Welcome to the first article in my “World Building” series, where I show you my process for creating my fantasy worlds from the ground up. First, we’ll look at creating a fantasy world map and the online tools you can use to bring your story to life.
Why make a world map?
All of the best fantasy series have a world map: ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘The Witcher’, ‘Discworld’, to name just a few. For many readers, it helps to have that map to help them visualise a strange new world and creates a stronger connection for them. If you’re basing your fantasy in the real world, or you’re only doing a standalone story, you probably won’t need to make a world map. But if you’re planning on making your story into a series, a world map is a must.
I know what you’re thinking. “It sounds complicated.” But it doesn’t have to be! You can be as detailed or simplistic as you think the story demands. You can plan out a world with a complicated history, religion and political system or you can just plot out where the towns and cities will be. Ultimately there’s no right or wrong answer – let your story decide.
But... I can't draw.
Nor me… But the good news is, you don’t need to! There are so many tools online that you can use to help you create your own unique fantasy world, and many of them are free! For example…
Online tools to help you build your World Map
It can be hard to make a world map look organic. That’s why Inkarnate is great for creating realistic land masses. You can draw them in yourself using a few simple paintbrushes or punch a few numbers in and let the site create a completed map for you. Plotting out the towns and biomes is up to you, but the creative range of stamps are a lot of fun to play around with. The stamps can be pretty limited, even with the premium subscriptions, as it is very clearly themed around your traditional Tolkien world (elves and orcs). However, you do have the option of importing your own stamps if you have the time and patience to make them.
If you’re one of those writers that likes to have the world planned first and then create your stories within them, you’ll want to give Worldspinner a go. It advertises itself to RPG players, but it’s a perfect tool for writers too! Like Inkarnate, it creates a full, organic map, complete with a range of biomes. It gives you creative freedom or allows you to procedurally generate everything from the land mass to the species and cities that inhabit your world. You can choose historical or fantasy races and even watch how they advance over a set time period. This is the perfect tool if you want to plan the history, religions and society of your world, but it is again limited to the traditional Tolkien-inspired fantasy.
The maps on here are completely procedurally generate by the site, taking all of the labour out of the process for you. It even names the kingdoms and continents and creates the look and feel of an established fantasy world. This one gives you very limited control, however. Even though you can influence a few things, the interface can be a bit tricky to understand. This isn’t the best one to use if you have a world of your own that you just want to plot out, but if you’re looking for inspiration it’s definitely worth a look.
Story-led or world-led?
Ultimately it’s up to you. Build your world first and create the story within it, or start with your story and build the world around it. Any of the tools we’ve looked at today can help you do either.
Next time, I’ll show you how I applied these tools to create the world for ‘City of Beasts.’
Disclaimer: I am not being sponsored or otherwise reimbursed by any of the sites mentioned in this article. These are just the tools that I personally have found useful for my own world-building and hope you do too!