Monday, July 14, 2014


In Fantasy writing, one of the key elements to any story is the world.  Fantasy readers enjoy escaping into an alternate place, a world with different rules, sights, and sounds.  These fantasy realms are often shown in a map.

Fascination with maps, strange lands, and even monsters is nothing new. As long as mankind's walked around, there have been people who dreamed about what lurks beyond the horizon. The map below shows Scandinavia as one cartographer imagined it, surrounded by sea monsters.

Carta Marina - printed 1539

Today, many epic fantasy novels feature a map drawn by the author.  I, myself, was unable to start writing School of Deaths until I'd sketched a quick reference map on a sheet of paper. I remembered all of the fantasy worlds I'd encountered as a child.  Wonderland isn't a story about Alice, it's a story about a magical place. Tolkien never considered having Gandalf hop onto an eagle and toss the Ring down the open top of Mt Doom, because the readers wouldn't be able to fully immerse themselves into the richly imagined world he'd created.

Tolkien's Middle Earth
When creating a map for a fantasy world, it's important to keep several things in mind.  First, the world must look familiar enough to be recognizable.  In the map of Middle Earth above, the primary elements are mountains, ocean, forest, and rivers.  These features aren't fantastic at all, so we feel we can understand the map. The magical elements are then woven into the features we already recognize.  The features on a map in a quest-based story, such as Lord of the Rings, also have to be arranged in a progression.  In the map, obstacles are conveniently located in a line.  Connect the top and bottom mountains in Mordor, and you'd see a snaking arrow, mirroring the direction that the action takes.  At each point on the journey, the struggles become harder.  The map then serves as an anchor to the reader, so they can gauge how far along the journey the characters are.

Title Credits- HBO's Game of Thrones
Another consideration in most fantasy writing is to make the world interesting and fantastic, but not the main focus. No matter how exciting an author's worldbuilding skills, the plot and characters ultimately drive the story.  HBO's television fantasy Game of Thrones, is an adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Martin creates a vivid fantasy world, including fantastic elements such as an enormous wall of solid ice.  Yet again, these elements are rooted in ideas we understand.  My parents just returned from a trip to the Great Wall of China.  In the Game of Thrones television series, the opening credits feature a map coming to life. It is the ultimate expression of active worldbuilding. Yet in both the books and television series, it is the characters' struggles, and not the location, which creates the primary interest and plot.

School of Deaths is not epic fantasy. The characters know and begin in our world. However, setting a novel in a location that trains Grim Reapers opened up many avenues for a fantasy world.  The World of Deaths is home to struggle between three races: Deaths, Elementals, and Dragons.  As I work on the second novel Sword of Deaths, the nature of their struggle has taken new shape, and I find myself drawn repeatedly to the map of their world.

The World of Deaths
 When I'd originally sketched the map, I'd been focusing on where the College of Deaths sat in relation to the other races. I used recognizable elements (rivers, forests, mountains, and ocean), and made sure my world would not overshadow my characters.  I then began to emphasize the fantastic nature of some of the locations.  My personal favorite on the above map is the Door (lower right of map).  The Door to the Hereafter sits in the middle of an upward flowing waterfall.  A narrow beach stretches from horizon to horizon, surrounded by a cliff of perpendicular stone on one side, and the wall of water opposite.  When readers look at my map, I hope they envision such fantastic places and feel more drawn into the story.


  1. Christopher, I have to picture something to write about it as well, but what I've mostly done is to use GIMP to draw pictures of what I think the planet my aliens inhabit looks like. They're posted on one of my pinterest boards:

  2. I drew (and colored) a map of my world (Valendria) when writing QUEST OF THE HART. I then had to revise my map for CHARMED MEMORIES. Fortunately I hadn't released QotH yet, so no issues arose from the changes, and the map helped me see where I was going a bit better.

    Love the examples you shared- and great job on your own!

  3. Good points about maps. I love how old maps have so many details and pictures, and it's nice how fantasy maps usually do the same instead of being like bland geographical maps today.

  4. Mary-Jean, I don't think all modern maps are bland. One of the fun things Google Earth has done is create navigable virtual maps of both the Game of Thrones world and Middle Earth. Here's the one used as a promo for the last Hobbit movie: