View Full Version : Fiction writers are lazy, don't be lazy when creating your maps

White Raven
12-08-2012, 03:43 PM
I am loath to criticize the work of other cartographers, but some maps have touched upon a few of my major pet peeves when viewing maps for fiction. If your fictional world has major roads connecting the cities, why are they not depicted? Rivers are a common means of travel or barriers to travel, or they are boundary markers, at least major rivers should be shown on a map of this type. Scale bar assumes the people of this new world use the same forms of measurement for distance that we do, which shows a strong lack of imagination on the author's part (or maybe you haven't read what he/she has written). Same goes to the depiction of a compass; it assumes they use north the same way we do, assuming they haven't duplicated the English language, wouldn't they call the cardinal directions something else? Thanks for letting me rant.:?:

12-08-2012, 05:02 PM
I have oten thought that it would be amusing to have a world where the magnetic poles didn't even roughly coincide with the planetary axis of rotation. But for worlds where the magnetic axis and rotational axis roughly coincide, that's a natural marker, as is an axis at right angles. True, the language labels should probably be different for different cultures, but for people who are labeling their maps in English for the convenience of modern-day map readers, it's a reasonable approximation.

Distance scales are again usually done for the convenience of modern readers. If you look at medieval maps that have scale bars, they will often have several scales labeled with the appropriate units. Scales really only matter for fairly local maps, so we don't normally worry about them on whole-world maps.

But I do agree with your point about people assuming infrastructure. There are many maps here where people don't understand how the world works well enough to even get water to flow downhill! Certainly, many people don't have even the basic understanding of how economic networks operate (which is why the roads are there in the first place) in the modern world, so I wouldn't expect them to get it for a world of their own devising. As a wise man once said "I don't know who discovered water, but it almost certainly wasn't a fish."

12-08-2012, 05:14 PM
Writers and mappers are sometimes lazy. But sometimes they're following the Principle of Minimal Difference. I just made that term up, but it's real, and it's crucial. Say you have a carefully crafted conlang, in which "north" is "boojim", and "west" is "ricker". Those might be fine to put on a map, because no matter what, I'm going to think of that river as reaching north by northwest. I don't speak Gaznotherian. In fact, presenting any more than a token amount of terms in a story in Gaznotherian would slow me down and confuse me. Which would get in the way of the story.

If Gaznotherian uses a non-Latin script, to label a map in it serves to generate a little bit of flavor, and so much confusion that I won't be able to mentally say cities out loud (how my reading mind works) -- I'm reduced to recognizing multi-token blobs of Gaztext as shapes. Lousy way to treat the reader. And since the primary point of a map is to convey spatial information, the mapper who insists on Gaztexting his book's maps is half-failing from the git-go.

It's really the same as the map before you put ANY labels on: any map that isn't an infinitely zoomable google satellite view HAS to generalize some. There's probably a couple of semesters of instruction in a cartography curriculum in deciding how much to generalise, in what way. But if you present the river or road at true width , they disappear into a tiny fraction of a pixel. Your true-elevation globe turns as smooth as a cue ball. The rugged coast looks the same as the smooth one, til you exaggerate the bumpiness. Generalization is not an evil compromise to be denigrates, it's an art and a craft that makes a map a useable tool.

While blithe ignoring of the fact that alien / olden / outlander folk talk, walk, and think differently ( c'mon StarTrek - does EvErYoNe speak English?!) (don't give me "universal translator": usually there's no trouble understanding) (Hitchhikers' Guide notwithstanding (google "babel fish) ) is an irritant, without such ignoring, ALL science fiction would have whole boring chapters of "and they spent ten years figuring out how to say "I would like a low- arsenic alcoholic drink please" instead of " yo mama has lousy morals and you were raised in a barn" ". Ditto most fantasy encounters would end up "but they couldn't understand me so we threw axes at each other until we all died". So the "unrealistic" translation of prose and map into the reader's language is a necessary shorthand. If it bugs you enough, make parallel map & text in English and in Gaznotherian, but your readers will care more that you spent the time crafting good plot and deft characterization. 100,000 words of Lorem Ipsum text is NOT gonna get anything but a cursory glance.

I've done that, a little. The country I built in Scandia (see one of my CG Albums) was intensely multilingual and multiethnic, so the mock web pages I made had some bad-French, pseudo-Czech, and garbled-Hungarian. But only enough to make the point, and after all the welter of tongues and jurisdictions was a pivotal point of the society I was portraying. On a map, it's enough to base different nations' labels on different earthly languages, and be done with it.

UNLESS it pleases you to go to the same linguistic detail as to invent a world full of dialects and scripts! In which case go for it - just don't be so irritated you don't enjoy others' fiction or mapping, when they use shorthand.

And to return to the actual point of your rant ;-) there really are reasons for maps that don't bother to show features that some users would really miss. Depends strictly on the point of the map. More generalization - if I'm not using it to travel by boat, which rivers are navigable matters not.

12-08-2012, 06:16 PM
Unless the wold in question is fundamentally different (Like being flat), people on it are probably going to align themselves based on the rotation in some way. At it's most basic, all you need to do this is to look at the stars.

My understanding is that the rotaton of the planet is part of what generates the magnetic field, so significant divergence between the magnetic and rotational axes would be rare. Uranus is the only planet we know to be like this.

Not changing everything just for the sake of changing it does not imply a "strong lack of imagination on the author's part" and simply making such arbitrary changes is not particularly creative or imaginative.

12-08-2012, 08:30 PM
xkcd: Fiction Rule of Thumb (http://xkcd.com/483/) is applicable in this sense as well, I think.

12-08-2012, 08:52 PM
Waldronate, thanks; I was trying to find that exact xkcd! Then I hit some of his WhatIfs that I had not seen, and got sidetracked... ;-).

12-09-2012, 03:58 PM
I'm not bothered by things like alphabet and directions. I don't assume a map printed in a book is an in-universe construct any more than I assume the book is (and I have a great distaste for most books that profess to exist as books in their fictional worlds).