How to Create Maps for Sci-Fi and Fantasy

How to Create Maps for Sci-Fi and Fantasy

If you’re creating your own fantasy or science fiction world, there’s a chance you’ve tried to express it with a map. Maybe you drew it on paper, or even took it to the computer.

But how do you know if that map is… well, any good? Or if it makes any sense?

For today’s blog post, I interviewed the fantastic Heath Robinson, who has professional experience in cartography (that is, mapmaking). He has wonderful insights on how to approach cartography in a thoughtful, artistic way that can be help improve any project.

So grab your pencil, stylus, or drawing tool of choice, and let’s dive in!

Brianna: Welcome to StoryPort, Heath! I’m really excited about today’s conversation, because mapmaking is something I dearly love, and I’m always anxious to learn more about it.

Let’s start, though, with a little intro. Tell us about yourself. What do you do? And what brought you where you are today?

Heath: Right now I am a tabletop game designer. My brother and I run RAINN Studios. It is our own board game design and publishing company. We fund all of our projects through Kickstarter. I would like to get a writing career off the ground. I was a college professor for few years, but I decided to try creating something of my own. I’ve been working on that for more than a year now.

Brianna: Game designer, entrepreneur, writer, and college professor… wow! Not a list you hear every day! I understand you were a professor of geography, correct? What was that experience like?

Heath: I did teach geography and I was able to teach a wide variety of courses. I mainly taught technical courses such a geographic information systems, geographic problem solving, cartography, and web development, but I was able to teach other courses in human geography, world regional geography, and the geography of international conflict as well.

A close-up view of game pieces on a medieval-themed, map-based game board.
War of Kings, a board game Heath co-designed at RAINN Studios.

Brianna: So, you went from teaching (in-depth!) about maps, to making your own beautiful maps for board games. What’s your first step in making an original map?

Heath: If by original do you mean a map of a fantasy or otherwise made-up land? I guess it depends on its purpose and whether I am designing a world, or specifically trying make a map of that world. I come from a background where a map is a scientific document. So I tend to think a lot about the technical aspects of the map whereas most fantasy cartography does not.

I think I was first acquainted the problems of mapping a spherical surface on a flat sheet of paper when I got Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-Earth for Christmas as a child. She was a geographer and cartographer as well, and included notes about the projections and other technical aspects of the maps toward the beginning of the book.

A digital map of the fictional World of Warcraft
A map of the World of Warcraft, created by Heath for an academic article.

Brianna: Yes, that’s what I mean: a fictitious map for a fantasy or science fiction world. It seems like a lot of people making maps for novels or games treat them as art first, and as scientific documents second, whereas I would say they should be both. I’m going to ask you more about that topic in a minute, because I think it’s important.

But first, let’s say you’re designing a world. What’s your process?

Heath: I started my world building with the relationship between two important cities in the world. I wanted them to be roughly as far a part as Istanbul and Damascus. I started by laying that distance out in the orientation that I wanted. Then I thought about what kind of major travel challenges I want there to be between the cities (as in mountains, large rivers, deserts, etc.) and started to lay that out. So the world has grown from the geographic relationships between these cities.

This is important to nail down so that travel distances and times can stay consistent. This is important for whole armies and for messengers. There are always downsides to specifying things like this, at least in published maps. Once it is set, it is a further constraint to the story. But I think the advantages of knowing things like that far outweigh the disadvantages.

Brianna: That’s a really interesting approach: comparing distances on your map to distances between places in real life. I imagine that would be really helpful.

I would actually disagree that nailing down the measurements of your world creates storytelling constraints. With my own novel, I had so much more freedom when I finally established exactly how large my world was. Whenever my characters needed to travel somewhere, I didn’t have to guess how long their journey would take. So, I could focus more on just telling the story. 🙂

What do you think? Are there other advantages to this approach?

Heath: I actually agree with you on the much larger point and think it’s very interesting that you said it. The relationship between freedom and creativity is something that I’ve seen talked about in a lot of creative fields. Everybody seems to come down on the same side which is that constraints and structure do not inhibit creativity. They enhance it. It is great that you have found that too.

So, that is the big advantage of knowing things in advance. If everything is open, then nothing might get done.

A bird's eye view of a medieval-style, map-based board game.
Another view of War of Kings, a game Heath co-designed at RAINN Studios.

Brianna: That is exactly right! Definitely at the beginning, when you’re first inventing a world, you want to keep your mind as open as possible. Let your imagination create whatever it wants to, without criticism or restraint. But eventually, your world has to become practical. It has to have rules that you can work with. This will make it easier to write about, not harder.

