The Map Thing

Seeing this amusing example of “Geography Fail” triggered this post. What’s wrong with this picture?

ur doin it wrong

ur doin it wrong

So as we confront yet another example of how Americans can’t even manage to correctly render maps of our own, very real world, I find myself contemplating the nature of maps in fantasy.

They’ve become a staple of epic fantasy, particularly those of doorstopper size, to the point that Diana Wynne Jones ruthlessly skewered them as a cliche in her seminal The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. (Note: I haven’t seen the revised version, which I’m told has a different parody map; the original was Europe upside down, with names that are anagrams of Our World names.) TV Tropes has a few choice things to say about them too. (Warning — I have never managed to visit TV Tropes without losing several hours of time browsing and laughing my nether regions off. Here there be lulz; click at your peril.)

It’s easy to make fun of fantasy maps — and yet we continue to see them throughout the genre, even when authors don’t want them (e.g., Terry Goodkind). It’s gotten to the point that an epic fantasy sans map doesn’t actually feel like epic fantasy to some readers. I was at Worldcon this past weekend, schmoozing and doing all the usual stuff debut authors need to do to promote their book. I handed one of my Advanced Reader Copies to an author whose work I admired, in hopes that she would read it and offer a favorable review. She thumbed through it, looked impressed by the teaser blurb, but then frowned and said, “I thought this was epic fantasy? There’s no map.” At which point I was obliged to explain that it had all the other tropes of epic fantasy — world-spanning scale, one brave heroine fighting impossible odds, Fate Of The Universe At Stake, the usual. Just no map. She still looked a bit dubious, but said she’d read it. Here’s hoping.

I got anxious enough about this during the early production phase of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that I actually drew a map. This was a mistake, of course, because I know diddlysquat about cartography and plate tectonics and had probably put a continent in the way of some critical Gulf Streamlike current, thus making the whole planet uninhabitable by human beings. But I worried that readers would protest that the story wasn’t Epic enough, despite warring gods and exploding mountains and such, without a map to illustrate the epic-ness. So I finished the map, then asked my editor if she wanted it. Here’s proof of how good she is — she demurred, noting correctly that it’s a good thing not to adhere to the overdone cliches of the genre. Amazing that I needed a reminder of this, but that’s how deep the programming runs.

Because I didn’t really believe I needed one. I feel the same way about maps as I do about depictions of characters in novel cover art — I know they supposedly sell more books, but I hate it when my mental image of the story is messed with by someone else’s rendering. When I finished my crappy map, I didn’t actually like it. For one thing, the underlying story of the series spans thousands of years. Imagine how much human civilizations in our world have changed in, say, the last two millennia. Which era would you choose to map? How would you depict shifting national boundaries, cities destroyed and rebuilt, and so on? On top of this, I make a point in the series of noting that this world’s rulers routinely obliterate nations that annoy them, literally wiping them off the map. Even the gods get in on the planetary renovation act, sinking continents and boiling oceans now and again. The survivors move to an undamaged location, plant a flag and name the new territory after the old, and hope they’ll manage to last a few centuries before the next displacement.

Trying to map all this made the world, complex and dynamic in my imagination, look simple. Static. Small. Which is partly a testament to my mapmaking (non-)skill, but also partly the purpose of a map — to render something as vast as a landscape into a comprehensible, graspable, quantifiable representation. Necessary for explorers, but for readers? I think it actually diminishes the epic fantasy experience.

So here’s my question for all of you. Fantasy maps: necessary? Desirable? Or an evil that must be stopped? You’ve got my vote, obviously, but maybe I’m atypical. I’d like to know what some other fantasy readers think.


15 Responses to “The Map Thing”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    August 13, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I have to be honest, if there’s a map, I glance at it and mostly forget it. I trust the author to know the lay of the land. For MYSELF, however, I need a map. It’s a sucky map, of course, but if there is a river in between city A and city B in chapter six, there’d better still be a river in between them in chapter sixteen. And if village C is a suburb of city A, and village D is a suburb of city B, then there’d better be a river in between them too, whether chapter six OR sixteen.

    I always draw a map whenever I create a new world. I will do some small bit of research on the sort of terrains involved, whether the archipelago in question is of a volcanic or continental nature, the sort of vegetation and animal life is vastly different in each case. There’s that sort of thing to keep track of, which a map does help with. Cartographer, I am not! But I do need to keep things straight so that my readers can trust me and ignore the map my someday publisher will put in before Chapter One.

