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Whew – drawing is fun! (Not)

Ok — I am writing the next great fantasy masterpiece. And what do you need with a fantasy masterpiece?

A map!

Hell, even if it’s crappy fantasy.

Still need a map.

Fantasy fan-fic?


Squiggly lines and strange out-of-place mountain ranges, names like ‘Fooberpoolich’ and ‘The Mountains of Shoddymap’.

This is all well and good. I like maps. I need a map. My characters are going to move around the world, and I need a map to get distances, continent shapes, funny lakes shaped like groins — if I don’t know what my world looks like, how can I describe my world to you?

Flobo and his trusty dracodonkey traveled some distance to a place, maybe crossing some river or mountain range, or something.

Not all that convincing.

I am joking about all fantasy needing maps

But most do. Especially if any travel is involved.

So I would like to share with you, dear reader, some of the things I have found while working on my map.

Tectonic plates are king

Smarter people than me tell yours truly there are magic plates skittering to and fro beneath out feet. The upper layers of the planets crust are sliding plates that everything on the surface sits upon.

These plates are random looking patches of contiguous space when drawn on a map, moving in all directions, bumping and grinding like a disco gone awry.

  • Plates collide — Mountain ranges form as they squish against and slide under each other.
  • Plates separate — Giant ravines form, like the huge trenches in the ocean floor.
  • Plates rub — Earthquakes.
  • Plates under oceans and plates under continents interact making coastal mountains and other goodies.
  • Plates under the ocean dry humping each other ocean plates often cause ridges and volcanoes — and chains of islands.

Look at Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth. Beautiful, isn’t it? The map that spawned a million maps.

Map Comparison

(Mordor image modified from original at, an interactive map of middle earth, and the North and South America image is from Wikipedia’s article on plate tectonics.)

Look over at Mordor. See the near-rectangle of mountains?

Ain’t gonna happen, folks. Mountains form when plates collide. Mountains form in long, squiggly lines. To have a rectangular box of mountains, there would be some pretty funny plate tectonics going on — like a tiny plate being pushed from the north, south, and west at the same time, mere miles wide.

You don’t have to be a geologist to make a nice map, though. Check out this guys idea on how to quickly map out a great and realistic bunch of continents taking into account the interactions of these plates.

Continents are super crazy random

Take a gander at our planet. It’s like someone sneezed with a mouth full of tomato sauce.

Random shapes, random islands, nooks and crannies all over, peninsulas jutting out like rutting otters. Not a geometric shape to be found.

Avoid boxes and circles, always add broken bits and malformed peninsulas — even if you are doing a very very basic sketch, as I will talk about later, because sooner or later you may want to get that map whipped up into something way cooler than your crayon on cardboard masterpiece.

That’s where all the cool stuff can happen anyway — get your hero and the army of man-toads he leads trapped on a peninsula, cut off from help, and you have a good bit of conflict.

Pro-tip: Don’t try too hard, unless you are an art expert

Here is where I am right now. I have tried all sorts of thing, all manner of programs, to try and make a nice map.

But I don’t need a nice map.

Forget about these $89 mapping programs. Forget about the freeware alternatives with user interfaces so bad you look at pictures of warzones just to cleanse your eyes of its sinful memory. Forget fractal generators (more on that in a moment).

Open Gimp, Photoshop, Microsoft Paint, whatever — outline the basic and important bits of your world, even focussed just on the region you need for your story. Scratch in some bullshit mountains, work on some rivers with a fat blue brush, make sure you make your coastline interesting with crags and peninsulas, and plot out your important cities and zones.

Allow the current (IMHO) grand master of fantasy teach you: Check this out to see how Brandon Sanderson made his map for Elantris.

I love it. Seeing this has cleansed my brain-meat.

Fractals, by themselves, do not great continents make

This is related to my points before about software. Google fantasy mapping software or anything similar, and you will find all sorts of fractal world generators.

Scientific fact: Our world is full of fractals, and continents have fractal properties.

Kris’ corollary to that fact: Continents are not fractals, and pure random fractals don’t really look like continents.

You certainly can start with a fractal shape and go from there, and that would get you a nice, realistic shoreline to your continents, but you will need to edit these significantly to account for correct mountain placements, tectonic activity, odd bits of land like Italy, etc.

Use fractals if you want, just don’t click GO in some fractal mapping program, let it whip up odd landmasses for you including mountains that are in all the wrong places, and run with it.

Some basic rules:

  1. Mountains form on plate boundaries.
  2. Mountains almost never form regular shapes. Long, flowing, squiggly lines of mountains, usually many mountains wide, is what we see here on earth.
  3. Mountains erode. Round those bad boys out. The sharpest mountains are the newest, so keep that in mind.
  4. Rivers flow from mountains and high ground.
  5. Rivers almost never split, but are constantly fed from little tributaries, forking in reverse (gross).
  6. Rivers love themselves some lakes or oceans. That’s usually where they end.
  7. People built their cities near water in the olden-days. No water = no crops = dead people = necropolis.
  8. People also love coves and anywhere they can build a protected place for ships to dock.
  9. Passes through mountains are at a premium and would be very special to those who use it — read: guarded jealously.

I’m not an expert, but I hope this helps

Because typing this all out has helped me 😉

Do you have any great ideas or fancy tricks you use to create realistic, but quick, maps for your fiction?

Other posts in the series:

  1. Making My Map or OMG I SUCK AT DRAWING (September 9, 2013)
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Published inWritingWriting My Fantasy Novel