Fantasy cartography and the suspension of disbelief.


The suspension of disbelief is not a new term. It has been used for over 200 years to define the idea behind immersing yourself in fiction. It’s what allows you to set aside logic and judgment, and simply enjoy something fantastic. Genres like horror, sci-fi, and fantasy rely on it to pull you into the story and invest you emotionally. This technique is not always easy to achieve, however. There are many skeptics and critics that love to pull apart the threads of a work of fiction. Fantasy cartography is no stranger to this. There is a fine line between making something utterly unbelievable, and making something that the viewers will allow themselves to believe.

When I began drawing continental or world maps I admittedly did not know much about geography. Upon posting one of my first pieces to the generous world that is the internet it was absolutely torn apart on the grounds of my geographical errors. “Rivers don’t split like that, mountains don’t form like that.” yeah yeah, I told myself it was fine, its a fantasy world after all! But after doing my research, and slowly implementing more believable geographical features, I was blown away by the results. Some of these geographical “rules” are:

Rivers always flow downhill (we know this) and they always become larger as other rivers may join them. Rivers will not cross over one another and branch out again, once they meet, they’re stuck with one another. Rivers may form deltas, in the low lands near the sea. Here they may actually appear to branch out. This is a great place for swamps or bogs. Rivers will form in the mountains and wind down toward the coast. Where there are rivers, there are plants (usually).

I could go on. But you get the point. Using rules like these will result in a better looking, and more believable map. To someone who know what these features should look like, it could make or break your piece of art. Glaring imperfections will not allow the viewer to really get into it. To suspend their disbelief and think “this looks like a place that could actually exist”. It really does make a big difference.

In addition to your placement of things like forests, rivers, mountain chains, lakes, deltas, deserts, etc. You should also consider your placement of settlements. Life usually thrives where there is plenty of vegetation and water. So cities and towns are often formed near rivers and the coast. On a larger scale, civilizations and entire kingdoms will use the features of nature to distinguish their territory. Things like large mountain ranges make for good natural borders.

City and town maps are no stranger to this concept either. Does it make sense that all of your town’s shops are spread across the map, intertwined with residential dwellings? Probably not, they are probably all localized. If it’s an established city, there will most definitely be areas of nicer homes separated from the lower class homes. Roadways should connect to all important places in the most efficient way for quick travel by foot. I remember something that specifically helped me was to look up maps of actual small villages, even using something like Google Earth to get inspiration and to help create an aspect of realism.

Walking the fine line between believable and absurd can be tricky. Its totally OK to push the boundaries of what is real… after all, that’s why we create these things! But be prepared to explain yourself when someone inevitably calls you out on your unrealistic choices.

It’s important to not get too caught up in all of this. Although it is important to uphold a level of realism, it’s also important to have fun and to create something fantastic! My advice is to do your research. There are a ton of excellent websites out there that will explain in depth how all of this works. There are even many websites that will explain all of this information in direct regard to fantasy maps. The suspension of disbelief is effective for those who WANT to enjoy fiction. At the end of the day, its YOUR map! So get out your pen and get drawing!

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