Worldbuilding: Visual Aids

If your characters are having an intense and possibly complicated discussion, don’t be afraid to have them break out visual aids. I know, that’s something more effective in a visual medium like TV and movies. But having them implies your characters have something they can all point to as they argue, and you can still describe the important parts of a diagram, diorama, blueprint, conspiracy board… or map.

Maps are incredibly handy. Especially when you’ve, say, dumped your characters into an unfamiliar country/world and the locals are trying to figure out where these new guys are from. In case, y’know, there are Unexpected Problems about to crop up. Because politics will kill you faster than monsters….

Maps are interesting because they depend a lot on cultural worldview. How you depict the world and places in it depends a lot on how you think the world should look. Say, putting Jerusalem as the Axis Mundi, or the Middle Kingdom, or the United States. All of these are different worldviews, and the maps can look very off from what we might expect in modern life.

Well. Except that last, likely, because it’s the product of the same Western cartography that mostly won out as “how we portray where things are with maximum accuracy”. Not that any flat map is ever totally accurate, because we live on an oblate spheroid and it is definitely not flat. But we try to minimize how much things are distorted. Which is why a good atlas has several world maps, each with different continents or spots on the globe as “center”, so you can see minimal distortion in any one place of interest.

Okay, you might say, how is this useful in a historical fantasy? After all, you have to go back to the late 1500s in most of the world for good maps, and centuries later in Asia….

Actually, not as late as you might think. Ladies and gentlemen, today I’d like to introduce you to the “Black Tulip of Cartography”, AKA the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (“A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World”).

This one was printed in 1602, put together by Matteo Ricci and a bunch of his Chinese associates. Ricci believed that one of the first steps to getting Christianity accepted in China was demonstrating that it could accurately depict the world. Hence, maps.

It’s got all the continents, including a fair depiction of the coast of Antarctica. (Even if a few bits of Tierra del Fuego got thrown in.) It’s got little tidbits of info on various places. (The map mentions feral horses in the Americas, and identifies Florida as Huādì (花地), the “Land of Flowers.”) And it more-or-less shows where China, Japan, and Korea are in relation to lands more familiar to Westerners. For the time and info available, it is a really good map.

It’s also one I can legitimately lift for Colors of Another Sky, because historically, at least one copy did get to Korea. Mwah-ha-hah….


50 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Visual Aids

  1. I love maps. Decades ago, before isekai was a “thing”, there was an ‘isekai’ novel series (Night Threads, by Ru Emerson IIRC) where a Modern American Teenager ends up dragged into a Low Fantasy world along with his slightly-hippy mother and his aunt. And one of his first lines (after “WTF?!?!”) is “Maps. I need *maps*.” I had to stop and just *sigh* in happiness.

    …okay, look, everyone has their buttons, okay? I imagine Jason will have a similar reaction to a map that will actually let him show their hosts “Yeah, we come from *here*, and *chocolate* comes from *here* (trust me, you’ll love it!), and alternate ginseng sources are *here, here, and here*.”

    Of course, given the world the story is happening in, I imagine the “here there be dragons” markings on the map may be more literal than allegorical….

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I’ve tried making a reproduction of an Aztec coco recipe, what Tasting History was able to figure out. It was, very different. Getting what a modern palate would describe as ‘good chocolate’ would be more difficult than you might think. On the other hand, if they know some of the tricks people pulled over the years to get to modern chocolate, they might be able to create a few short cuts.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. Pretty sure I read that one!

      And yes, Jason would be over the moon about “we’re from here on the map”… except for one thing.

      The map, y’see, does have various labels on it. And three words blast Jason’s working theory of “we’re just in the past” to itty-bitty pieces.

      “The Oda Shogunate.”

      Liked by 4 people

  2. I desperately miss the old fantasy books, where you could rely on having rough maps in the front of the book for things like the layout of a town/camp, countries even. And sometimes the path taken. It made visualizing much easier!

