Writing tips #3: World building and map making

This thread is an experimental series, an accumulation of pointers and ideas from the perspective of an amateur writer. Naturally, take them as you will, but I’ve found them to work well for me. If anything, they serve as a public listing of thoughts and techniques. This section focuses on world building, mainly creating geography.

Not every fiction has a cartographic reference, nor is it a requirement for good work. However, it dramatically compliments the space where the story takes place. When done correctly, it provides several helpful benefits to both author and reader. Writers can reference it to plan out and keep track of how the story unfolds throughout their chosen world. It can also be a source of inspiration for new plot elements. For readers, it gives an extra dimension to visualize the motion of the story.

There are benefits to having a map in your story, whether it be a fantasy world,  a solar system, or even a fictional borough in New York City. Still, as a geographic and geologic major myself, I can safely say that it is a little more complicated than it seems, fiction or not. Here are some pointers to get you started:

  1. Readability – Above all else, ensure the cartographic diagram is clear and concise. This may sound like common sense, but choose a font that is not only fitting for your genre but also easy to read. This creates an added depth of immersion while giving both author and reader easy comprehension of the captions displayed. For example, on a fantasy map, try a more cursive font; for science fiction, go for something more digital-looking. If it’s a professional map for non-fiction, something simple and easily deciphered.
  2. Spatial balance – Leaving vast regions of empty or pointless spots takes away from the map’s impact, since every feature should have a purpose. If it doesn’t, you should probably remove it. One might argue that it adds additional depth to the product. Sometimes, when done correctly, this can be true. However, simplicity is also essential, and redundancy never bears good fruit. Be sure to balance out the extremes of detail and simplicity; equilibrium is a map’s best friend.
  3. Foundations – Your map is your custom creation so you can design it however you wish. There are specific guidelines to follow, although, they may seem like common sense again. For example, if its fantasy map, include symbols for towns, cities, roads, mountains, and so forth. Also try to include any custom symbols, which add flavor and uniqueness to your diagram. Trace out how your characters move around the world as you review your plot in your head. You may find yourself with new methods to fortify the plot’s progression. For professional maps, ask yourself if a landmark interacts with pertinent data; how does it play into the final report the map delivers? In a sense, both fictional and non-fictional diagrams are similar in that they both dictate a story.
  4. Legend – A map usually includes a small menu dedicated to unique symbols on the map and what they mean. This is an efficient way to customize your diagram while keeping the reader adequately informed. In addition to a menu for symbols, a north arrow and (if you want to go this far) distance bar adds even more information. Lastly, you can also include who it was created by and when, although this step is more for professional maps or archiving rather than fiction.
  5. Color – Certain maps do fine without color, but if you feel like going this extra step,  added hues only strengthen the product further. Stick with a small to moderate sized array of colors, to not overwhelm a reader when they first gaze upon it. You can use different shades of the same color.  The lineup I usually go with is:
    Green – grasslands/forests
    Brown – mountains/hills
    Blue – rivers/lakes/oceans
    Yellow – desert/wasteland
    Grey – city/town/ruins
    Black(speckled) – outer space
    Lastly, remember that when it comes to maps, anything is possible. These rules are not meant to be rigidly followed, but to act more as a guideline. In fact, bending them may lead to unusually positive results. Good luck mapping pioneers!


2 thoughts on “Writing tips #3: World building and map making

  1. Hello! First-time reader here! Good, concise points. Maps are easy to love! 🙂 Although, sometimes you also find an intriguing novel that actually does better without! I think Gene Wolfe managed this with “The Wizard Knight”, for example.

    Also, do you draw your maps by hand, or do you use graphic software? Or a combination? It would be lovely to see some examples of what you’ve done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, thanks for the comment! 🙂 You’re right that maps aren’t required for a good finished product. I’ve mainly worked with digital software like Arc GIS, Photoshop, and GIMP. There’s a lot of flexibility when it comes to maps; that’s what makes them so fun to do. I may post examples of my maps or other digital artwork some time in the future. Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

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