How to Make a Fantasy Map

Map from The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley; map by Isaac Stewart

So today Tor.com posted something very much relevant to my interests: a piece by illustrator Isaac Stewart that describes his process for creating a map for a fantasy novel. In this case, The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley, who very helpfully provided a sketch from which Stewart could work.

This is utterly fascinating for me, because a significant gap in my research into fantasy maps has been the process of creating them. It’s sort of left me feeling like a wine taster that has no idea how wine is made. Stewart (who has also done work for Brandon Sanderson’s novels: his maps for The Alloy of Law have already caught my attention) takes us through every step, from inspiration through Photoshop.

Earlier this year I published an article pointing out that the main difference between historical and fantasy maps was information density: a real medieval map is full of detail, because cartographers don’t dare waste vellum; fantasy maps are relatively sparse—largely, I suspected, because only so much detail can legibly fit on a map printed for a mass-market paperback. That was an educated guess on my part; it’s interesting to see it confirmed:

A map meant to fit in a hardcover book (and subsequently a paperback) can’t be as detailed as a real-world map and still be legible. Even though I treat the map as a product of its fantasy world, it has to be understandable to modern audiences. Usually this means I can’t copy the exact style of my reference, but I can use it for inspiration.

I’ll be referring to Stewart’s post often, I think.

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.