Fictional Cartography 101

Some of you may know that I have a passing interest in fictional cartography. That is to say, I make random doodles on paper and declare them to be faraway or fantastical places.

Perhaps someday I shall make a time-lapsed video of this process, but in the present, I have only scans at each stage. In this case, I am drawing a map of the continent of Cavahir in the world of Auriel, a fantastical realm and the setting for an open-world RP (“role-play”; more accurately in this context, a collaboratively written story) on the Star Wars: Exodus role-playing forum, of which I am a member.

Stage 1: Source
Usually, I just make up the map off the top of my head. But sometimes, I have a good reason for doing this. I have a rough draft of a map for The Chimaera Regiment, the novel you keep hearing about that never seems to be finished (it’s not vaporware, I swear). That map requires some precise calculations based on how long it takes characters to reach places. No, things do not move at the speed of plot… or at least, they don’t only move at the speed of plot.

But in this case, as I have mentioned, the source is a fictional world devised by several members of the aforementioned forum. Which means they came up with a map for it, too. Which means that I’m not the creative force here, just the muscle. The aching, cringing muscle in my hand that wants to kill me for causing it so much pain.

At any rate, there is an original map, primarily a rough outline:


That map is based on these two maps, with some additions. I did make a map of the original continent (Cavahir), before the additions, but obviously, the additions made that obsolete.

Stage 2: Dotmap
Stage 1 gave me a lot of information to work with. Stage 2 is the process of getting that information into a usable space. So first, I have to decide on a series of important locations on the map – the westernmost edge, certain points and dips and curves, islands, lakes, mountain ranges, mountain passes, river deltas, and so on. Then, I use the original map and photo editing software (in this case, GIMP) to figure out the exact placement of those locations, as if on a Cartesian plane.

Locations & Coordinates

I might change my methods in the future (if I start making a lot of maps for other people, for example), but this time, I got coordinates in inches. GIMP puts (0,0) at the top left, though, so proper Cartesian coordinates would make all my Y values negative. But I digress.

Then I take those coordinates and, once I’ve calculated the ratio between original and destination (in this case, 1:1.55 to put it on a piece of 8.5×11 paper), I calculate the new coordinates for my map.

Plot Conversion

What you see here are, from left to right, location, original coordinates, and new coordinates (with Y adjusted to put the bottom of the map at the bottom of the paper). The third pair of columns are the remainders from the new X and Y coordinates when those coordinates are converted into 1/16 inch increments – that way, I don’t have to do the math in my head while I’m trying to plot important map locations.

When I’m done with that, I plot said map locations.


It’s probably tough to see at this size, but you can click on the image to see it at full resolution. You may notice that I have labeled a large number of the dots on my dotmap; this is so I don’t confuse these with the main outline of my continent.

Naturally, this does lend itself to handy Connect-the-Dots versions, which is great for all the kids out there aspiring to be fictional cartographers.

Stage 3: Outline
With the dotmap down and prepared, we begin our map itself with Stage 3: the rough outline. At this stage, I make sure all of my coastline is present and accounted for, including any nooks, crannies, islands, isles, and tiny spits of land that barely deserve to be called a sandbar. Sometimes, I also add a few titles at this stage, if only to take up white space left by the scale of the map.


And now you can begin to see the continent taking shape. But there’s so much left to do!

Stage 4: Interior Sketch
Once I have the coastlines finished, it’s time to move on to Stage 4, wherein I settle in my mountains…

Mountain Outline

… rivers…

Mountain Outline

… and forests.

Tree Outline

It may look like it has everything, and it could technically be called an accurate map now. But it isn’t finished.

Stage 5: Coastline Cleanup
Despite its title, Stage 5 has nothing to do with oil spills or litter duty. This is where I take the rough outline from Stage 3 and turn that coastline into something pretty. This part of the process is in the running for most tedious, because waves don’t draw themselves next to the shallows around my coasts. And islands make this even more hand-numbingly dull.

Finished Coastline

But it is starting to look better now. I also threw in a chasm for good measure.

Stage 6: Mountain Shading
At this stage, I move back to the interior and I make my mountains three-dimensional (as well as any chasms or cliffs I might have). That means adjusting the shape of each mountain (so they’re not a long series of ugly little downward-facing angles) and adding shadows to each mountain. You may also notice the addition of one more river and a few more trees, which should have been on there already.

Finished Mountains

It may surprise you to learn that this is not in the running for “most tedious task.” By comparison to Stage 7, this is almost a delight.

Stage 7: Tree Shading
You see all those trees on that map? You see how many there are?

Finishes Trees

Boom. Shaded.

And now my hand hurts.

Stage 8: Miscellany
This is the final stage. It’s mostly unnecessary, as far as the map is concerned. But it’s fun, and it makes the map look cooler, so I usually do it. This is the part where I add a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with any particular locations on the map. I finish up the titles…

Finished Titles

… and I add things like ships…


… monsters…


… and a compass.


I’ve also been known to add a whale or two in my time, but it’s not as relevant to Auriel.

Stage 9: Completion
This is the last and final step. Here, I use photo-editing software to clean up the image, erase smudges, straighten up the disorderly, and, on occasion, add a little color. But that last one is pretty rare.

And thus, we have the final version of the map of Cavahir and surrounding lands, in the world of Auriel.


To be honest, I think the original might have looked better, in terms of visual quality, but I’m not disappointed in this one. There’s also a version with regions and capitals labeled, but keep in mind that those, above all else, are subject to change.

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