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Fantasy mapped

It's a common part of a fantasy story: a beautiful hand-drawn map at the beginning of the book. I think maps are great, especially when they have such an old look. It makes my inner artist happy. My inner GIS specialist (someone who works with geographic data and makes modern maps) sometimes thinks it can be better, haha! But when should you add a map? And what should it look like?

Goal and user

The purpose of a map is to convey certain information to the user. A map showing the habitat of the common brimstone butterfly is not going to tell you what the capitals of European countries are, for example. Everything on that map contributes to that goal. People who know me may be aware that I get slightly hotheaded when I see a map without a scale bar. Yet there are maps where it is fine if this is missing. World maps don't have a scale bar because there simply isn't a scale that works for the entire map. After all, the earth is round, and a round shape is difficult to capture on a two-dimensional plane (which is why Greenland looks as large as Africa on many maps). But also the map below, where the size of countries depends on the use of their domain name, wouldn't benefit from a scale bar:


Most fantasy maps are political maps with a pinch of topography. These types of maps show countries and (capital) cities with a few other elements such as major roads, mountains, and bodies of water. The purpose of these types of maps is to make it immediately clear what you can find where and what the domains of power are. Since most fantasy maps serve as a signpost when characters travel from A to B (which makes a scale bar crucial), this is a great choice... For the modern reader as the user of the map. The characters themselves benefit a lot less, as they prefer a map with a lot of detail. Which roads should they take? Are the roads safe? Or easily accessible? Where can they find an affordable hostel? The example below is such a travel map, the Tabula Peutingeriana. This is a schematic representation (almost 7 m long) of the road network and the staging places in the Roman Empire. The map runs from Great Britain to India, but good luck recognising those countries... Only when you look at individual roads does the map become (somewhat) readable.

Go here for a large version.

But yeah, we don't draw maps for characters. The example above wouldn't even fit in a book, haha! No, we draw maps for the reader. And because we are used to drawing maps in a certain way, we draw fantasy maps in that very same style. We use north as the top of the map, for example, and we're so adjusted to this that many fantasy maps simply copy it. They often don't even have a north arrow (my inner GIS-er frowns at this). Distances are accurately displayed (as far as this is possible on a flat surface while the world is round), and the land gets more attention than the sea. But this has not been the case for all cultures. These maps will probably stir your imagination:

It might not look like it, but this is a coastline cut from a piece of wood. This is a map you can't only see, but also feel. Bron:

This is a map from an archipelago, but don't ask me how to read it. These maps are so unique that only the mapmaker understands them. Bron:

So to determine whether or not you need a map, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the reader: can they get important information from a map that the story itself can hardly tell? And what kind of information is that? Nine times out of ten it will be about important locations within a continent, country or city, but secretly I am much more curious about the SFF book where the habitat of the common brimstone is crucial information, haha!

Artistic styles and feel

So fantasy maps are made for the reader... Is that why they all look a bit alike? Because let's be honest, this is the case.

The answer: yes and no...

As I mentioned above, fantasy maps are often political maps with some topography, made for the reader. So the things a map shows and the way the map is projected are pretty similar. Variation must come from the drawing style, but here too there are many similarities. Forests and mountains are often represented by mini-drawings of trees and mountain peaks, for example. Maps look like they were drawn with ink and a quill pen. In other words, they look a bit like ancient existing maps, sometimes even featuring a dragon or sea monster to mark the boundary of the known world. This is great, as it contributes to that medieval feel that you see a lot in fantasy. I don't know which fantasy map was the first in this style, but it has become the standard. You would almost forget that a fantasy map can also look different. Which brings me to my favorite map...