    And David Eddings attributes drawing a map is how the Belgariad got started.

    My basic and rough understanding for a dnd campaign prep, maps are Friends. And dnd campaigns are the ultimate Choose Your Adventure.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “We are *lost*.”

    “No we’re not! I know where we’re going.”

    “Steve,” gestures grandly at the sky. “The moon. Does not. Rise in the north.”

    I might be paraphrasing a little, but I remember this scene from a book because of this.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. But having them implies your characters have something they can all point to as they argue, and you can still describe the important parts of a diagram, diorama, blueprint, conspiracy board… or map.

    :glee: You can also be clever, and have the characters focusing on *completely* the wrong part, or conveying the general intention.

    In visual, you need someone to, say, look over their shoulder and say “you’re holding the diagram upside down.”

    Liked by 4 people

  5. It’s always a little off-putting when the isekai protagonist starts making major decisions about where they want to go, then you realize that they never had an opportunity to look at a map.

    I mean, in theory talking to people might be enough, if you know what questions to ask, but what if the place they’re planning to go is across a desert?
    Or the equivalent of Antarctica?

    A surprising number just start walking without any kind of preparation for the journey.
    Like they expect to hitchhike and eat at resteraunts.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There was a book called The Long Walk, about a batch of gulag prisoners who escaped from Siberia and walked to India, that was essentially about just that.

      During the section when they were coming up on the Gobi, they couldn’t understand why everyone they met was so generous with them.

      Then they found out.

      Fair warning, it was published as fact, but there is considerable controversy over what or if it really happened. It seems like the author may have stolen the story from someone else, but that it may have actually happened.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Oh. Oh wow! I just realized I’m always doing that! I have maps, holographic or otherwise, in a lot of my stuff, not just my fanfic either, I have galaxy maps too, for Conflict of the Aether. And I have Planet maps and world maps for other stuff too!

    I’m always using my hands when I talk, it really haps having visual aids!

    …I *just* had Raditz do that in what I’m tentatively calling Dragon Crystal too…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m going to have to come up with a map for an idea tentatively called “Cinderfella and Lady Crow-Goblin”.

      Cinderfella being a guy who fought in an attempted Fae takeover of Earth, got burned, and is now trying to figure out what to do with himself… who is going to encounter a lady who knows she’s under a curse and has an Interesting Plan to get out of it. Involving a fake engagement….

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I know how that is! It took a while to figure out that the plot of Draco was to stop an evil dragon from destroying the islands where the characters live. Along with a bit of a fake-out where a hero was framed by the evil dragons and the traitor merchant minion…

        Liked by 3 people

  7. I’m re-reading your SG-1/Kabaneri crossover, I’m at the part where our hapless SG-1 contact team is looking at a map to explain no, they’re not from anywhere depicted on this map, sorry… and then read this post. Have to grin at the coincidence.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. My sympathies – I have stories (fanfic and otherwise) where it’s the same situation – I just need life to give me a little room to breathe and get my energy back! I hope you manage that breathing room, not just because I really enjoy that story and hope you can finish it too. 😛

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I need to find a better job – either better pay or at least more regular hours. The one I’ve got isn’t enough!

        Trying to write whenever I’m not working, but gah, stress of making ends meet makes that hard too….


  8. Though, if you are gonna have them reference an obscure visual diagram that isn’t a map, you might want to make sure that said diagram is either easily available, or is in the book, or is available from a website you have.

    Having a plot critical section where they are drawing Mohr’s Circle diagrams, and talking about them, might possibly be an obnoxious story telling choice.

    Liked by 5 people

  9. “What is this mark here?”
    “That is the blood of Saint Chaski, the patron saint of mapmakers, from the Paper Cut Tragedy of 7th year of the 53rd Emperor.”
    “Ohhhhh. And this one?”
    “…coffee stain.”
    “Look, *stuff happens*, okay?!”

