When we speak of forging, it is usually one of two types: the first is when we create something new out of disparate materials— the type of forging usually associated with blacksmiths—but the second type is one we often associate with thieves, charlatans, and mountebanks; the kind where we create something that is fake with the intention of duping or deceiving others into believing that what we have created is the genuine article.
Forging literary artifacts for stories is both of these things. On the one hand, authors are creating something new and original, something that exists outside their primary narrative, the sole intent of which is to enhance and magnify the worldbuilding of that story. On the other hand, the artifacts we create are obvious fakes. The maps we draw are not maps of real worlds but only simulations of worlds we have imagined. The imitative fragments of burned letters, moth-eaten scriptures, and half-forgotten oral histories are likewise no more real than the fantastic science or magic that fuels our fictive worlds. They are addenda to our main story and (some would say) serve only as an attractive dressing for those with a palate for such frivolities.
And yet, like all good fictions, literary artifacts and extra-textual ephemera still serve some vital function in our stories, functions that are often overlooked by casual readers and less savvy authors: they are at once promises of what is to come and artifacts of what has passed.
Allow me to illustrate with an example. A fellow author and writing friend who is well-established in the SFF community posted a question in a popular social media forum asking whether he should include maps in his books. The author had never included maps before and he didn’t see the point of adding them now: “I don’t like being tied down to the geography of my world,” he complained. “I’m worried an actual map might handcuff my creativity. Besides, readers have done well without them so far. They can continue to imagine my worlds without that crutch.”
Those forum members who were in support of adding maps covered the obvious points: maps are good for reference material (for both the author and his readers); maps keep you from making mistakes with your worldbuilding—they keep you honest; maps add an additional layer of authenticity to your story by forging literary artifacts for the reader. Etc, etc. The author in question acknowledged these points, but he also refuted each with an argument that was both fair and familiar: “I don’t know the extent of my whole fantasy world and I can paint myself into a corner if I use a map. What if there are errors? What if the art that is commissioned contradicts the image in the readers’ head and creates dissonance between them and the story? What if it doesn’t match my own vision for the story? We’ve managed well without them so far.” Etc, etc.
As you can see, the author wasn’t especially interested in adding maps to his book. Rather, he was looking for reasons not to add them; he had already decided that adding literary artifacts was a crutch and he didn’t want to weaken his writing by leaning on anything meta to tell his stories.
That’s fair, but what he overlooked was this: when an author adds a map or other extra-textual ephemera to their books, they are making a promise to the reader. For better or worse, they are foreshadowing the scope of their story and promising that, if you stick with them long enough, you’ll explore many of the locales on that map. In that context, a map isn’t a crutch—it’s a promise; and, much like the cover of your novel or book blurb on the cover jacket, it sets the tone for your book and suggests what kind of story that reader is about to experience.
Is the map perfectly omniscient or (like its characters) is it unreliable? Is it riddled with the names of distant lands or is its scope much smaller? Does it contain the cryptic messages of a mysterious cartographer (and thus exists as a real artifact within the world of your story) or is it more sanitized and only exists as a meta-artifact (something created by your publisher to help illustrate the series you’ve written? I suspect my author friend was reacting against the latter, but he missed an opportunity when he overlooked the former. Artifacts like maps, glyphs, and religious texts can tell a reader a lot more about your story than the distance between cities or the names of its gods. They provide an extra layer of worldbuilding that is both mysterious and magical. They also build on the readers’ expectations for your story, which you can then satisfy or invert. In each instance, using maps and other ephemera is a tool the writer can use to draw himself closer to his readers while also preparing them for what is to come.
But that still only covers a fraction of the potential that in-world artifacts can bring to your novel. A second and equally powerful reason exists solely for those readers who have already finished your book. That may be ironic, but it makes sense when we consider what readers often do after they’ve finished reading an epic fantasy or science fiction novel: they turn the last page (and possibly read the author bio), they close the book cover, and then—paradoxically—they flip back to the start and examine the map that began their journey. In exploring the points of that map, they remember the journey they’ve just traveled and they get to relive the entire experience in a single glance.
