The definitive guide to creating fantasy maps
There's nothing like cracking open a fantasy book to find a map on the inside cover. It's like a promise: a promise of a new world to explore, a new story to love, a new escape to lose yourself in. Maps can help readers by providing content, establishing aesthetic, and clarifying confusion. Maps can help readers keep track of storylines and characters, particularly when they're off in different places doing different things all at once. Maps can be helpful to us writers for the same reason. They can help us keep track of the threads of our story, or dive deeper into the worlds we've created. Designing the physical aspects of a world, however, can be intimidating. Hopefully, this guide will help.
First off, if you want to skip all this artistic design nonsense, this Fantasy Map Generator might be of use to you. This generator lets you do a little customization, but otherwise basically designs your map for you.
For those of you who are feeling a little more adventurous, or who want to create a world that is entirely your own, read on. But first, a few disclaimers. This guide isn’t about how to put pen on paper and draw a map. If that’s what you’re looking for, This Guide or This Guide may help. Instead, this guide is going to be a brief overview of the cartography and geology needed to create a believable world. That being said, this guide is not going to cover every topic. It’s also an extreme oversimplification, which means that there will be some generalizations. Your map doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to keep someone from looking at it and thinking, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Finally, I’m not going to do your research for you. If your world is unique in ways that may alter the climate or geography (two suns, a ring of active volcanoes, etc.), that’s research that you’ll have to do on your own (though, at the end of the guide, I’ll provide you with some resources that may help).
Basics of a Map
Legend - a guide, usually tucked into a corner, telling you what symbols on a map mean. Maybe human cities are denoted with a square while elven cities are a diamond (looking at you, Paolini). Maybe mountains housing dragons are represented differently than regular mountains. You want to clarify any questions readers may have about the map.
Title - the name of your land, your world, whatever it is.
Orientation and Compass - Most maps include a compass with north pointing toward the top of the page
Scale - This is if you want to get really serious with your map. Including a scale (a ratio allowing you to shrink the map to a reasonable size, like 1 inch = 1 mile or the like) can help you keep travel times consistent, because nothing is more frustrating than a fantasy book where the characters spend a whole month traveling from point A to point B, then make it from B back to A in three days. Here's a good article about fantasy travel.
This isn't directly related to the act of mapmaking, but it's important to keep in mind when designing a world. The major influences on climate are: lattitude, winds, oceans, land-sea distributions, and mountains. Most important of these it latitude: the further you are from the equator, the colder it gets. That's only the beginning, though. Climates from region to region have a lot to do with wind circulation; generally, north of the equator, prevailing winds (which carry moist air from ocean regions inland) move in a clockwise direction. South of the equator, they move counter-clockwise. When these winds meet in the middle at the equator, the air rises. When it coos, it forms clouds and rain, which is why you tend to find tropical conditions closer to the equator.
How do you apply this to fantasy mapmaking? Don't sprinkle various climates around randomly. The first fantasy map I made, in high school, had a desert far north with the tundra, a rainforest not far west of it, and a continental climate much like the American midwest down closer to the equator. Make sure that what you're doing makes sense geographically. (On that note, transition gently. Don't make a desert go straight into a forest, or a marsh straight into rolling plains).
For more information on biomes and regional climates, check out This Guide.
The Ocean's Effects on Climate: (not exhaustive, just simplified) Strong ocean currents sometimes redistribute warmth to places located at higher latitudes. For example, the Gulf Stream begins at the Gulf of Mexico and deposits warm water around the UK, giving the UK milder winters.
Land-Sea Distribution's Effect on Climate: Coastal regions generally experience mild, humid maritime climates (cool summers and mild winters), while the interior regions of large landmasses tend to experience continental climates (seasonal temperature varies widely and there's little precipitation).
Mountains' Effects on Climate: Locally, mountains cause air to rise and precipitation to form, meaning climates directly around mountains tend to be wetter than surrounding areas. Overall, mountains redirect air flow. In fact, one of the main causes of deserts are mountains. A "rain shadow desert" occurs when prevailing rain-bearing clouds are blocked from carrying rain to a region because of mountains (see: the southwest corner of the United States).
That's all I have room for in this guide, but if you want to delve deeper into the world of climate-making, I recommend you check out Geoff's Climate Cookbook, which was specifically written to help writers create climates for their fictional worlds. Actually, just see his entire General Guide. It's better and more detailed than any guide I could ever write.
Land Masses and Tectonic Plates
I'm mostly going to skip over tectonic plates. Unless you're N.K. Jemisin and you're writing about Broken Earth, you don't need to know where your tectonic plates are located. Just remember that if you're designing a world with multiple continents, they should roughly fit together due to continental drift. Also know that tectonic plates move 3 ways: side to side (which causes earthquakes), shifting away from each other (which causes continental drift), and pushing towards each other (which causes volcanic activity and/or the creation of mountains).
With mountains, new mountains come up in the center, pushing older mountains further out. This is why there are usually "foothills" to mountains-- the older mountains get weathered and worn down, rounding their tops and decreasing their size. New mountains tend to have jagged tops. Tectonic plates also explain why mountains generally form in chains (while Tolkien's "Lonely Mountain" is cool, it's not very likely). Mountain ranges that run along a coast may continue into the water as islands. Islands can also be formed by volcanic build up-- these would also be located along plate lines.
Rivers and Lakes
First of all: rivers never diverge as they flow toward the sea, they only converge. This is a mistake a lot of fantasy mapmakers make. Rivers tend to start from high in the mountains, flowing from areas of high elevation to low elevation (usually the sea). Water is lazy and always takes the path of least resistance. This means it'll put in as little work as possible, letting gravity do the work for it. Think of raindrops on a window. The raindrops never move in a straight line, and they often join with other raindrops and become stronger. So, too, it is with rivers. They never move in a perfectly straight line because the ground is never perfectly flat, and they often meet and join with other rivers on their way.
All I have to say about lakes for the purpose of this guide is that they only ever have one outlet. If they have more, it's for a very specific reason (like flooding), and it never lasts for very long.
While placing cities on your map, you have to consider the surrounding terrain. Humans need food and water to survive, and they'll settle in places where they can easily meet those needs. You need a way to get water in and waste out; don't put cities in the middle of deserts unless you have an explanation for it.
Regarding roads: people are lazy, so roads are usually straight unless the terrain gets in the way (never perfectly straight, though. It's impractical). Roads don't meander like rivers do.
I said this guide wasn't going to be about drawing maps, and it's not. But there's an important design aspect that overlaps: aesthetic. If you look at the above pictures of fantasy worlds, one of Tolkien's Middle Earth and one of Staveley's Annurian Empire (drawn by Isaac Stewart), you can see that they're very different in the vibes they give off. Each map gives its own insight into the world it depicts. Isaac Stewart, who designs maps for Brian Sanderson and many other authors, says he designs his maps "as if they were artifacts of the world they depict." He recommends perusing the David Rumsey Map Collection to find a map that aesthetically fits the feel of your world and then using it as inspiration. In the collection, you can filter the maps by date and location to better help you find the perfect inspiration.
Fantastic Maps - Helpful for physically drawing the maps
Cartographer's Guild - Here, you can ask questions about mapmaking or get your map critiqued
Geoff's Climate Cookbook
Geoff's Guide to Creating Realistic Planets
David Rumsey Map Collection