Where do you start with worldbuilding?
Everyone has their own method for creating a world, each method is valid. Myself, I like to start with a map. Once I finish a base map, it opens up a lot of doors, giving me insight into my world, and the areas that need to be developed.
Thing is… maps can be hard. They can be difficult to create, to visualize, and (if you’re like me) they won’t always look that great because drawing is hard. You might start to draw a map only to realize… you don’t have the slightest idea what you want your map to look like, what the countries or continents look like, how it’s all supposed to fit together.
Sometimes, it seems easier to just… not. To forget a map and just worldbuild in other ways.
Is that allowed?
Of course it is. You don’t have to have a map; just like you don’t have to develop any given part of your world.
So…. If maps are hard, and you don’t NEED them, why have one at all?
The Benefits of a Map
(or two… or three)
This is the central map for my current project, Agram Awakens:
|Any blurriness is due to the scanning and uploading process.|
It’s not brilliant, necessarily. After all, it only took me twenty minutes with a #2 pencil, a blue colored pencil, and a thin-tip permanent marker. The outline isn’t brilliant, the words aren’t written in the most “map-iest” handwriting, and I didn’t even bother to create a scale on the map (which is approximately to scale with the United States east-west, and slightly bigger north-south, for the record). And let's not even talk about the compass "rose" I sort of added as an afterthought.
What good is a map?
It gives you a place to start.
When I started to develop this story world (almost two years ago to the day, actually), I started with this map. I sat down and I just… made it. I finished labeling the countries (having made up their names shortly after finishing the map), and sat back with a small smile.
What did this map give me?
Here’s the bullet list of things I knew I needed to develop, just based on the map:
- Geography. This was already started, because I knew where the largest rivers were, where the mountain ranges and oceans and deserts and important landmarks were.
- Seven countries. You’ll notice there are seven countries on the map. This is the central location of the series, so I know exactly which countries need to be developed. I have a reference point for their names and basic geography, so I have a foundation for their cultures.
- History. I mean, look at the names of a few of the places. One of them is literally named “Agram the Lost”. When I wrote it, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. I just… came up with it and wrote it down. Turns out… that random phrase I wrote down on the map ended up becoming central to the whole plot. I also knew I needed a reason for there to be an island named “the Isle of Weeping”.
- Climate. You’ll notice that there are countries to the north and to the south of this map. So… what in the world is the climate of this place? Obviously, it can range quite a bit, comparing the American climate with those to the north and south. But it wouldn’t make sense for it to be constantly cold in this whole place, because the countries to the north or south would then have to be super cold and it would stop making sense for those countries to exist because why would you live there?
That’s just the basics, because when you delve into the second bullet in that list, you find dozens and dozens of sub-categories under “cultures”.
A map names the location, so you can fill them. If you don’t even know where the country is located relative to others, you miss opportunities in worldbuilding. When you don’t know what the geography looks like, when you don’t know what the climate might be, you can become lost in asking yourself “is this village near ocean? Forest? Rivers? Desert? Is it cold? Hot? Tropical?” and a hundred other questions.
Your map can prevent plot holes. If your characters are on a journey and they cross a river, they have to cross it again on the way back. That’s how rivers work, after all.
If you’re not careful, you can lose rivers, forests, mountain ranges, and even whole countries. Those sorts of plot holes can be easily avoided if you have a map. If you mark out your characters path on a map, you’ll know exactly what is involved in their journey, and then you won’t accidentally forget any of it.
Starting a Map
Maps are good. Maps help you worldbuild. Maps help you avoid plot holes and lost rivers.
“Yes, yes, but how do you make one?”
There are so many ways you can do this. I know a few writers who just open their computer’s free Paint program, fill it with a blue background (for oceans), and then create the continents out of the right colors (green for forests, light green for plains, yellow for desert, gray triangles for mountains, etc.).
That’s one way. It’s perfectly viable; I did it myself several years back and made this:
|The more I look at this, the more I realize how much I dislike this map...|
It’s definitely not pretty (or finished), and most certainly not the kind of map you’d expect to find inside a published book.
