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