Mapmaking and Worldbuilding

We had a great worldbuilding discussion during our most recent meeting. One of our writers brought in a map of her current fantasy project, and it was clear from the details that she’d put a lot of thought into how her world is organized. Geological features, place names, coded symbols serving as shorthand descriptors for different nations and societies—she’d even spent time researching river basins in order to draw a detailed hub of the world. She’d generated an indispensable reference tool that will help her keep track of not only the physical facts of her world but also the potential social, political, and economic tensions that will inform her plot.

And it’s not just an organizational tool! A reader can tell if a writer is well-versed in the world of the story. The nuts and bolts don’t have to be showing, but if the writer doesn’t know where they are, it’s that much harder to craft an immersive story. A map is the cheat sheet, the framework a writer needs in order to really know their own story, and to make it feel real to the reader.

I can’t draw. At all. Attempts at mapping my own fantasy worlds usually end in scribbles and frustration and a lot of wasted paper. So naturally when I sat down to write my current fantasy novel my subconscious decided that maps were going to be Very Important to the plot. It’s not strictly a rule that a fantasy novel has to have a map, but if I’m going to devote whole plot points to the existence of a map, I’m pretty sure I owe readers a map.

(Whoops.)

I will happily devote hours, even days, to the study of anything remotely related to what I’m writing, and to the study of things that seem totally unrelated. It’s fun! I get to learn weird new things! It feels like a break from writing (and we all need a break sometimes) even as it’s fueling the writing. But ask me to map my world and I’m just going to embarrass all of us.

It was comforting, then, when I came across this article, in which an author I adore shares her attempt to map her world next to the professionally illustrated map that appears in the book. The bits the artist kept from the author’s rough map adds a lot of character to the finished product, and mapping out the region she was writing in allowed the author to pinpoint some flaws in her narrative.

(Okay, okay, maybe I can doodle something in the service of not confusing myself, so long as nobody has to see it.)

I’m also intrigued by Seth Dickinson’s approach to mapping the world of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. He incorporates the main character’s commentary in the map, so that when you open the book you get not just a scattering of capital cities and national borders and a mountain range or two, but Baru’s perspective of it all: you get a glimpse of how she sees the world, what’s important to her, and a little help understanding how this particular world turns, how the different places on the map interact with one another. It also—and I say this as a colossal map nerd—has more character and is far more engaging than most fantasy maps.

Honestly, just check out the “maps” tag at Tor.com. I dove in after I realized what I’d committed myself to and it’s a treasure trove of advice and inspiration for all your fantasy mapping needs, including a DIY continent generator involving noodles and a scientist’s glance at all the physical laws broken by the beloved map of Middle-Earth.

I should also note that maps aren’t just helpful for writing fantasy worlds—fiction writers who choose to keep their characters in this reality often turn to GPS and paper maps to keep a setting fresh in their minds while they’re writing.

What’s your favorite fictional map? Do you have your own approach to mapping a world you’re writing? Chime in down in the comments!

 

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