Some of you may remember the “Deep Worldbuild Project” that I did in January and February 2017, a blog post series which continues to consistently get traffic to this day. I thought it was time to revisit that series and update it with some of what I’ve learned in the past two years. I’m going to cover most of the same things I covered in the original series (map-making, how landscape affects culture, wildlife, technology and magic, religion, and history) but with some new additions. Instead of seven installments, the new series is going to have nine, including a guest post near the end by Kate Flournoy. And, obviously, I’m starting with fantasy map-making!
Before we get started, I feel obliged to mention that I’ll almost certainly be referencing World Anvil a lot in this series. No, I was not paid to promote the tool, I just really appreciate it and think it’s super helpful and recommend that y’all try it out for yourselves as well. (Also, there’s a free version that includes the core features and then some, so you can learn how it works, experience it in almost its full functionality, and fall in love with it before committing to pay for extra features.)
However, I may include Amazon or BookShop affiliate links. These will always be marked with an asterisk, and a little note at the beginning or end of the post will give a brief explanation of affiliate links.
With all the technicalities and explanations out of the way, let’s get into the good stuff!
I usually like to start my worlds with a map, or at least the beginnings of a map, because it helps me develop the culture around the landscape. If you’d rather develop the culture and then build a map around it, that works too. I’ve done both, and I think there are definitely pros and cons to both. When I start with a map I generally have trouble figuring out where to place various features and how to fill up all the space, and then I’m constricted to what’s on the map with my more internal worldbuilding, but it does help me to have a visual representation of the country. When I start without a map, it can be difficult for me to get a clear idea of the country’s values (don’t ask why the landscape makes that clearer in my head; I really don’t know), but I have more freedom in what sorts of cultures inhabit the space.
There are a handful of ways you can approach fantasy map-making, and which is best for you will largely depend on your priorities and resources.
Hand-Draw Your Map
Obviously this is the most work, and probably the one people are going to most shy away from because they “Don’t have artistic talent.” First of all, you probably have more than you think. Second of all, a map doesn’t really require artistic talent. Sure, it’s nice if your map looks nice, but really your map just has to give a fairly decent representation of your continent/world/city’s shape and where things are within it. If that means your continent has too-smooth edges and is in gaudy colors, so be it.
I do, however, have a tip or two to help you make your map more visually appealing than my bright yellow map of Baarmegan from five years ago.
First of all, a great way to make your coastlines look naturally jagged is to trace around rice.
This is how I got the shape for Kaloris, and it worked really well. Pour rice onto your paper, manipulate it as desired, and then trace around it with a loose hand. You’ll end up with shorelines that look like this:
(The inner line is what I got from the rice. I then went around it with similar strokes to make it look like there was a rocky shoreline that rose up from the water.)
Also, maybe this is just me, but maps are generally more visually appealing if they have pretty, flowing rivers. If you want some advice on where to place your rivers and how to make them work, you can scroll down to point 4 of this post by Jonathan Roberts. (The whole post is good, so I recommend reading the whole thing for advice on drawing your own map.)
Though hand-drawing is the most tedious and difficult of the fantasy map-making options on this list, it’s my personal preference and I like the freedom it affords. Another perk to hand-drawing a map is that even if your artistry isn’t great, it’s going to be in your own style, which isn’t the case with these next two options.
Inkarnate is an online fantasy map-making platform, and if you’re hesitant to draw your own map because you feel like you don’t have the talent, this might be worth checking out. There is a free version (don’t be misled by the fact that their whole front page is an ad for the paid version), and though it doesn’t have as many features, it’s still helpful for small-scale maps.
Even though the artwork is gorgeous, I personally prefer drawing my maps by hand because it has more flexibility and it’s actually easier to make your shorelines look natural by hand than in Inkarnate. The brush options for terrain are circular, square, or hexagonal, all of which are difficult to make natural-looking shorelines with. You can see in my Kersir map below that the shoreline is very smooth.
It’s also possible that I just haven’t fully mastered the tools. If you’re interested in trying it out for yourself, definitely do so and see how it works for you.
Buy a Custom Map
If you’re really invested in having a custom, hand-drawn map but don’t want to do think you can do it yourself, this is an option. Etsy has several sellers who offer beautiful custom fantasy maps, but a professional fantasy map is obviously not cheap, so I’d recommend this as an option for later on down the road when you want to get a map to print in your published book or something like that and just use a passable free map up until that point.
I did look up custom fantasy map vendors on Etsy, and here are the three cheapest I found (after a semi-brief hunt):
FantasyMakersCrafts (this vendor uses Inkarnate Pro, I believe)
HannahNRichter (digital copy only)
BuschArt (these are hand-drawn)
You can also find artists on DeviantArt who do map commissions.
Okay, so I actually don’t know exactly how one does fantasy map-making in Photoshop, I just know it can be done. You can install terrain brushes and city stamps or something like that and use them to draw a map. You can find someone who actually knows what they’re talking about here and figure out how that actually works, lol.
Here are some more resources on map-making:
World Building Tips: Map Making from Write For the King
Practical Steps to a Rewarding Fantasy Map from Clearwater Press
Creating a Map for a New Storyworld from Go Teen Writers
Map-Making 201: Naming Things from Go Teen Writers
How to Design a Town from Fantastic Maps
Drawing Realistic Coastlines from Fantastic Maps
Worldbuilding Considerations: Maps from The Writing Cafe on Tumblr (Tumblr doesn’t load on my computer, so I haven’t actually read this, but hopefully it’s good.)
How to Create a World: Part 1: The Map from Ink Blots and Coffee Stains
World Anvil’s Map Features
If you upload your map to World Anvil, there are some awesome things you can do with it. First, you can easily add markers with notes that can be viewed by simply scrolling over the marker on the map. You can find an example with my Kersir map here. It makes it super easy to keep track of what cities are what, what you named that one oasis, etc.
You can also nest maps with markers. I haven’t done this yet because I don’t have any small-scale or global-scale maps just yet, they’re all continent/country-sized, but it’s a super awesome idea and I’d love to use it at some point when I actually get around to drawing larger or smaller maps. But another map is not the only thing you can link to from a marker. No. You can also link to a related article (the description article for the town you’ve marked, a historical event that took place there, an organization that’s important to the place, etc.) and when someone clicks on that marker it’ll take them to the target article. Watch the short video below to see that in action!
Where in the worldbuilding process do you usually draw a map? What fantasy map-making method do you use? What is your favorite fantasy map? I’d love to chat with you in the comments. :)