World build: Maps

Whenever you open a fantasy book and sometimes a science fiction novel, you may notice a map at the front of the text. There you can peruse the look of the world, and plot out the routes of the protagonists (and maybe the villains too) as you read through their journeys. How are these maps created? I’ll start with an explanation of global maps, and then I’ll focus in on the specifics of map-making, especially for regional and city maps. The final section covers map-making programs and tools, and there’s an extensive list of links for each.

Global Maps

To draw a map of the surface of your planet, I highly suggest drawing a quick rough sketch of the locations of continents, oceans, and large seas. This will give you rough estimates of the various locales on your planet. However, if you wish to get more detailed, you’ll need to know a bit of geometry and a basic understanding of  map projections.

All world maps are a projection of the surface of the earth onto a flat two dimensional plane. Since the earth is a three dimensional sphere, this projection will be distorted to some degree. How much distortion depends upon the projection you use. As you can see in the wikipedia article, there is a lot of possible projections and each have their strengths and weaknesses. The most common ones found within my country is the flat projection such as the equidistance or the mercator projections — both of these have a lot of distortion, making countries near the poles seem much larger than they actually are. You may also see sinusodial maps or variations of the Mollweide and Eckhert projections, which are more oval shaped. Each of these types distort the actual area of the continents and oceans to some degree, depending upon the geometry of the map itself. If you want to really dig into this, I highly suggest reading up on the various types of projections and about their geometry. If there’s one skill you’ll need with maps, geometry and basic algebra is absolutely essential if you wish to make a fairly accurate global map.

To get you started, one of the easiest projections to draw is the sinusodial map. This link has a great explanation on how to draw one: How to draw a Sinusodial Map

When I was creating my paper mache planet, distortion caused by 2-D maps proved to be the hardest to overcome when detailing the continents on my 3-D surface. Because of this, I’ve decided upon an easier way to attempt my next paper mache planet. I’ll use a flexible tape measure (think of the ones used by tailors to measure parts of your body) to mark the latitude and longitudes lines onto the spherical surface. I can then use these as reference points to carefully draw the edges of the continents. This limits the use of math — though you’ll need some in order to properly map the latitude and longitude lines — and finish the project sooner and more accurately than before. Creating a three dimensional map is a bit of an undertaking, but it can be fun. If you want to get really detailed with this, this is a great resource: World Dream Bank: Planet Carpentry

Regional and City Maps

Next focus on small areas of the world, and really focus on the details of those regions. It’s a lot easier to map out a region than it is to map out the entire planet. Regional maps require very little geometry and algebra, and often all you need is a ruler and a way to convert centimeters (or inches) into kilometers (or miles). This conversion is called your scale, and all maps need them. It’ll help you determine distances on your map (and will help your readers understand distances when reading your maps). All your maps will need a key as well. The key is a box in one of the corners of the map that contain all the symbols used in the map and what those symbols mean. You also need a compass rose that marks which way is north on your map.

There’s a lot of different types of maps as well. Most of what I’ve discussed thus far is geographical maps. You can also create political maps that detail where all your countries are. Tectonic plate maps show where all the tectonic plates are on the world and in what directions they are moving. Transportation maps detail all the possible transportation routes your societies may have. Topographic maps detail elevations of various points in that region. City maps detail different areas of the city, the transportation routes, and cultural landmarks. Cultural and language maps detail where certain cultures thrive (or which part of the world speaks what language). Each serve a different purpose and relays a different amount of information. All can be useful when building and creating societies.

I find that for my stories, regional maps are the easiest and fastest way to give myself a solid picture of the society in which my stories take place.  I start first with a topographic map, then I create a city map for each of the urban centers (or smaller towns). Both of these tend to help me map out the journeys of my characters and better visualize what their environment is like.

To create a topographic map, you first start out by drawing dots on a page to mark the different elevation points on the surface of your region. Draw a line between all the dots that are of the same elevation (these are called isolines or contour lines). Lines that are drawn close together signify steeper slopes. When adding rivers, make sure the contour (isolines) bend upstream; this way you know which direction the river flows. To signify a depression, just add small marks pointing inward to your contour line. This guide can help you create the map and shows example images of each stage and rule: Mapping: Topographic Maps This resource also explains how to draw a profile of your topographic map; a profile is a representation of what the land looks like from the side. This can be useful if you want to visualize what the characters are seeing as they walk (or ride) on their journeys. Here’s an example of a topographic map I made for a short story I wrote:

Topographic mapNotice for this map I just colored the ocean blue instead of making the small marks for depressions (to show the floor of the ocean as a depression rather than elevation). This was a mistake on my part. Always use the small marks to signify depressions. If you look closely, you’ll notice I did this to show the depths of the lakes in the center of the map but I didn’t do this for the ocean. (Bad call there.) Everything else about the map is fairly accurate. Also notice how the contour lines are all bent upward for each of the rivers to show the direction of flow.

