Well, broken down, it really just means fictional world-builder. When I write, as all fantasy writers do, I create a world that is consistent within itself. These “Other Worlds” may have their own languages, beliefs, sciences, social structures, laws, and arts. When the author does this well, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, or Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, the world must rhyme with itself, if you will. It cannot have jarring inconsistencies, or tears in the social or scientific fabric that betray the authenticity of that world. The boundary between that world and our own is clear. Middle Earth has some connection to our world today, but you won’t find it accidentally by taking a wrong turn on Crescent Ave.
There are some threshold worlds that are connected with our own, but separate in key ways. We see this in urban faerie tales, like Holly Black’s work–most accessible are The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe–but also in J.K. Rowling’s Hogwartsian world, layering England with unseen magic, or Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, which plays with concepts of space and time focused around a small New England town. But many of our greatest fictional universes are places set apart from Here-Now, and so will typically have a unique geography.
And with a unique geography comes unique maps, and I love maps!
I do like real maps: pulling down the over-sized Atlas of the World from its shelf and looking up Burundi on a carpeted floor; carefully refolding a road map of Maine; pouring over the complex web of lines that make up a Tokyo highway map. I like maps.
But I adore fantasy maps. Half of my time reading Tolkien is spent running my finger along the road from the Shire to Mordor on an onion paper map of Middle Earth I bought at a poster fair on campus. We laminated our coloured map for Narnia for my son’s room as we went through the seven chronicles, and my copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist was purchased precisely because the version next to it lacked a map. Maps make fantasy reading so much more enjoyable. After all, what would Discworld be without flyleaf cartography? How would we know where the Woozle wasn’t if we didn’t have a map of Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood?
So it was with delight that I stumbled upon Mara Valderran’s blog on There and Draft Again, entitled “Creating Your Fantasy Bible: A Lesson in Geography.” Mara is discussing how one creates a fictional world:
“Geography plays a more important role than most people realize. Even if you don’t have your characters traveling across the lands on an epic journey with a rag-tag group of hobbits, dwarves, and elves, it is important that you know where your characters are coming from and who their allies might be.”
I agree completely. This is why I began a recent fantasy book with a map–a badly drawn one, but a map nonetheless. The valley in The Curse of Téarian is essential to the story as each of its natural borders–woods, sea, mountain, and plain–individually create a different tension in the storyline. The story is authentic to the geography, or at least I hope it is. I this sense Mara is quite right.
Also included in Mara’s blog is Dan Meth‘s Fantasy World Map. It is, of course, just a fun project–a poster that geeks like me can order from his site. But the map itself shows the tactile nature of world-building. The lands of imagination can be charted, measured, taken from the multidimensional realities of an author’s complex brain and stretched into two-dimensional view. The Land where Oz is north of Middle Earth is the world-builder’s sketchpad, the vocation of a speculative cosmographer.
As someone who studies how people build fantasy worlds, I am in that sense a “Speculative Cosmologist.” That, of course, just a fancy way of saying I love how these worlds come together in language, social structure, physics, and geography. But, besides the great fun of mapping out these worlds, the title sure looks good on a business card.