Maps are not important

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Macabre Harbour, Oct 29, 2014.

  1. Macabre Harbour

    Macabre Harbour I only sing when I'm winning...

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    Stumping along on pins unused to such vigour is not something I'm particularly fond of. Give me a horseless carriage any day. Hell, give me a horse. I may not be able to control it and end up crashing into a thicket, but at least I won't be doing it under my own power. This, I think, says as much about me as the subject of this thread.

    I am not, it's fair to say, a huge fan of travelling under my own steam. I'll do it when the situation demands, but an unkind life and too many biscuits have turned my knees to a substance not unakin to jelly - they look firm at first perusal but quickly prove to be a quivering mass of blancmange more suited to an appearance as a Doctor Who monster from the 70s. I've attempted to hire a sedan chair to transport me near and far but only ended up being accused of exploiting the proletariat - as if there's anything to be ashamed of in that.

    Perambulatory peculiarities aside, I'm still delighted that I live in the here and now and not some generic fantasy world spawned by a teenager addicted to RPGs. That would be absolute hell. The problem is, you see, that traipsing about on foot (or even horse) like a headless chicken seems to have become par for the course.

    Consider Gormenghast if you will. All of the action, the meat on the bones of the story, occurs in a castle, yet at no point do readers think to themselves 'why are you showing me this area? What am I learning?'

    What am I learning indeed? This is one of my personal bugbears, a bear so buggy not even Microsoft would attempt to comb its fur. A lot of fantasy novels I read don't seem to have been spawned purely from a strong idea: rather, the authors have immediately turned their heads to creating maps, no doubt spending many hours painstakingly drawing every tor and contour and three-shack village which few in the story will ever visit more than once (if at all). What these writers seldom seem to do is ask themselves one simple question: is any of it really necessary?

    In the majority of cases, I believe, the answer is a big firm NO. Running from A to B may be great for boosting word count but it seldom serves any other purpose. I'd go as far as to say that most trilogies published today could easily lose the second book in its entirety and a half of the third book and the story wouldn't actually suffer at all.

    Characters matter in a work of fiction - they're the hook on which we hang our interest. Setting is important but secondary (unless one intends to do a Gormenghast and make the setting a character in itself). There's absolutely no need to have heroes/villains tramping interminably through landscapes only the author cares about unless it's vital to the plot.

    This, to conclude, is not a diatribe against those who draw maps as way of keeping track of where the protagonists are at a given point. In this respect maps are good. Maps are useful. Rather, it's a rant against those who think: 'I really want to write a fantasy novel. I know, I'll start drawing a map and then fit a plot around all the locations I've painstakingly produced in minute detail.' The map should exist solely to assist the author in his/her pursuit of a coherent narrative; it's an aide-memoire, nothing more. Sadly, in many cases, it seems to have become an end in and of itself, bleeding into the plot and doing a major disservice to the reader.

    I'd like to think I'm not alone in this view, but judging from what I read online and on paper I sometimes suspect I am. So what do you think, fellow fantasy fans? Should a writer's main focus be on actually, y'know, writing or am I just an old stick-in-the-mud?
     
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2014
  2. Overread

    Overread Wolfing it up! Staff Member

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    An interesting proposition and idea, certainly I think I can see a few stories where the travel from A to B sometimes feels forced or put there for convenience.

    I think though, for a writer, they create a world. Not just a place, nor a setting but a world. And there is a desire to introduce the reader to that world through the eyes and actions of their core protagonist. This is, I think, one major reason why many do travel within their stories.

    Also travel suggests new places, new adventures. It's a concept of going to a place and the journey and what changes to a character over that journey that inspires many. Even in ancient mythologies we can see a similar theme of travel to adventure rather than stay at home adventure.

    I'd also say that for many DnD is often an introduction to writing - a good many books do often feel more like a DnD adventure than a story; which can be because many start off life as the sketchy idea for a DnD campaign which si then fleshed out into a story (Malazan Book of the Fallen I think pretty much started out along those lines).



    So there are multiple reasons; however, whilst its important to single out specific elements and focus upon them and understand some of the core elements that contribute toward them the overall message is the same. That a writer should only use what they need to use for the narrative; rather than shoe-horning in a specific approach or theme "just because". What you can complain about travel could equally be true of sedentary fantasy - or of many other kinds.


    There's also an element of style - some people love adventure where you're leaving home and spreading your wings out into the world. Whilst others prefer another kind of story. Neither is correct nor perfect; they are simply different forms (popularity of one over the other often showing bias in teh publisher world rather than purely in the writing world).
     
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  3. Macabre Harbour

    Macabre Harbour I only sing when I'm winning...

