Al enjoys creating fantasy maps and studied cartography and geographic information systems.
One of the fundamentals of writing a fantasy story is creating a realistic fantasy world map that will accommodate your story. In order to achieve this, there are some basic scientific laws that have to be followed.
A fantasy story has no defined imaginative limits with regards to how farfetched the story can be. The world that accommodates the story is, however, defined by some real physical and scientific laws that influence the types of character species, landforms, climate, weather, geopolitics, and biodiversity.
It is easy to ignore the scientific elements of a fantasy world on account that the story is based on fictional and made-up characters. It is also important to remember that a fantasy story is born from the imagination of the writer; however, the reader does not share that image. It is the task of the writer to create a realistic world that will enable the reader to relate to the events of the story. One way to achieve this is by introducing and adhering to some real and fundamental scientific laws.
Basic Science of a Fantasy World
When creating a fantasy world map, the first thing that you have to consider is the terrain. Terrain refers to the horizontal and vertical natural physical features on the map.
The terrains or landforms will determine the type of climate and weather that will encompass that fantasy world. The terrain will also influence biodiversity, nature, and types of character species in that world, thereby influencing the culture and geopolitics of that fantasy world.
Creating Terrains or Landforms
Geomorphology and topology are two important sciences that define how landforms features of the map are created and how they appear.
Geomorphology is the science that studies the formation of terrains. It involves all processes that are engaged in the creation of all the landforms that we see today. The topography of the map defines how features of land surfaces appear on a map.
When creating a fantasy world map, it is not necessary to study geomorphology and topography, but it is important to at least know the basics of land formation and how they are supposed to appear on a map. Different terrain types are formed by different processes, knowing some basic processes will aid in knowing where to put a type of terrain on the fantasy world map.
Continents, Countries, and Islands
Several scientific theories exist with regards to the creation of continents, most prominent is the continental drift theory and the movement of plate tectonics. The underlining point of the two theories is that continents are constantly moving landforms, and at some point, they were either connected and have the potential to connect in the future.
When creating fantasy map continents, it is important to remember that continents should appear as though they were connected at some point and can connect in the future. Construct the fantasy map in a puzzle format—each continent is a piece of the puzzle, and the space between the two pieces is the ocean. Vary the size of the pieces to reflect the different sizes of continents and vary the distance between the pieces to reflect the different sizes of oceans.
To test the theory, try to create a fantasy world map by drawing random regular or irregular shapes on a piece of paper. The aesthetics of the map will obviously feel and look out of place, very few people will be able to consider the shapes as continents. On the second drawing, try to draw a circle, divide the circle into five irregular shapes, then draw those shapes separate but in close proximity to each other on another paper. The second drawing will most likely look like a continental map.
If you look at the world map, it almost looks like a puzzle waiting for someone to complete it. A fantasy world, even though fictional, should also carry that aesthetic appearance in order to be considered realistic. Start by creating it as one continent, then based on preferences break it into smaller continents by spreading oceans between them.
Mountains, Slopes, Hills, Canyons, Valleys, and Volcanoes
The constant movement of plate tectonics, which is responsible for the formation of continents, is also responsible for the formation of mountains. When two opposing plate tectonics collide, their edges crumble, forming fold mountains like the Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alps, and Mount Everest. If they grind over each other, causing one plate to tilt upwards over the other, they form a fault-block mountain range like the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Califonia, Tetons in Wyoming, and Hars mountains in Germany.
However, when one plate is pushed below the other, thereby pushing magma to the surface, volcanic mountains like mount Fuji and St Helens are formed. Other mountains are formed from erosion from rivers and streams surrounding a high plateau area.
When creating mountains, slopes, hills, and volcanoes on a fantasy map, it is important to map out the location where the mountain forming plate tectonics are colliding. The mapped out locations are where the mountains, slopes, hills, or volcanoes will be placed. It is important to avoid randomly adding mountains and hills all over the map.
Rivers, Lakes, Waterfalls, Oceans, and Seas
Oceans are the easiest features to represent on a fantasy map because, in most cases, they represent the endless edges of that world. Rivers, lakes, seas, waterfalls, and other water bodies usually require a defined source and endpoint. The easiest endpoints for rivers are usually oceans or lakes. The source of the river differs; most rivers start from elevated areas like hills and mountains, others from springs, lakes, and bogs.
