Building your world: making maps
Are you also one of those people who have a poster of Middle Earth at home and can stare at it for hours? And you want to make one yourself, but preferably a little more geologically sound? Look no further, this is the post for you!
There are many ways to draw a map - the most creative one I know involves throwing beads on a piece of paper, then draw a line around them and call that a continent. I'll share my map-making method with this tutorial, which will do things a little differently; it will show you what processes shape a planet, and if you understand those, you'll understand how your world works - so technically, this tutorial will be about what goes where and why instead of how to draw pretty lines on paper.
I'll admit, this post is quite a geological infodump, but I'm sure you'll find information in here that is useful to you!
Step 1: is it Earth?
Wait, what? Weren't we supposed to make a fantasy world? Well, yes, but it will be so much easier when you have something to compare it with. Earth's place in the solar system, its axial tilt, its orbit, its sun, its atmosphere, its moon, its geology - all influence the green and blue orb we know. Change this, and your world is going to look different. For the sake of simplicity, this tutorial will focus on Earth-like planets. 99% of all fantasy worlds are pretty much Earth-2.0s, after all. Besides, if you know how Earth works, you'll better understand what will happen if you change one of Earth's characteristics. And our planet is complex enough anyway...
Step 2: Plate tectonics
Tectonic plates are sheets of rock moving around on the planet's surface. Earth's plates are between 15 to 200 km thick and move with the same speed as a growing fingernail, though some move faster than others. Not all planets have plates as active as Earth's, though, so you can play with this quite a bit. Anyway, for an Earth-like fantasy world, get a piece of paper and start drawing random shapes on it. Be aware that the world is round, so make sure that the borders match each other.
There are two types of plate: oceanic and continental. The oceanic ones are dense and thin, the continental plates light and thick. These plates move in a number of ways:
- Transform boundaries: two plates grind past each other.
- Divergent boundaries: two plates move away from each other. This happens often with oceanic plates. New bits of plate get born at the rift, so it's not like the Earth is opening up under our feet there.
- Convergent boundaries: two plates ram into each other - or one dives under the other (subduction). Usually, it's an oceanic plate that dives under the other because it's denser. When the other plate is continental, you'll get mountains at the landward side, and a very deep trench in the ocean. The subducted plate will sink into the mantle and melt.
- A combination of the above.
Now, go back to your tectonic plate drawing and add little arrows to point out their direction. Mark where plates are moving apart and where they bump into each other. Plates can change direction a bit, but they cannot spread out of nowhere, so to say. You can also go one step further with this: draw plate boundaries that are no longer active, or draw continents that used to be connected (like how Africa and South America used to be stuck together, but drifted apart). I didn't do these things here though, to keep things simple.
This is a little example I made in a short amount of time - meaning it lacks detail and probably has errors here and there. Anyway, the blue indicates divergent boundaries, the brown convergent boundaries. See the central plate? It has no arrows, because it's pretty much stationary compared to the other plates.
Step 3: Continents
Like I said before, some types of plate boundary occur more often in oceans than others. Divergent boundaries usually come in the shape of mid-oceanic ridges, which, as the name suggests, can be found in the middle of oceans. I indicated those in blue on the map, so I know that oceans should go around there.
The convergent boundaries (in brown in my drawings) have the tendency to create mountains, so that's a likely place to find land (those mountains can also stay under water, though, so it's not a solid rule. Actually, I think you can find an exception for everything I say; this is simplification at its finest). If you went for the die-hard route and made inactive convergent boundaries, then you'll find mountains there as well. These mountains will be old though, so erosion 'ate away' their peaks and lowered them. Perhaps they are so old, you cannot call them mountains anymore.
Now you know where land and water are most likely going to be; time to draw a line to separate the two. This is what I find the hardest, because sometimes you can use your tectonic plates as a guide (for example: the west coast of South America pretty much follows its plate boundary), but you can also get something as messy as Western Europe. When a subduction zone is near, the coastline has the tendency to follow it, though. Try to determine if you want your land to be far away or close to such boundaries; far away means you get a gently sloping land, with a large distance between the nearest mountains and the (shallow) sea; close by means you go from mountains to a deep sea pretty much immediately. Do you have something in mind that fits a certain country better? Try to think of it now. Also, don't be afraid to draw a new version of your map when things do not work out. I've moved entire continents around because I wasn't happy with them, so this certainly isn't something that goes right the first time.
