Worldbuilding is not Mapmaking

Campaign Cartographer
Campaign Cartographer

A well crafted map is a pleasure, making you feel as if you are a character in the world as you puzzle over it. But contrary to some websites on world-building, map making is not the main part of world building. It isn’t even a very critical element early on. So for all of you who despair of your free-hand drawing or CAD skills, all is not lost. Maps are a small part of the art of fantasy story telling, one that, like a book cover, can be out-sourced.

What’s wrong with starting with a map on your fantasy project? It can work but there are multiple pitfalls. For one, you might end up spending many hours working on your map (or mastering a CAD program then working on your map), hours perhaps better spent on the story itself. Worse, you might find that the map you created doesn’t work for your story. You might need an extra city, kingdom, wood, or what have you. If you drew your map by hand, plan to start over. If you used a CAD package (like Campaign Cartographer from Profantasy, a fine way to do maps), it isn’t quite the same nuisance but even so, fiddling with your map as your story evolves can get old: it’s distracting and it’s time spent on something other than refining your story.

A map I did a long time ago and have reused for several campaigns
A map I did a long time ago and have reused for several campaigns

The real problem with starting with a map, however, is that its existence can mask the more critical elements of world building. There are better places to start, unless you are consciously doing a story in a world populated entirely with fantasy tropes. Such a world might have your friendly, reclusive elves here, your irascible dwarves in their mountain there, burgeoning human population on this coast, wilds kind of in between it all, and so on. It might also make for an extremely hard to sell story, because what little interest me-too Lord of the Rings novels enjoyed was long ago. Most successful speculative fiction is going to start with a premise, something I mentioned as one of my own epiphanies in Things I wish I’d Learned Sooner.

From premise, some writers may go straight to the characters, theme and plot. Or you might flesh out the setting a bit, knowing you will come across some interesting stories as you do. For instance, your basic concept might be: what if the gods of your world were mortals in other worlds? From there, you might start thinking about how such a world might unfold: maybe there was an age where the ‘gods’ were just powerful immortals frolicking in this new playground of a world, before  a second age where some came to crave power and a third age when they moved to the heavens. You keep asking yourself questions: what made them go to the heavens? How about safety: it was a place where they could not be assassinated. How did they find this “heaven”? One of the gods explored the path. Where was this path? In the far north, where the tree of light stood (stealing a page from Tolkien here), etc. Hmm, I might like to write a story about that: a god-like immortal who wants to escape from his fellow beings. What would make him do that? What sort of person would he be?

All you really need for a map while writing
All you really need for a map while writing

There are still other ways to kick around a story but most of them start with things other than a map: the characters, flaws and turning points, etc. Once you have a good idea of what sort of story you want to tell, then it might be appropriate to flesh out culture, technology, magic, religion, society, etc. After that, is it time to make a map? It depends on the story but for most stories, even then, you might be better served by a “spaghetti” diagram rather than a real map. The example here is from a recent short story, although to be honest, I did it after the story, just for this blog. I didn’t need the diagram to write the story. Novels will be more complex than this example but note that there is no attempt to be artful and only a rough spatial relationship is sketched out.

The spaghetti diagram is all you’re going to need for most stories, perhaps several if your story takes place in different regions (say one for a city or palace, another for the kingdom, and a third for a dungeon half-way through.) As a writer, you need to know how far things are so that your travel is plausible and the rough spatial relationships so that you don’t have the fastest route to the palace be Acerton then Pleasanton one scene and the reverse another scene. Other than that, unless you have a very particular type of story where the exact days and geography matter, that’s all you need.

But what about creating a map for the inside cover of my fantasy novel? When the time comes, you can draw it from your spaghetti diagram. Or if you don’t care to do that, there are many, many fine artists who will draw the map for you for about $200 (seems like a steal to me.)

Myself, I do like to create maps and have done so for my D&D campaigns for decades. But while some of my maps have more merit than others, in the end, I’m not a great artist. When I need a map for a published novel, I will be using a third-party. It will look better than anything I can do myself and, just as important, I won’t have to spend 20 or 40 hours on it that I could better spend on a revision or a new story.

If you are looking for someone to do your map, the Profantasy forums have postings, if you like the Profantasy look to maps. But a quick Google can find other artists. I’ve listed one that I know of through a friend but you can also try your local college’s art department where there are many starving artists eager to help for a pittance. If you do use a third-party, just be clear what the end-use for the map is. If it is meant to go into a monochrome page at the back of your book, you don’t want the artist to make a gorgeous, full color map: it will look muddy and hard to read once you reduce it to grayscale.


7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding is not Mapmaking

  1. I like the “spaghetti” map approach; never heard that term but it’s what I’ve done, more or less.

    Here’s another thing that can happen. I once made such a low-tech map for a short story I’d written (after I’d written it), and then other parts of the world suggested themselves to me, names and land features, so I put them in. Later, I started writing another story and, well, there it was: a setting ready for my use. Like doodling: unconscious connections.

    Your point about the premise is right on, though, I think. I got lucky in that the premise that struck me “happened” to work with this doodled setting.

    1. “Doodling” in your setting can be quite powerful. That’s a fair enough way to describe how I work: I come up with an interesting concept and then play around with it to try to find a story. If I can’t find a good story, I put it on the back burner and move on to the next concept.

      PS I stole the spaghetti map from a Black Belt quality course I’m taking now. That’s me, plagiarist 🙂

  2. I think it’s a good idea to do maps in conjunction with other aspects of world building, going back and forth a bit. This is where dong a map in a program that easily allows changes is a good thing. That said, I’ve seldom found a reason to change my map!

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I’ve typically used campaign cartographer myself. On one project I used a map I did for a D&D campaign in the same setting but had to make a number of changes to it for the book (some name changes, some geographical changes to make certain things work out.) But I just marked those up on an overlay. In the end, if you one is comfortable mapping, it is harmless at worse and helpful in places but a lot of folks find it a bit daunting, or alternately, buy the lie that the map is critical. Maps can be useful but, to me, they aren’t the beginning or end of world building 🙂

  3. Pingback: Map-Making Pitfalls | M. Q. Allen

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