In a fantasy world map, it is important to remember that rivers always flow downstream; therefore, the elevated areas where mountains and hills have been placed are most likely where the river should start. A river should not cross an elevated area like a mountain range; it should rather flow on the sides. The presence of a waterfall also signifies a downward change in terrain elevation.
The endpoint of a river is also important; a river will not just disappear into the ground. Most likely, it will end up in another water body like an ocean, sea, or lake. Where the river starts on a fantasy map will be considered a highland and where the river ends will be considered a lowland. It is important to avoid placing elements associated with lowlands such as open grasslands at the source of the river.
Clearly representing the sources and endpoints of a river on a map is important; otherwise, they might appear as random blue lines on a fantasy map.
Forests, Swamps, Deserts, Rocks, Snow, and Grasslands
Forests, swamps, deserts, snow, grasslands, and other terrain features on a fantasy map are referred to as groundcover. The type of groundcover of an area is influenced by terrain altitude, water, soil, climate, and weather.
When placing groundcover on a map, it has to correspond to the type of landscape of the map. A forest and a swamp should indicate the presence of a water body nearby, either a river, lake, sea, ocean, or some groundwater. When drawing water-dependent groundcovers, it is important that a water body like a river or lake is also drawn in close proximity. These areas also signify a climate with a consistent rainy season. They usually occupy the lower elevated areas of the map and have the highest number of plant and animal species.
The groundcover for high elevated areas also varies depending on the climate and presence of water bodies. They are usually associated with rocky and mountainous areas, cold and hot deserts, areas covered in snow, and some woodland forests.
High elevated rocky, snow-covered areas and cold deserts will most likely occupy the highest points on a fantasy map, and their climates are expected to be colder than the rest of the areas on the map. These areas are usually isolated, with a low number of plant and animal species present.
The topography of groundcover varies depending on the person creating the map. Green is usually used to represent vegetation and water-rich areas of the map. Brown is used to represent dry areas of the map, and white is usually used to represent snow-covered areas of the map.
When transitioning from one type of groundcover to the next, the transition has to be gradual; it is impossible to transition from snow to desert. Therefore, when bordering the areas, they should be bordered with a realistic bordering groundcover type. A forest region most likely might be bordered with a swamp, bog, or grassland. A desert most likely should be bordered with a mountainous and rocky region before reaching the snow-covered areas.
Climate and Weather Patterns
There are a number of elements that contribute to the climate and weather of a particular region; most important are atmospheric pressure, temperature, heat from the sun, wind, precipitation, and humidity. Other factors that influence climate and weather are; latitude and altitude, distance to the ocean, and movement of wind in mountain ranges.
When creating climate and weather patterns on a fantasy map, it is not necessary to calculate temperatures, humidity, atmospheric pressures, latitudes, and other elements. The easiest way is to identify two extreme points on the map, one should be the coldest part, and the other should be the hottest part of the map. The coldest parts are usually high altitude mountainous areas of the map covered in snow. The hottest parts are usually lowland areas, covered in vegetation, but can sometimes have high altitude rocky mountainous regions and dry desert areas. The extreme cold parts will have snow, the cool and warm middle areas will have rainfall and vegetation, and the extremely hot, dry areas will have rocky mountains, deserts, and excess heat from the sun.
When characters are transitioning from one type of terrain to the other, a difference in weather and climate should also be noted. Even in a fantasy world, a character experiencing a desert storm is most likely in a desert region.
Biodiversity of Plant and Animal Species
Biodiversity of plant and animal species is where most people creating a fantasy story or world would rather start from. The limitless nature of imagination that can be put into coming up with different human-like animal and plant species is so appealing that most stories start without explaining the nature of most species, explanations are usually drafted in later. However, animal and plant species in a fantasy or real-world are affected and influenced by their immediate surrounding environment.
The colors and appearance of animal species are usually designed to blend in and adapt to their surrounding environment. The skin coating acts as camouflage to hide them from either predators or prey. The skin coating is also a temperature regulating blanket that enables them to handle hot or cold temperatures. Animals species that occupy cold, snow-covered areas usually have thick fur that acts like a warm blanket. Species that occupy dry desert regions usually have lighter coating fur or reptilian scale coats. The species also possess morphological features that enable them to survive their surrounding environment.
