31 January 2013

A Personal Treatise on Maps and Fantasy.

Map of Minas Tirith from
The Lord of the Rings
(cc) by Rama
Please read part II here. It's a bit more coherent and expands on the idea.

My first assigned book of the semester is The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.  The course is Fantasy Classics, so although it's a readings course, it's primarily slanted towards students who write in the fantasy genre, as opposed to the general reading public.

So although I normally do a full-on review for an assigned book, in this case, we were given class prompts. The prompt I chose was to analyze the presence of maps in fantasy literature.  Tolkien was big on including them, and since many writers emulate Tolkien, they're pretty much a fantasy staple. In fact, it's argued that they are a genre requirement of fantasy.  I disagree.

When I first started reading fantasy at a young age, I stuck mainly to stories that re-imagined fairytales. The most "epic" series I managed to wade through was C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and I never finished it--I gave up right around The Horse and His Boy. But the only book of the series I actually remember is the first: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I no longer have physical copies of my Chronicles of Narnia book set, so I'm not sure if they contain maps of Narnia in the front covers or not…but that's primarily what I use to gauge whether or not a novel is an epic fantasy. And if it is, I tend to pass on it.

History is full of fantastical maps!
Here is Asia, redisgned as Pegasus.
Map from 1581.
Epic fantasy is very difficult for me to read, even if it's considered a classic or is very-well reviewed. I thought it was an absolute miracle I made it through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy my freshman year of college, and when I finished it, I vowed, "Never again will I read this book!" It's a big reason why I avoided reading The Hobbit until it was assigned for this class, although I was very familiar with the story (I grew up on the Ralph Bakshi cartoon, and the first stage musical I performed in was The Hobbit.) I've tried to crack open books such as Eragon, The Wheel of Time, and The Sword of Shannara, and I usually quit a quarter of the way into the book. I'm afraid to attempt the Song of Ice and Fire series for fear that I'll burn out on it before I make it halfway through the first book (although an article like this one gives me hope that I may actually be able to get through it after all).

All of the books I listed above have maps in them (some even go the extra mile and include glossaries and histories). I don't think that's a coincidence. It's part of the reason why I ended up disliking them so much.

Because including maps with fantasy novels has "certainly become the proper thing to do," (my professor's words) I feel a bit lonely with my beliefs as a reader and writer of fantasy. I don't like maps, or glossaries, or appendices, and I don't want to write a work of fantasy that relies on them in any way. I'm not against world-building at all--one of my favorite things about fantasy is the discovery and invention of new worlds--but in my experience, books that include maps suggest to me that author will only let you interpret his world-building on his terms. The author exerts a little more control over how much of that world you can imagine on your own.

What else is considered an epic fantasy
genre requirement?

(cc) by David Revoy
A huge chunk of readers want total immersion in a fantasy world. Which means the more pronunciation guides, glossaries, histories, and maps there are, the closer they feel connected to that world. These supplements to the book can quickly communicate to a reader that the world is solid and complete; that there's even more going on besides what's happening in the story.

Since I grew up on fairytales, I was always content with the idea of something happening "Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom…." There wasn't much more development than that. There were no strict geographical rules or histories to the world I could imagine--the only guideline was the world was not the world I live in, and not the world I live in now. By leaving out these kinds of details, the story can belong to anyone--it's a type of direct interaction with readers, because you're allowing them to build the world up as much as they see relevant to your story.

In my thesis, which is dark epic fantasy, I don't name the year in which the story takes place. When I write it, I picture the late 18th century-early 19th century (closer to the British Regency), but to me, it's not very important for the reader to know that. I "suggest" the era through descriptive details, such as clothing, technology, and character dialogue, but if the reader doesn't pick up on the time period exactly, it doesn't matter. All they know is that it's "Once upon a time, long ago…"

As far as geography goes, I will mention names of cities for the sake of suggesting that the world is bigger than the town in which much of the story takes place. My characters aren't static either--they travel (as characters in fantasy often do), but I only drop names if it's relevant to the action; not to establish a history (unless that info will immediately pop up later). I will very generically say "Silva is in the south, the Kun are from the east," and that's it. No countries, kingdoms, or continents. It's enough info for the reader to know that the world isn't the one we live in today, and if they want to fill in the geographical blanks themselves, they can.

