How to Draw Original Fantasy Maps for your Fiction

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Every year, over 40,000 novelists strive to write 50,000 words in November for National Novel Writing Month. Novel writing is a fast-growing hobby worldwide -- and many new novelists write fantasy. A map of any imaginary world can help keep continuity in your novels, role playing games and stories, intrigue your readers and illustrate your blog.

How to Draw Original Fantasy Maps for your Fiction
(Mario Zavala/Demand Media)

Things You'll Need

  • Drawing paper
  • Pencil
  • White vinyl eraser or kneaded eraser
  • Permanent ink fine point disposable technical pen size 2 or larger.
Step 1

Decide what absolutely must be on the map and list it. If you are drawing the map for an existing story or novel, reread your fiction with a notebook. Jot down every location and how long it took your characters to get there, by what means of transportation. This is also a good way to check for continuity. Do a sketch map in pencil of all the relevant places mentioned and if any are on a coastline, adjust the coastline to fit what's there. Huge bays like the Gulf of Mexico can make the ocean swing inward to meet the port that was only two days from the desert citadel, after all. This type of map may take several drafts and some rewriting before it's complete. Read the rest of the article for doing a map before writing, then adjust everything to fit what you've written and render it the same way.

If you are drawing before writing, the list is of things you want to add to the story for potential conflict. That can include dangerous ruins, haunted places, citadels of good or evil, isolated wizards' towers or religious abbeys, points of interest that you can explore in depth in your written worldbuilding. Sketch out any journeys you know you want the characters to make and jot them say, a half inch apart per day of travel by foot.

If magic is involved, characters can fly or teleport at modern speeds or faster. If not all characters have transportation magic, you're left with walking, riding or riding carts and carriages on roads.

Roads increase the speed of walking and riding characters. Rough terrain like hills slows movement. Sailing is faster than riding, but is subject to winds and weather and sometimes uncertain in a fantasy world that may also have sea monsters. Since it may be important which characters arrive sooner than others to the destination, drawing your map before writing gives you the chance to create plenty of natural obstacles for your traveling characters.

Obstacles create conflict and that makes good story. So let's make this fantasy map of a harsh world, a continent with swamps, mountains, jungles, deserts, rocky bad terrain, broken ancient roads and ruins, more towns and cities along the coast than inland.

The sketch map doesn't need to be pretty. Just complete to what you've written if it's done after the writing, and interesting to you if done before writing. It's like the rough draft of the story or novel, it's where you think things are for now.

Mario Zavala/Demand Media
Step 2

I've seen many sketch maps and fantasy maps by beginners that mysteriously had square or rectangular continents. Some shapes just come naturally to human artists -- but they aren't the shapes coastlines take in nature. My sketch map has a natural looking coastline. It wobbles, it wibbles, it has bulges and a large irregular bay in it. This isn't continent scale, but it shows the idea that coastlines should be very irregular and look more like the real ones you see on a globe or in an atlas. Let's go to a larger scale and sketch the continents, trying to make them look natural.

One exercise I recommend for natural continents is to sketch the first continent of the world -- the big one like Pangaea in the history of our world, when everything was one. Cut it out in construction paper and then rip it into several pieces at random. Lay them out and start pushing them around. If they crash into other ones, overlap them. You can do this on the surface of a sphere if you have a large styrofoam ball, pinning them to it. That'll give you a globe of your world. Where they overlap, mountain ranges emerge by uplift.

Here's a sketch of some natural continent-shapes separated and two of them colliding. They can sink or rise too, you're playing God as a writer. So have fun on this scale. If you have long sea voyages or very great travel, this style of map may be better for what you're writing. But what if all the action takes place within a single village or neighborhood, or that town is what you wanted to map?

Mario Zavala/Demand Media
Step 3

This is a close-scale village sketch map. Nothing's been drawn up pretty yet, because we're still figuring out what goes on the maps. Nothing's been named yet, because you know the names of your villages and continents and rivers and mine haven't been written yet. It's labeled for several features common to many fantasy and medieval villages. There's a temple or church, an inn, an ostler -- horse trader, sells, buys, rents and cares for travelers' horses, the village blacksmith and a warehouse for goods received by sea that might be shipped up the road to the citadel. This village was on the first map, now it's visible as a small town. Not all the local farmers live in the village, but many of the fishing families do as the docks attest. Boats and ships vary in size. I scaled the docks a little large with too little space between them -- this is the kind of mistake that is easier to correct when making changes to come up with the good well-drawn maps later on.

There's a village well because for all that coastline, people still need fresh water and there wasn't a river on the map. Think of practical things like this when sketching fantasy maps and building fantasy backstory. All the minor characters in your book who live there all the time need food, shelter, places to worship (unless for some reason your characters don't have a religion) or at least meet, fresh water and some basic crafts. There isn't a mill, so rural characters probably use hand mills or grind grain with stones.

A town can be centered on a mill though, and that will occupy a prominent place on a river. The miller family will be wealthy and prominent, and in a mill town more artisans would emerge. Nobles have less power where there are mills, because some of the commoners are wealthy enough to compete with them.

