4 Steps to Make Your Fantasy Map Great

This last November I kicked off what I called “world-building season” here on the blog, and today I’d like to pick up with one of the posts I promised to touch upon. Today’s topic is one that’s close to my heart, as I’m sure it’s close to the hearts of many fantasy writers: maps!

Nothing better encapsulates the grandeur of a fantasy story than a fascinating, intricate map. It was the map of Wilderland in The Hobbit that pulled me into fantasy books to begin with, and to this day when I pick up a fantasy book the first thing I flip to is the map.

In this genre built upon an imaginary world, a map serves as a foretaste of what is to come, hinting at the author’s setting, potential for story lines, as well as being a useful reference for the reader. Having a map at the beginning of your book can help draw the reader in, give them promises of what you plan to do with your world, and paint a better picture of what you have designed.

But what exactly makes a great fantasy map? What makes it work, and what doesn’t? In four basic steps, let’s dive in.

Step One: Have a clear vision of what your world looks like.

As applies to world-building, having a clear vision of what your world looks like is fundamental. Not all maps have to feature continents; some focus on cities, or smaller patches of land. Just make sure that it’s relevant to the story, so as to further draw in your reader.

Take a look at real-world geography, as well as the artwork of other fantasy map artists. This past post, by our contributor Melissa Berg, is an AMAZING reference. Build a frame of reference for yourself, so that you can best understand how the map should look and feel. Also be sure to check your own work and make sure you don’t contradict the details of your story, or change your continuity. Depending on the length of your work, it can sometimes be hard to keep track of all the small details, which is something that maps often call for.

Something that I do is build a rough-draft of my map as I write my story. Every time I come up with a new detail, I add it to this map outline so that I don’t become confused or leave something out. It looks a bit like a homunculus, but the point is all the names and spatial relationships are represented there, and handy for later reference.

Step Two: Your map is part of the story.

Often times, authors forget that the purpose of the map is to add to the story, not just to help readers avoid confusion. You are creating an appetizer to set alongside the main course of your story; not a menu.

The 1726 publication of Gulliver’s Travel’s featured a map of imaginary isles southwest of Sumatra, setting the tone of adventure for the book. Bernard Sleigh’s published a map of Fairyland in 1918, communicating on a more fundamental level a yearning for pre-war beauty lost:


One of my favorite childhood stories, Winnie the Pooh, had a map of the Hundred Acre Wood — a touch that made it instantly mesmerizing for me and eager to enter its story. And of course there is the Lord of the Rings map of Middle Earth, which often is used as the basis for all fantasy map-makers. But Tolkien, like Milne and Sleigh and Swift, was not creating the map just to make a map: it was to shape the story.

It goes a step further too. This great article shares Tolkien’s own description of how making a fantasy map creates story, and story in turn creates the map. The effect is much like M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands: “For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.”

When you begin the process of making your map, when you have all the tools necessary to its construction, bringing the same passion that you put into the story into the map is not only a chance to make a great map, but to make your story even better — and deeper.

Step Three: Aim for elegance, not complication.

A common problem that most authors get entangled in during their world-building phase is the danger of over-building. If you didn’t catch my November post on top-down vs. bottom-up world-building, here’s a bit more on the incredible balancing act that faces all fantasy writers: https://epicfantasywriter.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/world-building-what-makes-for-a-great-fantasy-setting/

Be careful of this issue when constructing your map. It can be easy to lose yourself in the creation, and your map can become swiftly over-crowded with detail, color, or embellishments that are not congruent. The balance between too-much and too-little in a map can be difficult to pinpoint, often at the expense of lost elegance.

How do you get around this? One thing I’ve found helpful is to reference other successful maps. When I’ve created maps, I’ve actually sketched the maps from other great fantasy books (Tolkien, Martin, Jordan, Brook, McKiernan, to name a few). In fact, I have several pages of a sketch book full of parts of these maps.

