“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter in 1954.
The iconic map of Middle-Earth to which he’s referring, included in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, has become a hallowed piece of Tolkien ephemera, prints of which adorn the dorm rooms of college English majors everywhere. But more than pure illustration, a map can be a plotted and deliberate literary device. Last October, a newly discovered, hand-annotated version of Tolkien’s map revealed the author’s real-life inspirations for his fictional cities (for instance, the Italian city of Ravenna was the apparent model for Minas Tirith), as well as marginalia on the landscape’s various topographical features.
Whatever your sketching skills, initial drawings of a fantasy world can be a crucial storytelling tool—a lesson fantasy author Christopher Paolini, who was profoundly influenced by Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, learned while penning his bestselling Inheritance series. Paolini’s own map (below), beyond functioning as a piece of art, is an essential companion to his novels, providing added context and grounding readers in his imagined world. And he found, as Tolkien did, that implementing such a visual at the right point in the writing process can both influence and add to a narrative. Here, Paolini shares some advice for how to get started charting your own fantasy map.
When does a map help?
For stories that take place on a smaller scale, a map may not be necessary. But for fantasy tales that involve numerous locations, extensive travel or concurrent events, a map can be a useful organizational device. Paolini realized he needed one about a third of the way through writing Eragon, the first novel in his series. Up until that point, the majority of the plot had taken place in a small town, where he could easily keep things straight in his mind. But then the story started to expand. “There was so much coming into play, I could no longer keep track of elements accurately,” Paolini says. For the story to move forward, he needed a better idea of how long it would take to travel from city to city, and where important locations in the narrative stood in proximity to each other. It was when he started to draw out his fantasy world, Alagaësia, that things clicked.
How extensive should it be?
It may sound obvious, but the stature of your map depends heavily upon the breadth of the story you want to tell—which, initially, may not be as evident as you think. Paolini’s original draft of Alagaësia was only half the size of the map that ultimately appeared on the inner cover of his books. He drew it on an 8.5 × 11 sheet of paper, and felt it would be more than enough to cover his novel. But over time, he realized the proportions were too confining. “Some writers run into that problem where too much is crammed into such a small space,” Paolini says. As the tale continued to grow and he began to flirt with the idea of a series, expansion seemed natural. Populating multiple books would require a greater variety of settings, and overcrowding any single area of the map would feel unrealistic and limiting.
What should I include?
Often in fantasy novels topographical features hold significance—dwarves live in mountains, elves live in forests—and if you plan to stick to such staples of the genre, they can help dictate the landscape of your map. Beyond that, if brainstorming unique elements proves difficult, Paolini recommends turning to nature for points of reference. Much of Alagaësia is influenced by the landscape he grew up in: the Rocky Mountains of Montana. “Growing up with mountains was a fundamental experience. Being up in the trees, around this untamed nature, really left an impression,” he says. “With the map, I was constantly looking for ways to put that in my world.” Paolini also used the shapes of real countries (specifically those of Scandinavia) as inspiration for his coastline. As you sketch the boundaries of your land, consider consulting an atlas for examples of geographical irregularities that will make your world appear more natural.
How should it fit into my process?
When first drafting a map, the narrative you’ve plotted will inform the initial shape. But as you write, what you’ve drawn can start to feed back into your story. Cities and towns, flora and fauna, physical features—all of these details will have an impact.
Perhaps you’d imagined it would take only a few days to travel from Point A to Point B, but after examining where those places stand in relation on the map, you realize the journey would be longer. The journey itself might become a plot point. Or maybe you notice your character’s path will have her passing an interesting clump of trees that you’d originally sketched simply to add texture to the landscape. What if something were to happen there? In Paolini’s early drawings, most of his attention was dedicated to the western part of his map, so to fill space in the east he scribbled in some giant mountains. “Then I asked myself, What would happen if those mountains really were there?” he says. “And that’s how I got my 10- to 12-mile-high mountains.”
Look at your map and ask: Would this river be a good shipping route? Would these plains make rich farmland? Questions are the basis of stories. What started as an inconsequential adornment may end up becoming a prompt for your narrative.
Of course, you don’t want to get carried away—at a certain point, too much time spent sketching an expansive and believable world could be put to better use writing your story. But if you find, as Paolini and Tolkien did, that the map is a worthwhile guide, explore it to whatever extent you find best nurtures your process.
Why are readers drawn to maps?
At its most basic, a map is an artistic accompaniment to a book. By simply opening the cover, a reader can get a feel for the author’s aesthetic and style. But it also keeps readers from getting confused in the story. When wondering where a city is in relation to another, they can quickly flip to the map and acclimate. Ultimately, it’s a physical manifestation of the novel—it teases the fantasy world out of the reader’s imagination and visibly places it on the page. “A good map will suggest possibilities,” Paolini says. “You can lose yourself in it and wonder about stories that might’ve happened that aren’t in the books.”
After all, while not all those who wander are lost, a little sense of direction certainly doesn’t hurt.
View early sketches of Paolini’s map of Alagaësia here.