Mapping Out a Fantasy World

Map making has also become one of the most beautiful additions to fantasy literature.

1618296_10204138023594017_296793848_oHigh fantasy can be confusing. It’s little wonder that readers find the inclusion of a map a welcome relief.

But map making has also become one of the most beautiful additions to fantasy literature. Not only does it help the readers understand where a story’s characters are traveling, what sort of dangers lie ahead, and illustrate the fantasy world’s terrain, map making, as in the real world, has become an art in itself. Many artists, and authors, devote hours and hours of meticulous study while creating maps for books.

Now days, maps are also a big part of the gaming world.

So who makes these maps and how?

It seems that there has been such a demand for world building and map making that software companies are actually cashing in. Just what the maps look like that these programs create, I couldn’t tell you, but one trip to Google will pull up a few pages map makers. Campaign Cartographer 3 – ProFantasy Software seems to be one of the more popular for game maps.

I personally like the ones that are labored over by candlelight with a quill. The ones that are written by hand on some kind of crinkly folded, used, burnt corners and all type of parchment. The kind of map that could have been pulled out of a bottle floating in the ocean, or lifted from a treasure chest that had been buried a hundred years. I wonder if a computer program can make such artwork?

BÜNTING,_Heinrich._Asia_Secunda_pars_Terræ_in_Forma_Pegasir_(Magdeburg,_1581)Creating fantasy maps is not a new past time! Take for instance this famous antique map of Asia depicted as Pegasus, the winged horse of Perseus. The head is Turkey and Armenia, the wings Scythia and Tartary, forelegs Arabia, hind legs India and the Malay Peninsula. The map appears in Bünting’s Itinerarium, in which the author, a theologian, rewrote the Bible as an travel book. with other fantasy maps including the World as a cloverleaf and Europe as a queen.


I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a map-maker personally. John Renehan, and have asked him some questions about his art in particular. John created a map for my novels (the Realm) after some poor attempts of my own. It’s not easy charting out a wonder world. There are many things to consider so I wanted to pick his brain about his process. Please enjoy!

Question: John, I know you spend many long hours working tediously on your maps. There are many software programs that would make your job easier. Explain why you prefer to create maps by hand without such technical help!
Map commissioned for Devin Madson's BLOOD OF WHISPERERS
Map commissioned for Devin Madson’s BLOOD OF WHISPERERS

I find that illustrating my maps by hand gives me more flexibility with detail and to give it a more authentic look. I have always loved old maps and that love has inspired me to illustrate them in the old techniques.

Question: How is it that you can interpret another author’s world so well that you can chart their world? What sort of questions do you ask? Do you have them draw a sketch for you first?


Much of my visualization of an Author’s world (and map) is interpreted by attention to detail from questions asked and samples or roughly drawn maps. The map will always depend on both the theme of the book and the cultures that are in them. With this information provided and a little of my own suggestions and vision, these authors’ worlds can be charted with ease. Once I begin drawing, I will normally show W.I.P (Work In Progress) photos or scans of the illustration. This enables the author to pick up on any changes they would like to request. The maps are initially drawn by light lead pencil, and later drawn over in black ink pens. Different thickness in each pen is required for the different parts of the drawing. Sometimes, if requested, The map may be lightly shaded in colored pencil.



Map commissioned for James K. Burk's HIGH RAGE fantasy epic
Map commissioned for James K. Burk’s HIGH RAGE fantasy epic


When commissioning, the first thing I need from the author is a rough draft that shows the most important names and illustrations. These sketches give me a clear idea to work with and enable me to understand the world’s landscape. I then specifically ask about every important detail they want added to the map, from handwriting types to borders and the compass. I ensure the author is happy with every aspect of the artwork.



The North West of Millador, a map illustrated for THE GATEKEEPER'S REALM saga J.T. Renehan is the author of the upcoming dark fantasy series; The Gatekeeper's Realm. You can find out about his work here:
The North West of Millador, a map illustrated for THE GATEKEEPER’S REALM saga

Thanks for helping us understand the meticulous art of map making! Difficult and tedious I hope readers grab a new sense of appreciation for the art! I know I have. Here is John’s map for his own series. One of the thing that really impressed me about his map making was that at one point he was charting an astrological map for his story as well. Talk about detail!


J.T. Renehan is the author of the upcoming dark fantasy series; The Gatekeeper’s Realm. You can find out about his work here:


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