, while also retaining that simplistic appearance. These are again not difficult to draw, and they work well for detailed maps as well.
 

Fancy Detailed

When you're looking to really push forward your map's details, using this style of mountain tends to get the job done. Basically, you're drawing mountains and take effort to also draw the various bumps, stones and crevices that are typically present on the sides of said mountains. I use these types of mountains the most, and they might take some practice before you get them the way you want them to be. A common problem I generally come across with this style is that they might draw too much attention to them comparatively to other details on one's map, so try not to be too fanciful with this style.

 

Semi-Realistic

An even further evolved version of the above style. These mountains are used when you want to make a map seem more realistic, or at least to a degree. Mountains of this style typically curve and fit along the geography of the world and form in a shape that makes sense to logical tectonics. This style takes some time, but in the end it results in mountains that don't seem as obvious as ones that are drawn in a Fancy Detailed style, and are generally much more pleasing to the eye, although it is likely another point of subjectivity.

 

Top-Down

Most maps use a style whereupon you see mountains from a sideways perspective. But if you're looking to illustrate mountains and don't necessarily want to go for that full-on artistic look, you could always go for a Top-Down style. I'd sort of place it as a mix or merging between a Simple, Detailed and Realistic style. It's a beneficial style because it isn't really all that difficult to draw. All in all it's a nice style to have for, typically, larger maps.

 

Realistic

These types of mountains are most commonly used for maps that use a typical Satellite style. The aim is to make them seem as realistic as a photograph of Earth from space, although in my case I must admit that I haven't got a terrible amount of practice in regards to these types of mountains. I generally don't worry too much about realism when I make maps, so I have almost never had a need to make use of this style.

(There are also better examples of this style out there. The embarrassment of my given example here brings endless shame to my family)

 

Hills

I just want to touch quickly upon the subject of Hills while I'm at it. Hills are nice to show on your map for mainly two reasons: they show where the terrain of the land is rugged and (as it were) hilly, and they are great for transitioning between mountains and elevated regions to the lowland plains.

I've showcased three typical styles you might come across, the first being fancily simple, followed by a detailed  assortment of hills, and lastly some very simple, bumpy hills.
 

Rivers

Rivers are also rather important. It's really very simple and not complicated at all when you implement rivers to your map. There are many different styles, but I'll mainly just be explaining how rivers generally work. Also, you don't have to draw every little river in your world; it might get confusing and overburdening. Instead just focus on the larger, more important rivers of your world.

A typical river (1) starts from an elevated area, such as a mountain, and runs until it meets an obstacle (in which case it is likely that it forms a lake) or finishes its journey by spilling into the nearest sea. In terms of vegetation, rivers tend to breed such life along them, so keep that in mind as well.

Be mindful that rivers very, very rarely split into two. The general rule is that water follows the path of least resistance, and so it will always move along a singular path. However, rivers do join together, in which case they tend to merge into larger, wider rivers. A river starts off as small and narrow, and expands along the way.

Rivers also move in curves, like a snake, although I wouldn't overdo it. Keep it balanced. There's a natural science to curving rivers, and it's an interesting read, but I don't think I can properly convey how it works through my own words. If its of any interest at all, I suggest looking up how rivers curve.

One final thing I will mention here is what is known as a delta (2). I don't know a lot about deltas, and I very rarely use them in my maps because for quite some time I wasn't really very aware of their existence. Just one of those things you don't necessarily think too much about. But it is a fairly common phenomenon, where a river tends to slow down when it reaches a lake or sea. Easiest way to illustrate this is by having a river split into several lesser ones when it reaches its end-point.

Proper real world examples of deltas can be found in clear detail in places like Florida, which is a place you might possibly have heard of, especially if you're American. But don't take my complete word for it, I'm Norwegian, and my only experience with the United States was when I went to Seattle, Washington for a brief few weeks.
 

1.

2.

 

VEGETATION

Otherwise just referred to as trees, plants or general flora.


When I say vegetation, I mainly mean forests and such. Living worlds quite commonly exhibit, indeed, life; and so by extension these worlds have trees. Maps don't necessarily need to showcase forests, especially so if you use a Satellite style, or your map's sufficiently zoomed out. Maps that are closer up, such as regional maps, would benefit from having forests and general trees shown. It mostly goes like this: larger forests are visible from far away, whilst smaller forests get visible the closer your map is.

