One of the joys of creating a fantasy world is making your own maps. As discussed in Worldbuilding is not Mapmaking, even though maps aren’t the most important part of fantasy worldbuilding, they are iconic and our reaction, both as creators and readers, is visceral: maps are a portal into a wonderful place. They make foreign places seem real. A well-drawn map, like a well-executed cover, grabs us.
However, as with writing where one needs to watch for too many ‘shows’, flat dialogue, uninteresting characters, etc., there are pitfalls to map-making that can scream amateur and other aspects, while accepted in the genre, might be places where you could make your maps more distinctive. Here’s a list of a few I’ve come across.
Compass Point Rivers:
This is a surprisingly common feature for those making their first maps: they have their main rivers run north-south and their tributaries run east-west. While it is certainly possible and in some story might go to the core of the setting (e.g. rivers run this way because the world is built on top of a giant computer laid out in a grid), this is a rather rigid arrangement. Aesthetically, it looks forced or careless. Geographically, while many rivers in the United States tend to run north to south (Hudson, Colorado, Mississippi), many others do not (Willamette, Columbia). And if you look farther than North America, you see plenty of other examples.
Between the Nile and a North American bias for many readers, it is easy to see where this comes from. Geologically, this happens because both the Americas and Africa are moving part from each other on a east-west axis (the mid-Atlantic ridge) and mountains tend to form perpendicular to the expansion. Since rivers generally go around mountain chains, you generally get the rivers parallel to the mountains. Exceptions exist, though, such as the Columbia River, which cuts right through the Cascade mountains in the spectacular Columbia River Gorge.
In general, rivers run downhill. Or put another way, they move away from your mountains. Whether you start with the mountains and add the rivers or vice versa, is a matter of style and what your story demands. For instance, if you want your story to occur in a land where the kingdoms abut each other in a line, you might want to create two mountain chains and put the kingdoms in between. Naturally, there would be rivers draining the resulting valleys, with tributaries in the mountains and probably one or possibly two major rivers between the mountains. The mountains could be mostly straight but nothing says you can’t put some kinks into their general run, which would give you more interesting rivers to match. Or you could start with the rivers and add the necessary hills and mountains as head-waters.
This one puzzles me because I can’t think of any real-world examples of this yet it shows up in maps fairly often. It’s not braiding in a meandering river or delta that I’m referring to but a fork in a river that causes it to discharge into two different bodies of water. For example, imagine if the Mississippi split in St. Louis, with part continuing on to the Gulf and the other part heading east to the Atlantic. Absent magic, this can’t happen, at least not for very long. To me, it tells me the mapmaker really doesn’t have much of a sense for geography, which rightly or wrongly, makes me question the writer’s ability to deliver a good story.
There could be a short-lived condition where a body of water drains two different ways but it wouldn’t take very long for one of the egress points to cut deeper than the other. It’s inherently unstable. Even in the exceptions noted above where it does occur (deltas and braided rivers) it is unstable. The water channels are constantly shifting about over the course of just decades. As an example, if you are wondering why Vicksburg was so important during the Civil War, don’t look at modern maps to figure it out: the river has moved quite a bit since then.
Of course, one of the ‘foundation’ techniques of world building is to imagine how something that shouldn’t happen could actually be. Magic solves many problems: you could have a god or water spirit or college of mages who ensure the fork remains stable. Maybe this ‘unnatural’ splitting of waters is the core of your story: long ago the waters were split to flow to three different lands, maintained by a water spirit. But that spirit has disappeared and the heroes must intervene to assure that their lands do not run dry. If you do this, though, best to make sure that something on the map calls out this fork as special so that the casual reader flipping through the book knows you put the fork there on purpose. For instance, put a star there and label it “Temple of the Water Spirit”.
Note that this critique applies to lakes as much as a simple downstream fork in the river. The lake example might actually be more common on maps: it’s just as hard to have a lake with multiple egresses: sooner or later one outlet will erode lower than the other and become the only outlet.
