Fantasy Maps: Are They Important?


I was doing my usual browsing and blog checking when I came on to this post from The Deckled Edge, which led me to this forum discussion, this post by Joe Abercrombie, and this post over at Neth Space. I guess it never occurred to me that the concept of map-making was such a big issue out there. As a fantasy reader, a ‘writer’ if you will, I do get a certain sense of joy from maps, but I’ve never held it against a book for not having a map, or against the author for that matter. So what is this big deal about maps?
I think there are some serious issues with having maps, even though I do like them. Addressing the bad things first is probably the best way to approach this, giving me ample time to talk about the good things at the tale end. What are the bad things?
First, I think there is this stigma with maps that if you make one, as I have, you have to stick with it so long as it is available to the prying eyes of readers. I learned this very lesson the hard way when I realized I had designed the map for Traea with one location in the wrong place. This resulted in a whole slue of text being wrong. Originally I had wanted to beg the fine fellow who had given me the professional quality map to fix it for me, but realized that would be a waste of time. It wouldn’t take me more than ten minutes to go through the text and change all the words indicating the direction of this location to another location. But my work isn’t in print. I have that luxury. I can change things as I see fit and have leeway to do so.
Writers who are published can’t screw up if they publish a map. This presents some problems, obviously. If you screw up, people are going to notice and they will probably hold it against you, especially if you’re popular. Also, you can’t fix it. Meaning, you can’t screw up. Once that published map is screwy, that’s it. This is a significant problem because sometimes writers want to change things. Maybe they put a city somewhere and realize “hey, I don’t want that there after all”. This is part of the reason why I’ve left some of the areas of Traea unexplored. I didn’t want to indicate what is out there partly because I don’t know where or what it is at the moment and to leave a little suspense.
Second, maps have a tendency to leave out bits and pieces. You can’t put everything into a map and as a result people with too much time on their hands will ridicule it. This is an argument made against Eragon, possibly for a valid reason, though I’m not sure. The map from Eragon doesn’t show any smaller towns aside from those cities and places mentioned in the story, yet there are massive armies. I think one has to be very careful when making maps when it comes to this. You have to make it look realistic, which leads us to our next problem.
Third, realism is somewhat important in making maps, but at the same time we’re dealing, primarily speaking, with worlds that don’t exist. It’s sort of a catch 22: you have to be real, but unreal at the same time. So, maps that look particularly ridiculous end up really making the book seem stupid, if people pay attention to them at least. If your map is shaped like a bunny and your story is supposed to be serious, well, you get the idea.
Maps do have benefits, though. Fans love them and they look pretty. Those are two very good things, obviously. They’re fun to make too. Who doesn’t like sitting around drawing random maps of stuff and making up little worlds? I have an entire folder full of maps that I’ve drawn at some point. Most of them will never get used, but I had fun doing them.
But are maps important? Do they really need to be there for the story to succeed?
That’s a definite no. If your story can’t survive without having a map, then it’s not a very well written story to begin with. I shouldn’t have to resort to looking at your map to figure out where your characters are or what the terrain might look like. That’s your job as the writer to describe everything properly so the reader has an idea what is going on. This is especially important because some people don’t look at maps.
I personally am not a map person when it comes to reading books. I might glance at them, but I never examine them. Basically, I see no point in using a map to keep track of things in the book. As I said, if you can’t write well enough so I know what is going on, then you’re wasting my time. Joe Abercrombie says:

Call me foolish as well, but I do think having a map there can damage the sense of scale, awe, and wonder that a reader might have for your world. It’s like that moment in the horror film when you finally see the monster. What? That’s it? I was scared of a piece of foam rubber? The unknown can be mysterious, exciting, in a way that a few squiggles on a piece of paper often … aren’t. It’s a bit like the problem I have with literal fantasy artwork of the characters on a cover. Pictures work very powerfully compared to words. Straight away the reader’s imagination is constricted by what they’ve seen there, and I’d like to think of my readers’ imaginations running wild and free, roaming far and wide like a noble mountain goat, or something.

I fully agree. There is a sense of awe that is lost. That great feeling of reading and going “wow, this place sounds really cool” sort of gets thrust into the background if you spend too much time staring at a map. Some people do this and obviously there are some that aren’t hindered by maps. This is partly why I don’t look at maps much. Sometimes I’ll examine them later, but while I’m reading I don’t. I like that sense of awe and wonder. I’m currently reading “The Last Cord” by Paul Genesse. It has a map. It’s a pretty map. I haven’t looked at it beyond a simple glance. I really don’t want to at this point. The story itself is good on its own and the scenery described is enough to keep me interested in this interesting world that Mr. Genesse has created. But I also realize that some people simply love maps. Some people like to examine them.
At the end of the day, however, the work has to be able to work perfectly without a map being present. If it doesn’t, then it’s a poorly written novel.

What do you think about maps? Seriously, I want to know.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

3 thoughts on “Fantasy Maps: Are They Important?

  1. You see, the thing I like about my map is that I picked a few cities and towns on it that I needed at the beginning of the story, to give time for stuff to happen. Then I added other stuff like rivers and mountains (the placement of which had to be “far away”) and I did them realistically. And I’m not touching it again. Because if you want to make a truly real story, you can’t shift the landscape around at will. It gives you random places that you can work towards, or handily run into unplanned!

  2. I’ll have to go back and read the whole discussion. But I have to say, I like maps. Some authors create such complex worlds that I find it easier to follow the storyline when I can look at where the characters have come from and where they’re going. I won’t buy/not buy a book based on a map, but I like them.

  3. I really love maps too, but I think good fantasy doesn’t have to have them. That’s not to say that when I finish reading something I don’t look. I look a lot actually. I think that has more to do with the fact that I love making maps, though.

Leave a Reply