I want to go back to something you said earlier, about a lot of fantasy cartographers not putting emphasis on the technical aspects of a map. For many of us, I think it’s easy to make the mistake of drawing a map in a way that looks cool, or that works for our story, but might not actually make sense. Personally, I’m a big fan of things being cool and realistic, so I’m always trying to avoid this problem.

Are there any common mistakes you see in fantasy cartography? Or, do you have any big-picture tips for keeping our maps more realistic?

Heath: I think the first question you should ask is who is drawing the map and who is it for? If the author is drawing a map for the reader it is going to look very different than if it is drawn by a character in the story for other characters. The quintessential example of the latter is probably Thorin’s map from The Hobbit. That was an “in world” map drawn in a very stylized style. It may not have been technically accurate, and yet it did everything it was supposed to do and has become very iconic.

When I taught cartography I always showed a map of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros. The version I had was prepared by HBO as a promotion for the Game of Thrones TV show, but you could tell it just didn’t look right. For one thing, it had a major river that suddenly appears on one side of the continent and ran all the way to the other side of the continent. To make a river do that there would have to be some major elevation that keeps it from draining into the nearer ocean and forces it to flow all the way across the continent. That was not present on that map. I think people internalize things like that which can make maps look “off” even if you can’t articulate why.

A digital map of the fictional World of Warcraft
Another map of the World of Warcraft, created by Heath for an academic article.

From a technical perspective, it is impossible for a map to show direction, area, and shape correctly at the same time. So even if you, the author, are trying to draw a very accurate map of your world for your readers, you are going to have to compromise. Maybe showing the shape of the continents and countries is very important to you. In that case, area is distorted. That will matter if you are trying to use the map’s scale to calculate how long it will take someone to cross a region, because the map won’t show that accurately.

I should say that is only true if your world is spherical and you are trying to draw a flat two-dimensional map. A fantasy world may actually be flat or cylindrical. In that case the problems of mapping it on a flat sheet of paper are greatly reduced. The world I am creating is neither spherical nor flat, but has a different shape all together. I haven’t figured out how to map it technically yet, but, I think the maps will be those drawn by the characters in the story, so the map will be constrained by their knowledge of the world anyway. They might not even know the shape of the world.

Brianna: I love what you said about “who is drawing the map?”, because I think many of us don’t consider that as much as we could. I need to mull over this myself. The concept of shape and distortion is something I need to evaluate more in my own world. *scurries off to update maps*

Let’s talk about aesthetics briefly. First, what tools or programs do you use to make your maps? And what might you recommend to someone on a budget?

Heath: I use Adobe Illustrator for mine, but that is just because I learned it years ago for for other reasons and still have it handy. A lot of fantasy maps you see online will have been done in Photoshop. If you are on a budget though, you can’t do better than free. Inkscape is a free vector-based drawing program and Gimp is the free raster-based drawing program. Either of them should do everything you need.

Close-up of a fantasy board game with magical game pieces and playing cards.
Incantris, another game Heath co-designed at RAINN Studios.

Brianna: There are many different artistic styles and looks that can be applied to a map. It can be colored or black and white, simple or embellished, painterly or realistic. All evoke a different emotion in the viewer. Do you have any general tips for achieving a “look”? When might we use one over another?

Heath: I would start by finding out what the technical limitations are for where the map is ultimately going to be published. The, design to those specifications.

For instance, you might think color can go anywhere today, but that’s not true. When I was teaching cartography for academic maps, there were still many scholarly journals that would only accept black and white submissions.

If you are going to self-publish a book, black and white is cheaper than full color, so your budget may be a factor. If you are going the eBook route, lots of eReaders only display in black and white. There are special techniques to designing black and white maps that produce much better results than just converting a color image to greyscale.

So, find out what the technical requirements of your publication are and then design to that. It is much better to do a good-looking map that fits seamlessly into your publication than to do a fantastic-looking map that becomes a poor-looking map when it is converted to the publication format.

For discussion…

Wow, this was meaty! I hope you learned a lot from this interview. What do you think about Heath’s approach to cartography? How do you make your maps? Leave a comment and let me know!

Also, be sure to follow Heath online (below) and check out all the cool projects he’s doing!

Heath’s blog:
Theophany Web Comic:
RAINN Studios:
Heath’s Twitter: @EHeathRobinson

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