 
Forests generally spawn near water or in areas that have rich soil, and so it is unlikely that you'll have a sprawling woodland in the middle of a volcanic plain, or within a dry, barren desert. Unless, of course, in the case of the desert there are oases.

In temperate zones it is common for a lack of trees if there is a healthy, growing local population living there, as they would chop  down the forests for lumber or to clear land for agriculture. Unless they're Tree Elves or any other tree-loving society, so it's much up to what kind of people you have in your world.
Warmer climates sport wetter forests, otherwise known as rainforests or jungles, and are usually very thick and exotic. I reserve these types of forests for tropical areas, like pacific-esque islands or along the coasts of hot continents typically found near the equator of one's world.

For your map you have a number of choices for how you want to illustrate your forests and general vegetation, as shown below. These are the styles I've grown most accustomed to.
 

Messy Trees

This is a very simple style and works well when you don't want to put too much time or effort into your trees. It's a very general style, but it functions sufficiently for both world maps and regional maps.

Simple Trees

I use this style the most for my maps. It can be quite tedious if you're working on larger maps to draw every tree, so I often have to take a lot of breaks when I draw in this style. The upside is that while it is inherently a simple style, it helps to bring some nice detail to your map.

Typically used for trees in temperate and cold climates.

Top-Down Trees

When you want your forests to be viewed from a top-down perspective you can simply just use this style. It might take some practice because too much or too little detail tends to make it look rather poor.

While this style does work for world maps, I prefer to use it for regional maps or maps that are even closer up. You benefit the most from the detail when it is drawn in a size that fits with the map's scale.

Tropical Trees

When I draw tropical forests, like rainforests and jungles, I try to draw them tightly and somewhat messily, to empathize the thick vegetation. Almost always found in warm, wet climates and typically along the coast.

I also use this style when I need savannah trees, although it's then drawn less compact, and more spread between each tree and bush.

Marshland

You can easily illustrate marshland and wetland by utilizing horizontal lines. You add detail like reeds and grass if you wish, which I find helps differentiate these lines from any potential lines that you have used for land detail. Typically, if you're using colour for your map, you colour the marshland in a sort of teal-green-blue-ish colour.

One commonly finds marshlands near rivers or seas, or in any general area where the weather and climate is, as it were, wet.
 

Land Detail

Or just grass, if you don't want to be so fancy about it. I typically use land detail when parts of a map where there aren't trees or mountains feel kind of barren and empty. It's very straightforward: draw horizontal lines. Very similar to marshland, but you can keep the land detail faded and less visible to ensure that it doesn't distract from actual marshland, or from the other details of your map.


Using land detail is quite useful for areas on your map where there are large, empty plains.

 

SETTLEMENTS & FONTS

Assuming that the inhabitants of your world make homes, they're likely to establish communities where they mingle.


There are a few pointers to be had when choosing where to place your cities, towns and forts etc.

Typically you have to take into account what kind of resources will be available for your settlements in their given area, and whether there are any strategic values or economic benefits for settling there. Most towns are built alongside or, indeed, on top of rivers, which ensures that they can grow and maintain a boosted populous, and thus these settlements are commonly larger cities rather than smaller villages. It is also often preferred that cities be built next to the seas, to allow for maritime activities and ease of access for trade.

 
Settlements can be built where there are no rivers, but then there has to be a guarantee that they are either able to support themselves independently, or through trade with nearby settlements. Perhaps some of these settlements are specialized, by being woodcutting, fishing or mining towns. But generally speaking, larger settlements need a lot of fresh water to maintain larger populations and so benefit best from being near rivers, and so it's useful to keep such a thing in mind.

Forts and castles tend to be built on top of hills, at choke-points in valleys and passages or along the coastline. In other words place them at strategic points on your map, either to oversee a local town or to defend against potential enemies.

You can also use other reasonings for where you want to place your inhabited locations. Perhaps there's a holy site there, or some sort of magical phenomenon which turns stone into delicious hamburger cake, or whatever. It all relies and depends on your world and what you decide to be there.

Also, a bit briefly, you should be mindful of where you place your nations, why they are there, and whether they can sustain and maintain their territories there. It is unlikely that a large nation can survive in a barren wasteland or on the plains of a volcanic ashland, although if you can reason for it well, then it can be explainable. Where you place your nation will determine what kind of people live there and what sort of culture will be present there, although that is a point I'll go into more detail on another time.