For many readers, this is the default fantasy setting.
(cc) by David Revoy.
Readers have a tendency to imagine things the way they want to, anyway, so I don't want to fight that impulse too much. For example, whenever I submitted excerpts of my thesis to workshops, many readers kept imagining my thesis in the Middle Ages, even though I've not dropped any clues to lead readers to that era. It's what they want to see. (Or, you could argue, it's what they've been programmed to see, considering most epic fantasy suggests basis off of medieval European civilizations.) It's not what I see when I write, but I still can't tell the reader they're wrong for envisioning the world that way. It's still "long ago and far away," which is the only real rule for the book.

By keeping some of the world-building a bit on the bare-bones side of things, not only will my reader create enough info on their own (and only as much as they need), I also feel like the emphasis will remain where I want it.

 I write character-driven fiction, which means I also spend less time on plot than a typical epic fantasy does (the quest, after all, is a story that comes from a specific action). Books with maps indicate to me that the story will be more plot-driven than character-driven, and so far my assumption hasn't been wrong yet, though I'm sure someone will be able to give me an example that proves otherwise.

My promise to you, readers:  my fantasy will always be
Anyway,  part of the reason why I fail to make it through an epic fantasy series is because I don't feel connected to the characters. Why would I follow someone over the mountains and across to the sea and to the ends of the earth if I just don't like them or identify with them? The journey that is so much a part of epic fantasy feels like a chore--a series of tasks, that although are of Dire Consequence, mean nothing to me if I'm already exhausted before they've reached the first landmark in the journey. How do I know what the first landmark is? The map in front of the book told me--if it took one hundred and fifty pages to get from point A to point B, and there are still five more areas to cover on the map, it suggests to me the story is going to take forever to get through and won't be worth it (especially if I haven't found someone in the party to root for).

Many fantasies I've read and dropped had maps and info that, although included, didn't seem to integrate well with the actual story, and if they did, it took forever to make it relevant (which means, after I quit reading). I think this speaks to the idea that fantasy authors feel "obligated" to include them for the reader who wants to dive into immersive fantasy--again, this info can help solidify the world even if it has no direct relevance to the plot. But I don't care for books that do that, for the many reasons I already stated. I am far more in favor of a fantasy book that includes maps to complement the text as opposed to supplementing it.

Readers, what do you think? Do you read fantasy, and if so, do you read for the world-building, or do you read for the characters and story? How do you feel about maps and supplemental materials published in fantasy novels? Are they a genre requirement?


  1. I have only just begun to dive into epic fantasy, with Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy (we've also got LotR, SoIaF, Deathgate Cycle, War of Souls--the boyfriend reads epic fantasy almost exclusively) so most of my fantasy reading is of the dark variety. Thus, I don't have the attachment to maps/glossaries/etc. that many fantasy readers do. I am planning to write an epic dystopian fantasy and don't intend to include any of those supplements. I like world-building and appreciate the work that goes into it, but I'm not sure all that stuff is necessary if you've done your job well enough. If those things *are* necessary, perhaps you've overcomplicated the story.

  2. "I like world-building and appreciate the work that goes into it, but I'm not sure all that stuff is necessary if you've done your job well enough. If those things *are* necessary, perhaps you've overcomplicated the story"

    BAM! My thoughts exactly; you just said it better and more succinctly than I could. :)

    Looking forward to more about your epic dystopian...and kudos to you for not adding the supplemental bulk to it. High five!

  3. I agree with you in theory, but as you mentioned, many epic fantasy readers will automatically assume they're reading a quasi-medieval time period unless told explicitly otherwise. I had the same issue when I workshopped the first chapter of an epic fantasy set in an industrial-revolution-esque world. Everyone kept calling me on anachronisms that were actually my way of showing that we *weren't* in a pre-industrial world.

    What I learned from that is that you have to respect the tropes of the genre. Respecting doesn't mean you're limited by them (my thesis was set in a world that has just invented electricity), but it does mean you have to account for reader expectations. So while a lightly sketched world is fine for a new reader, it isn't going to work for an epic fantasy junky.

