There’s one ability I wish I had from a small age: to draw. My drawings are incomprehensible and although some may call that art it’s hard to sketch something that you need to be precise. So if you’re like me and have the artistic skill of a gnat don’t be discouraged as I’ve soon learnt that there are workarounds for everything. This post will show you the workaround I found for map creating. Whether (like me) you need a map for a novel you’re writing or if it’s something else like a world for your latest DnD game, here’s how you can create a realistic map in six simple steps.
Step One – Collect maps
The first step is to collect some maps. Either for inspiration or to shape the image you already have in your head. Go to the site Roll For Fantasy Map Creator this is a really awesome tool that’s going to help with the basis of our map.
Scroll right to the bottom where it says ‘Change Map Size’. Depending on if you want a whole world or just an island will determine how you enter the following numbers. If you want a world, type in width: 20, Length: 15. If you want an island, flip those number: width: 15, length: 20. I’ll be creating an island in this tutorial. Now, of course, you can create a bigger or small world if you wish but I would advise against going any bigger. The reason why will be explained in the next steps.
Okay once you’ve entered your numbers, click just above that section on the button ‘Random Map’. A map should have been randomly generated on the board. Find a map you like the look of and scroll right to the bottom. There you should see a button that says ‘turn to image’. Click it. Your map should have been generated into an image (don’t worry if some squares are missing, these will not be our final maps). Right click the image and select ‘save as’. Save it somewhere you remember.
Repeat this process of randomly generating maps and saving the ones you like.
Out of the ones you’ve saved select around four that you really like. It doesn’t have to be the main island that you like the look of. There could be an interesting edge or island that looks cool. Keep it, save it, carry on. Here’s my four below.
Step Two – Cut them up, put them together
Let’s get creative! Out of those four islands that you loved, start destroying them. I mean just cut around them. It doesn’t have to be neat and do you remember how I said to keep a map if you just like a tiny isle? Well cut it out and put it near the main island you do. You may want to start looking at your maps from different angels as well, who knows a map upside down might actually be the right side up. Once you have all the pieces you liked out of your maps start arranging them together. You don’t have to use every map, out of the four I selected I used only three. Map 1 and 3 will create my main island and I cut up some interesting edges from the 2nd map to make my isles.
This step is optional but I would recommend you do it for a cleaner looking map. With your new map either scan it to your computer or take a picture and send it to yourself so you can print it off again. It’ll make sense why in the next step.
Step Three – Outline
Sharpen your pencils folks here’s the delicate part. This is the reason why I said you don’t want too big a map and why you may want to scan and print your map off again. You’re going to have to trace around your map, all those edges and crooks but don’t worry it really doesn’t take long. It doesn’t even have to take a steady hand because you know, map edges are rough. The easiest way to trace is to stick your map to a window (on a bright day) and stick a plain piece of paper on top as pictured below. The map behind is clear as day leaving you to trace easily.
Step Four – Scan, adjust and print
Phew. Halfway done. Yeah I know you have a big smile on your face now, congrats you have a map and hell yeah it looks awesome. Let’s make it even more so. Scan in / take a photo of your picture and send it to your computer. You may find that there are some things you want to change. To paint! That’s right the paint you used to mess about with when younger is here to save the day. It’s freeform crop feature will allow you to cut out pieces you’re not sure about and adjust them.
Here’s my map after my trace:
And here’s my map after I went into paint. As you can see I just rotated my main island and brought the smaller islands a bit closer. I’m not sure about you but this map screams fights of political power oncoming.
Step Four ½ (optional) – Re-outline
An optional step. Depending on what your map is for and how happy with the quality of your first traced map you may want to retrace after you’ve made some adjustments. (If you needed to make them in the first place). All I did was follow step two again and here’s my new map in all it’s glory. Almost.
Step Five – Add mountains and rivers
I’m not sure about you but I’m thinking my map is looking a little plain. Time for nature to take effect. Here’s the super easy way to add mountains and rivers that make sense which I learnt from Janloos over at Online Tabletop. If you want a scientific description about the earth and its layers go check the description over there. But I’m just going to show you the how rather than touch on the why.
The first thing you want to do is create some lines through your map. Now I know what you’re thinking. I really don’t want to trace this again (one reason to have a version on your computer to print). No worries, that version you still have on your computer? Open it up on you guessed it paint. Well, I actually used draw from Microsoft but it will do the same thing… allow you to draw lines.
Draw a couple of lines on your map like you see I did below. These will be your tectonic plates. Again if you want to know what those are check out the article linked above. The lines are where your plates meet.
Next step is to draw arrows. The arrows will signal which way your plates are moving.
Where your arrows meet are the plates colliding. Here is where the earth would create mountains. Where your arrows move away from each other is where rivers would form. Use a different colour for where your arrows are meeting and facing away. I chose red for my mountains and blue for the rivers.
Now go back to your map and start drawing in your newly formed rivers and mountains. With rivers, I just rubbed out some spots drew in some gaps. With mountains, I added some unclosed triangles. I also added some trees, which is where my forests would be. Ah, so much more interesting. Rivers, mountains and forests are a great way to divide areas, which leads us on to our next step.
Step Six – Add names
Names. The fun part. You may have had your names for your territories before you started your map. If not, don’t panic, there’s a lot of places where you can find inspiration. Take the names I have below for instance. Thraint right at the top, that’s just throne and paint blended together. You can also merge existing place names. Amerdia in the middle of the map is America and India. Or just use two random words together: Wizards Crook, Crystal Dream, now don’t they sound magical.
You could also use different languages. Take my island on the left. In Latin, primis tenerbris means dusk and aurora means dawn. Remember that rivers, forests and mountains have names too. At the bottom, you see ‘Fox River’ (yes, I’ve been watching too much prison break). Now I’m not saying you should name every river, mountain and forest but if there’s a river of significance, why not? And if you’ve run out of ideas bring out a compass. You see the mountains at the top of my map, you know what that’s called? North Thraint. It’s simple but it works.
A Realistic Map
And there you have it, our fully fledged map. Congrats. Remember you should never feel trapped by your own creativity. This map is not set in stone if you don’t like something change it. Yeah, you’re going to have to repeat some steps but it’ll be worth it. What you really need to think about is why you need the map in the first place. For me, I am writing a book about a quest that takes my characters throughout the map. I needed it to know their journey, the distance between locations, and if it was plausible in terms of the transport they have at their disposal.
Yet, if you look in a lot of fantasy books at their maps you will find that they zoom in only focusing on one area. For instance, your story may take place at the bottom of the map. What’s in Crystal Dream forest that a prince in Hanane and a thief in Tancridt wants? Or what about the island of Tenebris and Aurora? Have the treaties of dusk and dawn finally fizzled out? Or take Cauland. I wonder what happens over there on that tiny island. Once you know where your story takes place it’ll help you focus on what’s important.
If you are creating a map for a book, remember that it’s more than likely that if you get published it will be redone by a professional. So don’t stress about it too much, it should be used as a reference more than anything.