When you place your settlements, try to maintain a sort of marker/symbol legend for the various types of settlements or structures. You can do this by doing the same as in the example above, by using simple geometric shapes, or you could also draw an illustration of a city or castle, granted that you know how to do so without it looking out of place or too small/large for your map.

 

Fonts & Text

I figured I could also talk a little bit about fonts and how to make text work on your map. What's most important here is that your text is actually readable, and isn't obscured by the various details of your map, or that the text isn't too small to read, or even too fancy for comprehension. Use fonts that are clear and easy to understand.


You should also make efforts to ensure that your font actually fits with the general theme and setting of your map. I've seen too many times the maps that use modern fonts on, for example, Fantasy maps, and it slightly breaks the immersion. It's fine in smaller occurrences, but not all over the place.


So instead of using Comic Sans or Papyrus, I beg of you, please spend some time looking for a font that blends with the theme of the map you're making. 

 
You can easily find almost any font you need on the internet, or you could even make your own if you know how to. But if you do find fonts on the internet that you want to use, I advise that you firstly be watchful for fonts that are commercially copyrighted, especially if you intend to use your map in a commercial fashion. It might seem insignificant to you, and you might even think that it's unlikely that you'll be caught and that it's rather silly that a font could be copyrighted. But like with any resource or artwork made by another person, it's always possible that, if you should choose to use their work without their permission, you'll feel the sting of that consequence hit you when you least expect it.

It's also just common decency and non-assholery to not underhandedly or deceptively use what is not yours without permission.
 

MAP FEATURES

Obviously you don't want to attach a scanner to your map.


Or maybe you do.


I lastly here want to talk a little bit about map features, what they are and where you generally put them. What I mean with map features is the additional information and illustrations you place on your map, like a compass or a title box/banner. Your finishing touches that you do once everything else is done and settled.

I always do these features last and I don't generally give them  too much thought. They're not necessarily very important, but they do give your map some more authenticity. Studying maps, you can identify that most maps have at least two or three of the features described below.

 

Compass Rose

Almost every map I've ever seen uses a compass rose. It gives your map an authentic look, but it's not technically all that useful, as it's unlikely that you'll ever use your map in the real world to navigate anywhere. Of course, you can just pretend that your inhabitants frequently use your map for this purpose.


Generally speaking, most maps are assumed to be righted in a North-East-South-West direction, so to some a compass rose isn't all that needed. Regardless, it is quite nice to have present on your map.

 

Coordinates Grid

I sometimes use grids because they just look nice on a map. 


But if you want to be logical about it, you can use a grid to provide a viewer with coordinates for your map's various locations. Typically more used and more useful in modern or futuristic maps, although they are also quite handy for Fantasy style maps.


Important to have the grid appear a little faded or transparent. You don't want it to stand out over your map's other details.

 

Textures

I've already mentioned this a little bit in Style & Colour, and often the style is very much determined by the texture you choose to use for your map. By adding a paper texture you give your map a sort of realism, as if it really was drawn by a person from that world.

There are many kinds of textures, most of which can be adapted to work for your map. Like I mentioned in Style & Colour, if you use a texture you didn't make, ensure that the original artist has provided permission for free use.
 

Map-Border

I'm usually quite lax and lazy when it comes to map borders. Since they're the very last thing I add to my maps, I don't really care if it looks nice or not.


But having said that, it does help your map's style and feel if you decide to give it a good effort. Most people won't notice it, because what's most important here is what's on the actual map, and not what's outside it. But in the end it's the little details that go together to help build an overall visually pleasing picture.

 

Title Box

I'm pretty sure that professional cartographers don't call this a "Title Box". You might have noticed by now that all the terms I've used elsewhere are not necessarily "canon" in a cartographer's circle. But for the purposes of keeping it simple, I'll just call it a Title Box.


This is where you can put your map and world's information, such as a logo, additional illustrations, history of your world, a map scale, a legend of your map's symbols, the signature of whoever in your world made the map and, most important of all, your map's title. It's very open as to what you can put inside this box, and it works well to keep all your map's information tidily in one place, instead of all over the entire map.


A title box is most commonly in the corner somewhere. I tend to put them in the lower left corner of a map, provided that I'm not covering up any aspects of the map behind it.

 

Signature

This is quite important. Surely you want people to know that you are the one who made this map, and it will help to state that this is, in fact, your map. Slapping a signature or some form of copyright on your map will make sure that you own the rights to your map. If anyone tries to use your map commercially for their own purposes, you now have some leverage and proof that it is your work they're using.