A map of Gondor, Rohan, and Mordor from my 1970s edition of the Lord of the Rings. This makes me so happy. A solid 9 on a scale of 10. It would have been 10 out of 10 if the scale bar hadn't been forgotten... Even Tolkien isn't perfect. Anyway, this map looks quite similar to the usual fantasy map, with one important difference: it doesn't use mini-drawings for the mountains, but contour lines, which give so much more information. You see not only the mountain peaks but also gentle slopes. Moreover, you know exactly where each mountain peak is. Is that information so useful for a story? It usually isn't. You can even argue that contour lines make a map more difficult to read. But well, as an earth scientist I do like that extra info, so contour lines make me happy. Cartographers have long struggled with representing a third variable, height, on a two-dimensional plane. Here you can read a nice article about old elevation maps:

Despite the contour lines - which are a relatively modern thing on maps - my 1970s edition still fits the style of the book perfectly. The font used and the hand-drawn lines provide give make it look old. There are many other ways to give your maps a different look. Think of the use of color, shading, symbols, font.... I think I could fill a blog post with this. Do you want to get inspired? take a look here, where you can find historical maps: (for the Netherlands only)

I would also recommend "The Writer's Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands" This book is full of maps - real and imaginary ones - and the stories behind them. And they are all so creative! You can read "Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings" by Stefan Ekman if you crave something a bit more scientific. This man has studied numerous fantasy maps and kept track of details like the use of a scale bar or wind rose, the use of colours, the map's area of interest (countries, cities, buildings, etc.), and plenty of other things. It resulted in quite some interesting statistics.

Map drawing tips

Please note: these tips are purely about map design. I'm not going to tell you what your river should look like, or we'll be sitting here for weeks. In addition to knowing what you want to tell with your map and what atmosphere you want to create, there are a number of general things that you can pay attention to. See this is not a checklist; after all, with the right arguments you can make everything an exception. If you want a more detailed guide: in this article by Esri (developer of GIS programs) you can find what makes a good map and a guide to help you.

My list:

- Scale bar (!!!) in case this wasn't clear enough, haha!

- NO scale bar (!!!) for, for example, world maps (or other situations where the scale isn't constant). What you can use here, is a graticule.

- North arrow/windrose Sure, we are so used to the fact that the top of the map usually indicates north, that we don't really need a north arrow anymore, but still, it's nice to have one. Or be creative and use a different wind direction for the top of your map, like Tolkien's map of Thrór.

- Title. Your map needs a name, after all.

- Use of colour (or not). Most maps in books are generally printed in grayscale, but hey, grayscale also goes a long way. Make sure hues are clearly distinguishable, even for colour-blind people. You can use hatching, dotted lines, and patterns to differentiate.

- Make it not too busy. It will result in a map that is unappealing to look at, but it also makes it difficult for the user to distinguish different elements on your map.

- Make it not too empty. Empty oceans or large deserts where nothing can be found don't really make interesting maps - with the exception of jokes like the map from Lewis Carrols 'The Hunting of the Snark'.

- No focus on what is really important. The map's purpose got lost. Sometimes you see maps of entire continents in a book, for example, but the characters are stuck in a corner of it. Is it necessary to visualize that entire continent, then? It is common practice to place the most interesting part of the map in the middle. If that doesn't fit, you can consider making multiple maps.

- Readability. Maps are often drawn digitally, where you can zoom in on details. However, you will no longer see those details when the map ends up in a physical book. A book page is roughly the size of an A5, which is really small for maps. So think about that before you give your town names a font size of 4...

- Legend (optional). I don't usually come across those in fantasy maps. Often the used symbology is clear enough to show what it represents. The mini-drawings of mountains, trees, and houses are good examples of this. Only when you use abstract symbols, such as hatches or colored areas, does a legend become important.

- Importance. A map has a hierarchy; certain things are more likely to grab the user's attention than others. Big things stand out, and so do bright colours. You can use this to your advantage to draw the attention of the map reader to the right elements. Country names are written in larger (often capital) letters than those of cities. And capital city names are also more prominent (e.g. underlined) than those of other cities and towns. And if you have a legend: the most important things are generally listed first.

- References. I don't think this is relevant for most fantasy maps, but if there is something on it that you didn't come up with, it would be nice to mention your data source.

Well, I think I've mentioned most things by now. If you're thinking "I could use a second set of eyes for my map," send me a message with HEEEELLLP! I'd love to think along with you.

I also want to mention that there are several ways to draw maps. Drawing with pen-and-paper is always good, or using a digital equivalent like Photoshop, but there are also programs like Inkarnate that are made specifically for drawing maps. And there is also specialized software such as QGIS and ArcGIS, but you really have to be a bit of a specialist crazy person for that.

And of course, Sterrenduister/Stardark also gets its own map. I will write something about that later, but I can already tell you that this is not a political map ;)

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