Dec 11 2013 1:00pm
How to Make a Fantasy World Map

Isaac Stewart Brian Staveley Emperor's Blades map

Any good fantasy world deserves a map, but how does a world map go from your notebook to an espansive illustration that provides depth and information?

Read on as Isaac Stewart shares his process for making the map for The Emperor’s Blades, the first book in Brian Staveley’s new fantasy series Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne. The book is out on January 14th but you can read the first seven chapters for FREE right here. (Did we mention it has ninjas that ride enormous hawks? It has ninjas that ride enormous hawks!)


I was ten years old, holding a golden Nintendo cartridge in my hands. The first time I’d lost myself in fantasy maps was when I discovered Dad’s old Lord of the Rings paperbacks. But everything was about to change for me.

I didn’t play The Legend of Zelda to win. I played it to explore. With colored pencils and an old piece of graph paper, I mapped the 8-bit world of Hyrule. When I ran out of paper, I taped on new segments. I kept it in my back pocket and took it to school with me, unfolding it at every chance to plan my next adventure. I dreamed of filling out those blank spaces and wondered what I would find there.

Oh boy, I had no idea where that little folded up map would lead me. I guess I could’ve found myself mapping Antarctica or outer space or the bottom of the ocean. But I dislike the snow, am extremely claustrophobic, and am terrified of being out to sea. So I explore fantasy novels.



For Brian Staveley’s excellent fantasy debut, The Emperor’s Blades, Heather Saunders at Tor wanted a two-page map that would match the feel of the book. When drawing a map, often all I have is the text of the book itself. This time I had both the book and the author’s sketch of his world.

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map


Brian’s attention to detail was amazing! I immediately wanted to dive into reading the book. I wasn’t disappointed. The same care with which he built the map is also found in the novel.

Before I jumped in headfirst, I needed to make sure of my destination. I wanted the final map to:

  1. Match the design of the book.
  2. Match the feel of the book.
  3. Feel like an artifact from the world of The Emperor’s Blades.

I asked Heather for samples of the book’s interior design. I studied the book’s cover. I tried to distill the feeling I had while reading the novel and decided that a somewhat far Eastern looking map would work well.

As much as possible, I try to design my maps as if they were artifacts of the world they depict. This is probably influenced by my time creating ephemera for Brandon Sanderson’s worlds. There are plenty of well-designed fantasy maps that don’t follow this paradigm, but it’s my preference. Because of that, I always try to find real-world examples on which to base my maps.

After some serious web surfing (and an unfortunate delay in the Straits of Social Media), I discovered a map on a website I hadn’t come across before (David Rumsey Map Collection), but which has quickly become my go-to place for map reference.

I later found the same map reference on Wikimedia.

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map

This was exactly what I was looking for and made it my style target.


The Problem of Real World Maps

I almost always run into the same problem each time I try to adapt a real-world cartographic style to a map meant for a novel.

Real world maps are huge and detailed.

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 decided to borrow the style of the mountains, rivers, and ocean.

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map



I start with the project specs to create a Photoshop file with all the guides I need to keep the image and text from getting too close to the book’s trim line. With a two-page spread like this map, I also add in safety guidelines around the gutter between the two pages.

Using the interior chapter designs as inspiration, I created a border, then went about fitting Brian’s sketched map into the space available, resizing and moving it until it fit right. I also cut the reference map in half and pulled it to either side of the gutter line. This makes the final map slightly wider than the sketch, but it also gives me space in the middle with no labels or important features. This keeps readers from having to pull the book apart to find words that are hidden in the binding.

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map


Map Creation

Painters have their preferred way of working, whether dark to light, light to dark, background to foreground, etc. With maps, it’s a bit more like Genesis (the book, not the band). I decided, for the sake of contrast and legibility, what parts of the map will be light and what will be dark. Then I separate the land from the water.

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map


I add the coastline and different biomes: mountains, deserts, forests, etc.

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map


Final border and texture for that antique feel. (Okay, so this step has nothing to do with Genesis.)

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map

Then I draw national borders and label everything.

I would’ve loved to have found a font with an Eastern flair to match the reference image, but I’ve found that most faux Eastern fonts often aren’t very legible, especially at small sizes. My first rule of fantasy cartography is clarity. For that reason, I opted to go with a nice Roman font that matched the book’s interior design.

Finally, I make a few layer adjustments to make sure the map would print out clearly in the final book.

Isaac Stewart Emperor's Blades map


There you have it. A map that would’ve made my ten-year old self proud, except I doubt I could’ve used it to find another piece of the Triforce.

Find more from Isaac Stewart at his website and on Twitter.

Derek Broughton
1. auspex
Thanks for this! I love hearing about the process, because I'm as firm a believer as you in the importance of maps in fantasy (actually, I like a map for any novel that spans a significant space).

I'm a stickler for cartographic accuracy, though, and I can't help thinking you stuck too closely to Brian's original sketch. That near-circular river is awfully suspect!
andrew smith
2. sillyslovene
I really enjoy articles like this one- keep 'em coming!
Paul Weimer
3. PrinceJvstin
I love creating maps, and seeing how others do the same thing.
Isaac S.
4. Isaac S.
@auspex I thought the same thing when I saw the river you mentioned, but I also trust Brian's ability as an author and don't know what he has planned for that area of the world. A lot of things are possible in a fantasy novel that aren't all possible on our world.
Alice Arneson
5. Wetlandernw
Fascinating! It never really occured to me that there would be specific culture-related styles to make use of in drawing maps. (You learn something new every day if you aren't careful!)

I always thought it would be really hard to write a fantasy story involving travel if you didn't draw yourself a map - either before you start writing, or as you go - so that you could be consistent. Do most authors actually do that? or do they just wing it, and hope that the geography works out?

Nice work, Isasik. :)
Gary Singer
6. AhoyMatey
Thanks for sharing Isaac, that was pretty cool!

(It's always interesting finding out about the techniques of the Royal High Cartographer.)
Jenna Bowman
7. JennaBowman
Wow! That turned out beautifully.

I started designing my own maps for my worlds after I took physical geography in college and I love seeing your process here. (It's especially reassuring to find I've discovered some of the same tricks as a pro!) Thank you very much for sharing!
Valentin M
8. ValMar
Thanks for sharing. IMO, maps are a must for most fantasy novels.
Isaac S.
9. PetDel
Thanks for the peek behind the curtain. Really fascinating. When I drew maps as a kid, I would drop my paper in a mud puddle or spray coffeee across the paper and then quickly dry it off. I'd then outline the colored portions for my land masses. The results always had a wonderful fractal appeal and never looked forced (no round rivers).
Isaac S.
10. Beej
I love maps (and floor plans) in books, and I love reading about how they're created. Thanks!
Isaac S.
11. Timothy Gough
As I am soon going to start work on a more detailed map for my work in progress (42k words but at a standstill, unfortunately), this is an excellent guide. I love the Nanyanbuzhou map and will likely use it as a reference as well. Of course, my final map will be up to amazing artists such as yourself, Isaac.

As for my writer's block (or lack of motivation), perhaps having read such an article - even one on drawing and design - will be enough inspiration for me to pull out the paddles and shock this mammoth back into momentum.

It always encourages the writer in me when I see new releases, and I am really looking forward to immersing myself in Brian's world and story. ;)
Isaac S.
12. killie
Really fun to read this post, Isaac. The map is lovely.
Isaac S.
13. rfresa
Fantasy maps are very important to me too! It was my sister's modeling clay relief map that first inspired me to read the Hobbit (at age 10), and I always refer to the map page often when reading a fantasy book. Thank you for making some very cool ones!

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