Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fantasy Cartography with Christian Stiehl - a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout report with VIDEO

Last week, Christian Stiehl joined us for a great discussion of Fantasy Cartography. He is an experienced amateur cartographer who recently won a fantasy cartography contest at with a map he shared with us during the hangout. I'll show you a copy here so you can enjoy it, but click here if you want to take a closer look!

He told us that he loved getting lost in National Geographic maps as a kid, following mountain ranges and rivers, and getting lost in them. He also loved fantasy literature like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit which had maps that came with them. Then he moved into running games as a Dungeon Master which allowed him to have more opportunities to make maps. He learned how to make isometric maps, which I'll explain a bit more below. He also found online communities for map-makers, including and his website, for learning about more of his projects, is at

Christian told us that when you are starting a map, it's important to understand its purpose, i.e. what it will be used for (a book? a game?). An author wants to use a map to help describe the contours of a world. Sometimes, Christian notices the shape of the paper the author used behind the shape of the map (he gave Westeros and 8.5"/11" paper as an example). Naturalism would encourage people not to try to use the corners of their paper! Maps help authors a great deal in determining what kind of journeys are possible and how long they would take, and how difficult they would be. They are very useful in keeping chronology straight. On a more linguistic note, Christian said sometimes people use overly similar names for islands, etc. He did talk about how he loved the way Ursula K. LeGuin's The Tombs of Atuan offered readers a dungeon map!

When making a map, he often starts with a pencil sketch, but he likes also to use ProCreate on the iPad, because it allows redo/undo, and it allows layers. He also uses Photoshop and Illustrator, but emphasizes that many different computer programs can be used to create maps, including GIMP and MacPaint. I mentioned that I have used Excel to create maps of buildings in my Varin world, and Glenda mentioned using GIMP. Another technique you can use is zooming in on areas of Google Earth, then reversing the land and water, or using mashups of two different areas, in a way similar to that of worldbuilders who take different inspirations for climate and geography. I mentioned how Janice Hardy combined the city of Venice with Lake Victoria, one of the Great Lakes of Africa, in her series The Healing Wars. Apparently Scott Lynch uses Venice as a model for his city in The Lies of Locke Lamora. One very sophisticated map that is out there is a "dive-in"  map of Terry Pratchett's city of Ankh Morpork.

Karen spoke about when maps are important, and explained that she would have liked a map while reading China Mieville's The City and the City. She guessed that perhaps maps were not as expected in books for adults.

Christian took issue with the "paper-thin" argument some people make that maps are a clich├ęd idea and indicate some kind of fault with a book. Especially in secondary world fiction, a map can be very important to help readers supplement their (necessarily nonexistent) background knowledge. When we work with the real world, much can be taken for granted and need no explanation. You can "bootstrap" a story by showing its background - and if you don't do so, that can sometimes lead to lack of engagement on the part of the reader.

I argued that it is important to show the uniqueness of your world in a map, and to use a visual vocabulary that does not imitate Tolkien so readers won't get the wrong idea. Maps and cover art can establish a visual style for a novel that can endure over a long period of time.

Glenda noted that a map can provide a lot of important information that might otherwise be a tedious infodump in text form.

Christian has heard the argument that only if a map actually exists as such within the story narrative should a book have a map. I would call this a "frame-internal" map, but we agreed that this is a pretty strict rule and should not be necessary. On the other hand, if you are creating a map of your world, it would be a good idea to figure out what form maps might take within the world. Don't make your map look like it is on parchment if there is no parchment in your world! Match the map to the worldbuilding, because mismatch or anachronism will throw people out. The map must feel like it belongs.

We finished our discussion with a question I raised about how to create a multi-layered map of a city with several levels, and Christian dug into the question a bit, talking about how to create isometric views, which are views that create a sort of forced perspective and allow for a feeling of depth rather than a simple top-down approach. If you were to look at Paris from a balloon at 3,000 feet, things would be at an angle, and you would see vanishing points in the perspective. The isometric view does not use vanishing points, but it does vertically compress the image to force a sense of perspective. He thought it would be most likely that he'd compose each level of the city on a different map layer, and make sure to create a special way of marking connection points between them.

Christian, thanks so much for coming and sharing your insights! Thanks also to Glenda Pfeiffer and Karen Rochnik for attending. Today, in just over an hour, we'll be gathering again to talk about Literacy and Technology in Worldbuilding. I would love to see you there!

Here is our video of the discussion:



  1. This one is/was in my wheelhouse! Wish (as usual) that I could have attended