February 5, 2013

Treatise on Maps and Fantasy, part II.

History Barnstar
(cc) Erin Silversmith
Read Part I Here.

Hi everyone! When I submitted my post A Personal Treatise on Maps and Fantasy, I knew that my opinions weren't going to be so popular, but I didn't expect the overwhelming response from my classmates, which was completely awesome! I had a lot of eye-opening comments from my peers, but I also realized that I didn't express myself well enough in my first post to make everything clear in the way that I wished. Now my personal treatise is a two-parter, which will hopefully clarify some of my thoughts and opinions on worldbuilding and maps.

Before posting to my blog, these posts go to Griffin Gate first (my school's intranet), so that's why you haven't seen a lot of commentary on my website yet. To give you context, this is an actual response I typed to a classmate. He gave me a great, thorough, and well-thought out response. Enjoy!
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Classmate: I think you're being a little too hard on maps, just maps, not the other stuff.

MeI agree! I am really hard on maps. Likely more than I should be. I consider maps supplemental material, which is why I lumped it in together with glossaries and appendices and all that fun. As much as I don't want maps to be a necessary part of fantasy, as Dr. Wendland wrote in his prompt, including them has become "the proper thing to do." Which means maps stopped being maps and are now considered a genre requirement...since they've been given that power, I take them pretty seriously. :) I'm running with the jilted lover defense here--I've read too many epic fantasies that I hated, and my disappointment with the genre has hardened my heart to the degree that the moment I sniff out an epic fantasy, I run in the other direction. The maps are the quickest way to tell me (aside from the front cover and blurb on the back) that the book will be epic fantasy.
Map of the Battle of the Hornburg, from Lord of the Rings.
Map (cc) by CSwenson via EHRobinson

Classmate: I’ve done a lot of traveling and always use maps. Used one last November to get around London. The map helped me get from one place to another, it was just a tool. The map did not define London. The sights, sounds, smells, feel, and tastes did. Of course the people, too.

Me: I love that sensory experiences and personal interactions defined your experience of London. This is exactly how I believe a fantastical world should be built and experienced. You're absolutely right that a map doesn't define how you experience a place--but it does indeed shape that experience.

I attended school at Trinity St. David in Carmarthen, Wales. When I visited London, I didn't pack a map and I never really used one while I was there. I got on the Tube and decided on impulse where I wanted to go. I rode around the city and got off at stops that sounded familiar to me, and spent most of my time walking around and familiarizing myself with the city that way. There were only two places I specifically wanted to visit--The Tower and the British Museum--so when I needed to pay attention to where I was going, I did take a look at the Tube map on the wall to figure it out, but I pretty much did everything impulsively and relied on zero preparation for the trip. I did the same thing when I went to Oxford and Bath. I like to travel this way because I feel very adventurous; I don't like structure; and I like to discover things on my own and at my own pace. I do think travelling without a map gives you a very different experience from travelling with one, so again. although a map doesn't define a place, it still can shape how you experience it.

Carte Monde Fantaisiste
Map (cc) by Bouchette63
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I don't like to travel with maps in fantasy either. :) I don't like maps because it adds physical, visual boundaries to the world. To me, it's like putting a frame on a picture. Some people don't mind, because you can still see the work of art, and that's all that matters...some people think a picture frame accentuates the art and draws your eyes to the right place....I'm the type of person who looks at a picture frame and thinks it surrounds the work of art, making the image look smaller, closed-off, and fixed. That's how I view maps and worldbuilding. 

I should make it clear that I am not against an author drawing maps to create their world, to organize their thoughts, and to make sure the world adheres to some kind of order. I draw vague maps to keep things straight in my head, too. But publishing the map along with the text is what I have an issue with.

You are absolutely right that a map cannot straitjacket an imagination! From reading all the comments people shared about maps, whether it was with my post or others, most people don't care whether or not a map is in a book. Dr. Wendland roughly said in another post that people who want to see it will look for it, and people who don't care about it will ignore it. And even if someone looks at the map, they can still reimagine the world any way they want to.

BUT! When an author publishes a map, it's still the author creating an opportunity for himself to step in and go, "Actually....this belongs here. And here. And here." In a way, it does allow the author to exert control over the reader, because when you look at the map and compare it to what you've imagined, his way will always technically be the right way. Because that's what he wrote, that's what he drew, and because it's published, he's set it in stone. Once it's in print, anyone can pull one of these:

Gif (c) College Humor, from the 8 Classic Nerd Maneuvers 
article by Caldwell Tanner and Susanna Wolff.
When the author publishes the map, he's showing the clear boundaries he's created for his world. I like to view fantasy worlds on abstract terms, so I don't want to see a map because I don't want my interpretation of his world to be wrong on any level, however tiny. If I want the world to be endless, showing me a map takes a little bit of that wonder away, because a map grounds it in reality to a certain degree. Some fantasy readers love that, and there's nothing wrong with it. I don't care for it so much.

My personal worldbuilding philosophy: "Fantasia Has no Boundaries." 


Classmate: Still undecided about your comment, “Books with maps indicate to me that the story will be more plot-driven than character-driven….”  I like maps. I like character-driven stories. And, I like a good plot. I don’t think that plot-driven stories equates to stories without developed characters. All the elements of fiction have to be done well to give your reader a good story.

Me: I agree with you that all elements of fiction should be done well for the story to be good enough for the reader. Even if all the elements of fiction are done perfectly, the end product will still either be plot-driven or character-driven. One aspect will always be emphasized over the other, no matter how subtle. It just so happens that my preference will almost always be for character-driven stories, no matter how awesome the plot is.

VaerČ—m Political Map
(cc) by deviant artist Insanity4362
It just so happens that the majority of the epic fantasy I've picked up happens to be plot-driven. Especially the archetypal quest-fantasy. The epic fantasies I've hated just happened to be plot-driven, and not only plot-driven, but have crappy characterization. They all happened to have maps in the front covers as well. So this is me lumping everything together based on my continual disappointment with the genre. It's a classification that I use to determine whether or not I'll read or buy a book.

Of course not every epic fantasy book is like this, but again, I've been burned enough times that I will automatically judge the book and go, "Ok, there's a map here, so this is an epic high fantasy, which means I'll get bored after 40 pages and find the characters stereotypical and annoying and I'll regret paying for this book and wasting my time reading it."

 It's not very fair to the genre for me to be so judgmental about it; and I will give epic fantasy a chance if I have to read it for school, or if it comes to me highly-recommended by people who know my preferences. The only thing I really have control over is to use my preferences to shape how I write my epic fantasy.  :)

You brought up a lot of awesome things in your response to my post and I'm glad I got the chance to clarify some of my thoughts. I really, really loved that you used your experience in London to remind me that overall, how someone experiences a world is how they define it. Thank you so much!

Classmate: Thanks for the additional insight, Kristina. As a result of your original post, the replies, and your latest comments, I'll look at maps with a whole different perspective should I think about using them in the future.
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I think we had a good dialogue, and it's one of my favorite class interactions I've had so far. He brought up some really excellent points and he gave me the perfect opportunity to clean up some of my thoughts. What do you think, readers?
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