I spent most of Grade Six drawing maps. The result is a knowledge of geography that serves me well to this day, except for a few newer states in Central Europe and Asia. Another result is that I fully agree with Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland that most fantasy maps lack any sense of geography, history, or economics.
Recently, I’ve been spending my free time refining the map that will be the background for my efforts at fiction. As I work, I’ve developed some basic rules for ensuring that, whatever else I might do wrongly, at least the geography in my fantasy world will be plausible:
- Remember continental drift. Your land masses should look as though they would roughly fit into each other. If you have trouble coming up with realistic land masses, try sketching the outlines of clouds or stains; you’ll be surprised how realistic the result will be.
- Rivers and streams don’t start and end just anywhere. They arise in the mountains or hills, and usually empty into a larger body of water, such as a lake or an ocean. A few may go underground instead. Almost all grow wider as they move away from their source.
- Mountain ranges are generally the result of the collision of tectonic plates. This means that they will rarely meet at convenient right angles to each other, the way that the mountains of Mordor do in Tolkien.
- Ecosystems follow set patterns. You don’t have a rain forest next to tundra or desert. Instead, you have prairie and scrubland inbetween. A half an hour’s research on climate zones should be enough for you to get the idea.
- Cities, towns, and farms don’t appear just anywhere. They are separated by however much land is needed for them to be self-sustaining, the only exceptions being large towns that are supported by a circle of small towns and farms that support them. In a primarily rural culture, they will be close to a water source. As population and trade develop, habitations may be positioned to service traffic on a road, or to take advantage of a certain trade. When you place a habitation, know why it’s there, even if the reason never gets into the story.
- Consider how people get around. If water is the main transport, you need either a lot of coast line or else large rivers that can be navigated for much of their length. If roads are used more than water, then you’ll have several grades of road, probably ranging from highways like the Roman roads to half over-grown foot paths. All these decisions will affect how far anyone can travel in a day.
- Forests and wilderness areas are much larger in pre-industrial cultures than they are today.
- Most lands have a history that involves a succession of different cultures passing through them. Your names should reflect that, suggesting borrowings or corruptions from several different languages mingling together. A particular region might have a concentration of names from one language, and you should know why.
- Be prepared for your landscape to evolve as you write. However, if changes are necessary, try to make them follow the rest of the guidelines given here.
Put this way, many of these points may sound obvious. But open the frontspiece of your typical fantasy paperback, and the chances are that the map will suffer from one or more of the faults I mention. Some have nearly all of them.
But take the time to create a believable map, and you’ll know more about your story’s background. You might even find story details or plot elements that wouldn’t have occurred to you if you map didn’t have at least a toehold in reality.