Six steps to map-making in fantasy and science fiction

Recently I read an insightful post about map making in fiction. In his blog post, Alex Acks discusses the impossible geology behind Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth.


Maps are a welcome addition to almost any book. In science fiction or fantasy, maps are part of world-building, a tool for the writer as well as the reader. But a map is much more than a river here, a town there. To be believable and to ‘work’ when the story is told, the creator of a map should think about six components of a workable landscape map.


geology 2
an outcrop of rock reveals the local geology

1. Basic Geology

Geology is the study of the hard structure of the earth, of the component rocks and sediments and the processes forming and changing them. Geology provides the basic bones of the landscape. Geological features such as mountains are formed when tectonic plates collide or slide beneath one another, causing big wrinkles in the landscape. Deciding the locations of these wrinkles is the first step in making a realistic map.

basic geology of an area showing a mountain range, sloping to north and south


geology 3
a hilly landscape


2. Geomorphology

Geomorphology is the study of the elements of landscape and how those elements are created and changed. When the basic bones of the earth are modified by movements of air and water, landscape elements such as hills, river valleys, deserts, and cliffs are formed.  Thinking about the origin, evolution, form, and distribution of landforms will help create realistic landscapes and maps. For example, if you want a desert on your map, imagine how years of erosion might have worked to create it at the base of a mountain range. Look at maps of actual terrain and see how rivers snake across the landscape, and how tributaries join the main stem in patterns.

geomorphology of an area, showing a mountain range, a hill, rivers, a desert, a coastal plain and an ocean


vegetation 3
two communities of vegetation: a field of blueberries (in autumn red) and a woodland of various kinds of trees


3. Ecology

Once you have built the geomorphological elements of your landscape, you can arrange the living components, the plants and animals. Keep in mind concepts of diversity (how many different kinds of plants and animals there are) and habitat preference (for example, some plants and animals prefer wet environments, some dry). Plants and animals needing the same conditions tend to group together in communities (forest, wetland and desert, for example). To make your world consistent and predictable, create profiles for the plants and animals in your world, just as you would for the sentient characters. Of course you world may not have the same ecology as earth … instead of plants and animals, you may have gootangs and elastiboes!

two vegetation types: green for woodland and brown for lowland shrubs



land use 2
a city on a peaceful river


4. Settlements

If you have sentient characters in your world, they need somewhere to live. Your map can contain individual dwellings or settlements and villages, towns and cities. When you locate these settlement features on your map, consider how sentiments beings choose where to live. They need the basics – food and water; rivers and coastal areas provide some of this. They may also need a way to transport goods, another reason many communities are situated along rivers. They may be located strategically, on a ridge or in a protected valley. Sometimes there are spiritual reasons for choosing a village site – in full view of a mountain for example.

three settlements: villages to the west and east, and a hamlet to the south


roads and paths: details to make the landscape accessible

5. Details

Once the landscape of your map is decided, and it is populated by vegetation, animal life and settlements, you can add details for realism. Roads, trails, picnic sites, crossroads, monuments, sacred sites, cemeteries, gathering places … the possibility are endless. You can also add a scale and a compass to the map (if there is a magnetic north in your fantasy world).

details added: a red road connecting the villages and a shrine marked with a star


6. Places

Place names help your reader situate the action in your story. Some of these names will be set when your story is first conceived. Others may need additional thought. A couple of ideas: unless you have a world where every place begins with the letter ‘m’, diversify the names as you would for your characters. Consider using words from geology and biology when looking for names – cauldera, drumlin, marl … copse, thallus, meristem.

some names put to places, including the towns of Pildran and Jet


In general

Of course, for science fiction and fantasy, processes may not work as they do on Earth. On my planet of Meniscus, for example, water flows up rather than down and water features such as rivers and their tributaries are not a component of the landscape. Your maps should reflect the ‘realities’ of your fantasy world!

The actual drawing of a map is a subject for a different post. I usually draft my maps first with pencil and paper. Then I refine the details in layers using GIMP.

For more information on making fantasy maps, have a look at Lauren Davis’s pointers at

Have fun with your map-making!



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