I especially love the elegance of George R. R. Martin’s map of Westeros. By that I don’t mean the official colored maps recently put out, but the original black-and-white maps in the books (here is a website that has high-quality scans of them for your viewing pleasure). The lesson for me with those maps is to not get carried away with fancy names. Martin’s use of names that could belong in an alternate version of our world is excellent. The Reach, Shield Islands, Bridgewater Keep, Horn Hill, Sharp Point, Cape of Eagles, The Fingers, Whispering Sound, Blackwater Bay, The Smoking Sea, Basilisk Isles … (I’ll stop here before this sounds like the name-dropping in a Jon Snow chapter from Dance with Dragons.) Each of those names tells a story of its own, and in the case of many of those, part of that story is told through the landmark it belongs with, and other surrounding lands. The elegance is the dialogue which emerges from the process, and if you can achieve that, then you’ve created the allure that pulls a reader in past the names and lines that make the map, and inward to the story waiting in the pages of your epic yarn.

Step Four: Explore, iterate, and deepen.

It is important that you always leave room for exploration in your map-making process. I’ve found that it’s the process of redrawing, much like the process of redrafting a manuscript, that leads to a better map. Each time, going into the redrawing process with willingness to make radical new discoveries and throwing out the firm boundaries of before is very important (again, the similarity to writing a new draft is striking).

I was commissioned to draw the map for a fantasy artist (Craig Munro, The Bones of the Past. You can view it here and while you’re at it, check out Craig’s book. It launches in May and if you love the Malazan books by Steven Erikson, this one will likely be right up your alley). During the process, I drew the map 4 times before arriving at the final. The first time, I collected detailed notes I’d asked Craig to write, and worked from a sketch of the world he’d provided. I then scanned the first draft and sent it to him, then asked him to print it and add more to the map based on whatever inspired him, as well as to provide me further information on the world. For each draft of the map, I approached the redrawing with as much creative freedom, and the intent to deepen the conversations on the page. The back-and-forth of my drawing based on being inspired by Craig’s added notes, as well as Craig’s chance to sit with each draft and see what creative juices percolated as he thought of further touches that would bring the world of his story to life, created a synergy that was responsible for the magic that comes through in the resultant map.

Of course, the principle at play here is to let step #3 be your guideline as you proceed through this step of deepening. The point is not to add complexity, but to get to deeper layers of your map. The complexity, in a sense, if what’s hidden in the space that the reader can fill in their mind. (Again, just like in the final draft of a book!)

What tricks and tips do you use for map-making? What are some of your favorite fantasy maps? What do you think makes a great fantasy map?

About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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4 Responses to 4 Steps to Make Your Fantasy Map Great

  1. Love maps and always have (have a board on Pinterest just for them). Even as a child, I’d sit on the floor with a book containing a map and study it for the longest time. It was its own adventure. My imagination would fill-in what I didn’t know about a place based on the information given. And then Tolkien’s map when I was fifteen. Oh wow. A serious map for a place that didn’t exist outside his books. I was enthralled.

    I blog on maps from time-to-time, most recently last week. More important, I make maps for myself, experimenting with styles that fit purpose and context. The detail I’d provide on a map for me is different than what I’d provide for the reader. Too, a map drawn by a character is different than one I’d provide as reference.

    There are (at least) several continents on my world of Ontyre, but there’s only a map for one thus far and it’s gone through many evolutions over the years. The last was in 2015 when I rebuilt it from scratch in Photoshop Elements, along the way changing features that had always irritated me. I’m at it again, this time fixing labeling and, more importantly, colorizing. Since I use layers I can turn the color on and off. Too, I’m adding the color on multiple layers so I can turn it on and off by region.

    I love your hand-drawn map. It’s perfect for epic fantasy and places the essential information at the forefront. As you say, the map is far more than about reference. It’s a visualization of a world, and it’s insight into geography, climate, and culture with a single glance.

    • John Robin says:

      Hey Christina, thanks for sharing on your map making journey. (And the map you shared over in Twitter is absolutely amazing!!) I’d love to hear more about how you make your maps in Photoshop Elements. Potential how-to blog post? World-building season is still in its prime here on the blog to hit me up in email or DM and let’s chat if you’re interested!

  2. Evan Loomis says:

    It’s great to hear more about world building, great article. Very well-made!

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