Particularly in otherworldly fantasy, maps are a nearly ubiquitous feature on the inside pages of novels. As a reader, I enjoy following the quester’s trek across a wondrous landscape. I also use maps as a worldbuilder, but often run into frustrating snags with my own artistic limitations and detail oriented personality. Luckily, there are approaches available that don’t rely solely on personal artistic ability.
Keep it Simple
I am always awed by intricate, beautiful maps and have seen many that qualify as works of art. However, being a work of art is not a requirement for being a useful tool. Additionally, being too focused on the artistic elements of a map can take attention away from other equally important aspects of worldbuilding. So, give your map permission to be simple and functional. A map’s main purpose is to show where stuff is and help navigate from point A to point B. The visual details don’t have to be delicious for that purpose to be fulfilled. If you’re creating a map as a worldbuilding tool, do you really need mountains with a shaded relief layer, or will basic tepee peaks work fine? If it means you can spend more time on parts of worldbuilding that you excel at, I recommend sticking with the latter. The details can come to life in the storytelling.
There is also vast, sometimes overwhelming, amount of online tools and computer programs out there for artistically challenged world builders to use. In all that selection, I still haven’t found one that can take the image directly out of my head, add in geologically accurate weathering, and print out a frame-worthy rendition of my world for free, but it’s possible my expectations there are a tad unrealistic. Short of that, there are lots of online map generators to meet your basic map making needs. Here’s a sampling of helpful resources:
- Inkwell Ideas has a selection of generators, mostly on the scale of cities and dungeons. It also has a free tool for download that creates icosahedral (hexagonal tiles) maps. The tool requires Java, and creates a starting template based on a few user inputs which then can be customized further within the tool.
- donjon has a few different generators geared to different needs, from dungeons to planets.
- Cartographer’s Guild has a lot of resources for finding tools and tutorials for learning how to do your own maps. It’s a good place to get information on software, ask questions or hire help.
If you’re looking for something more specific than a random map there are programs out there for creating maps with more user input. They usually aren’t free, though many have demo versions to try. My experience with them is that the learning curve on drawing a digital map is steeper than that for pencil and paper mapping.
A second option when you want to be more involved, is to get help from an artistically gifted friend. For lots of people in the speculative fiction community, drawing maps is a fun and not at all frustrating part of worldbuilding. They might be thrilled for the opportunity to do a map with you.
Embrace Randomness and Mistakes
It can be difficult in worldbuilding to capture the dynamics of a living world, which are always changing and evolving. Worldbuilding, though, is controlled and planned. If you don’t think of it, it doesn’t exist, and the human brain is wired for patterns. Mistakes can be a great way to break these patterns and inspire something that’s both richer and truer to life.
In How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card shares an example:
…there was one gate that, in the process of drawing, I had accidently drawn with no gap between the two towers that guarded it. Even after slightly redrawing the towers, there was no gap between them. Unless I resorted to Liquid Paper, that entrance to the city was spoiled…So I thought–what if this gate has been permanently closed off?
For Card, this mistake in drawing evolved, with a fair amount of creative development, into a foundation for his fantasy novel Hart’s Hope. However you decide to create your map, this way of thinking applies. If you let it not be perfect, you might get something even more interesting than you originally thought.
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