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A big part of world building for me is the actual land and geography of where the story takes place, which I’m sure goes for most people. So some problems arise when the world my story takes place in doesn't exist. I’ve just recently started writing my first real, alternate-world fantasy, which includes having to come up with a totally new land. And to be honest, I floundered. I had ideas of where I wanted my story to go, but it all seemed too big and epic. But then I drew a map, and everything seemed a little...easier. More contained.
I knew I wanted a large-ish piece of land with a sea on one side and a chain of mountains on the other, almost totally cutting it off from the rest of the known world. So I ran with it. First thing I did was take out a sheet of lined paper. Terrible planning, what with the blue and red lines and punched out holes, but lined paper felt much less intimidating. And just so you can see how very crappy my first concept sketch was...
I started out with the idea of this land full of power struggles and corrupt emperors and things I knew I wanted to happen, but didn't quite know how. But just by making this sad, pathetic map with its ripped corner and blue lines, I was able to start making a bunch of connections that would've been harder for me to reach without it.
Just by drawing it, by making it almost tangible, I was able to come up with this description:
Cald is an empire whose capital is Aquina, but within it there are what were once-independent “kingdoms”. The kingdoms still have some control over their land, but can be vetoed by Aquina for the big decisions. For example, Aquina may not make all their decisions about farming, but it still has final say over where their produce goes. In this way, if a rogue kingdom rises up, Aquina can swoop down and impose sanctions. Say the Kingdom of Crest tries to take over, but all of their metals and mined goods come from the mountains, which they don't border. Aquina just tells whatever kingdom is in control of the mines to stop trading with them and suddenly Crest’s endeavours are looking a little bleaker.
That was the kind of atmosphere that sprung up; a tense place where people rely on each other, but hate it at the same time. This isn't so far from how real-world countries work. The world economy relies on trade. But I kept forgetting that that kind of stuff can apply to fantasy worlds until I drew a map and realized how logical it was.
Since the story was still in its very beginning stages when I did this, I had no clue where my characters would come from. I liked the name Aquina for a main city, and I liked Emlyn for some kind of rival kingdom. So I played with that. Then as the map developed in my mind, so did the plot. I took out another piece of lined paper (because I have commitment issues) and drew this:
Forgive the bad Paint job.
I outlined the kingdoms, put in little dots where I wanted cities and towns to be, and slowly started filling in the names. I already had Aquina, Cald, and Emlyn, so now I needed the rest. Lestria from the first map turned into Letria, I kept the port city of Anse, I gave the mountain range the rather generic name of Dark Mountains, and titled my rivers however I wanted.
So now I kind of had a map. And just by looking at it, it got me thinking...
The land of Cald is separated from the rest of the world by these mountains that are really hard to cross. It seems unlikely that there wouldn’t be at least one path through them, so I added in the Stygian Pass and gave its control to Emlyn. I also knew that some twenty years before the story took place, there was this big huge war, which meant that I needed a kingdom to rebel. And it needed to be one that wouldn’t be totally screwed if Aquina started cutting them off from the materials other kingdoms provide.
Looking at the map, Emlyn is the logical choice. It’s not landlocked, it has major rivers, but most importantly, Emlyn controls the Stygian Pass. Any trading done with the countries beyond the Desert Wasteland would suddenly be totally unavailable to the rest of the empire. And if I take inspiration from the real world, perhaps that meant trade in textiles and medicines. Another thing about Emlyn is that it’s right by the mountains. If anybody wanted to build things out of stone, they’d get it from the Stone Quarries of Emlyn. Perhaps they also have all the best mines of gold and iron and copper.
Emlyn started to gain power right before my eyes simply because of how advantageous its geographical location was. It seemed like the only kingdom that could challenge Aquina.
So they did. In my backstory, Emlyn was the site of a successful uprising, because the other kingdoms not being able to trade with them was far more detrimental than anything Aquina could do to them. Emlyn gained allies, marched across Cald, and eventually took over the empire.
At the start of the story, some seventeen years have passed since, and Cald is being ruled by a man from Emlyn who admittedly doesn’t really know how to be an emperor. Power has gone to his head, and he starts essentially massacring certain groups of people. And my story starts there, and takes place (as of right now) in Aquina.
These maps are obviously a work in progress, just like the story itself. I have plenty of towns yet to be marked and named. I still have issues I need to resolve, which include coming up with at least a sketch of a the rest of the world, because though Cald is surrounded by seas and cut off by mountains, they do have these nifty things called ships. I've got my work cut out for me, but I don't think this is a bad start.
And even though these maps are far from finished, the reason I'm sharing them is to show how just by creating a world for your characters your plot can develop beyond what you have. It's also to show that maps don't have to be fancy and pretty to get the point across; they just have to work for you. The more things and places your characters have to interact with, the more varied their choices are and there are fewer chances of your plot stagnating.
Think of it this way. If you have a character that's in prison and you don't know where they can run to if that escape goes as planned, neither will they. You need to give them some knowledge of forests or towns or caves in which they can hide. Otherwise, they'll just keep going back, and they'll stay trapped in the prison forever.