I love maps, and let’s face it they are a staple of fantasy. Every fantasy book I open has a map inside of it, and I enjoy it every single time. It makes the world feel so much more real and immersive. It gets me excited about all the places the characters are going to go and makes me want to know more.
I also play D&D and I love when the DM unrolls the map or gives us one we can use. Maybe it’s because I’m a gamer, but exploring parts of a map is just so satisfying.
And what worldbuilder doesn’t want a map of their own? You spend all that time creating the darn thing, but it doesn’t have to exist as just text! Drawing a map is a HUGE part of the process, and it can be really fun!
But when you’re first starting out, it can be really intimidating. And I know from experience that my first attempts looked terrible. Thankfully I’ve learned a few things since then and found some excellent resources. So I decided to create a simple, easy-to-follow guide for making your first map.
I’m not a cartographer or geologist, so I’m not about to claim that this will give you a flawless map, but I think it hits the most important points. At the very least, you’ll have an excellent starting point, and you won’t have to rip out all of your hair to get it!
What You Need
All you really need is paper, a pencil and an eraser.
If you prefer to do it digitally, you can use Krita or sign up for a free Adobe account to get access to Photoshop CS2. If you have an Ipad or Samsung tablet there are lots of free apps you can use like Artflow or Autodesk Sketchbook.
There are also plenty of online mapmaking tools you can use as well, though my favourite, and the one I’d recommend, is Inkarnate.
Before You Begin
Write down everything you know about the world you want to create. Some things you might want to consider are:
- How big is your map going to be? A single country? An Island? A town? An entire world map?
- Places of interest, ideas for towns and cities
- Climate, means of transportation, the overall structure
It can be hard to know where to start when you’re staring at a blank page. Fantastic Maps has an awesome tutorial for drawing maps that employs the use of circles and ovals for designating different areas. They’re also much better at this than I am so I highly recommend checking out that article! With their method, they use the circles to denote different nations, but you could use biomes or tectonic plates to sketch out the shape you want to use.
If you’re struggling with size, this post on Reddit gives real-world examples of distance and how long it would take to travel on foot. Super helpful for visual learners.
If you’re picky about the icons you use, there are resources out there for you to use if you don’t feel like drawing them out yourself. You can find free vector images that are public domain, or you can purchase a pack to use. The ones from Fantasy Map Symbols are inexpensive and look absolutely amazing!
If you do want to draw them yourself, I’ve got a Pinterest board ready full of ideas for mapmaking icons.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to make up a ‘first draft’ map for another fantasy story I’ve been thinking about, and I’ll use that as an example. In case you were curious, I used Artflow for all of the images you’re about to see, as it made it much easier to get process images, but you could literally use anything. I purchased the full version because I use Artflow fairly often, but the free version of Artflow is more than enough to do exactly what I do here.
What I Know About My World:
This idea is still in its very early stages, so I don’t have much. What I do know is that it’s an isolated island with relatively xenophobic islanders and is steeped in magic that has helped it mysteriously flourish over hundreds of years. The population is sizable but not huge, and the terrain is mountainous.
Step One: Find the Shape
Whether you decide to go with the circle method or you already have a structure in mind, get it on paper. Find a shape that you like, that you think will work with what you already know about the world you’re trying to create.
To make my island I started with loosely defining where the plates were, then using the circles to give me a rough shape. Then I went over it again with the blue line to define the shape of my islands a little more.
Step Two: Define the Coast
You have your wonderful blob of a map in front of you but now we want to make it look more realistic, and the best way to do this is to outline the coast. Make it choppy and erratic – coastlines are NEVER smooth lines. Well maybe they might be if you’re heavily zoomed in, but when you have a massive landmass, it’s going to look choppy from a distance.
I zoomed in on my app and just went crazy with the lumpy edges for all of my landmasses. And don’t worry – even if it looks a little sloppy at first once you start adding more features and eventually colour, it will look a lot more like a map, I promise!
Step Three: Elevation
Next step is to draw your mountains. These will pop up wherever your tectonic plates collide. Not that you need to know where every single one is (unless you really wanted to), but it can be handy to have an idea of where the edges are. Islands are the result of plates pushing together or the result of volcanic activity so it’s handy to have that information when sketching them out.
As you can see, the mountains on my island roughly follow the edges of the tectonic plates they sit on top of. I also added a few smaller islands along those same plate lines because let’s face it – landmasses are choppy.
Step Four: Rivers and Lakes
There’s a reason why the mountains come first. There are two things you need to know about drawing water on a map:
- The flow of water will choose the path of least resistance, so it won’t travel uphill, rivers will merge but they won’t separate, etc
- Water always flows out to the ocean
For that reason I typically have lakes and rivers start in places of higher elevation and work their way towards the shore. Sometimes joining, but never parting.
This was meant to be a fairly small island so I didn’t want to go crazy with the rivers and lakes, but you can see that all the ones I’ve drawn in blue are heading from a higher elevation (mountains) and making their way to the ocean. Don’t be afraid to go deep inland with them either. Think of the rivers like the veins of the land. Just as the body needs blood, your fictional society is going to need water. So you have to know where to put it.
Step Five: Roads & Settlements
Now the fun part! Filling in all the places you can visit, and where the people live. The one thing to keep in mind here is that towns and cities grow in that area for a reason. They should be near water, for one. Water is essential for drinking, bathing, fishing, irrigating, etc. But there might be other reasons as well. It might be easily defensible, have fertile soil, or some sort of religious significance. Maybe it cropped up out of convenience – along a well-used trade route, perhaps? Consider where you’re going to put them and the relationship between the places around it.
I’ve only included cities, ports, and roads in mine, but you could do much more than that. Trails. Ruins. Mines. Farms. Shrines. Whatever you want to put on that map, you can. Just spend a moment thinking about where it would go, and why.
Step Seven: Final Touches
Now that you’ve got the basics down, you can go back and move stuff around, or add more. You can add towns or inns along roads, major ports, trails, farms, etc. Whatever you want! You can add forests or lakes, national borders.
I went ahead and added some colour while I was in the Artflow app, and refined some of the lines before I sent a copy to my computer. I added a bit of colour to separate the various biomes. I also went around the islands with a lighter blue colour to represent shores and the shallower waters.
Once I moved it over to Photoshop it was a simple matter of finding a free-to-use parchment texture (I recommend someplace like Pixabay) and adding in elements like the compass (also from Pixabay). I also went over the edges to make it look a little older and played with the colouring so it appeared more worn and faded. Not my best work but this whole map was done in less than 3 hours, so I had to make a few compromises. Then I made up some names for a few of the places and I had a workable map! Here’s the finished product:
Your map doesn’t have to be coloured either. There are some beautiful black and white maps out there. I would definitely do a search on Google or Pinterest to see what style you like!
I Want Your Feedback!
I love drawing maps, and I want to keep updating this post to create a library of resources for the prospective mapmaker. Do you have anything to add? Anything you want to know more about? Did you make a map of your own? Let me know in the comments!
And if you found this post helpful, consider supporting Alyssa Lost in Space by purchasing its caffeine-dependent writer a Ko-Fi!
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