6 Tips for Mapping a Fictional World

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6 Tips for Mapping a Fictional World

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 3 “World Building” – Section 2 “Maps”


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I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.”

- J.R.R. Tolkien

If you've ever read or written a story that seemed unintentionally ethereal—where the descriptions did not paint a vivid picture of the setting but instead a more vague dreamscape that the characters meandered along aimlessly—then you know the problem of not having a real and tangible setting for your story. The problem is not simply that there isn't enough description for the reader to paint a vivid picture, but that there is no original picture for them to piece together. And what creates a real and tangible setting? The things that create a tangible setting in a story are the same subtle but real details and barriers that form the reality we see around us—walls, ceilings, floors, doors, mountains, trees, asteroid fields, and all of the space and dimensions between these that form reality. Without them solidly represented in your story, your characters function within the world amoebously—moving between spaces with none of the walls and doors and cliffs that would limit us in reality. Or they traverse forests and fields that are simply convenient filler space between the dream bubbles where plot events takes place. Today, we're going to take the first step of making your dream-world into a real place, by mapping; so get out your crayons and colored pencils!

Tip 1: Create all of the maps relevant to the type of story you are creating.

No matter what galaxies, dimensions, realms, mazes, or buildings that your characters traverse, you need to have them mapped out so that they become tangible places that exist of their own right instead of merely for plot convenience. Take The Lord of the Rings as an example of this, and imagine how unreal and short the story would have been without the natural land barriers—forests, bodies of water, hostile cities, enemy territories, mountains, etc—that really brought the journey to life and made it seem like a real place in our imaginations. Make as many maps as you need for your story. If you are writing a murder mystery, for example, this will include the city, all of the locations of your crime scenes, complete with details of how many bathrooms, closets, and floors there are, with approximate dimensions for each. If you are writing sci-fi, map the galaxy of all known life-bearing planets, and map the planet that the characters happen to crash on—even down to details that will barely affect them. And if your are writing in modern Earth, remember that this can be as simple as printing a page from Google Maps.

Tip 2: Note the natural environments of your world, color code them, and create a map legend.

What are the physical factors that will affect traveling through your mapped area—the weather, the flora and fauna, availability of food and water, the condition of the ground and whether it is good for walking or camping? If you are in an enclosed space, are there carpets that you can easily sneak on, are there locked doors, are the doors thick enough to resist being knocked down, are the walls soundproof? Mark every physical factor and determine how it will affect the characters within it, even if it is as simple as the fact that there is an open meadow that will make the characters feel a little more at peace. Then, use colors and symbols to mark the terrain in your map, and create a legend that explains the colors and the symbols, so that you can use and remember them later.

Tip 3: Use your map as an extension of your plot outline, and use a pencil.

Soon we will be working on creating plot-outlines for our stories, and you likely already have an idea of where you want your characters to go. Use your map and mark the path of the characters, as well as to annotate which chapters and plot-points happen at which part of the map. Doing so will improve the pacing of the story (so that you don't spend a chapter going 5 miles, and then the next three chapters going a quarter mile, without reasonable cause), create a sense of newness in each chapter, make setting descriptions much easier, and help you to keep your characters mobile. Don't feel compelled to have your characters move in a straight line toward their ultimate destination, but take into account that they may not know where they are going or need to travel in such away that allows them to camp in relative safety. I advise using a pencil because these destination markers are very subject to change as different obstacles show up in the story; meaning, you will need that eraser.

Tip 4: Address the question of language/dialect/culture in travel.

When I was growing up, I learned that there were certain tribes of indigenous people who still do not wear clothes because clothing symbolized the heart of the colonial slaver; and at the time I could only imagine how most other cultures would clash with that idea, even in attempts at humanitarian medical aid. Whether the story of these tribes was true or not, the point is that diversity, even within humanity, is rich with distinct cultures, different ways of thinking, and often places where cultures can easily clash. Even someone going from the the southern United States to the northern United States will become angry when they try to smile and wave at strangers and receive nothing back but suspicious glares. Unfortunately, such rich diversity is rarely reflected in literature; even in sci-fi and fantasy, the many species and people groups will share culture, language, and sets of social norms, with attitudes, religion, and politics being the most you'll get as far as diversity. Using your time-line, figure out how many different cultures and subcultures that your characters could expect to come across, what the nature of those cultures would be, and how the meeting of your characters' culture with others' would go.

Tip 5: Be realistic in your exposition of dimensions, space, measurements, time, etc…

Remember that a story is told through the eyes of the Point-of-View (POV) and Narrator characters; and that character will only note oddities and mapping details as they become relevant and visible. In other words, note which of the two above characters you are telling the story through, and use that as a scope of description. For a Narrator, you can discuss as much or as little mapping as you'd like—down to measurements and details that even your active characters cannot see. For a POV character, you'll want the reader to see and know what the character does. Additionally, the details should line up with the character voice and perspective you have chosen; for example, I will less likely to accept that the main character notes that she walked 12.4 miles, than if you tell me that she felt like she'd walked 20, but thought it was probably more like fifteen. However, if your character is a cartographer, a soldier, or someone else who might be concerned with precision, I could certainly believe exact details given in that context.

Tip 6: Create a map before you create your story, but be open to editing.

Good stories, in great part, come from writers thinking of creative ways to deal with the challenges at hand—reflecting in ingenuity and resourcefulness in their characters. Furthermore, nothing you write or create is set in stone until is published—and sometimes not even then—it is finished when it is perfect. So create your map, and then write your story. If there are conflicts, then change your plot or your map—depending on which change will result in a more dynamic storytelling experience.

Weekly Recommended Reading: Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds

Write-A-Novel Exercise 3.2

Create all of the maps and legends that you will need for your upcoming novel. Use colors and symbols to codify your maps, terrain, objects, planets, etc, as described above. Then, upload them to the group gallery.

Critique other peoples' work by looking for missing details you think would be relevant to their plot, and by finding gaps of missing information in each map (e.g..If a person maps a house but there is no bathroom, or a landscape with wild animals but no source of water)

Click here to submit your exercise to the gallery.

 Click Here to see my full gallery of writing tutorials!


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