Like a lot of fantasy series, especially those set in a secondary world, my books will include a map. It is a map of the continent of Dalriya, where the series is set. Above you can see the full version, designed by Streetlight Graphics. Maps and fantasy series go hand in hand—so much so, that for some it has become a cliché. Joe Abercrombie made something of a punk rock statement by not including maps in his First Law trilogy. You can read his opinion piece on the question of maps on his website, here. For Abercombie, it seems to boil down to maps ‘getting in the way’ of the characters and their immediate story. And it has to be said, Abercrombie does character and story extremely bloody well.
I, however, am in the pro-map camp. Here are my musings on it.
Maps and Readers
When I read a fantasy book, I like to have a map to refer to, certainly when the action takes place over a large area. When I read Lord of the Rings, I pored over the pull-out map. I remember vividly, too, the detailed maps in David Eddings’ Belgariad series. They made these worlds more alive and made the experience of reading the book more immersive. If I had got my ruler out and started measuring how far the characters walked each day, tabulating my findings into a spreadsheet, then yeah, maybe that would have been a distraction. But I didn’t do that. Honestly, I didn’t. But I like maps. I like historical maps. If I’m playing a boardgame, and the board is a map, you can be pretty sure I will be sitting there as happy as a pig in muck.
BUT. Some people don’t like maps. They might sneer, or at the very least raise an eyebrow. Thing is, people who think a map is horribly clichéd, probably aren’t going to like my series anyway. It’s a fantasy series, and has a good portion of that genre’s tropes in there somewhere. Ergo, I don’t have to worry about such people. For those who do enjoy the genre, chances are they’ll appreciate a map. And anyway, it comes free. You don’t HAVE to look at the bloody thing, do you?
Maps and Writers
Perhaps more important, is the use of a map for a writer. I have no doubt that Joe Abercrombie has a map or two in his draw somewhere, even if he chose not to feature them in his book. Why? Because the secondary world he created was so believable, he must have spent some time thinking about how it all worked. When a writer hasn’t given it much thought, it becomes all too obvious to the reader. That’s when a fantasy fan might sneer, or at least raise an eyebrow.
And that is the connection between fantasy and maps. The fantasy author has had to create a whole new world as a setting for their story. As well as great characters and plot, fantasy fans want to see great worldbuilding. Having a map in front of me, made me ask some questions of the world I had created.
How long will it take my characters to get from A to B? Will they have to cross a river, or go through rough terrain, to get there?
What kind of government does this country have? What kind of religion? How many people live there? How wealthy are they? What do people do for a living?
What kind of relationship does this country have with its neighbour?
What is the history of this continent? Presumably, three hundred years ago, the map would have looked different?
This can give your world the illusion of reality, and allow your reader to enjoy the story. Not that your reader wants to, or should be told ALL of these things. They need to have the sense that there are answers to these questions, without being told all the boring detail. That would certainly get in the way of the story.