So this is what I came up with - and I would change it if I had the chance. A piece of land locked between two mountain ranges? That somehow ended up looking like North America? I was hoping I could make something more creative. You should take a look at Earth's version of this, it's far prettier! It also made me realise that my subduction zones should be in the ocean, featuring a very deep oceanic trench just in front of the nearby continent (that trench is a great place to hide sea monsters, by the way). The plate boundaries will not be featured on the final map, though, so no one will see they are a little off.
Step 4: Climates
For the love of biodiversity, don't skip this step by saying your planet has only one climate. You can't have that (except if your world has a very thick atmosphere and is called Venus, but we were going to stick to Earth-look-a-likes). You see, a climate is just the average weather over a long period of time, and temperature is an aspect of that. The temperature depends on the amount of solar radiation - not the distance of a certain location on Earth to the Sun! You might be closer to the Sun at the equator than at the poles, but considering that huge distance between Sun and Earth, it's not going to be significant.
So, radiation. When the sun's rays hit the Earth, they will come in perpendicular to the Earth's surface around the equator (it differs a bit per season). At the poles, that light will hit the ground at an angle. A single beam of sunlight at the poles needs to heat a rather large area because of this, making that place quite cold compared to the equator. Therefore, even an ice planet like Hoth must have climate differences, meaning that it's cold at the equator, but super cold at the poles.
I start with my climate zones by colouring the land is if it is a horizontal rainbow: pinkish purple for the cold polar regions, light green for temperate climates, yellow for deserts, and dark green for the tropics. This is terribly simplified when you compare it to Earth's climates, but you have to start somewhere, eh? Also keep in mind that climate zones do not have hard borders; the land gently changes from one into the other.
Now, these climate borders will be affected by the presence of water, the temperature of said water and elevation. How higher the land is, how colder it's going to be, which causes a change in climate just like latitude does. As you can see in my drawing below, I've extended the cold 'polar' zone to follow the mountain ranges. try to keep in mind how high your mountains are; not all peaks are high enough to be covered in snow. Now, water has some kind of stabilising factor on climate; it takes a long time to heat up, but when it's warm, it releases heat slowly. This makes the winters relatively warm and summers quite cold. Ocean currents bring hot/cold water to areas that otherwise wouldn't be hot/cold. This explains why large parts of Europe are warm in winter, even though it's quite far north; we have the Gulf Stream to keep us warm.
There is also this thing called wind. See the little arrows in my drawing? those are the dominant wind directions. I can't draw arrows well, so go here for a better version. As you can see, I copied this from Earth's winds, whose atmospheric circulation is powered by solar radiation and thermal dynamics. It's a complicated story I won't bother you with... But do you notice how these winds and climate zones correspond? This circulation is the reason we have rainforests bordered by deserts, bordered by a temperate zone, etc.
If the dominant wind blows from sea to land, they will bring moisture, but not so much the other way around. Also, if those winds bump into a mountain range, they'll create lots of rain in front of it, but a rain shadow at the lee side. A little exception form tropical rainforests; they are always wet, as the name implies, because they create their own rain. Try to determine which locations are wet and which ones are not. It's an important detail for the next step. There might be seasonal patterns going on, with places having dry seasons and monsoons and such, but those will not be big enough to influence my map.
The colours of the 'horizontal rainbow' are the climate zones. Pink/purple indicates the cold polar regions, light green are temperate climates, yellow (hot) deserts, and dark green are the tropics. Of course, there are more climate zones than this, and keep in mind there is a transition when you go from one to the other.
The arrows indicate dominant wind directions and the dotted areas are places with a relative high amount of rainfall. Areas without dots outside the yellow area could be so-called cold deserts, if their precipitation is very low.
I no longer need the divergent plate boundary zones, by the way, so I got rid of it. I kept the convergent one, though, which now looks like a dark shadow.
Step 5: Rivers (and forests, volcanoes, swamps, lakes, and other natural details...)
Now you know how wet certain areas are, you'll know where you can expect lots of rain. You also know which areas are high and which ones are low. That gives you enough information to draw rivers.
I want to make a special blog post about rivers as they are far too complex to be mentioned here, but for now, remember this:
- rivers flow from high to low places.