When creating species for a fantasy story world, it is important to put them in their correct environment. The structure and appearance of the animal or plant species should be able to correspond to its environment. A flying white bear-like animal monster should most likely be encountered in the snow-covered areas of the map. A brown reptilian lizard looking monster should originate from hot desert regions. Even the real-world mythological monsters usually correspond to their immediate environment. Stories of the white color coated Abominable Snowman and Yetis are popular in snow-covered areas. Stories of dark fur covered Bigfoot and Werewolfs are popular in forest-covered areas. Aquatic fish-like monsters such as Mermaids and the Lochness monster are common in places closer to water bodies.
Plant species should also correspond to their environments. Cactus looking plants should be found in the desert areas of the map. Woody forest-like and leafy plants should occupy water-rich areas. A speaking wise giant tree should be found deep in the forest. A moving snakelike cactus plant should be found in the hot, dry desert areas of the map.
Geopolitics, Conflicts, Religions, Traditions, and Cultures of the Map
Geopolitics is basically how human species interactions are influenced by geographical factors such as boundaries, borders, and natural resources. Traditions, customs, conflicts, religions, and cultures are also influenced by geopolitics. The first law of spatial geography states that—"everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things."
When creating a fantasy map, it is important to understand some basic and likely geopolitics that will arise, even before writing the story. Two bordering lands will either be allied to each other or hostile neighbors. The two lands will either share resources or compete for resources. They will most likely share common characteristics in terms of their origins, appearance, traditions, religions, and customs.
"Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things"
— Tobler's First Law of Geography
The appearance of human-like species should also reflect their environment. Species from hot and dry areas of the map will most likely be more tan compared to species from snow-covered areas with less exposure to heat from the sun. Their traditions, religions, and customs should also be a reflection of their environment. Species that worship the sun should come from areas exposed to the sun. Species that harness magic from river monsters should reside on the river banks. Species that are good at herbal medicine should most likely originate from the forest areas of the map.
The differences and relationships between species that are not in close proximity should also be notable. The unfamiliarity should be able to attract a certain level of curiosity, suspicion, and in some cases, prejudice. Even when alliances and conflicts are formed in the story, the geographical locations should be able to explain certain factors affecting the decisions that are made.
Creating a fantasy story or world is a very liberating and adventurous feeling, there are no defined limits or boundaries with regards to how far you can stretch your imagination. When you observe a child playing make-believe in the backyard garden, it takes a few seconds before the child can acknowledge your presence.
If you have watched or read a fantasy novel or movie, the feeling is not any different from the joy experienced by a child lost in a world of make-believe. A fantasy world is aesthetically appealing to look at, and most people enjoy that. For some people, however, the constant questioning of reality by the brain causes a feeling of nausea and dizziness. If you have watched a 3-hour-long fantasy movie, there is always a need to adjust to reality after the end credits before you can act like a normal human being again.
When creating a fantasy world for a story, it is up to the writer to create a good balance between reality and imagination with regard to the aesthetic appearance of the world; otherwise, the story and the world may become too confusing for the reader. To achieve this, the writer can sprinkle a little bit of real-life science in the pool of endless imagination.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 AL
Comment Your Favorite Fantasy Novel, Book, Movie or Animation?
AL (author) from South Equator, East Pacific on July 22, 2020:
Actually, I thought about covering that point. I think I touched on it a bit when addressing geopolitics. There is so much to learn in worldbuilding.
Michael Rivers from North Carolina on July 21, 2020:
Not bad! It also comes to say that along with basic scientific features of geography, there also has to be a reason why people live where they live in the terms of your fantasy story. This makes it all the more worthwhile when you are worldbuilding.
Sorry. Tried to comment under my name and it didn't go through. Please delete the other comment and keep this one (the one with my Profile Pic). Thank you.
AL (author) from South Equator, East Pacific on February 27, 2020:
Thanks, Pam. I'll be expecting a fantasy map from yours truly.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 27, 2020:
This is certainly a very well-writen, thorough article about ceating a fantasy map. I learned a lot reading this article.
AL (author) from South Equator, East Pacific on February 27, 2020:
Appreciate the feedback LJ Milan, always something new to learn, I am also trying to get more information on the subject, the internet happens to be a good resource tool.
LJ Milan from Novi Sad, Serbia on February 27, 2020:
I knew a lot about this subject, but I also learned a lot. Thank you for all the help.