Making Maps for Fantasy and Science Fiction
“Maps codify the miracle of existence.”
― Nicholas Crane
Making maps for fantasy literature have been a staple of the genre since L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. The tradition grew stronger with the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. These days, they’re practically a given. Readers love maps– but not all writers do. Some believe that maps distract from the story.
Ultimately, the decision to include a map on the flyleaf of your book is up to you, but for the tabletop game master, it’s a necessity. Your players need to know where they are, and where they’re going. Speaking as a reader, however, I adore maps. The more detail, the better. I like to know where I am in the story, as well as where I’m going. Maps give a deeper insight into the world which I’m being presented with, and helps bring a sense of realism, especially as a foreshadowing of events that might occur over the next ridge.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a great artist to map out your own world, all you have to be willing to do is spend some time on it. The original map for my first book went through several iterations before I settled on the final copy. The first draft was drawn on a post-it note when I was working late one night during the initial planning stages of my story. Then on a piece of lined paper torn out of a binder. At that point, I went digital and drew the landscape, borders and points of interest in Photoshop (this was well before I learned how to use Photoshop, mind you.) It was… bad. Not worthy of being included in any final version.
When I published, I had once more updated the map, this time creating it while following a mapmaking tutorial found at the Cartographer’s Guild, and then later, as a promotional tool, I spent a great deal of time creating highly detailed, labeled, full-color maps outlining not just each individual nation, but every province within the story world. I even took it to another level by creating city maps. I made sure to include the names of all major locations.
Now that’s a lot of work. But there are numerous tools and tutorials available online to help you achieve great-looking maps. Ideally, with your final map, you want to be using an image-editing tool like Adobe Photoshop, but not everyone wants to pay the $20 per month subscription fee. However, there is a free image-editing option in GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program.) Furthermore, there are some great tutorials available all over the web. We’ll provide you with some links on where you can find these tutorials and tools. In the meantime, I highly suggest registering for a free account at the Cartographer’s Guild so you can access many of these tutorials.
In addition, there are a number of procedurally-generated map applications available all over the web, many of which specifically designed for fantasy storytelling.
Making Maps for Fantasy and Science Fiction – Useful Links
This list is periodically updated as new links become known to us. Please feel free to suggest a link in the comments.
- Uncharted Atlas Fantasy Map Generator
- Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator
- Medieval Fantasy City Generator
- donjon’s Sci-Fi World Generator
Online Mapping Tools
- Fantasy maps and mapmaking tutorials by John Roberts
- Ascension Atlas Map Tutorial for Photoshop
- Tutorials at the Cartographer’s Guild
- Cartographer’s Guild Quick-Start Guide