Who can forget some of those awesome maps? The appendices of Tolkien–the maps on the inside cover of Eragon. Maps are awesome. And a valuable tool for readers who are reading about a work set in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Suffice to say that if your characters spend much time traveling, you’re going to want to make a map. It’ll be invaluable to the reader. And from a worldbuilding standpoint, maps are fun as well. Drawing maps is likely my most favorite part of worldbuilding.
I have two pieces of advice in this article: First, don’t mismatch geography, and second, (and this applies particularly to fantasy writers) keep the population sizes realistic.
First, don’t mismatch geography. Don’t just have random swamps or deserts spring up. If there is an element on your map, you should know why it exists. Mountain ranges will generally form around the edges of continental plates, which will cause that region to be more likely to be hit with earthquakes. Swamps will form where they can be constantly supplied with water. Deserts tend to form either because of a rainshadow caused by the mountains or by their location with respect to the equator. I’m not going to touch much on the latter, but I included a link explaining how deserts relate to the equator if you’re interested in seeing how they connect. Make sure that all of the elements fit well together and don’t have abrupt shifts from rainforests to tundra or anything like that.
Also pay attention to rivers and river basins depending on where they travel to. Rivers are always going to travel from a high point to a low point. Seems rather basic, but it’s easy to forget while drawing a map.
Second, keep the population sizes realistic. Actually make population sizes first, to figure out how big your cities should be. Also realize that, unlike books like Eragon portray it, a world is not really going to be lots of cities with nothing in between. There will be lots of towns, hamlets, and farms, that never make it onto your map, but that doesn’t mean that those spaces are barren of any people.
Population size will also vary depending on where your cities are. You’re not going to have big cities in the middle of the desert. Most capitals and large cities are going to be sitting next to a river or a sea because of how crucial water trade usually is to a civilization. Keep this in mind when building population. As for how to come up with population counts, John Ross has made a simply excellent article walking you through how to do this here: http://www222.pair.com/sjohn/blueroom/demog.htm I used it for coming up with stats for one of my books and found it very helpful. It’s original purpose was for making an RPG world, but it applies very well to book worlds as well.
And there you have it. Keep a close eye on where you put stuff on the map and how densely populated your story is. Mapmaking can be very fun, but the work will pay off if you keep it realistic.
For Additional Reading
Awesome Article on Population and Demographics: http://www222.pair.com/sjohn/blueroom/demog.htm
Excellent Article with More Pointers on Geography: http://brucebyfield.com/2011/10/27/drawing-realistic-fantasy-maps/
How Deserts Form: http://weathersavvy.com/Q-Climate_DesertsFormed.html