Cartography À La Carte

I firmly believe that good writing will obviate the need for flyleaf maps. If an author can’t adequately describe his story’s setting without resorting to another medium of communication, he needs to put in more work. However, as value-added accessories, especially to a fantasy novel, maps can perform some important functions.

One of the key effects of classic fantasy is the generation in the reader of a sense that the world is deeper and wider than what is currently known. Whether that takes the form of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, Tolkien’s seemingly-endless ancient histories, or Sanderson’s periodic tables of undiscovered magic, it lifts—if only for an instant—the blinders of familiarity from our eyes and reminds us what it was like to be children filled with wonder and fear at a world bigger and wilder than we could possibly comprehend. But here’s the tricky part: this effect is achieved not primarily through invention, but rather insinuation.

If I as an author simply tell you that a thing exists, then it becomes known. Known things can be classified, quantified, categorized. It might still be weird or dangerous and inspire curiosity, but the mystique stirred up by an activated imagination won’t transform it into something far more.

However, if I hint that something exists, it’s like an invitation, a stimulant. Does the bizarre inscription summon a deity? Do the grass-swallowed ruins have a history? Can the precisely-formulated elixir grant even greater power? This is where maps come in.

Fantasy maps aren’t just bird’s-eye visualizations of the narrative. I’ve seen ill-considered ones from some big-name authors that do nothing but follow the route our heroes take on their quest. They’re just mostly-blank canvases bisected by winding rivers of detail. You can predict the plot progression just by glancing at them. This elicits no wonder, no added value.

I’ve also read books that feature fully-populated flyleaf maps, but which seem to go out of their way—literally—to justify the inclusion of every last hamlet and geological particularity, such that by the time our heroes finish crisscrossing every square mile in the known world, any chance for cartographical wonder is lost as surely as if nothing at all had been shown.

A good fantasy map, on the other hand, behaves like a real-world map. It isn’t partial to those regions you’re planning to traverse in the immediate future, and it encompasses more territory than anyone could or would realistically encounter within a short-term timeframe. By imitating reality, it reinforces our illusion that the fantasy world is real. And the real world, as we well know, contains many places we’ve never been and sights we’ve never seen.

Hey, look at that. What’s that spot on the map? That’s an odd name—what’s it mean? Will we ever go there? Will we ever get to find out?

That’s the kind of value a good map can bring to a story that’s already strong enough to do without. Ideally, fantasy maps should engender more questions than answers. They should expand the world, not shrink it.

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