Theory of Maps
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Drawing fantasy maps can be a joyous experience, you can immerse yourself in a story or world, simply by examining or creating a good map. But why do you need a map, and why are they so important?
For my first real blog post I want to try and talk about the theory behind why I make my own maps and why I think they are so useful to people.
Almost everyone that reads fiction, or plays a roleplaying game, appreciates maps of all kinds, from world maps, region maps, city maps or even battlemaps. While they may not be critical for the writing, dialogue or plot of a story, a map expands the scope, scale and ideas of any world and displays them in a way you can instantly understand. Even the most simple design, without colour or detail can be enough to draw someone into a fantastical world and help them believe what is happening within.
Maps are not created with words, they are drawn, inked, painted or scribbled onto paper. You can create a world in a story and work out names for places and locations all within the narrative but if you want to make a map, you need to pick up a pen.
Because of this, a map is a crossing point, a transitive piece that sits between artwork and writing. Thankfully, this does mean you don't have to be a great artist or brilliant writer to create a good map, as it has a unique and often overlooked function. Maps can be one of the most helpful and important elements you can introduce to a world, giving the reader a glimpse into the geography, the scale and locations in relation to one another. In fact this gives maps the ability to cement certain aspects of a world into a reader's mind, allowing someone to fit the pieces together like a puzzle. You know for example that the village of Oldstone is close to the city of Crownhill, at even a cursory glance, but fitting that detail into dialogue and explaining all the other locations and places in relation to one another within a world just isn't possible unless you have that representation in the form of a map right there in front of you.
When reading a fantasy book, the world map is introduced to the reader within the first few pages, often before even the introduction. This is precisely because it gives the reader that vision, allowing them to connect things in their own heads. In the Lord of the Rings, one of the most famous books I can think of that does this, you know where Mordor is, you know how far away it is from the Shire and how close the realm of Gondor is to the darkness and evil of Sauron. You might not understand that instantly from the map itself or know what those names represent but as you read the story and immersive yourself in the world you flip back look at the map and study it in more detail, cementing those places and bringing it all together. Without a map you might become lost.
In this way, the map is a storyteller in its own right, offering a guiding hand to a reader and helping them remain grounded.
Another function of maps in any fantasy setting is the core function of maps in general, they are critical in the real world for travel and exploring the world around us. Traders and travelers require maps to traverse the world, how far things are from one another and the resulting decisions that must be made in order to make the trip are formed from studying maps. Which is also very useful information for players in a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons. If you want to travel from Oldstone to Crownhill, knowing that the trip will take four days through a forest will impact the supplies you take with you and precautions you might take to try and prevent your party from being ambushed by a creature or bandits.
In addition a map allows someone to look at an area as a whole and gives them the opportunity to explore. You might create blank areas of the map, or points of interest that are begging for attention. Readers or players want to know about those places with strange names or odd shapes and geography. It also means that even if a story is taking place in small area, maps that go beyond and expand outwards convinces someone that a bigger world lies just over the horizon.
Finally an area that I find very interesting, is the ability for maps to impart mood, flavour and express a feeling in a reader. Much like artwork, the style, colour and everything in between gives people an idea into the kind of story or world you are trying to create. Setting a mood for a roleplaying game or even a book is often so important that you could spend forever trying to get the details right. Impressive miniatures, terrain, ambient music for a game of Dungeons & Dragons are all part of this idea. I also believe that this kind of thinking gives maps an extra edge and helps with both the storytelling aspect and function. You can, without a doubt, help to create a certain feel and mood for map that elevates those other ideas.
So there you have it, my thoughts on maps and why they are important parts of fantasy worlds. They convey information, develop and encourage the storytelling and hopefully help set the mood and theme. My ideas on this are going to change over the years,I might have more things to add or things to take away.
For now, go out and draw some maps. They can be drawn onto a sticky note or rendered with software across a massive canvas. Either way they will all add something to your world!
Thanks all for reading!