It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

The Joy of Cartography

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It’s Monday, so let’s ramble…

World-building is like the proverbial iceberg. It’s only the top ten percent you see in the story. Or rather, it’s only the top ten percent you should see in a story. For example, drawing up a map of your galactic empire or fantasy continent is useful when working out how your characters get about, but is there any real need to share it with your readers? If you create it with the intention of sharing it with your readers, you’re going to be filling it with detail. Drawing little mountains and planets. Dreaming up names for all the worlds and hamlets the characters don’t actually visit. All time-consuming tasks.

Time that would be better spent working on your story.

Plus, of course, you’ll get it wrong somewhere. Rivers that flow uphill, earthlike planets orbiting outside a star’s habitable zone. You could, of course, research – to make sure you get all the details right. That’s time-consuming too.

Time that would be better spent working on your story.

It seems de rigeur these days to open a high fantasy novel with a map, but what do they actually add to the story? Very little. However, they do increase the immersive quality of the story. And that’s what many readers seem to want these days. The plot is almost incidental – a group of archetypes doing archetypal things, or perhaps stereotypes doing stereotypical things. The plot, as such, is often just an excuse to bimble about the fantasy world. With a bit of derring-do and suspense thrown in for good measure. Not to mention a good sword-fight or battle as well.

Maps are less prevalent in science fiction novels. The Evergence trilogy by Sean Williams and Shane Dix features a galactic map in an appendix. I’m fairly sure one or two novels by CJ Cherryh also have maps. There are likely plenty more, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. But, as a general rule, they’re rare.

There’s an expectation these days that a fantasy novel will open with a map – created, of course, by the genre’s exemplar, The Lord of the Rings. It’s become a convention. In fact, given that much of fantasy’s furniture is filched from various historical periods, it strikes me that the genre’s conventions are not so much plot enablers as they are attributes of the story… Map. Quest. Plot coupons. Peasant-Hero. Hidden King. Dark Lord.

Perhaps that’s the chief difference between science fiction and fantasy. In sf, ideas enable the plot; in fantasy they’re the story’s framework.

One thought on “The Joy of Cartography

  1. The only other SF novel with a map that springs to mind is Vinge’s “A Fire Upon The Deep”.

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