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For this week’s instalment of Fantasy Friday, I’m delighted to introduce fantasy author Jesper Schmidt. Jesper runs AmWritingFantasy.com along with Autumn Birt. I particularly enjoy his vlogs. He covers everything a fantasy writer needs to know: monsters, warfare, magic systems, races, and much, much more. He hosts discussions with other writers too. I found myself on there not long ago (the video’s at the bottom of the page). And best of all, he’s a world-building and mapmaking genius, a perfect guide for this week’s Fantasy Friday topic. Enough of me, over to Jesper.
Hi there and welcome to the wonderful world of fantasy maps.
In its simplest form, a map is a landscape drawn on a piece of paper—electronically or by hand—in order to symbolize reality through a number of selected features or characteristics.
However, we only need to go back five or six hundred years to find that there was no clear distinction between fantasy maps and what we classify today as “real” maps.
Back then, maps often had fantastic places included on them. For instance, consider the biblical Book of Revelation. In it, we find the lands of Gog and Magog situated by the Caspian Sea, with a wall that Alexander the Great had supposedly built around them.
In fact, if you think about it, most maps on the market are a fairly recent development, with almost none of them being more than 500 years old. Yet old maps have an allure to them. They come with a certain aura of mysticism.
Rise of the Maps
As science fiction and fantasy writing grew in popularity, fantasy maps increased not only in number but also in imagination. Places like Hogwarts from Harry Potter have been mapped out in the greatest of detail, and most fantasy computer games rely heavily on maps, too.
One of the most famous fantasy maps of all time: the Hundred Aker Wood by E.H. Shepard, first appeared in 1926 as part of the Winnie the Pooh children’s stories.
And that’s just where many of us find our first love for maps – during childhood.
We learn to love to see the places we’re reading about, imagining ourselves going on new adventures through the lands laid out on the page with our fictional friends.
Make your fantasy world real
Nothing brings your world to life as much as a map. It hooks your audience and makes your story seem real by giving the reader a sense of place and help immerse them in your story.
The quality of a fantasy map does affect my experience of the book though. I never found myself fully immersed in C.S. Lewis’s story about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The forest of Narnia was just depicted as a cluster of trees, whereas Tolkien created elaborate landscapes in comparison.
Maps just tell a different kind of story than words ever will. When our eyes are free to wander, we are able to take the geography in all at once. We can let ourselves get absorbed by the exotic details.
A common pitfall
Fantasy map-making is a very niche subject, but with a basic understanding of geography, it’s not as hard as it might seem.
One of the most common pitfalls is to jump straight into the map creation without a basic understanding of the story you want to tell first.
When asked, I always advise people to come up with the elements that are mandatory to have on the map in order to support the story. Try to distil the crux of where the events are to take place.
For some, this will come easily, and others will have to spend some time mulling it over.
This exercise gives you a handy checklist of key features that you will have to add to your map. Since the creation of a map can take many hours – of course depending on what you need it for and how professional you want it to look – it would be a shame for all that work to go to waste. Worse yet, what if you have paid a designer or cartographer to make it for you?
Take a look at the map of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Study the location of Minas Tirith. Is it a coincidence that it’s placed exactly where it is on the map?
No, far from it.
The name itself means “The Tower of Watch”, and it is a fortress consisting of seven levels, each one rising one hundred feet above the one that comes before it. The lowest of the walls is the only one not white. It’s instead made of a black stone called Orthanc, and nothing but earthquakes can damage it.
Minas Tirith stands as a guardian against Mordor in the east and protects Gondor and Rohan to the west.
The map is designed to support the story. It enhances it and creates the type of immersion we are looking to create.
A great map will complement your story and plays a key role in fantasy. That said, I firmly believe that the story should always take priority. By that, I mean never force your fable to take place at certain locations just because they accidentally made their way onto the map. If it’s necessary to start over with a fresh map, then do so. It doesn’t matter how painful a choice that may be. I have been there, so I know what I’m talking about.
When done well, the landscape can itself take on the function of a character. When that happens it will give your audience a wonderful experience.
Need more help?
I love to break everything into manageable chunks and recorded a YouTube series on things to consider when it comes to mapmaking. Find it here: http://bit.ly/1WIwIVC
Mapmaking is not an art reserved for professional cartographers, but something we can all manage.
Focusing on real-life geography and translating that into a realistic map that conveys information—information which would otherwise have taken long and winding explanations—to the audience is truly a magical thing.
About the Author
Jesper Schmidt is a Danish fantasy author who has also written a book on Fantasy Map Making. In the book, he shares a step-by-step system on how to create truly fantastic and immersive fantasy maps.
Learn more here: https://www.jesperschmidt.com/books/fantasy-map-making/
Here’s that video on world-building I mentioned earlier: