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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Wonderdraft: A Mapmaking Tool for Writers, Artists, Gamers, and More

A while back, I did a post on GIMP for fantasy mapmaking. Since then, I’ve experimented with another program, Wonderdraft. Like its kin, Inkarnate, Wonderdraft has some useful tools for building that beautiful, jaw-dropping map just past the cover title of a novel.

Wonderdraft is software purchased online that can produce maps with a wide variety of styles and settings. Unlike GIMP, Wonderdraft is more specialized for map making, and Inkarnate more so. From what I gathered:

  • For clever artists and techno-geeks: GIMP
  • For mapmakers, writers, casuals: Wonderdraft
  • For hardcore DnD GMs, players, game designers: Inkarnate

But overall, it’s up to whatever suits one’s interests and goals. I’ve seen writers produce excellent maps with Inkarnate, and GMs work wonders with Wonderdraft.

What Makes It Unique?

Wonderdraft stands out with its versatility and community-driven addons. Moreover, the software requires a single payment of $30, while Inkarnate is $25 a year, and GIMP is free. For its price, Wonderdraft brings a truckload of options for mapmakers, with easy-to-learn tools that anyone can understand. The software is also offline, installed on a computer, whereas Inkarnate requires a wifi connection last I checked. GIMP also has a learn curve if someone wants to use it for mapmaking.

To summarize, Wonderdraft is:

  • Simple and easy to use
  • A one-time $30 payment to own for life
  • Community support, addons, and more
  • Offline access

To begin, open the program. Select new highlighted in the image below. A menu appears with settings for the new map! Go with the defaults. If a computer is powerful, it should run the higher resolutions without an issue, otherwise it will lag.

A user can play with the styles and templates, for each has a different feel and can be changed later.

For this tutorial, I’ll go with the default settings, the theme being Terra. I’m greeted by a menu of options as seen below. First I selected the landmass wizard to the left. A menu popped up on the right.

The landmass wizard is a tool that auto-generates a randomized piece of land every time it’s used.

This is the landmass I got from the wizard. To adjust the preferences for the landmass generated, play with the menu options on the right. Next, I’ll color the land to give it depth using the landmass color brush. I used the jungle palette for this, but it can be anything that suits the color scheme of the map.

Custom colors are also possible using the brush tool. Select brush size, opacity, and velocity as desired.

Next, I added in some water for realism. Using the lower landmass tool I gouged pieces of the landmass. The result is a series of lakes. The raise landmass tool does the opposite: it creates land from water.

The mountain brush is self-explanatory. With this tool, there are a plethora of mountain symbols to pick from. I went with transparent mountains, which match the color of the landmass.

The symbol tool is where the fun starts. Everything from buildings, directional arrows, towns, and cities are here. Using the symbol scale, I set the relative size of each object. Custom and transparent colors are also an option.

I added in some yellow landmass in the upper left.

The label tool is where I put my captions for each symbol or land region. Various fonts, font sizes, and colors are available. I can set the text curvature, auto-generate names, and add in bright font outlines to bring out certain captions.

I selected the frame tool below to add in a border for my map. It isn’t required, but it looks fancy, no?

The box tool within the labels tool creates legends and cut-outs for important information in the map. Below, I used it to credit the author.

Played with the theme tab along the menu at the top. Switching from terra to pastel produced the following result below. While the map looks better, the directional arrows faded into the background. I left it in to serve as an example; be sure to take this into account whenever switching the theme or color scheme of the map.

And with that, the map is—relatively speaking—finished!

Wonderdraft is a fantastic tool that is easy to use, as seen in the tutorial above. There are yet more tools included in the software, in addition to community contributions and addons that expand on Wonderdraft’s capabilities. For only a single $30 payment, Wonderdraft is gift to creative writers, artists, and gamers.

I’ve created a couple maps for my upcoming novel, Blade of Dragons, plus some custom fantasy maps that popped into my head. Each one was a blast to make.

With that, I hope you’ll give Wonderdraft a try. Have any other questions about Wonderdraft? I may be able to answer, so leave them in the comments below. Enjoy!


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Making Fantasy Fiction Maps in GIMP: Tips and Tricks

Crafting a map for a fictional universe can be a handy resource for readers. Not every fiction has a cartographic reference, nor is it a requirement for good work. However, when done correctly, a map benefits both author and reader.

