Open up your average fantasy book and you’re likely to find a map on the very first page. This map can be simple or detailed, display an entire city or several neighbouring countries or even a whole continent. They give the reader an idea of where a character is in relation to other places. They show us how the setting is laid out. They present the protagonist’s home, hangouts, and places he or she prefers to avoid.
They’re also great tools for when you’re writing.
Your setting is an absolutely massive part of your novel and, like everything else, it needs to be kept organized. You can’t have your protagonist know the location of a place in relation to his home in one book, and then have it be in a completely different location by the next book (unless the owners changed locations or someone moved, of course). But consistency is important, and it’s nice for readers to have something visual to reference.
So, I highly recommend making your own setting map.
“Make a map?” You might be saying, “But I know nothing of cartography!”
Don’t worry. This map doesn’t need every street marked out or every town listed (it can if you want, but it’s not necessary). For example, the map of Camorr in Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is simplistic. As Camorr is a city-state made up of various islets, only those locations are labeled with names like “Shade’s Hill” or “The Shifting Market.” Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon goes even simpler, showing us the shape of a continent, a few boundaries between kingdoms, and the locations of three or four major cities.
Say your map is of the city where all the story (or most of it) takes place. You might choose only to label the districts. It’s simple, but if your character lives in “Merchant Quarter” and needs to get to the “Freedocks,” a glance at a map will give an idea of where your character is going, how long of a trip it might be, and even the type of area they’re going from and headed to. The Freedocks might be located near the Temple District, and thus be busy, but respectable. Or they could border Murder Row, and be a place to avoid after dark.
You could go a step further and add in key locations. The protagonist’s home, place of work, and usual drinking hole could all be dotted in. Major landmarks could be labelled. Drawing a map might also help you learn a few things about your character. A character with financial stability would probably live in a nice location, like an apartment near a mall or an area with nice shops, cafes, restaurants, or markets. If your character is poor, how far do they travel for work? Chances are a maid from the slums who works in a manor has quite the commute.
For larger maps, you need not add every town and village in the kingdom, but you could add those the heroes pass through so the reader can trace their path. Label areas the heroes may venture into, like forests or lakes or fortresses. It will help you make sure your characters are headed south and don’t start going east because you forgot where the wizard’s tower was.
You can make your map on poster board or just scribble designs in your notebook. Add as many details as you want or as few. Maps are great references, and you’ll find you characters navigating their surroundings much easier because of them.