what is a fantasy map

Want to win devoted fans who can’t wait for your next fantasy novel, discuss your world and characters, and help bring your fantastical fiction to life?

Hook them into your story by making it real!

Fantasy maps give readers a sense of place and help immerse them in your story, bringing it to life in vivid detail.

Let’s take a look at how you can bring your fantasy world to life with a map.

Real Maps and Fantasy Maps

We all know what a map is.

In its simplest form, it’s 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. By design, it’s intended to show us spatial relationships.

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 would today classify as “real” maps. In fact, back then, maps often had fantastic places included on them. For instance, in many medieval maps, the lands of Gog and Magog from the biblical Book of Revelation were situated by the Caspian Sea, with a wall that Alexander the Great had supposedly built around them.

fantasy novel worldbuilding

[One of Jesper’s fantasy world maps, for Erisdun]

The Rise of Fantasy Maps

With the rise of science fiction and fantasy writing, 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.

And let’s not forget one of the most famous fantasy maps of all time: the Hundred Acre Wood by E.H. Shepard, which first appeared in 1926 as part of the Winnie the Pooh children’s stories.

I believe many of us find a love for maps during childhood. We 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.

Personally, I found the quality of a fantasy map affected my experience of the book, rather than the other way around. 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.

Tolkien and Map-Making

Like so many things in fantasy, we have J.R.R. Tolkien to thank for many of the map tropes we recognize today.

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.

Audiences who love fantasy don’t mind being dropped into the deep end. They love studying the odd names and wondering about the arcane histories.

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.

Are Maps Important?

Opinions are all well and good, but I much prefer quantitative data if I can get my hands on it. Fantasy map-making is a very niche subject, though, so in search of answers, my best option was to go on a long Google rampage.

I wanted to know how common fantasy maps really are in works of fiction.

While I did uncover all sorts of material—and it all comes with a sprinkle of unscientific salt—this is my condensed and short bullet-point conclusion:

  • 33% of fantasy novels contain a map;
  • Maps are more common for novels set in a secondary world, i.e. not historical fantasy set on Earth;
  • 75% of novels that do feature a map only contain a single map.

A well-known exception to the third point is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It holds a large-scale map of the Shire, a smaller one for the entire western part of Middle-Earth, and a medium-scale map of Gondor and Mordor.

With only 33% of fantasy novels containing a map, one might start to think that fantasy maps are not the obligatory necessity they are widely held to be.

However, maps not only help us understand where things are located, help us get a grasp of distance, and increase our sense of wonder—they also help to deepen immersion. That is alpha-omega, and it’s why I believe that maps are hugely important.

If you are anything like me, you feel disappointed if you open a fantasy novel and there is no map within the first couple of pages.

how to make a fantasy map

Want to Create a Fantasy Map?

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.

Learn more about writing fantasy fiction here:

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Jesper Schmidt

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/

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