Maps in Fiction: Tool or Trap?

Fictional maps may be useful reference for creators and communities, they may also become time parasites

Dip your toe into the fantasy and science fiction subcategories of genre fiction, and it won’t take long to stumble over a curious predilection for cartography. Searching for narrative treasure, a substratum of nerd developed an unhealthy attachment to the geographies they’d previously ignored in classrooms. Tolkien laid out Arda in black and white, subsequent genre fiction enthusiasts devoted hours and days to scrawling dodgy mountain ranges, improbable rivers, and questionable constellations ad nauseum. To what end?

Ink thralls and abstraction

Remind me, was the space station north of the asteroid field, or southwest? Didn’t you say there was a plague pit to the east of the town? Didn’t you also say that there was a wealthy neighbourhood there, too? And why did you put an esoteric cult in the Pope’s basement?

The obvious question requires the obvious answer – where is everything?

Everything entails many abstracts better nailed down, ideas sketched, forms defined. A day south of a village encompasses a vast amount of space. A single entity scratching in vast space draws attention to artifice. A populated vastness assumes all inhabitants are not sitting one atop the other. Relatively, where are they? What are they doing? How are they connected?

Every time someone wants to dig a new tube tunnel in London, they have to claw their way through some remnant of the black death… How, if at all, does one thing being in a particular location relative to something else affect any interactions between them? Returning to the plague pit in a wealthy neighbourhood, with you being God, you have two options. The boring: Relocation, relocation, relocation. The Interesting: Explanation, explanation, explanation. Perhaps when the neighbourhood started out, it was a poor area. Over time it gentrified, nobody knew there was a plague pit because it had long since been covered up. Suddenly you’ve got questions and flesh to knit to bones.

Cat’s eyes

Audiences are curious. I read It. Side chapters delved into bits of localised history tracing the orchestrated horror over time, stitching detail onto the narrative, a little extra meat to chew. I finished and went in search of a map of Derry.  How did other people see it? What did it look like laid out? This is a shared desire. Driven by an urge to crystalise, fill some blank, or compare notes, people search for visual representations of imagination-catching ideas. This is seen in fan art, theories, and other IP-adjacent unofficial content. Maps represent one of many veins of material with which to feed the curious.

Going to the well

Maps can enhance the solidity of a setting. Writing is an abstract process, an attempt to convey an idea of a non-existent place to unknown people, and imagination is fickle. Nailing down specifics by lessening conceptual ambiguity cements process momentum and progress. This mirrors the advice to illustrate characters, locations, and objects, regardless of artistic capability, as the reduction of mental abstraction reduces conceptual murk and shift. Proceeding from our primarily visual interpretation of the world, lean into the opportunity.

For complex plots reliant on relative accuracy for key aspects to inform believability and maintain the suspension of disbelief, then the removal of ambiguity or abstraction via map use suggests itself as an effective tool, facilitating detail and concept verification. Any aspect of plot, story, or supplementary fluff can be altered to move details into accordance with story beats as desired. A Song of Ice and Fire has been noted for the disconnect between the apparent scale of the map and the time it takes to traverse it. According to the geography, it is roughly the size of South America. According to narrative travel times, it is roughly the size of the UK. Audiences will pick up on details like this, and while generally forgiving provided breaks are limited, supplemented by the understanding and agreement of narrative loopholes, consistency is always preferable.

Time and distance

Time-dependent plots require accuracy. Suspension of disbelief dissolves if key locations are set at either end of a continent but events occur over the course of a week. Maps can inform approximate distances and correlated journey times between points, providing guidelines to reasonable spatial boundaries. This remains a relatively rare problem, but authors can inadvertently paint themselves into corners from which characters travel at the speed of plot in order to maintain story beat coherence.

Death and taxes

Trade and political-reliant plots often benefit from maps. If a creator knows the routes by which a plot-relevant commodity passes to get to market, they can use this to estimate a rough timeframe, and relative commodity price. This in turn can inform political hierarchies and tensions. Certain cloths and dyes have been restricted to specific social ranks due to their relative value to a society. The 1700s saw wealthy British aristocrats expending enormous sums of money to import or grow pineapples. They were so expensive that nobody dared to eat them, choosing instead to pass them from household to household as table ornaments. Pineapple rental outlets appeared. Transporting a pineapple could place one in mortal danger.

Consider logistics. Follow implications, learn about the merchants and tradesmen. Passing through wild places, they will hire protection, adding expenses, driving up the price of goods as traders seek to cover costs and secure capital.