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    I don't think they do create the world, though. Writing creates the world and all its strangeness and subtleties - the map should surely be nothing more than a visual aid. Would LotR be a lesser work of fiction if the map wasn't included at the front? I think not, because Arda was already a living, breathing planet in Tolkien's mind and had been for many years before he started writing it. The map plays a part but only, I would suggest, a minor one in the creative process.

    Travel is not something I have a problem with in and of itself; I do, however, despise an author who shoves the characters all over the place in order to impress the reader with the great big world that's been created for no better reason than to show off the great big world that's been created. Great drama, after all, can exist in a one-room setting.
    RPGs are a great introduction to the fantasy genre for kids - they're also quite poisonous in how they mildly brainwash some people into thinking fantasy has to include orcs and elves and magic staffs and every other cliche under the sun. For gamers they're great boosts for the imagination, for writers they've done more harm than good, confining fantasy fiction to a ghetto.

    Some people would be better served trying to be cartographers, not writers. I once spoke to someone online who told me all about the fantasy novel he was writing. He said he'd been writing it for two years or so and when I asked him what his wordcount was he said in surprise 'Oh, I haven't written anything yet, I've been creating the world.' This is what grinds my gears. The world should be created as a result of the written word, by the process of writing - if it's well-realised a map shouldn't even be required because everything that's needed should be on the page to paint a picture in the reader's mind. Actual paintings of a world show a failure at a fundamental level of what the author should be doing. What this poor soul was doing was creating a sourcebook - the poisoned dagger of RPGs strikes again.
     
  4. Overread

    Overread Wolfing it up! Staff Member

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    I'd argue that if you world build before you write the main story you run the great risk that your story won't flow well and could have some potential pit falls. This is especially evident if you then try to write a sequel or continuation of the story - because suddenly you have to make some changes to what you established in the first book because it just doesn't make any sense in the great scheme of things.

    So world building before writing is important. Lord of the Rings only works because its a small work in a greater whole. Indeed good world building really is just establishing an overall general narrative for the world. The story itself is then a focused and more detailed narrative of a specific event/period/time/person etc...



    As for the idea that DnD has limited fantasy I'd say yes and no. DnD is basically lord of the rings - same as warhammer and a huge amount of any Norse inspired fantasy. Indeed that most fantasy is published in and by western countries also influences things. Indeed If you want to blame a party for the limitations in imagination then its publishers you should look too. They are the gate-keepers who control what does and doesn't get published. Thus any writer serious about getting published is going to look at what publishers want - if they want orcs and elves then by heck you'll have to go with them.

    I'll also say that using common elements can help. We forget that Lord of the Rings can be quite dry because of the huge world-building detail that is gone into. However the bonus is that now if you say elf most people have a fairly similar core idea of what an elf is. The writer hasn't even got to say they've got pointy ears - sure it gets mentioned; but they don't have to info dump half as much. It cuts down on non-story elements.
     
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  5. Macabre Harbour

    Macabre Harbour I only sing when I'm winning...

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    I don't disagree. I just think good world-building doesn't involve obsessive drawing of every mountain in the world or every tree or any of the other things some writers do to keep from actually writing an interesting story.

    If the public weren't fully immersed in the swamp of cliched fantasy then they wouldn't buy what the publishers offer - I blame both the publishers and the public for the degradation we've witnessed in the genre, but I blame the public more.

    Except when those elements are used by writers to allow them to escape actually being creative.
     
  6. Overread

    Overread Wolfing it up! Staff Member

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    Well now not every story has to be wholly creative. So long as its a good story it will work.

    On the blame side the public are certainly a powerful influence, but when a company controls a market the company can dictate what the market likes. Just look at some of the top computer games on the market for a good demonstration. Some of them are not worlds away from others; yet they have a much bigger following. The cause is often a result of heavy marketing. Take Call of Duty and Unreal Tournament - very similar concepts yet one is massively more popular and CoD has millions spent on its marketing campaigns.
    Books are no different and you can see it have effect when one gets tied to a film or other major event and that book suddenly skyrockets into popularity.

    If as a publisher you can have some limited control over that you can then also ensure that your next line-up of books are going to ape the one you just invested huge amounts into marketing. Now you're building off that strength whilst having some limited market control.
     
  7. Midnattblod

    Midnattblod Ranger of Shadow

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    I would just like to add that world-building, for some at least (me included), doesn't just mean drawing the maps. It can also mean creating the lore and whatnot for it. Take the Silmarillion, since we're talking LotR. That was Tolkien's life work, and it's pretty much just one huge into his world-building process. As was all the other stuff that's kinda trickled out since. I'm one of those people who have been working on my world for 3 or 4 years now, but not all of it was maps. I've come up with races and am working on a language for one of them. I've been working on the lore of the world, creating plants of both medicinal and poisonous varieties. And yes I have about ten maps, all of which I am thinking I will redraw. Story wise, I actually recently chucked what I had for chapter one, mostly cause it started feeling rushed to me.
     
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