In this article, I’ll give an example of how I create my maps. You can take what you find appropriate and apply it to your projects. Hopefully, this tutorial will get you started. It may be a bit complicated and technical but bear with me.

Setting Up

You can use whatever media you want to design your map. I use a free program called GIMP. Set your image borders appropriately, and use a DPI of 300×300, in case you ever print out the map. Search under advanced settings for this feature.

Layer 1: The Background

When you have your blank canvas set up, first address the background. My personal preference is a basic fill tool. Your mileage may vary, depending on what kind of background your story needs. Most maps are continents, so they require an ocean or blue background.

Something like this:

AtlasMapTutorial1

I did a fill command in GIMP for the ocean backdrop here, then added some darker shades to indicate ocean depth.

Layer 2: Landmass

The next layer I work on is the outline and general fill of the land. Choose a yellow, peach, or brown color that resembles dirt or clay—or do whatever you want of course—for the land color.

AtlasMapTutorial2

You can use a pathing or pencil tool to create the black outline of the land, as shown, then use the fill tool. Most land isn’t perfect or smooth. Go for jagged edges along coasts or coves to simulate water erosion. You can also get creative and design fragment islands.

Layer 3: Land Color/Features

With the general land layer in place, you can focus on the more detailed facets of your map. Color coding. This step can be done in several ways, but in my example, I use pure color to indicate trees and mountains.

AtlasMapTutorial3

I used a light green to represent grasslands, dark green for forests, blue for lakes and rivers, brown for mountains areas, and white-brown for snow. Select all of layer 2 with a wand tool, so you don’t create color outside the landmass.

For the water masses, I went back to layer 2 and erased parts of it. Doing this allowed layer 1 to fill in where lakes and rivers lie.

Layer 4: Additional Land Details

This is another optional and flexible step, depending on what you want for your map. I added redundant mountain figures and then floating islands here. This gave the map more depth.

AtlasMapTutorial4

Here’s a tip: create one mountain figure and then use the clone stamp tool to easily replicate it. This makes it a lot easier! 🙂

Layer 5: Landmarks

Now that you have your land finished, it’s time to add landmarks! What do I mean? Cities, castles, special areas, and so forth. No, you don’t have to draw an entire castle—use symbols to represent them.

AtlasMapTutorial5

I used simple dots with minor details. You can certainly be creative with this and draw one small castle—then, using the clone stamp tool, replicate it wherever.

Layer 6: Map Legend

Every map needs a legend—a reference to tell readers what your landmarks mean. A north arrow or distance bar is also handy. You can make one yourself, or download a free-stock photo.

AtlasMapTutorial6

Position your legend so that it doesn’t overlap over map details. Choose a location where there is a lot of “empty space”; this will add visual balance to your map.

Layer 7: Captions

You need captions that specify major or minor points on the map. Include text for your legend, a title, and any additional information a reader should know. A small bit about who authored the map is also good.

AtlasMapTutorial7

In this example, broader or more critical areas have a larger font size, while minor or smaller areas have a lower font size. If I were to do this over again, I’d probably make the font size for cities a bit larger, but at the same time, I don’t want to crowd the other map details with text. On an ebook or actual copy, the text would scale larger, but in the thumbnail here, it’s smaller.

Also consider using New Times Roman, or Courier. You want text that is easy to read, not necessarily fancy ones like I tried above.

Try adding in a background behind certain captions to improve readability. Don’t make it too sharp, just enough to accentuate the caption’s letters. Notice the difference below:

Layer 8: Border Details

Try adding in some special effects to your borders. This will help your map stand out! Maybe mist or fading out of the ocean. I went with scroll parchment.

Other Things to Consider

You could also add in fantasy details like sea dragons swimming in the ocean, or maybe other mythic creatures that add an “ancient” feeling to your map. Clouds with shadows are nice too. Go wild! Remember, this is your map and fictional world.

Creating maps is a fun activity that adds important detail to your story. A map can be a wide variety of things—and the example above is just a few of them. Remember, there are thousands of ways to design a map, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.

I hope this article has helped get you started with the map making process. Cheers. 🙂


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