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Putting Fantasy On The Map

A while ago, I came across a wonderful spoof map of the fantasy land of Clichéa. For those who haven’t seen it before, you can find it below (click the picture to see a larger version). It features all the places that no self-respecting fantasy world would be without, from the Northern Shire (the Village of the Unlikely Hero) to the Dark Forest in the shadow of Mount Death. When I saw the map, I had a good chuckle . . . before hurrying off to see how many of Clichéa’s landmarks had made their way onto my own map.

Map of Clichea by Sarithus

I love a good fantasy map. When I pick up a new book, one of the first things I’ll do is to check out the map at the front. I like to get a feeling of where things are in relation to each other. Of course, you can’t judge a book by its map any more than you can judge it by its cover, but there are certain sorts of map that set alarm bells ringing for me. The first is the Clichéa type. If a map includes some “Stones of Prophecy” as well as a “Dark Tower” to house a Dark Lord, then it probably heralds the kind of fantasy that I tend to avoid.

Vintage Map by Andrey KiselevThe second type of “problem” map is the kind that has a couple of settlements, the obligatory forest, river and mountain range . . . and nothing else. It might even consist of a solitary island, with no mainland in sight. With a map like that, you could start to wonder if the author has built not so much a world as a goldfish bowl in which the entirety of the action takes place. I like fantasy worlds that feel real, and that extend beyond the four corners of the story. I like books that span continents and civilisations. And you are arguably less likely to get that sort of story with a “parochial” map than you are with an “expansive” one.

Why do fantasy books need maps at all, though? A lot of authors think they don’t. David Gemmell didn’t put maps in his books – at least, not at first. Joe Abercrombie dispensed with them in The First Law trilogy, though Red Country has one, and The Heroes features maps of the battlefield. I’ve seen it claimed that the inclusion of a map can be symptomatic of a focus on setting and detail that gets in the way of characters and story. Plus if readers have to refer to a map to orientate themselves, that means they are being constantly thrown out of the story. The text of the novel must stand by itself.

That said, when it came to my Chronicles of the Exile series, I had no hesitation in including a map. Some readers like them, and as for those that don’t, well, they don’t have to look at them, do they? Also, given that I had already created a map while writing the books, it seemed odd to hold it back. People might start wondering if I’d done so because I had played fast and loose with the geography in the novels. In reality, the opposite was the case. When I planned my books, I carefully drew a map onto squared paper. I researched the speeds of different modes of travel over different terrains, then constructed a timeline so I knew where any given character was on any given day.

compass map by Angela LobefaroI now rely on my maps for all sorts of things. For example, in my second book, Dragon Hunters, I wanted to know if two characters would be able to see a far-off city. The first step was to measure the distance between the two points in question. Then I found a calculation on the internet for how far a person can see at sea level, and adjusted it for the fact that my characters were standing on a hill. So, could they perceive that distant city, taking into account the atmospheric conditions and the time of day? After several calculations, I worked out that the answer was . . . maybe.

That’s an hour of my life I won’t be getting back.

In 2014, I sent my map to my publisher’s illustrator so he could transform my scrawls into something that looked professional. I can imagine what he thought when he saw the hundreds of islands that make up the Rubyholt Isles. In fact, I don’t need to imagine, because if I listen hard enough I can still hear the echoes of his scream from across the Atlantic. He did a fantastic job with those islands, though, and I can remember the warm feeling I got when I saw the finished map for the first time. The level of detail was fabulous. The story world felt more real, suddenly. Indeed, there was only one small problem with the map.

It was completely, plot-bendingly wrong.

Rolled Map by recarnerOkay, I might be exaggerating a little (what, me?). The main issue concerned the “gutter” – that’s the line running down the middle of a double page where the two pages meet. On my map, a few cities and other landmarks fell into this space, so the illustrator – reasonably – had “stretched” the land to either side to spare them this fate. Unfortunately, because of the scale of the map, that meant some places were now hundreds of miles from where the text said they should be. My timelines were now inaccurate. Plotlines started unravelling all about me. Like the true professional I am, though, I didn’t panic (ahem).

Luckily, it turns out that illustrators are used to having to tinker with maps to get them right. Mine proved more challenging than most. Certain parts – like the entirety of the Rubyholt Isles – had to be shifted to one side; other parts were rotated or enlarged. You can see a couple of the working drawings below. Ultimately, the final map differed in various respects from the one I originally prepared, and the occasional city or mountain may have gone walkabout in the process.

Let’s just keep that little detail to ourselves, though, shall we?

working maps

Title image by Andrey Kiselev.



  1. Avatar Heather Hicks says:

    These are awesome. I would love to get a few of these and frame them for my reading nook. I am reading The Guide of Time by Cinzia de Santis and it covers so many places that I have been that I have been plotting it on a map, it’s been a fun add on to the read.

  2. […] week’s writing tip is more a mapping tip: Marc Turner gives his thoughts about “Putting Fantasy on the Map” over at Fantasy Fiction. He gives his thoughts on how to avoid mapping clichés, how a map […]

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