  2. August 13, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I rarely look at the maps. I hadn’t even realized maps were a trope, and 90% of my reading is epic fantasy.

    I do create maps for my writing, though. I need to keep track of city streets, trade routes, quest journeys – the list is rather long. 😉

    Maps help me enrich my writing, too, because I can refer to foreign products as delicacies or as rare, expensive items while “overlooking” the odder things of local society that my characters barely notice.

  3. 3 mjj
    August 13, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    I always look at maps and hate it when there isn’t one. And then people cross the Misty Mountains following the Arduin that flows down to the kingdoms of the plains till they come to Andronopolis from which it’s a week’s journey to Adrianopolis and the port of Utter Pratchet on the s-e coast of Lyornesse. Through all this do I have a clue where those people (and by default, I) happen to be? No. And it makes me very anxious.

    In fantasy as in RL, I’m one of those people who needs a map.

  4. 4 Sue
    August 13, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    As a reader (not a writer) and a historian, I like maps. They help me keep oriented to an area with which I have essentially no familiarity. When I was teaching I had the students identify significant places for each unit studied as an aide to tracing trade patterns, etc.

  5. 5 mlronald
    August 13, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    There are certain books where the map really added something — The Hobbit, for example, had such an iconic map for me that I can recognize it instantly. But there are others where the map just provided a plot coupon checklist: “have we been to X country yet? no? well, that’s where the gem of Y is!” Bah.

    Personally, it’s been long enough since I attempted big epic fantasy that I haven’t drawn out maps in a long time. If I have a general idea of the terrain — the Sterling Pass is twelve days’ journey from Lasca, Wullfort is more than a month’s travel from the hub but only if you’re traveling slow — then I can work with it. Smaller maps — say, for a city — are more useful to me as a writer than as a reader.

  6. 6 auntielou
    August 14, 2009 at 7:01 am

    I’m not a big reader of epic fantasies, but when I was younger I devoured those 1930s British mysteries that often came with maps of villages or floor plans of estates.(No, I am not old enough to have read them when they were new.)

    With some books, the maps were just decoration. With others, I was consulting them the whole time I was reading. If the relative locations of the sites or characters is important to the plot, a map can be a good thing to have. For example, the map with Margery Allingham’s Mystery Mile.

    My favorite map — one that can bring back every episode of a much loved book — is the one on the inside cover of The Wind in the Willows.

    Readers want to enter a fantasy world. Maps — and illustrations — should only be used if they help that journey. Last thing an author needs to do is limit the imagination.

    Seems to me.

  7. 7 rachelaaron
    August 14, 2009 at 7:18 am

    I always draw maps, but that’s mostly for my own benefit (otherwise cities wander around on me). However, I completely ignore maps at the beginning of books. If the author can’t tell me where I’m going without forcing me to consult a reference, then they’re probably too technical for me to enjoy their story anyway. But then again, I’m not the sort of reader who writes in (or even notices) when cities wander, so I’m probably not the audience the map is aimed at.

    Maps, take ’em or leave ’em, I say.

  8. 8 Jeremy
    August 14, 2009 at 7:28 am

    I think a map can be nice to have, personally. They’re by no means essential to most stories, and the presence or lack of a map isn’t something that I even consider when buying a novel, but they can be a convenient way of letting the reader know where things are in relation to each other. This is particularly relevant for a story involving a long journey, since it’s easy to keep track of where A is in relation to B, but not nearly so easy between A and X. Likewise, if you’re dealing with stories where international politics or military conflicts are very prominent, maps can help to make the geopolitics much more obvious.

  9. 9 jeff h
    August 14, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I love maps. And when there is one, I appreciate that it’s there when I’m reading so I can reference places (which I do constantly while reading). When stories take place over a wide area, I like to know where stuff is.

  10. August 15, 2009 at 7:51 am

    I usually glance at the map. Because it’s there. It’s a picture. And I’m one of those people who reads forewords and dedications and whatnot. I do worry about spoilers, so it’s usually not more than a glance. I don’t want to guess where they’re going next!

    If the map wasn’t there, I wouldn’t care. More than that, I’d be happier, because I wouldn’t feel obligated to look at it.

    Even worse is when there’s a glossary, a cast of characters, a family tree, appendices A, B, C, and Q.

