Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fantasy and maps

HarperCollins has a wonderful website for fantasy fans, though its Voyager label. The Purple Zone, as it is known, has all the news on fantasy in Australia as well as plenty of spirited discussion. When I have time, which is not often lately, I like to look at what is being discussed and even contribute a little, under my username ``seagulls’’.
That name, incidentally, has nothing to do with hot chips, it is the nickname of my old hometown soccer team, Brighton and Hove Albion. They play in league one (the old division three) now but, when I was at primary school, played in the old first division and took on Manchester United in the final of the FA Cup in 1983.
Anyway, one of the topics I put up was fantasy maps. At the time, I was being asked to do a map - and was a little unsure about it.
After all, there is something of a cliché about fantasy maps. Comedian Ian McFadyen (ex-Comedy Company) puts it best in a very funny web article called How To Write A Fantasy Novel (look for it). As he points out, not only are there often jungles next to snow-covered mountains but all these worlds are roughly square - the size of a paperback’s page!
It seems to hover unpleasantly close to Dungeons And Dragons, where the map was essential to the experience. Not that I have anything against D&D, given I played it as a teenager in the 1980s but, equally, it is not where I want my writing to go now.
The question is, does a fantasy novel need a map? After all, this is a work of the imagination so, surely, the reader can picture what is going on, and where?
Thinking back to the fantasy I read, the likes of David Gemmell and Terry Pratchett did not have maps for most of their books - although some crept in by the end. And the earlier writers, such as Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber did not include maps.
Of course, JRR Tolkien did so - and probably inspired a thousand bad maps by doing so.
This was haunting me - for my artistic abilities are limited in the same way that bricks don’t swim too well.
But many of the Voyager online community felt a map was vital to the book, that it helped with understanding the world that has been created by the writer.
So that got me thinking. Has the tradition for maps with fantasy books meant that readers now expect a map, and are disappointed when one does not accompany the novel?
Or is the map just a natural fit for fantasy writing?
Personally, I blame Tolkien. I think fantasy got along fine without maps before Middle Earth turned up, created in more detail than just about anything else I can think of (and I’m happy to be proved wrong on that).
Now maps are synonymous with fantasy.
I’m afraid I doubt my writing will become known for its intricately-formed worlds, created and explained in great detail. Anyway, I’d rather concentrate on characters and plot, offer the readers a world they can reasonably picture and leave it at that.
But I have created a map, with its flaws, for these books. Hopefully it adds something and readers don’t look too closely at my dodgy drawing skills, although cleaned up in a wonderful job by a HarperCollins artist!
But what do you think? Is the map now an essential part of fantasy?


  1. I do like to see a map in the book, and yes when there isnt one i feel disapointed, thats only because as I read I like to go back and try and find where they are on the map. Though thats my personal opinon, not sure bout others.

    (Sorry bout spelling.)

  2. Having read your first trilogy ( and loved it BTW!), I didn't feel the need for a map at all. Generally I find that having a map in a book annoys me as I can't help going back to it every time a place is mentioned. When I read a book without a map, I just have an imaginary map in my head. That works better for me than the constant page hopping!!!