Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Maps in fantasy

Since most of my posts haven’t dealt specifically with fantasy, here’s something for that genre. Maps are part of the fun of fantasy, and I always look at the ones at the start of a book. They’re also a good starting point for stories, since after drawing them, you can come up with reasons for any unique points or quirks in the map. And here are some ideas for those.

1. Unusual physical features

In an article on maps for her world Matrin, Holly Lisle describes how she sketched a map and drew small circles within the land with a compass. Then she drew a ring of mountains around each circle and decided they would have water in their midst – and that they would have been formed by magic.

A detail like that makes any map stand out. I once drew a map of a continent that looked fairly uninteresting; it was more or less round in shape and had no strange geography. So I put a landlocked sea in the middle of it.

Suddenly the continent’s possibilities opened up. What if all life on it had come from that particular sea? And what if the Sea that Spawned was now considered dangerous, because the life it continued to produce had slowly devolved from people to monsters? There are many other physical features that can be added to maps – land bridges connecting two or more continents, for instance, or a dry sea, a series of paternoster lakes dividing a continent at a crucial point.

With a fantasy, you don’t have to be entirely true to natural processes to create these. I don’t recommend resorting too much to the old faithful “a wizard did it”, but as long as it’s not unbelievable – a river running through a vast desert, for instance – it can work.

2. Unusual shapes

Jack Chalker’s Well World, first described in Midnight at the Well of Souls, is a world divided into segments called hexes, with each inhabited by a different species. The map is therefore a collection of hexagons. Few fantasies will be able to go this far, but an interestingly shaped world often inspires ideas. I drew one large continent in the rough shape of a chalice and then named it, well, Chalice. Although this didn’t lead to anything new regarding the geography, it prompted a few nice figures of speech – for instance, conquering the northmost land is referred to as “drinking from the top of the chalice”. Perhaps the southmost land could be the dregs of the cup.

In a Civilization III game called “Dance of the Feathered Serpent”, the entire landmass was shaped like a loosely coiled serpent. It caused some problems with transportation and trade routes for the players. And problems are what the best fantasies are about.

3. Unusual circumstances

I once read about a Civilization III scenario where the four civilizations in the game each began on a different landmass, which were not connected. Also, while they were able to contact each other, they couldn’t cross the ocean. This is a little trickier to try on a fantasy map, because labelling a large body of water “the Uncrossable Ocean” can come off as corny, but it’s something to consider.

Circumstances are harder to depict on a map with a few pencil lines – for instance, if an asteroid crasted into your world a million years ago, there isn’t still going to be a neat crater in it, even though the iron deposits might heavily influence the economy. Or if it’s believed that there’s a hidden, moving abyss in the desert (like a miniature black hole) depicting it on a map is going to be much less scary than leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. But these are still fun to think about and plan.


Polenth said...

I've always liked strangely shaped worlds. It makes a change from the usual planet.

The Deathgate Cycle (Weis and Hickman) had some unusual maps. Each world was based around one element, like a world of floating islands (where the map was a cross-section rather than a top view).

Marian Perera said...

Wish I'd thought of that! Something else to consider : maps can be in more than two dimensions.

~grace~ said...

I used to put more work into my maps than into the story. and the main point of the story was to get my characters to visit as many as possible of the awesome places I'd made. very monotonous, that.

Loren said...

A map can be a good for visualizing what's going on in a story, especially if the characters travel a lot in it. This reminds me of something I lament about many of the more recent real-time-3D games: lack of automapping. I sometimes get lost without it.

And as to drawing multifloor maps, you can use tracing paper, or else some graphics software that works with layers -- you'd create a floor on each layer and control how opaque you want it to be. You can even edit lower floors with upper floors visible.

Inkscape --
Vector graphics -- you can manipulate objects in their original forms, and they will get repainted appropriately; lines, polygons, ovals, text, ... Good for diagram-ish graphics.

Raster graphics -- paints as it goes. Like MS Paint, but multilayered and otherwise fancier

Marian Perera said...

Which 3D games don't use a map? I probably wouldn't play Diablo II if there was no map feature.