Should You Draw a Settlement Map? - The Art of World Building
Dec 182019

For game designers who’ll have characters roaming within a settlement, the map is essential for knowing where everyone, and the dangers they’ll face, are located, but few if any books include maps of cities or towns, so one isn’t expected with stories. A map may even interfere with a reader’s ability to form their own mental picture as the story progresses. There comes a point where an audience doesn’t care where we said something is; what matters is their impression. Referring back to a map included at the beginning of the book is optional but might jar them. Placing the map toward the book’s rear is less advisable because they’ll have their own ideas by then. Including it within the text, when the layout is described, is the best option.

If our settlement’s layout is distinctive enough to impact story events, then a map is more important, whether we share this with an audience or not. One reason to create it is that we may forget this layout in time if we need it again. However, these issues can be solved without a map, just by notating locations in a file.

The existence of a map does not free us from the responsibility to succinctly describe our location, in ways which are easy to visualize. It can be best to say that a church stands at one end of the town and a mayor’s hall is at the opposite, rather than that one is east and the other west unless the compass points matter in some way. For example, if the sun sets on the mayor’s house and we like foreshadowing his demise, we could try that. Including specific details which are irrelevant to the story implies those specifics matter when they don’t, overwhelming our readers. Unsure what to remember, they may remember nothing.

A settlement map can make us think about locations we haven’t considered, such as segregation of the wealthy and poor, or crime-ridden areas. The wealthy will likely live near rivers or a treasured location like a shrine or park, the latter being more important in very urban areas because so much of the land might be paved or occupied by buildings. In larger settlements, the poor will inhabit the areas that are heavily trafficked or polluted, and the wealthy will be upstream of this, if on a river, or in a separate area of a lake.

Urban planning is a subject few of us know about, but zones are often created to improve the quality of life. Factories are not typically near homes. Commercial locations can be almost anywhere. Homes are often grouped into neighborhoods. Infrastructure like roads, sewage, and power are carefully planned. It’s a massive subject deserving of its own book, and yet few of us will ever need to know where these locations are unless trying to draw a map, because our audience will assume these things are somewhere logical without us being specific. The depth of this subject is one reason not to draw a map, but that depends on how many details we intend to include. Sometimes being vague has advantages.

One way to avoid drawing is to use Google Maps and find a place of similar size to the one you imagine. For fantasy writers, we might want to choose an older location like those in Europe. Then we can zoom in on a town and make a screen capture or print out. From this, we can write names of places on it (and just use this for our personal files, not publishing it). Either that, or we can still draw it ourselves using this as inspiration.


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