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If you're writing a fantasy novel, would it be best to include a map of the geography that the story takes place in at the beginning of the book?

I've seen quite a lot of fantasy books (Redwall series, Swordbird, ...) while other fantasy books omit the maps and allow the readers to visualise the lands themselves. (Graceling, Last Dragon Chronicles, ...)

What is your opinion on this?

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Note that, if your book is actually published, the publisher is the one that decides whether they're going to print a map at the beginning of your book. And if they do, they'll hire a professional artist to redo the map for you. –  JSBձոգչ Nov 22 '10 at 15:36
    
I guess the real question is: can a map ever hurt? As long as it looks "good", I'm going to say no, even if it adds little to the readers understanding of the world/story. –  MGOwen Dec 1 '10 at 6:19

12 Answers 12

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It often helps because fantasy books often involve quite a bit of travel. It is not strictly necessary for the novel to be coherent, but I have found the ones that I've read that lacked maps to be worse off because of it.

Namely, "The Blade Itself" by Joe Abercrombie is a good example of a book that lacks a map that really needed one. He talks about wars from the north and the south and cities far and wide, and the reader has no reference to where any of this is or how imminent of a threat it is. It goes a long way towards making that book fall flat.

If you have a world where the characters travel or where threats are coming from afar, I would say that you should also have a map. If you're writing a fantasy story set in one city that only deals with the politics or something in that one city, then a map isn't strictly necessary.

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Are you kidding??? The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie fell flat?! I believe you may be confusing "fell flat" with "totally ruled." –  Ethan Dec 14 '10 at 23:35
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@Ethan The Blade Itself was one of the absolute worst pieces of awful writing I've ever had the misfortune of being tricked into buying. Throughout the entire story, nothing happened. There was no plot, no antagonist, no conflict, and only one character who was even half-decent, and he was a rip-off of Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire. It was absolute drivel. –  StrixVaria Dec 15 '10 at 12:24
    
Oh come on; lots of stuff happened. There was a ton of swearing and some sword fights. What more do you need? An alien invasion??? A plague of vampires? Anyway, you have to read the whole series, not just the first book. Then you get long journeys, quests, terrifying supernatural villians, characters undergoing transformations, several medium to large scale battle scenes, and more sword fights. Oh well. –  Ethan Dec 15 '10 at 23:05
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Subjective debate is probably moot on this site. –  Nick Bedford Dec 16 '10 at 5:42
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Well stated. I'll point out two books where the maps really help bring clarity: The Safehold Series by David Weber, where the world is a huge archipelago and they are sending ships all over the world and conquering lands far away; and The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, which takes place in a relatively small region but it's of crucial importance where someone is located when things happen. He also engages a lot of artwork in the story and uses a character's sketchbook as a prop, a very nice touch. –  atroon Feb 15 '11 at 5:59

If your univere in the story turns out vast, yep, you should include a map. I read an alt-History by harry turtledove, set in a unvierse where the eastern usa lies smack dab in the middle of the atlantic ocean, and I felt that needed a map most severely.

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What constitutes vast? Square mileage? Population density? Intricacy of the interstellar roadways? Please give some context to the statement. –  tylerharms Dec 19 '12 at 20:46

Skip the map. Maps in books are pretentious and dumb.

If you have a passage like, "...and so they travelled South, crossing the Mountains of Grimstorm at Thousandwolf Pass then bent their way Westward to the Parchnoth Desert," and a reader gets upset because he doesn't know where all those places are, then don't worry about that reader. Maybe he thinks there's going to be a quiz after he finishes the book.

It doesn't matter where those places are. What matters is that the characters crossed some mountains (story) then changed direction (story) and headed for a desert (more story). In a story what matters is story, not maps or illustrations or how it's bound or whether the title is embossed on the cover.

To put it another way, if the story is weak then a map isn't going to help it. If the story is great then your fans will create maps and post them to their fan blogs.

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A map can be a nice touch, or it can be a hindrance. Are there are particular scenes where a map would let you snip out several paragraphs of tedious explanation? If there are only one or two such scenes, this need might be better served by simply putting a rough map in those places, possibly even inline with the text.

I think that a lot of fantasy books have maps in the front of the book because Tolkien Did It First. It's worth keeping in mind that Tolkien created the languages and terrain of Middle Earth before writing the story, and Lord of the Rings grew out of his intense world-building efforts.

In summary, there's no shame in using a map to save yourself some work, but only use a map if there's a good story reason to have one. If a map is tacked on and not needed, it's just ornamentation and a mood-setting element; these are good and valuable things, but you're best off not spending energy now on what may be an art director's call down the road.

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+1 for "tedious explanation" Another +1 (if I could) for "Tolkien Did It First". "Someone famous did it too" is not a good reason to do something, whatever this something is. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 13:41
    
In this case, it's more like "someone famous put this insanely handy thing in his book," but yeah. –  Neil Fein Dec 10 '10 at 17:39

If you have a big universe and plan on having multiple stories, then a map is a nice touch. Bout it's also limiting. If your first book only focuses on a small part of the world and you include a full world map, then your second book has more constraints to it as you can't just invent another continent, at least not without a good explanation.

