How to make your own fantasy map in 4 easy steps

So, you’ve decided to make your very own fantasy novel/movie/video game/RPG/MMORPGTGIF. You’ve already planned out what kinds of unique and interesting creatures will live in your magical world: elves, dwarves, wizards, totally-not-orcs-even-though-they-definitely-look-and-act-exactly-like-orcs, and dragons.

Now, to continue your streak of originality, you want to make a map of your fantasy land, so everyone will know how well you planned out every single aspect and location in your fantasy saga and didn’t just make up a bunch of names and places off the top of your head.

To help you make sure your imaginary realm is as fantastical as possible, here are a few simple guidelines that every good fantasy creator must follow.

1. Set a limit, draw within it

Your map must always be located on the coast of some larger landmass that’s never fully shown. The last thing you’d ever want to do is plan out –let alone draw– the whole dang continent. You want to just share a sliver of the world you created, even though you’ll never actually need to talk about anything that happens outside of the confines of your map.

MIDDLE EARTH
Middle-Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien
TOLNEDRA
Tolnedra, David Eddings
Alagaesia, Christopher Paolini
Alagaësia, Christopher Paolini

Once you’ve laid out some arbitrary borders that fit perfectly into a nice, map-shaped rectangle, make sure the people who live in your imaginary world never mention any details about the surrounding land mass aside from vague descriptors, like “the lands beyond,” “the uncivilized world,” or “the place barely anyone of any importance ever goes to for no explained reason.”

Midgard
Midgård, V. M. Toivonen

Yeah, that’s about as far inland as we’ll ever need to go. Why would anything interesting ever happen beyond that point?

As you can see above, you typically want your coastline on the Western portion of the map, although some mavericks like C.S. Lewis like to change things up a bit.

Woah, there Clive! Going against the grain, aren't we?
Narnia, C. S. Lewis

Woah, there! Facing East? Going against the grain, aren’t we, Clive?

Just remember to never design or show anything that doesn’t fit on your original map outline. As far as you’re concerned, nothing important exists there anyway.

2. Waste yes, want not

Next up, you’re going to have to have a portion of your map designated for an empty, pointless wasteland. There’s no way your mythical people would ever even try to cultivate or establish cities in this one section because it’s already been designated as a wild land of chaos and mystery.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 9.21.24 PM
Middle-Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien

It’s called “The Northern Waste,” ’cause Tolkien was really just trying to fill in the rest of the map at this point.

More often than not, you want to put this section in the Northern part of your map to indicate that no sane person would ever want to live North of anything. You also want to label this place in such a way as to insult any person who could still be trying to live there, so choose names like,

“The Wild Lands of the North,”

Narnia, C.S. Lewis
Narnia, C.S. Lewis

“The Mountains of Ignorance,”

The Lands Beyond, Norton Juster
The Lands Beyond, Norton Juster

I wonder if the residents of that tiny town had any say in the naming process . . .

You can reuse “The Northern Wastes,” but just to be clear how uncivilized this area is, throw in “Barbarian Mountains” for good measure.

Wolfen, Domien De Groot
Wolfen, Domien De Groot

Also, make sure you don’t put any distinguishing items such as cities, landmarks, or even geographic features. Just leave the whole section blank so your audience knows how pointless this part of the map is.

Randland, Robert Jordan
Randland, Robert Jordan

No, there’s nothing up there! Of course we never checked, it’s too cold and barbaric! 

3. Screw up those seashores!

Since your map includes water, you’ll need to put in coastlines!

You’ll want to ensure your coastline is a jagged as you can possibly make it. Never mind that 90% of coastlines follow a general shape or pattern based on the movement of tectonic plates, just have those peninsulas and inlets jutting in every conceivable direction.

Temerant, Patrick Rothfuss
Temerant, Patrick Rothfuss
GREYHAWK
Greyhawk, Ernest Gary Gygax

The style you want to shoot for is “Kid trying to cut out a snowflake gets carried away with the scissors and now Christmas is ruined.”

FF12
Ivalice, Square Enix

And unlike planet Earth, which used to contain a single supercontinent that split up over billions of years, your landmasses should in know way look like they may have fit together at some point because they were made with magic or whatever.

Valcia, Stephen James Noski
Valcia, Stephen James Noski

The Aemerys peninsula looks like a wang because the wizards demanded it be so!

4. The power of The

Lastly, no fantasy world map is complete without a geographic feature named in this style: The [Random One-Syllable Noun].

The Reach.

Westeros, George R. R. Martin
Westeros, George R. R. Martin

The Spine.

Alagaesia, Christopher Paolini
Alagaësia, Christopher Paolini

The Ride.

Faerun, Ed Greenwood
Faerûn, Ed Greenwood

By adding the definite article, “The,” you’re making this part of the map seem a lot more pivotal than it really is. That way, no matter how ambiguous your one-syllable word is, the location suddenly takes on a whole new aura of importance . . . which rarely pays off since the place only really figures in to the story a couple of times.

Westeros, George R. R. Martin
Westeros, George R. R. Martin

Ah, The Gift. Everyone’s favourite Game of Thrones location.

Of course, you don’t have to use a noun, per se. You can go for an adjective like,“The Pale,”

Skyrim, Bethesda Game Studios
Skyrim, Bethesda Game Studios

a verb like “The Reft,”

Temerant, Patrick Rothfuss
Temerant, Patrick Rothfuss

or just use an obscure word for an abstract concept, like “The Eld.”

Temerant, Patrick Rothfuss
Temerant, Patrick Rothfuss

Oh, you’re talking about THE Eld. Now I get it. 

Ooh, and one more thing! Extra bonus points if you can slap on a big, fat desert right in the middle of nowhere with no surrounding geographic features that would actually allow such a region to exist.

Azeroth, Blizzard Studios
Azeroth, Blizzard Studios

Why is that large area so arid if it’s right next to the water?

Alagaesia, Christopher Paolini
Alagaësia, Christopher Paolini

Just right there, beside the forest? That’s where you put it? OK then. 

Alright, now your map of Alvaerinïmant is ready to go! Glad I could help you get your fantasy world up and running. Stay tuned next week when I tell you the eight secrets for creating a mythical language without having to rely on linguistic consistency or grammatical structure.

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9 thoughts on “How to make your own fantasy map in 4 easy steps

  1. You put in my map 🙂 I’m the guy who put the Barbarian Mountains right underneath the Northern Wastes 🙂 I have to say it’s funny and you make some good points. Of course the whole idea of the northern wastes is based on Canada.

    I do want to redeem Skyrim a bit here. I think “The Pale” makes sense. It refers to the days of Alfred the Great, the viking king who ruled over England once. The Pale was a kind of border you were not aloud to cross. Hence the expression of something being “beyond the pale”. It’s not an adjective.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your article!

    Like

  2. The only critique I have for this article is that the 2nd map shown by David Eddings only shows the detail of a small section of the map of the Belgariad/Malloeon series, as can be seen here: http://static3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20100210023613/davideddings/images/b/b7/BelgariadMap.jpg
    Tolnedra is located in the mid-west of the west continent, just above the red line)
    While I know that even these two continents continue further north and don’t show much of the land masses further, it is clear in the story that the continents feature nothing beyond that point other than tundra and arctic landscapes that eventually end in a bridge between the two continents.
    Other than that, nice article 🙂

    Like

  3. you do realize that there are some deserts in the world that lay next to coastlines and forests right? mostly valid points, i got a chuckle out of it and it helped me with my map.

    Like

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