- the branching pattern of a river looks like a tree: you have lots of tiny tributaries upstream (the canopy) that come together in a single river (the trunk). Places with almost no gradient causes the river to silt up quickly, so the river often forms multiple branches here. This is usually the delta (the roots). If your river splits up at a different place, you may want to redesign the thing (it can happen, but it's rare and of a temporary nature).
- rivers move. They cut off their own bends, they abandon their own channels and form new ones. Especially in deltas, things get quite lively, and a channel can get born and abandoned in a thousand years or so (which is a long time for us, but perhaps not for your average elf). These details are to small to see on a world map, but it's good to keep in mind that what you are making is just a snapshot (that applies to many other aspects of worldbuilding).
- Rivers can flow through dry areas, as long as they are fed with water upstream. It's possible for them to dry up here. This can also happen seasonally.
There are other things besides rivers, of course. You know your climates, meaning you can figure out fitting vegetation. Go draw those tiny little trees you can find on every fantasy map - I suck at those, so I didn't do it. Sorry. Same goes for lakes and volcanoes: these also pop up at certain places. For lakes, you need stagnated water (so no downward slope) and volcanoes have the tendency to stay close to tectonic plate boundaries. Perhaps your world has suffered from a volcanic eruption so big it scarred the land. Or it got hit by a meteorite! Adding some natural drama is so much fun!
Rivers! I'm afraid I didn't draw anything else... Anyway, I made sure my rivers had a source of water and ran downhill - those shady areas are my mountain ranges. These rivers are fed by rain, by the way, but you can have underground bodies of water as a source as well.
Step 6: Cities and other unnatural influences
There is a reason I pointed out rivers a lot in the previous step; humans like them. We have the tendency to build cities along rivers and coastlines, so unless you have a race that does things differently, your cities will probably end up there too. And guess what, I've made a blog post about city locations you can read if you need more information, so I can keep this text rather short. Yay!
Also, this is the moment to think about the impact your race has on its environment. Has it cut down entire forests, for example? If yes, you need to erase those little trees you made in the previous step (sorry...). Has it dammed rivers and turned land into water? Or water into land? Used magic to blow up an entire continent? Perhaps some of these things are too small scale for a world map, but they will certainly show up when you zoom in.
The tiny red dots represent cities. Of course, there are probably many more of them, but let's say these are the most important ones.
Step 7: The finishing touches
Now it's the time to name things. I usually do that like this:
- I determine the culture and language of a certain area.
- If that area speaks a conlang, I just mix and match letters until I have a word that sounds like it's coming from that language. I'm the kind of person who doesn't put much time and effort into conlang though...
- If the language is an existing one (or a very well-developed conlang), I'll name it after features in the landscape. That's something we do/have done quite a lot, though some toponyms are so old that you can't tell what the thing is what the town was named after anymore. I've made a post about naming cities this way, which shows quite a few examples.
Done? Then please add a scale bar! I really need to see those more often in fantasy stories - preferably with a unit I understand. It makes such a huge difference; fantasy maps have the tendency to be less detailed than ordinary maps, despite all the little doodles of trees, mountains and villages. Those mountains and trees are drawn bigger than they truly are, and usually, only the most important cities/villages end up on a map. It takes away the sense of scale. How can you tell if you are looking at a single province or an entire country? And while you are at it, add a nice north arrow. 'Up is north' is a rule when such an arrow is missing, but it looks so nice to have one.
Then finally, give your map a fancy look. A paper texture makes even my crappy map somewhat nice to look at.
It's a great map. It truly is. The greatest ever. *snorts* I'll name this world Sarcasmia.
And now you have a map! Congratulations for making it to the end if this post!
Does that mean you are done? Nah! This map will probably be the first of many. I don't know about you, but I constantly alter my maps to fit the story. I've moved towns and rivers, altered coastlines, and added mountains. The steps I mentioned here are just to give me a general idea of the world, but when I write, I need to zoom in and figure out the details I haven't thought of yet. For example, many of the important locations in my story take place in temperate climate zone, yet they all look very different. Sometimes that forces me to alter the map. If you want to know what the little details are that make a certain landscape so distinctive, then check out my other worldbuilding blog posts. Maybe I've discussed the landscape you are looking for!
Good luck with your map making journey! And feel free to share links to your maps with me, or contact me if you are stuck with yours (not that I know everything, but then we will be stuck together and that's much more fun).