For a city map, it depends on how detailed you wish to go. For some authors, the easiest way to draw a city map is to lay out the streets first. Then they label the different sections of the city, and finally draw in landmarks. The landmarks are generally the places that will feature the most in the story. Another way to do a city map is by zones, which is the method our modern day cities use — zones mark areas where only specific buildings can be built. This is to help organize the city and also helps with evaluating the property tax for the buildings in that zone. Here’s two examples of zone maps I drew for a few of my stories: City ElikaeliaCity Zone Map Supki
The map on the upper left is for Elikaelia, which is actually a huge sprawling city at the top of enormous trees. This city is literally in the canopy of these kilometer high trees. The only exception is the Flight Hall which is built on the ground and goes up around one of the trees with the roof level with the rest of the city. The map on the lower right is a city that is built into the side of the mountain. The bottom layer is near the base of the mountain, and the top of the map shows the layer near the top of the mountain. A large circular shaft (housing many different elevators) is the main transportation hub between each level.

The largest buildings, that took up the most square area, I drew directly as they look from above, but the rest of the city is mapped out in zones. The demarcation lines between each zones are actually major roads, but I didn’t draw all the possible roads each zone has, mostly to save space. So these are bare minimum maps that I used to help me design the city and what it will look like.

It’s helpful to note which parts of the city is residential areas, which are more industrial, which areas house parks, and which are the commercial (or business) areas. Yes, some areas of a city may have overlap with some businesses appearing in residential areas; this may be due to rezoning laws, where an older area is turned into a different zone over time; sometimes older buildings may receive exceptions to continue to exist in that zone. Another example of overlap is apartments or condos; although they are housing for people, they are often classified as rental properties and businesses. These rental properties tend to be located close to commercial and business areas, or may exist within commercial/business zones. All of these examples are also examples of how cities can grow and fluctuate, keeping some degree of flexibility within their designs.

To help you better visualize cities, try researching the zone map for your own city. Take a look at how residential areas are often clustered in certain parts of the city, and take notice of what types of zones are around them. Often you’ll find park zones and commercial zones next to residential areas. Industrial zones tend to be situated further away, mostly because the buildings within industrial zones often have loud machinery, intense smells, and are often considered “eye sores” by the residents of that city. Aesthetics within a city are often very important to those that live there, and the styles of buildings allowed in some areas may differ. Each zone has a different set of rules when it comes to building codes, though there is a lot of overlap in the rules as well. This is why zones are so important to city maps; they help determine property taxes, help organize the city, and there are building codes specific to certain types of zones. (To help you build your city, I am creating a post that specifically discusses cities in general.)

Map-making Programs and Tools

Sometimes its easier to draw a map by hand like I’ve done above, but you can also use programs to help you draw your maps digitally. There’s a lot of resources out there to help create a map. If you are looking for more of a fantasy feel — such as a map like Tolkien’s in Lord of the Rings — you can utilize photoshop and try out these brushes: Tolkien-style Map Brushes by caltheychild on Deviantart There is also a brush styles modeled after hand drawn maps: Hand Drawn Map Brushes

There is also a GIMP version if you have that software instead (GIMP is the free open-source version of photoshop). For those with GIMP and photoshop, this link explains how to draw a map using layers: How to draw maps using layers.

Inkscape is an open source free program that is also fairly useful for drawing maps. Since it is a vector drawing program, it works really well for drawing contour lines for topographic maps. Lots of tutorials exist for this program, and its the one I use to not just create maps but also to design 3-D models of my spacecrafts.

There’s also programs out there specifically made for creating maps. Autorealm is the most commonly used one and is available for free. It’s great for regional maps. There are add-ons for the program that can help you create more detailed maps, but I find it to be a bit cartoonish for my tastes, but then I prefer more of the traditional hand drawn styles for my maps. It may take a bit of experimentation with all these different options before you find a style that works for yours.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to comment.

Categories: World Building, WritingTags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. My oldest draws maps all the time. I can’t wait to share this with him!



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: