So I’ve been thinking about maps lately.
To be fair, I think about maps quite a bit. I’ve been fascinated ever since I encountered my first Nat. Geo. Map stuffed inside the magazine back in the late ‘70s. The concept of capturing a 3D space at a particular moment in time and slapping down on a paper full of symbols kind of geeked me out. I started drawing my own maps shortly thereafter, and I’ve never really grown out of that.
The thing is, having been staring at maps of both fantasy worlds and the world we actually live in I’ve noticed something. That something is, unfortunately, a ding that can cause a loss of immersion. So what is that thing I’ve noticed?
Fantasy world maps always feel like they were created by dreamers rather than cartographers.
Now, I’m not saying that we all need to be going out and getting Geographic Information Systems degrees and purchasing $500 pieces of software to be able to create professional grade USGS style 7.5 Minute topological maps.1 I am, however, suggesting that we dreamers could use a little grounding in geography, geology, and why real world maps look like they do.
Let’s take a look at a 16th century map of the Earth.
This is a map created by Nicolas Desliens in 1566. The first obvious thing about it is that it’s “upside down”, with the North at the bottom and the South at the top. That, however, is the least important thing about this map in terms of our discussion. What is important is that this map looks like it could be something straight out of high fantasy, but it is also a map that has distinctive and important features to it. The first, and most important, is that even though the continents are distorted and incomplete when compared to a real world map, they also show a clear geological history to them.
Even with the distortions compared to reality, something stands out with the shapes of these continents. They look like they can fit together like somewhat warped puzzle pieces. The reason for this is simple. At one point in time, they did precisely that. Once upon a time, this:
Looked like this:
That second map shows the ancient land mass known as Pangaea. About 300 million years ago, all of the current continents were stuck in one big mass together. Over time continental drift set in and tore that monster apart. Bits of it drifted this way and that, resorting them into the locations we see today. This is why so much of the modern world looks like pieces of a broken plate.
Look closer. South America and Africa look like they should be glued to one another. That’s because they were at one time. The East coast of North America has a slight curve and dimple pattern that matches the Northwest coast of Africa. Once, you could have walked from Maine to Monaco in a couple of days. Can you see how the South coast of New Guinea looks like the tab that should slip into Northern Australia’s slot? Yep. There’s a reason for that. Oh, and the Middle East looks like it kind of cracked away from Egypt and Sudan, right? Well, it did.
When you look at fantasy maps, however, the shorelines of various continents usually look like they have never even dated, let alone been one with each other. If this world has ever had dynamics like Continental Drift, they stalled. It looks as though the world simply sprang up in its current shape and form, and that’s because that’s typically what happened.
There’s more to this, however. It’s not just the coasts that are shaped as they are because of this. Most fantasy maps have mountain ranges strung about like jewelry. They’re pretty, they make great settings for adventures, and they have no logic to their placement.
Taking a look at the map of the world we live in, things are quite different, however.
The Earth has a number of very impressive mountain ranges. But when you look at where they are two things will quickly become apparent. They all exist in one of two places. They are either close to coast lines with oceans, or they are close to where different continents have come together.
What does this mean? Well, check this map out.
Each of those different colored areas represents a plate. Those plates are the things that drifted willy-nilly and tore apart Pangaea. Well, the entire surface of the planet is covered in plates. As one plate moves it collides with or pulls away from the plates around it, and one of three things happens. It goes over the other plate, it smashes into the other plate, or it creates a gap between the plates.
In the Americas, North and South America are both sliding over the top the plates to the west of them. As the Juan de Fuca plate, Cocos plate, and Nazca plate are run over the leading edge of North and South America both bend upward, like a fingernail being scratched over the surface of a table top. Meanwhile the leading edges of those other plates are pushed down into the melty-gooey parts of the earth. This means that those leading edges also become melty-gooey. The materials rise upward and push through the plate above, resulting in volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens. These two factors combined result in mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevadas, Rockies, and Andes and in the volcanic phenomenon known as the Ring of Fire (a fantasy map name if ever I heard one).
In Asia we have two of those plates smashing one another rather than slipping under and over. The Indian plate is smashing into Eurasia at what is for geology a very high rate of speed. As the two smash together the buckle and crumple like the front ends of two cars colliding. This upward smash is the direct cause of the most rugged, impassable mountain range in the world, the Himalayas.
When plates pull away from one another the melty-gooey stuff inside the earth comes up out of the gap and becomes much less melty and gooey. Most of this takes place on the ocean floor where we can’t see it, but in a few places it has actually been able to reach levels above sea level. If you look at where the North American and Eurasian plates meet near Greenland you’ll notice Iceland. Iceland is the direct result of these two plates heading away from one another, and it’s very geography directly reflects this. Iceland is essentially one giant volcanic island.
One more important thing many fantasy maps tend to place without reflecting on the why of it is the climate. One area will be desert-like, another will be forested, some spots will be marshy… Again, looking at the map there are reasons for all of these things.
Alright, the first of our two real world maps here shows two things. One is the general ecology of the world. You can see the great desert regions of the American West, of North Africa, and the central steppes of Asia. You can see the green forested regions of the American East Coast, Europe, the Brazilian Rain Forest. Grasslands, tundra, permanent ice fields… basically the general climates of the world. The other thing it shows are the ocean currents. Ocean currents do more than cause ships to drift; they play a very important role here. We’ll get to that later.
The second map shows the general pattern of wind flow at surface levels across the planet. As you can see the East coast of the U.S. is receiving winds from central Canada, the wind in Brazil is coming straight off of the South Atlantic, and North Africa is getting its winds from Europe.
So what does all this have to do with deserts, forests, and marshes?
As the winds flow across the ocean they absorb moisture from the air. How much of it they get to absorb depends very much on the temperature of the water itself. Looking at the North Pacific something becomes evident. The water in the North Pacific came from the tropics. The Japanese current (that pink loop you see) spends a lot of time heating up as it travels from the U.S.-Mexican border and all the way over into the Micronesian states before it turns upwards. It then heads north from there.
As it flows north past Japan that water is surprisingly warm because of its origin. This means that the winds flowing off of Russia and into the North Atlantic can absorb a lot of water. It then carries this into the region between Alaska and Washington, where this water falls out of the sky. This region is extremely moist, resulting in temperate rain forests. However, as that water continues along it slams into those monstrous Rocky Mountains. The mountains disrupt the winds, causing them to lose most of their water before they can climb up and over. By the time the winds reach the Eastern side of the Rockies they have lost most of their water. Very little rain can fall. This, then explains why nearly everything between the Rockies and the Great Plains of North America are arid desert.
The Midwest and Northeastern U.S. as well as Eastern Canada however are verdant and rich because those winds are able to absorb water from the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay. Though the winds aren’t able to absorb nearly as much as those on the West Coast, they also are able to flow unimpeded by anything more serious than the barely-there Appalachians. They can distribute the water far more evenly, resulting in the old growth forests the region is known for.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s winds are coming from some of the warmest parts of the South Atlantic. They are aimed straight up the Amazon Basin and have next to nothing to block them. This means they can carry vast amounts of water all the way to the Andes on the far side of the continent, dumping it the entire time. So much hot water is being dumped it creates the largest tropical rain forest in the world, and has one of the largest and most powerful river systems flowing through it.
Over in North Africa, they have a problem. The winds across Europe all flow away from North Africa, taking their water with them into Russia. The winds North Africa deal with originate in North Africa itself. With no way to collect water they are unable to carry any with them, and North Africa remains one of the largest desert regions in the world, while Russia’s cold winds drop cold water on the flat lands, where it has difficulty escaping, resulting in the infamous marshy mud that has destroyed many an army.
So what does all of these mean for fantasy map making? It means most fantasy maps don’t stand up to inquisitive minds. It also means that those which actually consider how the entire world developed and the factors that effect it pretty much build themselves. Dry desert winds will blow across towns that desperately cling to any water source they can. On a mirror shoreline across the ocean, vast jungles will line the banks of enormous rivers as they flow towards tropical seas. Giant mountain ranges will separate nations and cultures where the land masses collide, and volcanic mountains will spew forth from mighty crags close to the sea, wiping out the cities of exotic cultures built on their slopes.
All it takes is a little time boning up on real world maps, and you’ll have fantasy maps that are completely believable.
- Of course, if you do, let me know, I’ll buy a map or two off you. [↩]