When I was in grade school, I was obsessed with the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage. It was creative, well-written, and magical — which was really all I needed. I distinctly remember opening up the first book Magyk and being greeted with a map of the castle! It even had little graphics in between some of the chapters of characters or places and I was living for it. The same thing happened when I first started watching Game of Thrones. Having this awesome HBO introduction with this 3D map created immersion like no other show.
Some authors may argue maps take away from the imagination of the reader's world, but I think it does just the opposite. Maps create cohesion between places and in turn makes the reader’s imagination more prominent. It’s just harder to imagine settings when worrying about what direction “east of here” is when I don’t know where “here” is either! Maybe most readers don’t think that way, but I’d say it’s better to add a map for us lowly map enjoyers and let those that don’t care about them simply skip past them.
What is a map?
I know you know what a map is. But let’s quickly recap what I mean when I say maps. I’m talking about an image in the beginning (or really anywhere, I don't write map rules) of a story that shows us the different locations of our fictional world. Fictional is the key part here. I don’t really think it’d be a good idea to put a map of real world places. Maps typically include larger and diverse areas that each present something unique in the narrative. Some include footprints that detail the characters journey or borders between states but that’s up to you.
So, should you use a map?
Spoiler alert: It’s entirely up to you to add one or not! But maybe you're unsure if it’d fit, keep reading if that sounds like you.
Plot-driven vs. character-driven writing
A good first place to start is deciding whether your story is plot-driven or character-driven. In case you haven’t heard those terms before: plot-driven narratives are based on events and connecting plot points. Character-driven stories focus on your character(s) to develop the plot around them.
I'd say it’s more meaningful to add a map to a plot-driven narrative rather than a character-driven one. It feels more likely for your plot to take you on a wild adventure than a character achieving their personal goals. That’s not to say a character-driven narrative automatically eliminates the idea of adding a fantasy map. It’s possible that your protagonist's journey of self-discovery does lead them to crazy places that may indicate a need for a map.
Okay, maybe you do have a character-driven narrative that leads to several unique places, I’d say a map would totally be a good addition! On the opposite side, say you have a plot-driven narrative that only takes place in one kingdom. I’d argue you could still create a map depending on where your character goes within that kingdom, labeling specific streets or stores or areas.
Or, say the setting technically takes place in one area, but because of some magical phenomenon it's constantly changing. I personally love when this happens in TV or movies, but since novels are words it may be harder to describe that feeling of constant shifting, especially if it’s small. That’s where I’d say fit a map only if it makes sense. In some cases, an eternally changing place with seemingly a million turns would not be a good idea to make into a fixed map, unless…?
I recently watched this animated series Infinity Train, which was very similar to what I just described to you. I’m not going to spoil much but they introduce it as this, well, infinite train but turn it finite. I'm still not entirely sure if I like how they did that, but I think it pretty much reflects the purpose of the train so who am I to say anything? I mention it because a “seemingly” infinite setting that actually can be turned into a map is a cool idea no matter how the narrative is driven. So, in this specific case, I’d whole-heartedly recommend adding a map mid-way of the novel if that fits with the narrative. And sometimes, we need to make our own maps if we just have no idea where we are. If that sounds like a plot point in your story, then add a map in the middle!
My final recommendation if you’re not sure to add a map is to consider the genre of your story. Some genres just require more important scene changes than others. If you’re writing in pure fantasy, just go for it! If you’re writing in a fantasy/romance combo, it’s probably not as important. If you’re writing sci-fi, a map just might not make a lot of sense to create because it might just be too vast to contain in one map or not enough distinctions.
If it seems I keep repeating “important” or “meaningful” it's because I think if you add anything to your story it would be meaningful, even if it’s just a map. Chekov's gun principle explains it better than I could, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.” I believe this applies to anything you add in your story, including extras like maps. If you label a swamp location in your map but never mention it, you either need to rework your map or exclude it. Outside of that idea, I still believe maps are wonderful additions that don’t get enough love.
is a high school sophomore with aspirations for digital storytelling. She always seemed to understand things better if she could read it, versus videos or lectures, so English and History quickly became her favorite subjects. She volunteers for both Juven and The Meraki Organization to tell stories.