Where are resources coming from? How exotic might different populations find them? What points of disruption are there in the supply and production chains? Where are the industrial centres and trading hubs? Realistically there is no reason to write up a logbook or tax return, unless programming a simulation or incredible numerical detail is the hinge on which the story swings.  Knowing who is trading what to whom and some idea of the value of those transactions, covers the practical details. Locations of resource abundance and resource dearth, and necessity for a commodity are the foundations of a trade network. Follow the profit. On a spreadsheet this is numb. With a map it becomes clear. 

Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor makes a central plot point hinge on the loyalties of competing duchies, leveraging resources and political influence to swing surrounding territories. The map in this instance is quite useful, providing a better visual on how the competing factions are laid out in relation to one another. The map isn’t imperative, but the added visual provides an easy-recall point of reference.   

The audience benefits in tandem with the creator’s clarified vision – the more solidified the setting in the author’s mind, the more solidified the setting in the audience’s mind. A map may help to draw boundaries for the audience, solidifying spatial relations between elements.

In addition, more content adds to a setting, whatever the form of that content. This is exemplified by the long-respected Silmarillion, the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the World of Ice and Fire supplementary book, the heaps of fan theories and lore speculation surrounding the SoulsBorneRing games. This in turn contributes towards the foundation of community, sparks engagement, discussion points, and fuels speculation and theorising. All of which adds value and longevity to a work – the audience want to engage with other enthusiasts, the creator derives joy from providing engagement to their audience.

Consider the Mona Lisa and the eternal back and forth as to her expression. A case could be made that, as impressive da Vinci’s painting is, had the Victorians never focussed in on the inscrutable expression, or had da Vinci made some clarifying statement early on, the artwork would never have claimed as much cultural territory as it has, nor held it for so long.

Sink faster

On the other hand, spend enough time in the sinkhole of worldbuilding and conclude, often and repeatedly, the extreme ease with which creating all of this supplementary material becomes one amongst a myriad means of distraction and procrastination. Maps have arguably become one of the exemplars of this distraction, perhaps due to the ease of scrawling coastlines, landmarks, and names. In the hyperdrive attention world war this provides the impression of an immediate return on investment over time.

Naturally from there it’s a wade and a struggle through Wikipedia articles on river splitting and deltas, arguments with a thousand angry hill enthusiasts, and an essay on why the rain in Spain falls somewhere other than the plain, and six months go by with a much-improved map and a desire to start to the whole process over from scratch due to a series of fundamental errors and bugbears. Fine for those focussed on cartography for its own sake, but arguably undertaking A-level geography to produce a series of scene backdrops for a novel is highly unnecessary.

The same can be said of conlanging. It’s a rabbit hole that can be burrowed into for a lifetime for those with an unflagging enthusiasm for linguistics that fly far over my head – and more power to those who can. However, a reasonable contingent of aspiring authors dive headfirst into conlanging and never surface or get stuck. This is the all too common ‘wannabe-Tolkien’ effect. What a lot of people forget is that Tolkien was an academic first, a linguist second, and a writer third. A lot of Middle Earth’s “deep lore” seems to derive from Tolkien’s impressive obsession with language, mythology, history, and adjacent interests. Not because he’d set himself a goal to create history’s most tree-consuming lore dump. Aspirations are useful; but understand why the competition got to where it is before creating a bad imitation.

As before, so again: You aren’t Tolkien.

That’s a good thing. Overly pretty Elves and inexplicably Scottish Dwarves suffer Weimar Republic levels of inflation. People have their own sets of idiosyncrasies and obsessions, none of which need to result in another 80s-style Middle Earth knockoff. Interested in fashion? Good, it’s been a pretty big deal for a pretty long time – who’s writing a story inspired by sumptuary laws? Those are fascinating. Besides, fashion worked for American Psycho’s brand of social commentary.

Spending six months detailing every square inch of a 10,000-pixel map of Space Lord Bill’s latrines, plus an exhaustive 100-year history, is impressive, but if it isn’t the main project, how much is it contributing to the main project? Are maps of every spaceport and hedgerow is useful, or just a distraction?

Cartography for the self-aware

Maps can be a tool in an arsenal of background information with which to graft flesh onto the skeleton of a setting and aspects of atmosphere and ambience. They can also become a useless time sink, distracting creators from their main project, spiralling into a fractal tangent that never ends. A good map will inform some broad strokes for both the author and the audience, but will never become intrusive, overdelivering on information that would be better provided by or inferred in the material it’s attached to. Ensure that supplementary material remains supplementary. Supplementary material often reveals new mines of stories and branches of exploration, but these should be considered as avenues for new projects, rather than additions to an ever-expanding and mutating monstrosity. The boundary between project and non-project is often suggestive rather than defined in chalk and signposts, but it is important to recognise when a map has inadvertently attempted to recreate the territory.

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