And this doesn’t just happen after finishing a book. Ask any savvy reader and they’ll tell you that when flipping through the pages of a familiar novel, they’ll often explore the map at the start and refamiliarize themselves with its contents. That will lead them to remember their favorite parts of that journey and, more often than not, it will lead them to re-reading passages they enjoyed. Even if it doesn’t, that map still reawakens the story in the mind of the reader. It helps them recall all the vivid details in one quick glance —one powerful burst of memory—and if they’ve forgotten some tidbit the map does not help clarify, it can inspire them to read the book a second time. I know this has happened to me and I’m sure it’s happened to countless other readers, and it was something my author friend could not so easily deny.
I don’t know in the end whether my arguments convinced the aforementioned author to include a map in his next book—probably not—but it did help me articulate at least two reasons why I’ve grown to love literary artifacts: they foreshadow what is to come and they remind us what we have already experienced.
I’ve used maps as my primary example here because they are so numerous and so well recognized, but literary artifacts come in many mediums. In my own novels, I have fragments of scripture and other meta-writings that introduce Parts 1–4 of my novel, all of which serve to enhance the primary narrative through the use of intercalary epigraphs. These epigraphs tell a second story (albeit opaquely) while also presenting a riddle for readers to piece together as they read the rest of the book. When done correctly, themes in those intercalary epigraphs can enhance the story appearing concurrently in the primary narrative. Alan Moore does a fantastic job of this in his Watchmen series by introducing the “Tales of the Black Freighter” story—a comic-within-a-comic whose themes mirror and reinforce those established in the main superhero narrative. Brandon Sanderson also regularly employs this tool in his Cosmere novels. His first Mistborn trilogy, for example, has a small epigraph introducing every chapter of books 1–3, with each book gradually revealing a riddle to the reader and then surprising them with a twist at the end of each book. In fact, Sanderson is one of the best examples of an author using ephemera well to enhance his own stories—whether in his maps, in his intercalary epigraphs, or in his complex sketches illustrating one or more of the magic systems used within his novels; he uses runes and symbols to enhance his worldbuilding, but he often buries meaning within those runes, which gives his fans something to chew on after they’ve finished digesting the main story. It’s brilliant and, if we can judge anything based on Brandon’s success, it’s worked well for him.
As you can probably tell, I like using literary artifacts in my books. In my debut novel, Master of Sorrows, I commissioned two different maps: the first spans the continent of Western Daroea and reveals the extent of the Darite Empire and its kingdoms; the second shows the boundaries of a village so small it isn’t even named on the larger map. Both are important: the first because it shows the scope of the world (what’s out there and what the reader can expect to encounter as the series progresses), and the second because it frames the smaller scope of the novel’s primary narrative. The scriptural epigraphs introducing Parts 1–4 of my book are similarly expansive. Like the larger world map, they reveal a setting that is much bigger than the one currently inhabited by my protagonist—but that’s foreshadowing; eventually, the hero will move beyond the boundaries of his village, just as he will move beyond the perceived scope of his own small story. The protagonist thinks he is something small and so, like the small village map, we see the world through his own narrow lens. Gradually, though, we see where his story and the larger narrative overlap; we see where the village fits within the context of the larger story, and we see how Annev’s mundane tale represents a single thread in a much larger, more complex tapestry. Thus, like the maps, the epigraphs are a promise of a larger story that will one day encompass and then swallow the smaller narrative of my main character. Likewise, when I finish telling the full scope of that story, it is my hope that savvy readers will go back to those epigraphs and discover the threads that were foreshadowed much, much earlier in the narrative. Finding those threads is a great way to reward faithful readers because it encapsulates their experience as a reader, which is itself a progression from ignorance to understanding; in a single glance, they are reminded where they started and how far they’ve come.
Last and perhaps most importantly, using literary artifacts is a handy way to reaffirm that the author knew where he or she was going all along (even if the reader didn’t). It is initially a promise of things to come, but it also serves as a final invitation for the reader to decide whether the author delivered on the promises made at the beginning of the book. As with any skill, a less-talented author might abuse this tool and create poor forgeries—but that doesn’t mean the tool itself is bad. Rather, we as authors need to practice using that tool so we don’t cut our own throats with it.
Justin Travis Call is a graduate of Harvard University and the author of Master of Sorrows, Book 1 of the Silent Gods series. He is also CEO of Broomstick Monkey Games and co-designer of the board games Imperial Harvest and Royal Strawberries. Justin currently lives in Park City, Utah, with his wife, his two sons, his Great Dane (Pippa) and his Saint Bernard-mastiff (Herbie).