    There’s a time and a place for all the extraneous material. And that is _after_ I’ve read the book. It’s when I want to know the world better. I made use of the Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern when roleplaying on Pern games. I make use of the Harry Potter Lexicon and the two HP schoolbooks now for the same reason.

    Reference material should not be required reading before and during the act of reading the story. The story should be clear on its own.

  11. 11 Lily
    August 15, 2009 at 10:42 am

    It sounds like having a map in your case would be a disservice to the text, more than anything — like it couldn’t help but introduce an inaccurate sense of the world as stable. (I can’t wait to read this story, just from hearing what you’ve said about it in your posts.)

    I can think of one instance where I was glad to have a map included, which was in Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering — the map made it really clear that the creation-myth explanation of the land as a body was more literal than it has been for all the cultures that came up with similar stories in our world; I’d been sort of reading it as figurative until I actually looked at the map and realized that yes, those were limbs and a torso.

    Most of the time, though, I don’t really care much about them when I’m reading. I use maps a lot more when I write; I can’t draw to save my life, but I need to have a sketch put down someplace that lets me know I’ve already put Street X on the south side of the river, and Street Y is the one with the bridge. I figure if I know where the characters are, and so do they, then that’s the important part — it matters less for the reader to be able to retrace their steps precisely.

  12. 12 Yarnspnr
    August 16, 2009 at 2:18 am

    I’ll be honest. I’d be lost without maps. I suppose if you write your novel while or after you’ve built the fantasy world it renders, you wouldn’t need a map. BUT if you build the world first, mapping as you go, you end up with something that will hold as many novels as you care to write. You may need to invest a year or two in research, but no one will every point to something in your book and say, “Hey! You said ‘this’ about ‘that’ now, but awhile back you said something completely different.” Readers are such nit pickers! Anyway, just a thought. Use it or lose it. 🙂

  13. August 17, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Hmm… so it seems like most folks do like maps. OK, I’m the anomaly then. =) That said, I’ll leave the choice as to whether Books 2 or 3 get a map (Book 2 takes place in a single city, while Book 3 actually covers much of the world) up to my editor, who’s more objective about this stuff than I could ever be. And if she does decide on a map, then I’ll ask her to please get a cartographer to do it right!

  14. August 17, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    My comment is as a fantasy author rather than a reader. I could trot out all the old cliches about a picture being worth a thousand words, etc. but for me the truth about a map in a fantasy world is that it is part of my planning process. If I’m creating an environment as a basis for a story, then I need a reference point to ensure continuity and consistency. So, having created the map as part of my book plan, it seems to be a useful device to include to help my readers find their way around the environment as well.

    My first book Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings, which was published in May this year has a map of ‘Alusia’, the ficticious country in which the hero, Randolph, lives and journeys. Book Two, A Wizard’s Lot, which is currently in preparation has a map of the Western Realm and also a plan of Castle Drent (macro and micro) for exactly the same reasons of coherence as the story develops.

    Feedback I have had from my readers is positive about the map – “I kept refering back to the map to help me visualise where Randolph was travelling”. However, I don’t think we should get too hung up about maps as a standard in fantasy writing. If they work then put them in, if they don’t then leave them out and rely on the SatNav in your head. But I would say this as well; even though I have a SatNav, I still like to look at a printed map before I set off on a journey – it puts the route in perspective for me.

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings

  15. September 20, 2011 at 2:31 am

    As a writer and as a reader, I rarely look at maps as anything more than a pretty picture. I can’t think of a single instance in my literary life where I’ve used a map for the sake of reference, simply because it… just isn’t necessary for me. As a writer, I have a good idea of what my world looks like in terms of everything’s relation to one another. I know that A is to the east of B, I know that B is located in the centre of a forest and that A is not in that forest. Perhaps – given my affinity for words – I simply prefer a textual description. As a reader, I’d rather the author writes out “Marge and Vlad travelled five days east from Novnatsiya to Karakorsk” than have to look at a map to figure that out. I also don’t need anything more. I don’t really need to know which way the road curves between A and B, and if the scene was skipped over by the author, I wouldn’t need to know of the forest they passed on the way.

    They don’t bother me, though. Not usually. They can, though, if they’re a crutch. I think of maps at the beginning as a pretty picture to admire for a moment before I start reading, but if I am ever honestly lost, I’m not going to say “oh, best check the map”, I’ll say “wow, this could have been written better”.

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