Of course, showing only a region or simply retconning the map are options, but the former is more a "nice bonus" as regional maps shouldn't be needed to understand the story, and the latter is just bad for a reader (I know, retcons aren't unusual, but I hate them)

So only put a map if either a) you carefully planned the contents and know it won't have to change a lot in future stories or b) it just looks badass and is something the reader will just want to experience as a piece of art.

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Carefully? Why not put some "Here be dragons" in it? Works every time :D –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 13:39

I find maps will help fans to get a stronger idea of your world.

Look how detailed LOTR is getting!

However, like movies, if you read the book first, and have images of the world in your head... That map can totally destroy the readers own view of your world.

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Spoken as a reader, I usually look at the map at begin of the reading, but mostly ignore it while reading. The map may be nice and artful, but for me it's the same as the cover. A good story I can enjoy without it.

In some novels the travels of the character are so confusing, that I need the map, to keep track. But mostly I think, the author should avoid this confusion.

At last I have an examples, where I thought the map was really useful and really part of the book. That are the Metro-novels by Dmitri Glukhovsky. The story plays years after a catastrophic war and the survivors are living underground in the Metro of Moscow. So the map contains the Metro-plan, but it is altered to show the new political zones, that have established after the war. It was really fun to follow the travels of the character through the map.

So my conclusion is: Include a map as an art-object but not as a necessity. If you feel, that your reader cannot follow the story without a map, you should try to simplify the locations. And if you really have a plan to make a map part of the read, then go ahead.

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Another reader perspective: I treat maps like cover art too, and especially when reading on a Kindle it's too much trouble to flip back if I need it. So if the story doesn't stand alone I'll probably bail. –  Monica Cellio Sep 20 '11 at 19:37

I believe every little bit helps. My skill with world and place description is not what I like and I don't feel I can do much about it, so my solution is to add images to make it easier for readers to follow me.

And don't forget that the map can be a great tool for yourself. If you have a complex plot, it probably makes sense to create a detailed map and place tokens on it so you can see with a glance which character is where right now.

When you spend so much time with the map, it becomes part of your work. That also means that you might forget that the reader doesn't have a map handy when they read the story (even if it's reproduced somewhere in the book, they still have to leave the story and leaf through the book to look it up). So don't forget that and make sure your story still makes sense even without the map.

Lastly, don't forget that you have different readers. For me, the story starts after the book ends. I pull back the memory and emotions and re-enact the story in my mind. I become the author of my own fan-fiction based on your work. Maps help to dream.

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As an artistic aid, I think maps are great. Beyond that, they become crutches, or worse - detriments to the reader's experience.

If a writer cannot explain (using the tools of their trade!) the world eloquently enough for you to have a clear idea in your mind's eye - then the world is too complex for their skill level. Period. Tacking on pictures in order to assist in telling the story means we'll have well-intentioned but inferior stories.

Also, the largest portion of an enjoyable reading experience is the use of the reader's imagination. If I had pictures of all the characters in the book, it would really take away from my experience, because in all likelihood they will not be interpreted by that individual artist in the same way I pictured them in my mind. This is one of the reasons it is a good idea in fiction of all sorts to limit the depth of detail on any given object, to allow the reader to more fully engage with their imagination and own the shared experience.

Of course, very general and largely vague maps just to show major trade routes or destinations and geographical location would be a simple aid for readers to quickly get oriented in the world. So again, if there isn't too much detail... it adds to rather than detracts from the story.

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I think the Inheritance Cycle describes and allows the reader to visualise the world excellently, yet it also has a map at the beginning of the book. –  JFW Nov 22 '10 at 9:11
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Ouchies. Maybe a writer could explain eloquently enough... but I'd be bored to death by it (something I experienced with LOTR). And remember: a picture's worth a thousand words ;-) (Or: "Show, don't tell" :D) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 13:38

Do you already have a map? The answer depends a bit on that.

If, for example, you find yourself drawing maps for yourself already, then yes, it might be useful to beef that one up a bit and include it as reference material.

But if you don't already have a map, then don't feel pressured into thinking that you need a map.

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I think it all depends on whether the map adds to the overall experience for the reader.

If in the writing you are able to clearly identify location and distances in relation to other geographical locations, then no. If you don't and you think the story would be enhanced if the reader could easily visualise the world you are creating, then yes.

Personally I like maps. I think it adds to the grandeur of the travels that the adventurer/army/group etc go through. If your world is a complex one, with may locations, and their locations are important (north/south/east/west etc), then I think you almost have to add a map.

I also find that having a map helps you as a writer to visualise your fantasy world. Even if you don't include it, I would create one for reference during your writing.

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If you think without one it would be too hard for readers to envision, then yes. I can't stand books that push countless places with indecipherable names upon you and expect you to remember all of them.

If you're worried about the readers that would rather visualise it themselves, you could have the map sparse on detail, just showing the layout of the geography and not features of it.

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Extra thought on this - consider simplifying indecipherable names! A city called Ku probably sounds just as exotic as one called Kuquatl'ixh –  MGOwen Dec 1 '10 at 6:15

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