So, you want to make a map. You aren’t a cartographer, and you’re a little nervous – excited, but nervous. Is this something you can mess up? How can you make this world look real? What is that mountain range doing there, anyway? With a few tips and tricks, you can keep your characters off the straight and narrow.
Watch Out for Compass Rose Blocks
The biggest mistakes new world-builders make is compass rose blocking. The country to the east is literally just – to the east. Even if the path meanders on its way there, it’s more or less a straight shot to the left from point A to point B. That, unfortunately, isn’t how travel works, and it isn’t how natural forces carve the environment. Two ideal locations for major cities rarely appear so symmetrically.
Try to break things up. If you’re having trouble imagining realistically messy geography, forget the nations and start with something simpler. Or, you can always get creative. Lay your map out on a grid and roll dice to see where certain capitols land. Close your eyes and let your pencil drop at random to define borders. If these marks don’t look right, ask yourself why, and you’ll be on your way. Our world is divided by both accident and human intention.
Use Basic Geometry and Social Science
When in doubt, go back to basics. Rivers flow from the mountains to the sea. While individual peaks exist, they more often appear as part of a larger mountain range. Even Tolkien’s Lonely Mountain was (relatively) close to another mountain range.
Natural resources attract residents. Remember that people like to settle in river valleys, and these areas generate a lot of wealth, so they’ll probably be protected by castles, cities, etc.
Look at a Real Map
Making a whole new world isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s hard to see the details. Just as you listen to real conversations for dialogue inspiration and troll through history books for plot bunnies, you can use maps of our world to help create a new one. Pay attention to tricky areas like river deltas, strangely divided cities like New Orleans, and how real mountain ranges creep over borders.
Ask What Kind of Culture You’re Depicting
While essentially all cultures begin in river valleys or along the coast where there’s access to plentiful food and water, they don’t necessarily stay there. Are you writing about nomadic or semi-nomadic people? Is there a lot more agricultural land than city space? Is all the land even inhabitable? If not, how do people make ends meet, and where do they go to do that?
Follow the Story
Ultimately, no matter how awesome your map is, it’s pointless if it doesn’t serve your story. Keep your characters’ progress in mind as you build natural obstacles for them to overcome. Tolkien killed off Gandalf the Grey by forcing a different route for the Fellowship of the Ring. How will the territory your characters cross change their stories?
Making a map is great fun. It’s an art project. It’s a plot development tool. It’s even a fairly productive kind of procrastination. As you visualize your world, remember to walk along with your characters and explore your plot. No one wants to come to the end of the quest and realize the final destination is still 100 miles away.