    All that being said, I am all about worldbuilding. I'm a visual learner, so part of my process is making a map. Otherwise I get lost and lose track of what street is which, who lives where, etc. But the reader only sees maybe a tenth of what I've created for the world. When I write, I only include details that are relevant or important to my characters.

    I happen to like maps in books *because* I'm a visual learner and I like having that reference point. The trick is to not use that as an excuse for too many details (a la George RR Martin) OR too few. The reader can't imagine anything if you don't describe it. And honestly, they won't imagine anything if they skip the four pages of description, either.

    So for me, it's all about balance.

  4. Hi Carrie! This is really a dream response to get on the site, and I love to have this type of dialogue with readers, so I really appreciate your comment!

    Reading the part about being called out for anachronisms in your text hits close to home. That's happened to me several times, actually, so that's a good reminder that even when you drop hints in the text to let your readers know your fantasy is NOT a medieval epic, it may not be enough for your readers. Good call.

    And I like that you phrase it, "Respect the tropes of the genre." Which to me means that if I decide to subvert a genre trope, I'm still going to have address the expectations of the reader anyway. I don't personally see my work as something an epic fantasy junkie will read, but you're right--they comprise the majority of the fantasy genre audience, so I'll still have to answer to them.

    My post actually got quite a bit of responses from classmates, so I did an update that also addresses some of what you brought up in your comments: http://www.kristinaelysebutke.com/2013/02/treatise-on-maps-and-fantasy-part-ii.html

    I have to draw maps and do extensive worldbuilding for my fantasy, too...so using it for organization isn't really what I'm against, it's more along the line of publishing the maps and notes along with the story.

    As you say, and I think it's the most important thing about worldbuilding, is that "it's all about balance."

    Thank you for your awesome comments!

  5. First, I think I need to put you in contact with a friend of mine who once wrote a paper for a conference about the correlation between maps in books and the books themselves that was pretty neat.

    Second, I see where you're coming from with the map-aversion, but I think maybe you're blaming the maps for the failings of the genre as a whole. I know of a few books where the maps were drawn and added after the fact, which is probably where the ones that don't match up come from, not the writers.

    I do think relying on the map--or the illustrations or whatever--to do the work of defining your world is a bad move, and a sign of lazy writing, but personally, I don't think they damage the work any. Maybe it's because so many of the books I read have them that I just don't even look at them anymore until, like, a half of the way through the book, or after the end.

    I wonder if your details are being called anachronistic because of the light touch on the worldbuilding? My book is set in something like the 1700s, but minus almost all signs of industrialization, and sometimes things come across as anachronistic, so I had to very carefully define the tech level and cultural level to avoid that--mostly, I did it through describing the royal court. It seemed a clear way to get the timeframe-analog across, you know? A 1400s court is a lot different from a 1700s one.

    I'm off to read Part II now!


    1. First--- sounds cool to me!

      Second--If it comes across that way, that's not my intention. Aside from me viewing maps as a way for the author to have a little bit more control on how the reader interprets their world (which I personally don't care for), I only use maps as a genre identifier of epic fantasy, because that's the level of importance to which they are now raised. I do not think maps on the whole have to do with whether or not the genre succeeds for me; it's just a really fast way for me to pinpoint whether or not it's an epic fantasy. I already decided a while ago that I'm not impressed with the genre, although there are some epic fantasies that I do like. Just not most of them.

      Third--good point!

      Fourth--The parts of the book that's been continuously labeled as anachronistic tends to be the character's vernacular and dialogue. Although the last few times, it's been minor details. For example, someone got nitpicky over my lighting technology--they said oil lamps were ok, but using matches was anachronistic. Just little things like that. I think someone scoffed once for using the term "navy" in there as well, and someone had an issue with the way I referred to a carriage. Predominantly, though, it's the language people find anachronistic. Which I think is one of the best ways to indicate a time period, truth be told. I always double-check my entomology to make sure it figures in with my timeline, but even when it's historically accurate, people will still shoot it down for sounding too modern. Sometimes I have to compromise and adjust the language based on their gut reactions, though.

      When the language isn't strong enough for readers to get the time period, I try to use cultural details--particularly clothing design--to suggest the time period. I'll also try to suggest it with the food my characters eat, the household products they use, etc.

      Yay for being a diligent and checking out part two! Thanks!


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