Fantasy Maps: A Gateway to Adventure

A Map of the Lord of the Rings

The other day I stumbled upon the map you see above. It had me thinking how maps play into stories, and how vital they are to the worldbuilding process. Not only do they offer a reference for author and reader, maps add depth, immersion to that universe. I’ve written on making maps in GIMP and Wonderdraft, and Inkarnate is another program I plan to look into

My Experience with Fantasy Maps

LOTR was one of the first fantasies that blew me away as a child. I was fascinated by the maps, the various regions, doodads, and the route that the hero took to fulfill his quest. Having a visual diagram helped a ton as I read through the story. It had me wondering what else existed in Tolkien’s universe. What other towns, dungeons, and landmarks lurked at the corners of Middle Earth.

So enamored was I, that I attempted several maps of my own. Shameless to say, they were little more than scribbles, but for my six-year-old brain, I was delighted.

To this day, I savor the chance to examine maps at the start of a novel. As a creative writer with a geography degree, maps connect with me intimately. I’m conscious of the north arrows, the scale bars, the balance of landmasses, color contrasts. Everything. Even the font used can evoke emotions.

Questions to Consider About Fantasy Maps

Maps are one of the only visual cues readers get in a novel. It’s a rare opportunity to paint a world. In some cases, it can also pull readers in—or lose their interest if you’re sloppy. Authors can use maps to their advantage and snare a reader, so getting a map correct can be as important as writing the story.

When constructing a map, ask:

  • Does the map serve a purpose for the story?
  • Is it clear and easy to understand?
  • The symbols, colors, fonts, and presentation—are they appropriate and complement each other?
  • Can readers use the map to enhance their experience?
  • Does the map evoke intrigue? Worldbuilding cues? A ‘wanderlust’ feel for an adventurous reader?
  • What is the overall impression of the map?

Advantages of a Mapless Fiction

This isn’t to say that having a map is a requirement, although it does help add to a story. But what about stories without maps? They lose out on a big opportunity, a chance to impress or draw the reader in early. Readers must then form an idea of the world in their mind.

Surprisingly, this can have its own appeal. A mapless world puts the geography more in the hands of the reader; and while some readers may dislike this, others won’t mind. Some may even enjoy it. If an author chooses to go this route, sundry hints about the topography are recommended. The author may lean heavier on descriptive paragraphs and dialog cues. This helps the reader amass pieces to what the land resembles. From my experience, the mapless method works better in standalone novels. Maps shine in epic trilogies, where the author can build multiple maps between installments, forming a detailed continent or world.

Personally, I love maps, and a picture is worth a thousand words. Quite literally in this case. A map can save a writer a lot of work. There are several easy-to-use programs and methods as mentioned above.

What Else Are Maps Good For?

Maps are a splendid way for authors to brainstorm. The act of building a peninsula may evoke plot ideas. These are crucial during episodes of writers’ block, when authors haven’t a clue how to proceed. Studying landmarks and geographical details on a map can inspire an author, or even serve as good R&R from the labor of wordsmithing. Authors may be taking a break from writing, but they are still worldbuilding. Still thinking. Still creating.

While maps may not be for everyone, they are a convenient, fun, and stimulating activity. I’ve pulled more plot ideas out of mapping than I have staring at a blank page. And for that, I will always be a cartographer at heart. In my own way. 😛

What are your experiences with fantasy maps? Do you like creating them? Studying them? What stands out the most to you in a map? Leave your comments below. Thanks!

Galleis, a Wonderdraft Map I created

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