    (Saint Chaski really *is* the patron saint of mapmakers. I swear, the Catholics have a Saint for *everything*)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sometimes you have to improvise. In *Winter’s Curse*, I made the Magi the patron saints of wizards. There are of course patron saints for protection from magic….and then in the WIP, I made Anthony specifically the patron for protection from necromancy


    2. I swear, the Catholics have a Saint for *everything*

      And sometimes the logic is darkly funny, as well as utterly BA– the patron saint of cooks and comedians was martyred by being roasted alive.
      When he was asked if he renounced Christ now, he said told them to turn him over, eh was done on that side.

      Liked by 2 people

    3. St. Chaski is a podcast-only saint. Admittedly, Ursula Vernon is a very convincing writer.

      There’s a YA fantasy novel that has a St. Anaximander doing the job, and I wonder if one author had read the other.

      There was a Library of Congress official named Clara LeGear who was nicknamed the “patron saint of maps.” is a good source for Western Catholic saints. Most of the eastern churches have saint sites with more info about Eastern saints (Greece, Russia, etc.), especially if they are post-schism. Hagiography Circle is good for new saints or people with causes pending, especially if you need all the gory details.

      I don’t think there is a formal patron saint of mapmakers, mostly because there weren’t any really big or numerous mapmaking guilds. There was a Dieppe group of mappers, and obviously Henry the Navigator’s guys (who were keeping their Portuguese maps as state secrets). But probably they all stuck with their local patron saints.

      A lot of early maps have St. Nicholas on them, as patron of sailors and merchants, or St. Christopher as patron of travelers, or St. Gertrude of Nivelles, another patron saint of travelers.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. St. Isidore of Seville talked about geography, and so did St. Cassiodorus.

        I love Lactantius, but arguably he was the only Greek or Latin author who thought the world was shaped like a square. Arguably.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Because everybody else in the classical and early medieval world knew that the world was a globe.

        That’s why people argued about whether anybody could live on the other side of the world, at the antipodes. The false belief of the ancient world was that there was an impassible band of heat that stretched around the world, just past the equator, and that therefore people and animals in the antipodes would be totally different from people and animals above the equator.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. And of course you can pray to any saint for any reason. (Which is why the correct answer for whether St. Corona is a patron saint for flu-like diseases is “She is now.”)

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh… I found out from that Weavers, Scribes and Kings book by Amanda Podany that THE SHORE OF THE PERSIAN GULF USED TO BE MUCH FARTHER NORTH.

    This would seem to be a fairly important fact, given that half of civilization’s most important events would be affected by this.

    What I’m wondering is whether the various proposed Exodus routes and Mt. Sinai locations would have been affected by that, or whether the shoreline had already moved farther south by then.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The *Oda Shogunate*…..!!! Took me a bit to fully grasp that. Hope Anjin still made it over, also hope Nioh is one of your influences.(Anjin’s an ex-pirate Ninja trained Demon Hunting Samurai with Onmyo)

    Roughly: Demons usually are the product of misuse of Amrita(Gets completely changed in the sequel/Prequel, but Not Getting Into That). Amrita comes about by bloodshed, so Bad guy wants to steal all the Amrita, cause war to make more, and ship it all back to England to Rule The World!!
    William wants to stop the villains and get back a spirit friend/mother/lover/???(Never really explained). Very good.
    Where else can you fight Oda Nobunaga and Sanada Yukimura in the same game(Shenanigans!) One thing I really like is that the company did a lot of research on the people, so nobody except 2 people are truly villains. There’s a third in the DLCs, but 🤷🏻. Their weapon research could have been better, but…

    Liked by 2 people

  12. The best sources are Fextralife’s page, gamefaqs and YouTube. Be warned, the buildcrafting can be intense. Nioh 1 is more of a Hero’s journey, while Nioh 2 is a tragedy that explains the first game mostly.

    Liked by 1 person

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