On the other hand, at least some of the US Great Lakes once drained through the Mississippi River. For some period of time, they must have drained through both the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. Though it probably wasn’t very long, it might have been for a few generations. But unless you have a really good story reason for multiple outlets from a body of water, best to avoid it because it looks amateurish.
This one you see even with our beloved Middle Earth: it is common to draw the forest distinct from the mountains, with a gap between them. This is not usually the case on earth because between forest and mountains, there isn’t generally a good reason for the trees to peter out. Trees actually tend to do pretty well in mountains because as the air rises over the mountains, it cools, dropping the dew point, resulting in rain. Even in deserts, you find some trees in the mountains. As an example: the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico is one of the harshest deserts in the US yet it is bordered by the fairly lush Sacramento mountains. Even the Organ mountains on the other side manage some trees, although you wouldn’t call it forested.
Mountains don’t generally form a barrier to an existing forest. The forest runs right up into the mountains. The trees may change to suit a colder or wetter climate higher up but there isn’t usually a gap. A really good example of this is the hike to Rockpile Lake from the east side of the Cascades in Oregon, where over the course only six miles, you go from dry Ponderosa pine to firs, to lichen-draped spruce and finally hemlock at the tree-line.
Mountains do form rain shadows, of course. There are almost always prevailing wind directions in a region with the mountains catching the rain on non-lee side. The lee side of the mountain chain is often dry, sometimes desert dry. How many of you realize that Oregon is mostly near-desert: it’s only the rainy west side of the cascades that are wet? So it is perfectly reasonable to have non-forested lands on one side of a mountain chain but these dry-lands tend to extend for hundreds of miles beyond the mountains, as in Oregon (until the next rain catcher: the Rocky Mountains) or the Great Plains of the US Midwest (once called the “Great American Desert” believe it or not.)
What you don’t tend to find, over short distances, are mountains then a bit of grassland, then forest, then a bit more grassland, then mountains. It’s forest -> wooded mountain slopes -> drier mountain slopes -> drier lowlands, which might be too dry for more forest.
Why do mapmakers put gaps between forest and mountain? Convenience: it’s harder to draw the forests running into the mountains. This is true if you are doing your map freehand and it is just as true if you are using something like Campaign cartographer where you might have a limited number of symbols that mix mountains and trees (if you have any at all to work with).
Forests may be a pain to draw but there is usually too little forest on most fantasy maps. This is because most fantasy settings are in a place with European-like climate and populations levels akin to early Middle Ages (or less in a world overrun with goblins and dragons). Granted, Iron Age civilizations did cut down a lot of forest land but it was nothing as severe as what you see in modern Europe or much of the Eastern US. Without human intervention, the natural state of reasonably well-watered land is forest. Below a certain rainfall you’ll get grasslands as in the Russian steppes or the African Savannah but add a bit more rain and you get vast forests. Almost all of England used to be forested. Same for most of mainland Europe or the east side of the Mississippi, places where today you find farmland with just a few forest islands.
Such scarcity of forests isn’t natural. It takes a lot of humans with reasonably advanced technology to keep the forest at bay. If we suddenly disappeared, it would all return to forest in less than a century. In most fantasy settings, there aren’t a lot of ‘civilized’ people in the world. Middle Earth is particularly sparsely inhabited, as far as I can tell: it would probably be more appropriate for the Shire to be an island in a vast forest than a green gem in a wasteland.
Worlds where humans aren’t dominate, where there are the perils of barbarian races or too many monsters for them to spread out like we did on earth, those worlds would probably have much more forest. Fields and farmlands would be little islands in a vast expanse of trees. And those dark woods would seem alien and creepy: you can get a sense of how people used to view forests from faerie tales. There’s a reason why Hansel and Gretel found a witch in the deep woods: it was a forbidden place beyond the pale.