Mario Zavala/Demand Media
Step 4

Sketch maps may be enough to provide continuity and let you write without worrying about accidentally having characters make impossible journeys in a day, or strive for three weeks to walk one day's easy travel along a road without any natural or unnatural obstacles. But if you want a beautiful fantasy map that will stand out in your readers' minds and make them follow your website to read your chapters, it's going to take some refinement from the first rough versions.

First, copy and transfer the main lines of one of the previous maps, making any changes you decided on. The outlines can become even more irregular since natural coastlines are jagged and random. Leave some gaps in the coastline. Rivers run to the sea, especially from mountains. The big port should have a river running to it that empties into that big bay. Another river might wind through the forest the elves are in.

To trace and transfer the coastline, use a piece of tracing paper and trace it. Turn that over and draw heavily on the back of the tracing with a soft pencil, following the lines with a broad heavy line. Turn it back over and set it on your final sheet, then draw over the lines hard with a sharp pencil. You will have a light but accurate line on your paper.

I moved the whole coastline a bit to the right, since most of the habitations are on the coast and the desert doesn't seem very connected to anything. If the desert was already in my novel, I'd keep it, but the action seems to be happening on the coast. I drew an 8" x 10" border on the page to reduce the image area a bit and to allow later mounting of the map since it may be inspirational to mat it and have it up over my work area while writing.

Once that's sketched, start sketching in some waterways. Don't draw all of the interior textures yet, just get rivers and creeks along the coast.

Mario Zavala/Demand Media
Step 5

Because of the swamp area, I ran a large river through and spread it to turn that entire bump into a large delta-like formation with many waterways. Up near the northern part of the map, I added many short creeks and rivers coming down from mountains into fjords and inlets. Leaving more ocean leaves me some space to title the map as a whole as well as give the name of the ocean and maybe draw a sea monster or dragon for character. I added more villages along the coast as well.

It looks good at the coastline stage, now we need to indicate any roads that may be there. An old road may run through the elven forest, but people build roads for reasons like building empires. In black and white, how can we indicate a road to differentiate it from a waterway?

A dotted line might show a road running inland. Any road running north and south has formidable natural barriers, and the port by the delta has some engineering problems because it's in such a low-lying swampy area. It probably runs next to the big river and may be part of a levee system if the empire builders were that sophisticated. We'll run a spur of road inland from a bridge to end at a spiral, a wizards' academy or sacred city or something otherwise out in the hills, watered by a small lake.

I named one of the towns that sprang up by the bridges Byford because it was so obvious. But when writing your novel you will have come up with your own naming convention. You may be mangling Spanish words with German endings or using descriptives and jumbling letters, there are many ways to do constructed languages and fantasy naming. But as you name places in your world building, letter your good fantasy map.

Leave unmarked space for naming by roads, rivers, towns and anything else unmarked. The swamp witch moved to the coast, but characters can still seek her out and go tramping through bayous to get to her.

Mario Zavala/Demand Media
Step 6

This map could be printed in black and white in a paperback book if its mountains, forests, swamp and features are indicated entirely in textures. Let's add that dragon somewhere, if it's near the new islands to the south there may be dragons on them. Crosshatching the smaller island and part of the larger one shows something dangerous is there -- pretty obviously dragons. Maybe it's their mating ground.

I noted "Port" on the scratch map, I can leave off what the rest of the name is till I come up with it and letter in "Port" with space above it for another word like "green" or "dragon" or some constructed name. So far my names here have been descriptive though, which always works in fantasy novels because it's so common in Europe and England. Places called Bywater or Newport do exist all over the place.

The symbol for swamp on maps is a little upside down T with a v over it, a horizontal bar with three little radiating marks. It looks like weeds in water. It works on fantasy maps too. I don't need many of those symbols because the wetlands are so full of waterways it's obvious they're wetlands.

On many old maps and fantasy maps, forests are drawn by sketching the tops of trees as if overlooking a forest, sometimes with little trunks shown in perspective below them at the lower edges. This is a very attractive way of showing forests in pen and ink, so we'll do that. Little squiggly shapes of various sizes, in clumps.

Mountains can be represented by jagged or rounded little marks, descriptives. You can get a more detailed on them than I did, especially if you have a distinctive mountain shape in the story or create one because a particular mountain scribble looked like an eagle's head or a big chasm. Hills are just a short curving shape. There is a lot of wild terrain on this map because I added more forests than on the sketch map.

I left off some labels like "elves" because they are already on the sketch map, but I could put them in. I could name the forest in the clearing I left, or use that as a feature itself, a reason there's a hidden clearing might be a meeting place, a sacred spot or a cursed spot. I left room for more labels.

Last, put a compass rose somewhere out in an ocean area that hasn't got any features. A little fancy lettering on it is fun, and you can get elaborate or simple with it. An arrow and N is enough.

Now that it's drawn, write!

Mario Zavala/Demand Media

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