That’s because this kind of map isn’t for the final product. It’s not supposed to be perfect. This sort of map is meant for you. Much like worldbuilding an education system when you don’t have a character in school is meant to help you portray your story more realistically, this map is designed to make your life easier.
Not to make your life prettier because it’s a work of art.
Another way you can create a map is to simply take out a piece of paper (I like to use a sketchpad because the paper is thicker/creamier and has bigger dimensions because room) and a pencil and start to draw.
Draw what, though?
It doesn’t matter. Just draw. If you end up not liking something, there’s these fancy things called erasers and they’re wonderful. The hand-drawn map I showed you earlier looks very little like the original sketch. It’s why you start with pencil. Mistakes in pencil are easy to rectify.
If you’ve already started developing your world, be sure to reference your notes. If you’ve already developed a nation with a mountain range running through the middle, be sure to draw that country and include the mountain range.
Another way to draw maps, a way I most recently learned about from a friend, is to use map-making computer programs. Who knew those even EXISTED, right?
My friend introduced me to one called Hexographer, which was originally created for RPG-mapmaking. But just because it’s for one thing doesn’t mean you can’t use it for worldbuilding, right? Hexographer maps are drawn using hexes (duh, right), and it’s free (of course, there’s the usual “upgrade” version you can pay for, but the free version is quite versatile on its own). There are other mapmaking programs out there, this is just the one I’ve used before. Here’s an example of a map I created:
|This map's also unfinished, but it's a concept for a story I'm playing around with.|
It’s super flexible, and there are even other versions of the program that are made to specifically fit your needs (like cityographer for laying out cities and dungeonographer for designing building layouts). I highly suggest at least checking them out, even if you decide not to use them. And you can always use the internet to find other mapmaking programs.
To Include or Not to Include?
As you draw your map, you might wonder: “what do I put on this?”
Answer: whatever you need.
Of course, that’s not necessarily the best answer because you’ll end up with a super cluttered map. Let’s look at this map again:
It’s pretty full, isn’t it? (I apologize if it’s hard to read… yay image sizes.)
Imagine if I’d labeled it with all the cities and town, with all the roads, with all the forests and creeks and individual mountains.
You couldn’t see the white of the paper.
I suggest creating a base map for your story. Keep it simple, like mine. Draw the land and the sea (color in the sea if you’re into that sort of thing), create the borders for countries, write the names of countries and their capitol cities, and note the most important landmarks (large deserts, mountain ranges, large rivers, etc.).
Then copy this map.
Because here’s an interesting thing: when you draw over your base map, you can’t just get rid of that stuff. Especially if you scratch something in pen. So make a copy.
The copy (or multiple copies) you make can be used to add more details: like cities, roads, less-important/large geography, character’s journeys, and so forth.
That’s all very nice, but how do you know whether you need these things?
This is when you look at your story. If your character takes a journey from one country to another, you need to know how they got there. Did they go by road? Where is the road? What sort of landscape will the character see on the way?
As a general rule of thumb, you don’t need to make your map as detailed as a real-world map. You don’t need to come up with hundreds of city/town/village names and locations, you don’t need a thousand named roads, you don’t need to map out where every marsh and stand of trees and patch of grass and overgrown path is.
You need what your story needs.
That will mean something different for everyone. My current project, for instance, currently has the original map, a copy with the major cities and town, and a copy with the roads. It also has two maps of other regions, and two close-up maps that focus on a smaller area of the original map.
I probably have an excessive number, but at the same time, that’s not that many, when they’re being used for a ten-book series (AKA ~2 million words).
Your novel might not need that many maps… it probably won’t. In fact, you might only need one. If that’s the case, that’s perfect. Less work for you, right?
A map is a powerful tool in worldbuilding, much like creating a timeline or creating tables to keep track of the titles of nobility. You can spend too much time building them, but you can also use them to keep track of your story’s setting, and it gives you a starting place for development.
All you have to do is let your pencil run across the paper willy-nilly and only worry about tectonic plates if you’re super into that sort of thing.