As with the gap between mountains and forest, the tedium of drawing (or plopping down forest symbols) is one reason why there tend to be too few forests on maps. But probably a bigger reason is that we have been trained by earlier fantasy maps and by modern landscapes to expect an unforested world where the opposite is the natural order of things.
Thanks to a thousand years of land reclamation projects, we don’t tend to realize that much low-lying land used to be swampy. Glastonbury Tor used to sit in the middle of fens, not farmland. Same for east Anglia, much of the Lowlands, parts of Poland. A combination of dykes and gates to drain low land at low tide or canals to drain a higher marsh have been used over the centuries to reduce or eliminate what used to be large swampy tracks. These were never as vast as the primeval forests but they were huge, the places where kings on the run used to hide out. In fantasy settings, they are places where nature (or monsters) rule.
Swamps and marshes tend to be omitted out of oversight: large ones are less common in our modern world so we forget to add them to our fantasy world.
Curiously, if mankind disappeared, most of the swamps wouldn’t come back. Sea-dykes would rupture and flood lands at sea level but otherwise, what was once swamp would probably stay dry: the canals remain to drain them and centuries of farm use have raised the level of the land to where it might not get so soggy again, even without human intervention.
It is perfectly reasonable to have empty fantasy worlds. Populous orc tribes, dragons, ogres, giants, all these things could exert enough pressure on the civilized peoples that they cannot spread-out over nearly ever biome as humans have on earth. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with having a kingdom here and another there, a wilderness in between.
The trouble arises when your setting presupposes lots of contact with other peoples. Take the Gyre from the Thomas Covenant series. I haven’t read these books in 25 years so I’m a little hazy but I remember at the time being quite annoyed with the Gyre: it’s a large trading city at the edge of a desert. It had a harbor packed with ships from all over. These ships must have brought food because, unlike Carthage or Alexandria, there was no fertile hinterland to feed them (I think). But regardless of a hinterland, where were these other lands that the Gyre traded with? The Thomas Covenant world felt rather empty to me with implied “large populations elsewhere” that were never shown. It all felt rather sloppy.
Empty worlds are fine but the interactions the characters experience should be appropriate. For instance, there might still be trade (something like the old silk road linking civilizations across a lot of emptier space) but it would not be high volume and the distant lands would be little known and have little influence on each other. China never went to war with Europe. Neither knew much about the other, even after Marco Polo.
In your world, if you have small kingdoms separated by large wilderness, they won’t have much reason to fight with each other or even have much to do with each other. This can actually be a boon for the writer: you don’t need to flesh out the far away places until your heroes get there. But it also means you probably shouldn’t have powerful merchant families running the show.
Tolkien gets some of this right in Middle Earth: Rohan is alien to all but a few of the more traveled folk of Gondor. Lothlorien is entirely isolated, as is the Shire. But other parts don’t really ring right for me. Laketown trades with “people to the south” but on the maps there doesn’t really seem to be anyone close enough to justify such a trade oriented settlement. And while I love the imagery of Rohan and the Rohirrim, they are modeled on iron age Germanic tribes whose culture and trappings arose from tribes rubbing shoulders with other tribes. It doesn’t feel right to me for something exactly like a Germanic tribe to arise in isolation without warfare with other tribes to help shape it.
As with many tropes, most of the items above seem to be accepted by fantasy readers. They aren’t reading your opus for your ability to model trade routes in a world ravaged by dragons. And while a few do stick out as probably something better avoided (all north-south rivers, for instance), most of the rest can be overlooked because no one seems to be particularly disturbed by them. But as with momentum in teleporters or energy density in laser weapons, you can use an awareness of these elements to make your map stand apart from the countless fantasy maps we’ve all seen.
- Worldbuilding is not Mapmaking (mqallen.com)
- How to Draw a Fantasy Map, Part 1 (randyellefson.wordpress.com)
- Worldbuilding 101: Topography or How to Craft a Planet (lemedlock.com)
- Worldbuilding (towerofthearchmage.blogspot.com)