Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

A Map of the World – The Magic of Maps in Fantasy

When I read fantasy books, there’s nothing I love more than the maps.

Well, maybe the story. But the maps are definitely right up there. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s because my first exposure to fantasy was at the age of 10 when I jumped with full abandon into The Lord of the Rings series, followed by The Hobbit. (I still remember my parents being astounded seeing me walking around with the massive 1100-page ‘complete trilogy’ at the cottage. How does a boy go from reading nothing but Calvin & Hobbes to something of that size?)

Maps complete the world for me. Even though our imaginations are incredibly powerful, there’s something wonderful about having a piece of the author’s vision at our disposal. It’s like a sacred secret. They’re sharing with us how they see the world, and it transcends – and completes – the story.

I’m guilty of flipping back to the map every time the characters travel to a new locale, or talks about a distant territory. I love seeing the topography, the rivers they might have had to cross, whether it’s plains or forests or mountainous terrain. It’s a little bit of magic, and a fantasy wouldn’t be complete without it. Some favorite maps include Tolkien and Robert Jordan.

J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

A map of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

When I was 15 and started world building for my fantasy realm, I started with the maps. Well, to be honest, I started with the titles. Titles have always come first to me, whether I’m writing blog posts, books, short stories, or plays. But the map was a close second.

That summer, I sat at the picnic table that served as our dining room in our tiny little cottage and started to doodle. I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted the world to be at this point, but I knew I needed a map. I knew the map needed nations, and those nations needed cities. And there had to be conflict. And isolated areas complete with secrets of their own. And cool names. You can’t forget that.

I suppose it should come as no surprize that I value maps so much. I’m a professional actor and writer, and one of the fundamentals of storytelling in both art forms is setting. In my opinion, there is no clearer setting than the world as described by a map. I am amazed, however, at how many stories were born out of this seemingly haphazard – or perhaps careless – doodle of a 15-year old mind.

But perhaps that’s exactly how it should be.

There’s a wonderful saying – and, to be honest, I don’t remember who said it, or which nationality it is attributed to (I believe it is the Native Americans, but I may be wrong) – about the nature of story and storytellers. It goes a little something like this:

“The stories exist; this much is true. They exist always, constantly searching for the right storyteller to introduce them to the world. When – and only when – the right storyteller is found will we finally be given the gift of the tale.”

And perhaps the innocent vessel of my 15-year-old self was tapping into a story that chose me as it’s teller, thus giving birth to the map that would shape and define the stories I would inevitably write. I’ve already written one book (the first of a trilogy), and I guarantee you there are at least 30 other tales for me to share.

And in case you’re wondering, an exceptionally talented friend is currently creating a digital version of my hand-drawn map. I hope to share it with you one day soon.

How important are maps to you? Have there been books where the map has added nothing to the stories, and others where the map nearly completes the story for you? Who has succeeded, and who has perhaps failed to deliver? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

7 responses to “A Map of the World – The Magic of Maps in Fantasy

  1. J. Matthew Kays January 28, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    I’m a huge LOTR/Hobbit fan. I do the same thing when I read where the characters are. I refer to the map, even though I’ve read the series a dozen times or more. I love being in that world.

  2. Paul Welch January 28, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    I know what you mean. I recently read a book where the author included a map, but then had the main character travel to a place… that wasn’t on the map!! I didn’t understand it. I had a general idea of where that locale might be, but it left me feeling very unsatisfied because I wanted to know without a doubt. Amazing how much angst and anxiety it caused me, hah!

  3. Siân January 29, 2012 at 3:49 am

    Maps are incredibly important to me, especially in fantasy novels. LOTR was not the first ‘fantasy map’ I saw, in fact, but it is certainly up there with the best of them, however, Tolkien included only those areas that appeared in his work, and he was writing Earth in time before recorded history, which means there is a whole world to explore. Sites like Lindëfirion have created maps for the whole of Arda, and maps of certain cities/areas, which are wonderful.

    (If you are interested, have a peek at their map of North-western Middle-earth which includes parts of Rhun and the Harad. Double click because it is enormous.)

    When I began writing fantasy, I always drew a map first. It was rough, just in pencil but luckily, surrounded by teachers, I knew enough about geography, geology, climate, the effects of mountain ranges or oceans on climate etc, to really think about the world I was writing. (If I didn’t know, I referred to books, atlas’ or asked) Where did people live, had they settled somewhere because it was on a river, had a good natural harbour, a climate suitable for growing certain crops. Was their wool excellent, such as came from parts of England in the Middle-ages. if it was desert, their cities must be situated near natural oases; were they nomadic and why? Who traded with whom, and what did they trade? Silver and amber and furs perhaps from the north, and wine, spices etc up from more southerly lands. If there were wars what would be the economic effect? I thought of all that when drawing the maps, (still have some old ones around stuck in tatty buff folders) and they gave me a ‘gods’ view of the world, making it real, somewhere I could write in because I had made it.

    I am always very disappointed when I find a fantasy book with no map. It’s not really that hard. It also makes the world more real if the writer knows a bit about the climate zones, seasons for the particular world, plants and animals that inhabit them, what people would live on/grow/hunt in times before asparagus was flown in from Chile, etc.
    Making maps was almost one of the most interesting things about beginning a book. I still make them sometimes just because.

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