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Presented by State Library Victoria

How to Build a Fantasy World

Writing a story is hard. Often the ideas just don’t come and you get stuck in an endless cycle of plots that all sound a bit like either Lord of the Rings or the Hunger Games. Trying to come up with a universe equal to Middle Earth and Panem is often fruitless and frustrating. One way to deal with this, is not to start with a character, event or theme, but with a map, and then to build a world from there. Now at first glance it may seem like an even harder task, especially if you don’t think you have the drawing skills, but I (a person with little artist ability) made a few over the weekend, and have come out with a result I am quite happy with. So here’s how you can create a world that looks something like this:


This post will also go into a bit of detail of how to make a geographically correct world, but if that doesn’t interest you, feel free to just skim read this and be more creative.

1. Coast Line and Borders

Start with an idea in your head about what you want your world to look like. This prevents your land from looking like a circle or rectangle. Is it an island? An archipelago? A continent with multiple countries? Does the whole thing fit onto one page or will it run off the side? If so, why isn’t that area on the map? Is it just unexplored, or is there a massive, impenetrable mountain range that prevents further expansion?
Now that you have a rough idea of the shape, you can start drawing the coast. Make sure to be quite random and jagged to give the impression of a real coastline. You can include bays, cliffs, bits that jutt out and in. I use a thick pen to make it clear that it’s a coast line.
If your continent has multiple countries or states, draw them in now. Keep in mind that borders don’t have to be straight. Maybe your countries are or have been at war. This might mean the borders are more jagged.

2. Mountains

Mountains almost always run in chains, so avoid just dotting random mountains around the place. Before drawing them in pen, I pencil in curving lines where I’m going to put my mountains to make sure I keep a sense of balance. Mountains can be used to create natural borders of countries or areas. Here’s some examples of symbols you can use for mountains.

3. Rivers and Lakes

Rivers always start at mountains, and end in a lake or at the ocean. Often, they split off into multiple sections, creating river valleys. Areas between two rivers often flood, and create fertile areas that are preferable for agriculture. Here’s a video about rivers on maps:

4. Cities and Trade Routes

So if you’re not nomadic (nomadic people don’t have permanent settlements, they move around instead), you need a place to grow some food. Assuming your fantasy world is set in the past and not the future, fertile farming land and water are your number one concerns when starting a village, and that is also, along with trade, what makes it possible for a village to grow into a city. Fertile farming land is mostly found in valleys, because that’s where the rivers and runoff go. For this reason, cities in the mountains and deserts are rare, and if you choose one of these locations for your city, think about how your residents will need to adapt in order to survive there. If your world is the sort to have castles, palaces and forts, think about the geographical defensive advantages. For example, naturally narrow openings made by mountains are a good place to put a military base. I used these symbols for various settlements:

Next, write the names of these places, otherwise you’ll run out of room. If it’s not a symbolic name, I make one by to choosing a few vowels, then keyboard smashing a few more letters. Then I rearrange them until I find something I like, or I start again with new letters. For example with the letters UOIDHKG I could make Dughouk, or Khougid
Trade routes are often handy if your character needs to get from one city to another, and are vital to a civilization’s economy, but they aren’t completely necessary to your map. If you do choose to mark them, I use a dotted line. Remember to bend it because trade routes will often curve around hills and forests, and go to the easiest places to cross rivers.

5. Other Landmarks, Forests, Deserts and Hills

Other landmarks you could use include volcanos, mysterious temples in the middle of the jungle, mountain passes, and whatever else you think of! This is where you can just fill in your remaining areas, but remember to leave spaces empty, otherwise your map will look cramped. I like to leave a small gap around other features such as rivers, trade routes, cities and place names as well. Here are some symbols you can use:

So now what?

So with quite a lot of time and patience, you will have your very own map. If there’s a lot of empty ocean space you can add things like sea monsters, ships, compasses and arrows pointing to other islands or countries. You can colour it in or leave it black and white, whatever you feel like. I’ve really enjoyed making these maps because it can really be whatever you want it to!

You’ve got a great map, but no people to occupy it. Well from here all you need is some creativity. Who were the first people to settle your land, did they sail there? If so where did they first land, where did they go from there and why? Did they split into groups, were they at war, are they still at war? Are there different speicies? If so then their different cultures and characteristics probably means they live in different biomes. How do the different species interact? Are they friends, at war? Are there half breeds, how are they treated? Who is the leader in this community? How did they get to that position? There are endless questions to think about. For some ideas heres another video about creating your world’s history. (It’s quite long though so you might just want to watch a minute or two)

How do you guys think I went with the maps? If you decide to draw your own map make sure to put a picture in the comments for me to see!

10 comments

otaku

This is such a great post! You actually inspired a new idea for a post that I want to make soon about maps :O

26th Jun, 18
ladybird

Great I’m looking forward to it!!

26th Jun, 18
eriinfisher

This is what I have to do every time I get a new idea for a novel. Research an area I like, draw out locations and settings so I can easily describe them and then work on characters! Love that it's a widespread thing that all of us writers do to get in the mindset.

29th Jun, 18
ladybird

Yes! Otherwise I find I get inconsistent in my descriptions and run out of ideas.

30th Jun, 18
bookwithbane

Thanks for the tip. Your art is good btw. Your post quality is really high, keep it up! I really like them. I actually compare my posts to yours and Sylvs. Have you considered joining The Art Cult?

29th Jun, 18
ladybird

ASDFGHJKL thank you! I might join it but I don’t know how I feel about putting my drawings online yet, maybe I will once I improve a bit more.

30th Jun, 18
damnedmonkey

This is some top quality map-work. I'm not very arty, but when I do need to write fantasy for a story or something, I only draw viewpoints, because I can't do detail. Viewpoints is just very specific things, like what a forest populated by a fantasy species of tree would look like, or a frozen wasteland with snow meerkats. When I do draw maps, it's just outlines and legends saying, "It takes four days to get from Area A to area B; travel may be hindered by Z". This looks excellent though.

30th Jun, 18
ladybird

That sounds like a really good way to do it! I always get confused about the world I’m writing about (hence why I researched and made this post) so thanks for the tip!

30th Jun, 18
wurrook

OH MY GOSH! Thank you so much for this post! You would not believe how much I'm geeking out right now! I had given up on trying to write an original sounding fantasy story! This is going to be so great! (Sorry about all of the exclamation marks!)

1st Jul, 18
ladybird

I hope it goes well!! (I'm guilty of overusing exclamation marks too don't worry!)

1st Jul, 18