At my book club, we have a running joke. There are three key things that every fantasy novel worth its salt absolutely must have: lavish descriptions of food and drink to entice the senses; at least one gratuitous sex scene (for similar reasons); but the most important element, other than the actual writing, is the map.
At the beginning of all of my favorite fantasy novels, there is a detailed map of the world or city in which the story takes place. The Hobbit has Middle Earth, The Tombs of Atuan has Earthsea. Even the Discworld books feature maps. Terry Pratchett even released a book mapping out one of the key settings of his satirical fantasy novels: The Streets of Ankh-Morpork.
But why are maps so important? And why are they so commonplace in fantasy as opposed to other genres? In a nutshell: world building.
Certain sub-genres of fantasy are grounded in the real world. Magical realism, urban fantasy, paranormal fantasy, etc.; these all feature fantastical elements that usually take place in a familiar setting. Think Christopher Moore or Charles de Lint. Other sub-genres, such as sword & sorcery and high fantasy, take place in completely fabricated worlds. Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice & Fire, and Gormenghast are all good examples of fantasy series that feature intense world building.
When creating a universe for your story to take place in, there are many components to consider. Are the days just as long in this world? Are there monsters? If so, are they secret or commonplace? What is the culture of this universe like? Have there been wars? Famines? Plagues? What is the history? What are the people like? What does the food smell like? What kind of houses do people live in? Do they have pets? Are they monotheistic? Or there loads of religions? Are there actual gods?
There are so many elements to consider, and many of them won’t even make it into the final draft. But not everything a writer creates has to be featured in the final product. What’s truly important is how well the writer knows their own world. Once they’ve established all the minutiae and details, the writer can filter out the information the reader doesn’t need.
A writing teacher once told me that the first chapter of everything he’d ever written had just been for him. It was information only he needed. That’s what world building is like. There’s so much you can know about a place, but only so much that is relevant or interesting to your actual story.
So the map is actually the bare bones of world building. The physicality of the place you’ve imagined is the absolute minimum you can do to create a setting. When you consider all those other little details, street names and mountain ranges hardly seem difficult anymore.
This is why the map before chapter one is so important in my book club. If this fantasy world can’t even be visualized in the most minimal sense, with lines and labels, then how much time did the author actually spend creating it?