06 February 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 that I thought I'd share with you.

Before posting to my blog, these posts go to Griffin Gate first (my school's intranet), so that's why you haven't seen 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!

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.

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?


  1. If you don't like most (or all) of the EF you've read, why are you writing it? Is it to show a different way for the genre to be, or is it that you're maybe actually writing something else and calling it EF, or is there some other reason? I ask because my book went the other way--I thought I was writing YA Fantasy, and it turned into EF with incidentally young characters. I happen to love EF, so I ran with it. But I could have easily just said, no, this isn't epic fantasy, and worked the rest of the book so that it wasn't, you know?

    Re: Plot vs Character: My book is a direct reaction to the fact that so many of those books have boring or flat or annoying characters--I did my very best not to have that. But I also have a lot of plot and a lot of story-points to get through before the end of the book. I think to a certain extent, Plot Vs Character is a false dichotomy, probably related to the Literary vs Speculative divide, which I also see as at least partially false--there's overlap there, in both cases. Maybe you just haven't looked in the right places?

    The series you mentioned--Sword of Shanara, Wheel of Time, et al--are all those sort of classical High Fantasy things that come with all the issues; there are ones in the same genre that try to do something about them. Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles and Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy are good examples off the top of my head. Song of Ice and Fire, I think, is in some sort of transitional space; it's more closely done like the old kinds, but the characterization is complex and deep.

    What a good discussion!


  2. RE: Why write epic fantasy:

    When I started this program, I did not intend to write it at all. I never considered myself a writer of high or epic fantasy, and my thesis wasn't going to be epic fantasy either. However, my mentors and peers are the ones who have told me that my story is too large and some of the subject matter is what qualifies the fantasy as epic. So I feel they've chosen that title for me, although I still don't quite feel like it accurately describes what I write. But if everyone's saying it's epic, then I have to accept that it is. If it's going to be epic, I'd rather have it be an epic like Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy, which I LOVE, and feel like is closer to what I'm trying to create.

  3. BLOGGER DOESN"T LIKE LONG RESPONSES. here's part II of my Sami answers:

    According to J. E. Johnson, these are epic fantasy qualifiers, and here's how I rank (SOURCE: http://nkjemisin.com/2010/02/what-is-epic-fantasy/):

    -MULTIPLE BOOK SERIES. Maybe. So far, my thesis story is two books long. It would be very uncomfortable to make it into a trilogy, but I wouldn't say it would be impossible. Both books can be standalones, but they are linked by a single character (Andresh), which is why I would vaguely say it's a duology.

    -A QUEST MUST BE FULFILLED. Maybe. Andresh has a quest to be fulfilled--how to transcend death. He has actually travelled across the land (and reality) to try and find out how. Lily does not have a traditional quest like he does. Both characters are tied together by curses, so perhaps I could say that "breaking the curse" would be their quest, since both will do anything (and go anywhere) to stop it.

    -MAIN CHARACTER MUST FACE DANGERS, OVERCOME FOES, AND CHANGE THROUGHOUT SERIES. Yes. I think all works of fiction requires this, though...I'm not sure why this is considered "epic."

    -A CAST OF SUPPORTING CHARACTERS WHO OFFER STRUGGLING HERO SUPPORT, FRIENDSHIP, ETC. Yes, but it's a very small cast. Again, doesn't every story have this to a degree? I don't know why this is an epic fantasy qualifier.

    -A GREAT EVIL THAT CHALLENGES PROTAG. Um, no. I'm drawing the line here. I do not see things in black and white when it comes to good versus evil. So although my characters have something dark and twisted challenging them, I do not classify them as evil. So I guess this qualifier doesn't work for me.

    -OPTIONAL BUT RECOMMENDED: A JOURNEY ACROSS A GREAT LANDSCAPE TO CHALLENGE THIS EVIL. Maybe. Andresh does, but again, not necessarily to challenge something evil. His actual journey is book two; in book one, we only see the end of his journey through the POV of Lily. And again, I'm not sure if I still qualify because my landscape isn't "great" exactly--because I've not emphasized the landscape. More like the things that help my characters grow and change.

    My tally: Two hard yeses, three soft yeses (that's what I'll call my maybes)and one no. Would this be an epic fantasy then? Hard to say. There are more yays than nays, so I'll go with yes.

    Here are N.K. Jemisin's personal requirements of epic fantasy (from same source):

    -SCALE--FATE OF A NATION, MINIMUM. No. Lily and Andresh work with a secret knowledge. Although their journey deals with some cosmic/esoteric stuff (gods/demons, magic, etc) their outcome does not mean the world will get screwed up; only their own personal worlds as they know it. (Possibly something Lily does will impact Mariner because of what she does to the Mottledell. It'll affect a city, but not the world).

    -MASSIVE CHALLENGE, NIGH IMPOSSIBLE, WHICH WILL STILL AFFECT THE WORLD IN SOME WAY. No. Andresh's challenge seems that way. Lily's has an element of it seeming impossible, but because they use supernatural means, it's not. And, again, only their world is affected. Not the entire world.

    -SPAN--THE STORY'S ROOTS MUST COVER A LONG SPAN OF TIME. This is a definite no for my story.

    -A SHOWDOWN WHERE PROTAG MEETS METTLE AND MAY GENUINELY FAIL. Finally, I can give this a hard yes! Woohoo!

    Based on the above qualifiers, Johnson would say I write epic fantasy, but Jemisin would say I don't. (I'm glad you mentioned Jemisin; I credit her with redeeming epic fantasy to me. I loved the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.) Add to that the opinions of mentors and peers (but not all) and I'm still told my story is epic fantasy. Crazy, right?

    Anyway, if I'm going to write epic fantasy, then I'll consider it as a different way for the genre to be, or at least, the way I want the genre to be. I do feel more comfortable referring to my book as DARK EPIC FANTASY. There's way more dark than epic going on, that's for certain!

  4. Part III and final part of Sami answers!

    RE: Plot vs Character

    I do think that part of it could be a false dichotomy, as you say, but given the self-help books my mentors have assigned to me, most of what I read says that fiction can be either plot-driven or character-driven, but not equally both. BUT! I don't think it's impossible to have a character-driven story with a good plot and vice-versa. It could be that I'm not looking everywhere I should, I agree.

    Re: Fantasy series...I'll say my favorite traditional epic series is The Earthsea Quartet from Ursula Le Guin. I liked what I read of N. K. Jemisin. I also like Juliet Marillier's Sevenwaters Trilogy, and again I love Garth Nixon's Abhorsen Trilogy. Cecilia-Dart-Thornton's Bitterbynde showed great promise along with her Crowthistle Chronicles. I love the first book of each series but for whatever reason couldn't get into the rest of them.

    My friend Drew LOVES Patrick Rothfuss and my brother swears by George R. R. Martin, so maybe I'll have more epic fantasy to root for if I give them a chance.

    If epic high fantasy can continue to move away from the Tolkien template I will be more apt to be its number-one fan. :)

    Yes, thanks for such wonderful commentary!


Want to add to the conversation? Please leave a comment. As you are a guest in my house, I reserve the right to moderate. Comments that are disrespectful, irrelevant, or spam will be deleted. Thank you for your understanding.