But do be sensible about your signature. It annoys  me to no end when people place a massive watermark with their name and logo over the entirety of their maps.

I understand that one might be worried about art thieves, as I have in the past, but the point of sharing a piece of art that you've made is to give your peers a clear view of what you've created. If you plaster a watermark over your map you're only distracting people from fully enjoying your masterpiece.

Place your signature in the corner or somewhere it doesn't get in the way, and don't make it too large. But also ensure that it's not so easily removed. Making it transparent so it merges slightly with details in the background is one solution. Placing it somewhere where attempts at cropping it out will remove vital parts of the rest of your map also works.
 

FINAL WORDS

I often get maps wrong.

By this I mean that I have no singular formula that I follow. I simply just try new things all the time. Sure, I probably have a few habits I keep repeating, but overall I don't think that I could ever make the same map twice and have them look completely identical. I have made far more maps than what I have deemed to show in public.

There are also numerous other ways of making maps, and plenty of aspects of map-making that I have not mentioned here. Like I said in the beginning, I wasn't looking to provide a tutorial here, but a general guide. As a guide it is very much from my own perspective and how I think in regards to creating maps.

What I really want to end on here is this: don't make sense. I often get a lot of comments that explain to me how certain aspects of the map don't make sense, like how I build my mountain ranges or divide my nation borders. I think the point here is to make the map you want to make, and not just a map that makes sense based on how Earth works. You're not making a map of Earth, you're most likely making a map of an impossible world, namely a Fantasy world. Floating islands and fungal forests don't belong on Earth, but they can in your world.

Of course, if you want to make sense there's nothing stopping you there either. Maps that are built on general logic tend to be more well received.

I've done my best in this guide to give some logical pointers, but it's all, like I've said time and time again here, really just up to you. What I've taught you here now should give you a starting idea as to how you might want to build your map, and how you can utilize a map's various details and features to make it look decently attractive.


In the end all of these aspects merge together and become one. Alone they are more or less nothing, but together they become the foundations and striking elements of a cohesive and attractive map. I don’t mean to make it sound like I’ve fallen in love with maps, but I suppose the reality is that I have. Out of everyone I know I’m the only one among them who will notice a map and say “damn that’s a sexy map”. 


We’re all odd like that, I suppose.


I do hope all of this has been insightful and given you a sufficient understanding on creating maps for your world.

 
 

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Some helpful, small tips

  • Study Maps:

The best way to learn how to draw maps is to surround yourself with them. Look up maps, study them, and learn their ways. If you're looking to adopt a specific style, you can find a map that looks similar to what you're aiming for, and try to copy how they seem to do things until you eventually adapt the style for your own map. I never used tutorials, but I did use other maps as reference to learn how a map's mountains, rivers and forests work.


  • Experiment:

Don't be afraid to try new things. Experiment with your map's mountains, forests, shapes and general style. Try to not stay with the same methodical procedures on every map you make, as you'll eventually find that you wont learn anything new by doing so. I always experiment with a map's style and textures, until I get a result which I'm pleased with. The best way to learn is to just try and fail until you get it just the way you want it.


  • Take your Time:

Don't rush it. Like any piece of art, you want to spend enough time on it so that it doesn't end up looking less of what you initially intended. Many people are looking for shortcuts, but the truth is that decent work takes time, and anyone who tries to cut corners will quickly notice the lack of quality that follows. Eventually, as you learn and improve, your work will become faster and easier to do.


  • Use Brushes:

If you're not very good at drawing stuff or you don't necessarily want to learn, you could always just use map-specific brushes, like ones that have sets of forests and mountains. There are a number of such brushes out there, and quite a few of them are of high quality and free. You save time and effort through brushes. A downside to using brushes is the fact that things might end up looking a bit static and samey on your map. Also, if you use brushes, be aware that most of them are under a non-commercial license, and so if you want to make money through your maps, you're better off just learning how to draw details or brushes yourself.


  • Gather Resources:

Keep and maintain a large folder of various map-specific resources, such as compass roses, textures, borders and any other similar things that can be used for maps. But do be careful about using the work of others. If it's not free to use, you should probably avoid using their artwork. Ideally you can make your own, and save them separately for later maps.

||  Part One - In the Beginning  ||  Part Two - Mapping the World  ||