How To Create a Fictional Map for Fantasy or Sci-Fi Novels

Dewi Hargreaves
Writing stories and drawing maps of places that don't exist.
When you open a fantasy book, you usually can’t flick through more than a few pages before you bump into a map. They’re a luxury readers have enjoyed at least since the first editions of The Lord of the Rings. There’s a simple joy in seeing the world within the pages all laid out before you—in being able to trace the journeys of the characters within as they make their way, chapter by chapter, from one end of the world to the other.
But how are these maps made?
There are illustrators who specialise in the production of maps—like myself. It seems extremely niche, but when you think about it, there are maps all around us in our modern world. Video games are full of them, as are the hundreds of fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction books that are published every year. Schools and university campuses distribute them to new students, and game masters may commission them for their sprawling Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. There is plenty of work to keep us busy.
I’m going to take you through the production of a map, from start to finish.

Step one: Sketching a fantasy map

If a client has absolutely no way of getting a sketch to me, I’m happy to take written directions—but sending a sketch to a map illustrator makes it much more likely that the final piece will resemble your world most accurately. When I’m beginning work on a commission, I often ask questions about the world—the sizes of cities, the biomes, and whether the client has any other maps in mind whose style they like. I create my own sketch based off whatever information I’ve been given, then send it back, asking for edits—if a city isn’t quite in the right place, a mountain range looks weird, or a peninsula needs to be cut, it’s much easier to do it now, after a very quick sketch, than after the inking process when much more time has gone into the map.
After a couple of sketches have been sent back and forth, the inking begins!

Step two: Fantasy map specifications

When creating maps, especially ones for print—those to go in books, for example—there are some key things that need to be accounted for: the bleed, the gutter, and the size.
Books come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, depending on which country they’re published in and what genre they are. Hardcovers are different sizes to paperbacks, UK books are different sizes to US books, and nonfiction books are often, but not always, different sizes to fiction. Your illustrator will need to know the exact size (this is called the ‘trim size’) before they start work, if you want your map to fit your page perfectly. If a client doesn’t have a set trim size, I work in either 6" by 9" or 12" by 9", depending on whether it’s a single page or double page map, since this size looks fine in most books.
The bleed is the area around the edge of the page which can be cut away during printing! Printing books isn’t an exact science, especially if you’re producing print-on-demand books. Most printing companies require there to be no important information within a set distance of the edge of the page, in case something really important, like part of the text, is cut off during printing.
The gutter is the space down the centre of the book, between two pages. If you ask your illustrator for a double-page map, they may shunt important features away from the centre of the image - you don’t want to get to the printing stage and find that the glorious Imperial Metropolis, the capital of your world’s empire, has disappeared down the gutter and can’t be seen.

Step three: The fantasy map design

I’m sometimes commissioned to design maps in colour, but the vast majority of my work is in black and white. Printing in black and white is much cheaper, and you could argue that readers expect their book-maps to be black and white. Colour images translated to greyscale often lose some of their detail, as various shades of grey blend into each other.
The key to designing a visually appealing black and white map is in the composition: the balance of empty space to busy space, and the use of texture and line thickness to draw the eye to important elements.
As an example: this is the map I recently designed to go in the front matter of the book I co-wrote, Tales of Somewhere Else (I’m using one of my own pieces rather than a client’s because it’s much simpler for copyright).