World Building Through Mapping

Great fantasy worlds, no matter how unique, need to be physical and believable, based upon reality and rules for those worlds. Before you start writing, start planning that world. Consider theology/spirituality, physics, weather/climate, geography, astronomy, zoology, anthropology, history…

Mapping is a great way to develop your world. You can add more details as you write, but they should fit the physical world you have created, with its boundaries. In speculative fiction, the specifics of the world are very important and often define the story. At the same time, the story world needs to be so strongly intertwined with the plot that it becomes unique and immediately recognisable.

Think about macro aspects of the geography: Is it underground, above ground, under water, in space? Is there day and night? What is the source of light and energy? How big is the world? Was there a Creator or did it develop through evolution? or magic? or?  Then think about more micro aspects: mountains, canyons, deserts, unearthly geographical possibilities? And of course, add in flora and fauna. Determining the size of your world ultimately determines if your story will be a short story or a novel, a series (and whether it will be a short or long series), where your characters can go, the size of the population, and many other possibilities and limits. Most fantasies stick with one general land mass, while sci-fi can use multiple planet and moon colonies, and even entire solar systems.

Setting is a crucial part of effective sci-fi or fantasy or other genres that include world-building. You don’t want to get so involved in creating the plot, characters, POV (point of view), etc., that you fail to really develop your setting–especially since publishers generally allow an extra 20 – 30,000 words for novels that require world-building! Here are some helpful tips and things to think about when planning your setting and mapping it:

All good stories require a well- developed plot, character, setting and theme. But for sci-fi and fantasy, you have to master setting. The setting doesn’t have to be totally original; many great stories contain bits and pieces borrowed and adjusted from other sources. But in the end, the world you create has to draw your readers in and keep them coming back for more. You have to create the world as a whole–geography, environment, physics, biology, civilisations and cultures must all intertwine into interdependent systems.

While you don’t have to detail every single aspect of your world, and while it doesn’t have to be totally accurate scientifically (in a sci-fi story), it does need to reflect the world’s complexity enough to make it feel real to your reader. Mapping your world out before you write the story will help you reach this goal. Remember, when you’re mapping out a world for speculative fiction, you are free to include sketches and drawings that illustrate important ideas about your world. Be creative! Let your map give an instant view of many aspects of your world–but don’t go so far as to make it confusing and overwhelming.

What will your overall setting be? Futuristic? medieval or another era? based on an historical culture on Earth? technologically advanced or hunter-gatherer societies or something in between? mega-cities or rural villages or kingdoms with castles? Is it separated into different countries, or is there only one? Or none?

Remember, readers can’t see or experience your setting unless you provide details that anchor the story, and having your map handy to refer to can help you with that. As the story changes scenes, provide a sentence or two (or a few, if needed) that makes it clear, or better yet, mingle that information into the action or dialogue (remember: show, don’t just tell). While it is important in world-building to share important over-all details, too many mini details can be overwhelming. If any of the setting info really isn’t key to the story, leave it out. If small details can’t be fit into your map, that might be a sign that they aren’t absolutely necessary.

Don’t assume that readers will easily see what you, as author, see in your mind’s eye. For example, when you write about an event happening on a mountain, will your readers be picturing the same mountain you are? Give enough details so they can see what you see. You can prepare for this by sketching some of those details into your map. (And of course, if you decide to include your map as part of your book, it will be a handy reference for your readers. Just don’t let the presence of the map “allow” you to forget about setting details within the story.

Don’t forget that we live in a sensory world of sound, taste, texture and smell as well as visual/sight. Thread in key sensory details as you describe your world. Use different sense cues for different descriptions, but make sure you use at least a couple senses for each new vista. Think about these aspects as you create your world map, and find ways to add important ones to the map.

Following is a list of links you can check out to get great ideas on how to map your world:

Mapping worlds:

And here are some examples of great maps of fictional worlds:

Check out all the posts in this series on writing speculative fiction:
Mapping and World Creation (with a focus on Science Fiction and Fantasy)
The Hero’s Journey
Utopian or Dystopian Story Writing
World Building Through Mapping
More Aspects of World Building–Part 1 (conflict, political systems, technology, magic, values, small details, economic system, cultural groups)
More Aspects of World Building–Part 2 (realistic hangouts, world naming, food, alternate realities, time/era, transportation, morality, architecture, overall considerations)
Characterization in World Building
Links to Some Great Posts on World Building
Tips for Writing Super-Hero Stories

Do you have other favourite sites or favourite speculative fiction books that have great mapping examples? Share your favourites in the comments! Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s