Maps In Books And Other Things We Need

Tolkien’s Middle Earth

Boy, was I wrong!

I need your opinion on something, so bear with me. I saw a post the other day that really got me thinking about supplemental materials in immersive storytelling, and now I’m happily hip-deep in Lord Of The Rings lore and can’t get enough. So I’ll want to ask you for your take, but let’s take a look at the post from The Bookish Elf:

I’ve spent a lot of time looking into what makes stories work, what great writers and myth-tellers did with their structure, their connections, how they introduce them, and immersive techniques. And I’m not sure how I missed this, or how I got the opinion that character lists at the front of a novel are for kids or Shakespeare but not for today’s ‘serious writers’. But I did.

I always had this nagging sense that as much as I hated books with too many characters that introduced them poorly, or with poor distinctiveness between them, that I still shouldn’t include character lists up front because no one does that. I’ve quoted George Lucas before with his intentional introductions of the cast in Episode 4: A New Hope because I think it’s genius:

I could not get out of my mind that poetically speaking I really wanted to have this clean line of the robots taking you to Luke, Luke taking you to Ben, Ben taking you to Han, Han taking you to Princess Leia. I wanted each character to take you to the next person.”Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays

Outlandishly successful pulp author, Lester Dent relied on what he called ‘tags’ for character distinctiveness:

It means the character is equipped with something that the reader can readily recognize each time the actor appears on the scene. A simple example of an external tag for purposes of illustration might be the one-legged old rascal in Treasure Island. The wooden leg is the thing that is remembered…” -Lester Dent in 1940 essay, Wave Those Tags

Dent described tags as peculiarities of appearance, manner, voice, clothing, hobby, and so on. I thought about this when I read (or re-read) Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, where the gentlemen all have their own distinctive quirks. I saw it in the Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazkov as each brother was brought onto the stage. My point here is this sort of wordcraft of character introductions and distinctiveness was where my head’s been at forever on this point of supplemental materials.

Then I started reading Games Workshop’s Black Library and experienced The Horus Heresy (or at least seven books in the series, it’s a lot to get through!). I used those character lists constantly, flipping back and forth to see who someone was. I’m not saying their characters aren’t distinctive or introduced properly at all, just that life’s busy and there is a lot competing for my attention. If people read books straight through without interruptions, maybe I’d feel differently about the difficulty of keeping fictional paper-people separate in my head.

But I found those character lists up front to be tremendously helpful, like a guilty pleasure that I appreciated but maybe shouldn’t.

Then I stumbled across a few Lord Of The Rings nerds on Youtube who were spelling out all the connections and backstories in Tolkien’s towering intellectual achievement. Honestly, I’d always viewed those adventures the same way I might a random Dungeons & Dragons adventure – just beasties those hapless folks come across without patterns or histories and a winding, questy adventure tale. I’m into Tolkien’s, The Silmarillion now, and can now say definitively that nothing is random, that everything is connected flawlessly, and everything…absolutely everything…has a backstory.

And a map.

I wrote Tearing Down The Statues and the Salt Mystic Sourcebook and Core Rules without a defining map. I mean, I knew generally where these places were located, and major landmarks and visuals as I told the tales. But the definitive layout, the connections, who and what exactly were located adjacently and through what sort of lands….nada. Hadn’t seen the point of defining it that clearly. I liked the openness of it.

But the deeper I went into Tolkien and his miraculous achievements, laying the template for all worldbuilding to follow, it struck me how important all those connections are. When I sat down to stitch together all the histories and geographical references in the published tales and the game cards, in the character backstories on the art, it opened entirely new tales based on the geographies. Seriously, it feels like a Renaissance with huge new possibilities, just because I’ve defined the map itself. Amazing. That’s as a writer, I can imagine the utility for the reader even more so.

And that’s the question for you for today – what say you on the inclusion of maps, character lists, maybe even pronunciation guides for character or place names in books you’re reading?

I’m generally curious, and it would help set my direction. Just reply here or on the Facebook Page. You can email me directly if you like, as some of you do (brian at grailrunner.com).

Let me know what you think. Till next time…

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