Author Topic: The Bones of Earth 4: Making Maps  (Read 1422 times)


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The Bones of Earth 4: Making Maps
« on: March 23, 2018, 11:03:53 PM »
The Bones of Earth 4: Making Maps
By Jubal

Whilst the first three parts of "The Bones of Earth" have dealt with features and how to make them realistic, this will deal with some of the first steps towards actually creating a map for a fictional setting, specifically the overall layouts one could go for.

Single Countries

For some condensed settings, you only need a map of a single country, county, principality, island, or similar. Of course this is very setting-dependent, and it risks restricting your room for maneuver if you're literally not going to plan out more than the absolute minimum land area you need, but there's also something to be said for having a neat, compact setting that's proportionally much easier for your reader/user to get their head around. If it's a pre-modern setting you may need to cover for why national borders are where they are. Rivers, mountains, and coasts are all traditional, though in the case of rivers it's also worth remembering that river valleys often grow fairly culturally similar on both sides: maintaining a really hard border down the middle of a valley may not make a lot of sense for the people living immediately on either side. For a map of this scale, you're more likely to want to work out details of settlement and road positioning carefully - something we'll come back to in future articles.

The East-Facing/West-Facing Generic Continent

The principle here is simple; you have the continent on one side of the map, bounded by mountains or an impassable desert or unknown lands, and on the other it’s bounded by sea (usually with further desert/mountains in the south and ice/mountains in the north. Examples of this include Narnia, Middle Earth, Calradia (in Mount & Blade), Memory/Sorrow/Thorn by Tad Williams, Guns, Swords and Steam (my RPG), The Inheritance Cycle, Bletsungia (another world of mine), and the list goes on. Europe, the USA, and China can all pretty much fit this in the real world, which explains its popularity partly. Historically having the sea in the west (Tolkien style) seems to be more traditional, though the east (Narnia) isn’t uncommon either. I'm not sure I've ever seen a north/south faced variant on this, though I don't see any particular reason why one shouldn't exist.

The advantage of this generic continent style is that it combines a sizeable land area with effective, natural-looking boundaries that prevent characters from needing or wanting to go far beyond the compact setting. This is somewhat unrealistic, of course, but not entirely so - large barriers like the Sahara have historically been difficult for most people to traverse, though it's worth noting that trade still very much existed and that the presence of large mountains or some tundra certainly doesn't mean that you'll end up with ethnic monocultures on either side.

The Archipelago

This is a pretty good alternative to a continent with a particular facing. Earthsea is the most prominent example, though there are large numbers of others. The major advantage of archipelagos is that they allow for very restricted geographical biomes and areas; this is excellent if lots of small political units are desired, or if large variations in wildlife or plantlife are needed in the setting. Of course, the requirement for transport is also a factor; if you want huge tribes of horsemen sweeping across wide open plains they’re going to have trouble on a landmass five miles wide. Conversely, if you want naval journeys and warfare to feature in a setting, an archipelago really lets you go to town and make those a major part of your world in a way that's less plausible in more continental settings.

The Central Sea or the Great Plains

These are another two continental possibilities, both probably under-used. A Great Plains setting, with little water and no obvious sea, runs the risk that such areas rarely had much in the way of settled city-based cultures for much of their history. That said, nomads are pretty damn cool, and a setting that had more of a focus on areas where there weren’t the resources for larger settlement could work well. A Central Sea setting, with water surrounded by land, is another interesting idea; essentially most of fantasy writing focuses on inland cultures which happen to eventually reach the sea, but a setting where the sea was in itself the major resource needed would mean that the divide between inland cultures and those on the shore (littoral cultures) would become more prominent.

The Planetary Map

A planetary map is a fairly large undertaking, and in many traditional fantasy settings doesn’t necessarily make all that much sense – if there’s no reasonable way for your heroic queen with her army to get to the other side of the world, there’s no need to focus your reader on a ton of places they don’t in any sense need to know about whilst losing detail on the places you really want. Nevertheless, for characters going on Marco Polo-like quests or in sci-fi worlds where air travel is easy it can certainly be useful. Generally the number of continents is up to you; you can end up with a bizarre super-archipelago if there are too many. Remember that if there are too few, you probably will end up with some inland seas etc or at least huge deserts in the centre of your vast landmasses. Thinking in plate tectonics terms is far more important at this scale; mountain ranges will go in long lines, ultimately landmasses will border each other at some sort of plate boundary. Looking at maps of prehistoric earth and the different forms the landmasses took is a really good plan here.

Real World Plus

Something I haven’t really talked about in the other articles is the fairly obvious fact that you don’t need to change the fundamental geography of the real world at all if you don’t want to. This can still lead to a number of possibilities – for example, major climatic change, adding wasteland or megacity areas, moving bits of landscape, simply wiping all the cities off the map and putting new ones in instead, etc etc. Sea level rise is an interesting one which can lead to an eerie “familiar yet different” feel for a map, as is the obliteration of large parts of it in nuclear wars. These ideas are used in a lot of sci-fi (Judge Dredd, for example) and Steampunk (Girl Genius includes Paris and Britain, and is primarily set in what is presumably roughly Germany) stories, and some fantasy too though this is a little rarer compared to a “hole in the world” idea where fantasy stuff invades our world or vice versa.

Star Mapping

Star maps are in some ways easier and in others more difficult than a planetary or terrestrial map. The bad news is that it’s harder to know where to start; the good news is that it matters very little! All interstellar distances are so large it makes little real difference as far as the world’s inhabitants are concerned. Generally the only advice I can give is to not be too regular or too spread out; have clumps (which will probably be the areas where interstellar civilisations can expand) and also gulfs.

With star maps the other thing to consider is size and depth per planet/location. Authors often spend years if not a lifetime mapping the detail of, say, a continent or even a country, let alone a whole planet. If you’re taking on the job of literally constructing a whole galaxy, you’re going to need to cut corners. Ways to do this; firstly, have very low population densities (this is surprisingly uncommon but I did it with Cepheida). This means that you only need to deal with a small inhabited area on each planet and many planets won’t have inhabitants at all. Good for exploration-based ideas, but less good for giant interplanetary war scenarios where billions die each day blah blah etc. The second solution is to assume that a planet is just one biome. I did that with Cepheida as well, but it’s also been done in pretty much all the big sci-fis such as Star Wars (Tatooine is a “desert planet”, Coruscant a “city planet”, Dagobah a “swamp planet”, with little indication of variation, unlike on earth which happily has deserts AND swamps AND cities AND icecaps). It works well as long as you don’t question it too much, but if you want something believable it may not always be the best plan. Solution three is just to not ask tricksy questions or, depending on the project, to do the “you can make YOUR OWN world, dear reader/player/etc” option.

So there you have it - a range of basic options and ideas for how to lay out your maps. I'm not sure what the next article in this series will be exactly, so do comment if you have preferences - either one on settlement growth and placement, or the importance of rivers and water systems, might be a good next step I think. As ever, I hope you enjoyed this, and do stay tuned for more!
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