When designing a world, writers can find themselves stuck if they feel unskilled in visual art. It’s important that they know where the places in their worlds are, and equally important that this knowledge is passed on to readers somehow. But it can be scary just to share material you feel competent to create. To risk sharing something you don’t have confidence for? Yikes!
Here’s something to keep in mind though: Anyone can draw. Stick figures totally count, even wiggly ones, and there are cartoonists out there who have proved it! But you don’t have to draw well to create a usable (if only for you) world map. In this article, I’ve listed out a bunch of mapmaking ideas that don’t require significant drawing skills. Most don’t require any at all!
The purpose here is three-fold: To get you out of your head a little, to move you away from your desk in most cases, and to have fun creating in a different way than your writer’s norm. I’ve done each of these maps over the years, to one extent or another, so they’re not just random ideas. They’re goal-driven methods that work.
These aren’t intended for publishing; they’re mapmaking ideas to get you started visualizing your world in more depth, or from different perspectives. I hope they inspire you to keep experimenting and having fun, because there’s no wrong way to make a map, really—there’s just wrong attitudes.
The Blob Map
The Blob Map is the closest we’ll come here to a physical drawing. Think of it as a stick-figure map. For rooms or neighborhoods, you can make rough shapes—oblong circles, sloppy triangles, crooked squares—to represent each noteworthy item or location. If you’re mapping a town or even a world, you can draw simple lines to indicate roads, mountain ranges, and so on.
The Blob Map allows for quick, visual placements of items relative to each other, without going into all the specifics of appearance or distance. It’s often used by geography students: As long as they can accurately represent the location of a country or continent relative to the rest, the precise shape is not as important.
Nothing needs to be exact. It just needs to have a place. For those who are not particularly artistic, or who don’t want a high level of detail but do need an actual, flat visual, this map can be a lifesaver.
The Lego Map
You can play as you work! Legos are an increasingly intricate toy, and these colorful foot-maimers have always been intended for model-making. So, if you’re feeling some writer’s block regarding your maps, why not model a portion with Legos? You could even take a look at the Lego Store to get some ideas.
The great convenience of a Lego Map is the sturdy, 3-D manifestation. It enables you to visualize how the space might fit your characters or locations, and you can see where the shadows fall, too, from all angles and upside-down. And because it’s an easily measurable toy, calculating the distances between items is a breeze.
The one challenge of course is that you do need actual Lego pieces to build a Lego map. And of course, it can never be fully true to life or your story (unless you’re working on a Lego Movie fan-fic or something). But it serves its function well as a fun away-from-the-desk exercise.
The ‘Other Toys’ Map
If you find that 3-D modeling is helpful to you, and you don’t have Legos on hand, but you do have blocks or things that could be used as blocks, well, you already know what to do!
Of course, these likely won’t be as sturdy as the snap-together Legos, and the shape options may feel limiting depending on what you have, but that is what imagination is for. And it’s a tried-and-true tactic that’s been used as a first step by numerous illustrators over the years.
A third alternative that involves toys is the use of playdough or sculpting clay. Again, you don’t have to go into detail. A lump of clay can symbolize a building. A second lump placed on top of the first could symbolize a building with a fancy roof. You can add toothpicks or skewers for stability and use different colors as desired.
The Representative Walkthrough Map
Similar to other 3D models, the Representative Walkthrough Map allows you to use your space and random objects you have on hand to create an interactive layout right on your floor or table. Once constructed, you can move around inside or outside your map, helping you to visualize the spaces your characters will inhabit. The I Spy books offer some great ideas for this style!
Books, lamps, keychains, dishes, you name it, these are all fair game in the creation of these simple placement maps. Choose your items and base location with a little care though—if you need those keys for later, or if you’ve set everything up on your dining table, your map may be more temporary than you’d intended!
Fortunately, smartphones with cameras exist. Make sure to get all the angles — sides, top, and diagonals — for later reference.
The Graph Paper Map
Raise your hand if you’ve ever prepared to move by creating a graph paper map of your furniture and future rooms! For the record, I’m waving mine wildly. Graph Paper Maps are excellent tools for creating images within standardized sizes, and you can use the grid (or hex) to make just about anything you need.
You can use graph paper for any size map, even galactic, but naturally, you’ll be able to include more details when the scale is closer to real measurements. You can color it or add patterns to make certain spaces pop, and none of that has to be particularly fancy. RPG players have been doing this for years.
When you are just beginning the more detailed conceptualization process, or you just need a break from the norm, graph paper may be one of your best options. The ready-made scale ensures that your world will be not only consistent, but realistic, and even fantasy worlds need that!
The Word Map
Now, I do hope it’s clear: Maps are pictures, not words. So, the goal here is to use words to construct those pictures. A Word Map should describe so vivid an image that a place can be seen and fully locked down as you then craft the action taking place. Colors, sizes, textures, and distances between objects are all important details to include.
This is a record of extreme description, and the only one on this list that’s likely to be made via computer. It should be so precise, verging on boring, that you could never put it verbatim into a story. If you’re describing a room, pick a starting point, then go around the room, detailing each item in its place. For a neighborhood or small town, do the same street by street.
The downside here is that this isn’t great for a larger world. It also doesn’t get you up and away from your desk, which we all need sometimes. But a great bonus is that you’ll likely be able to use some edited excerpts within your story. Just make sure that whatever you use is written as a story rather than passive description.
Remember, Above All, to K.I.S.S it!
These mapmaking ideas can help your mind immerse itself better in the world you’re creating without (ideally) taking too much time. There are plenty of others, and plenty of ways to make it more complicated, too! But what’s important to remember at this level of mapmaking is the familiar cliché…say it with me…Keep It Simple, Stupid.
It’s so tempting to go detailed if you have visual art skills, and to try even if you don’t, but you don’t need it for a smaller world or a single story. You will waste a lot of time. Instead, use your words and your characters to fill those extra details in. Don’t overthink. The other story elements exist for a reason.
But if you do need to go beyond — if your world and ideas are growing too big to be held by these smaller ones — then hang around for a peek at my next article, where I’ll discuss some of the intricacies and options for computer mapmaking.
Maps don’t have to be hard. They certainly don’t have to be impossible. They just need a little creativity of a different sort. I hope today’s article got those gears whirling, and that you have some fun with some of them via your next story!
Did you find this article helpful? Check out these other great writer resources from the MockingOwl Roost!
- Worldbuilding 101: An Introduction
- NaNoWriMo Day 29: Using Landscape for Inspiration
- NaNoWriMo Day 14: Writing Exercises to Try When
- Line and Sinker: A Review of Hooked
Tandy Malinak was engrossed in visual art, stage performance, and storytelling before she knew what the words meant. A second-generation homeschooler with a BA in Elementary Ed, she also knows kids and homelife; set her down with a cup of tea, and she’ll go until you stop her. She loves fantasy, sci-fi, Nintendo, board games, studying the Word, the smell of a campfire, the sound of ocean waves, and all things feline—to name a few! Originally from Seattle, Tandy now lives in Chicago’s northside with her husband, 2 dragon-loving kids, and 4 cats.
Tandy recently perched herself on Twitter’s branch. She’s still figuring it out, but will make noise there eventually.