[Why I’d Be A Terrible Protagonist] – Reason #12: What Is a Map?

The Terrible Protagonist series explores reasons why regular humans (aka myself) would not fair well in the world of fiction. 


Why I’d Be A Terrible Protagonist:
What Is a Map?


If Google Maps does not exist in a fantasy setting, well…goodbye, I’m lost.


Let’s be honest: I’d be a terrible protagonist not because I don’t have that falalalala devil-may-care attitude to run towards death with but because yours truly would get fucking lost within 10 pages.

Welcome to reason #12 as to why I’d be a terrible protagonist.

I’m not even talking about “stupid lost” either–like when characters venture into the wilderness for a weekend of tomfoolery and are suddenly running from a batshit crazy murderer (no thanks, I’ll do my camping via a screensaver campfire). Instead, I’m speaking to the fact that every damn character has this faultless built-in GPS hardwired into their brains so they “just know” where to go (and when to seemingly arrive by).

Which basically confirms that every character is a robot…A.I. doomsday is here. We’re doomed.

But seriously, this is some next-level Google Maps nonsense. I’ll be frank: I hark on books that lack realism when it calls for it. This is one of those elements typically glossed over. There’s a fine balance between ‘easy-peasy-no-consequence-journeying’ and ‘wow-haven’t-I-seen-that-tree-before?’ when protagonists jaunt from place to place as if the sensation of being lost isn’t a concept that exists. Know that I’m not trying to discredit the possibility of travelling without a hitch. It’s just interesting that protagonists are not only masterful Special Snowflakes or Broody McBroods but they have this unreal gift of satellite imaging their journey.

So all books are secretly SF-F then.

At this point, I’m waiting for leads to bust out into an arrangement of Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles because the certainty that they’ll get to Mordor (Lord of the RIngs) or King’s Landing (Game of Thrones) or even venture across Norta (Red Queen) is all but possible.

Is it all just coincidence?  Good luck? Fate?

It’s difficult to argue against some cosmic concept like fate but I’m just going to say that as much as fate guarantees the protagonist will be gifted with a map, a sage-like stranger, or a friend who somehow knows the way, there is an equal opportunity for fate to be like “lol fuck you, let’s not show them the way and let them struggle.” Plus, I’m sure there’s some statistic from an old study that states 7.4 out of 10 people would fail to navigate a new setting without some geo-location assistance. (Source: redacted).

(For full transparency: I love stories featuring heavy travelling because inaction is as important as action in developing characters. But that’s on me.)

Look, I get that there’s a resounding opinion that no one would care to read about being “lost” — as seen in my previous discussion asking “Why are Heroes and Villains Never Stuck in Traffic”. I just think it’s a fair question for those in the protagonist’s ensemble to ask “so which way is north?” when the holier-than-thou-leader asserts the notion of “let’s head north”. The difference is in the details and it isn’t about feeling lost (when they aren’t) anymore than it ought to be about them actually being lost.

Afterthought Prompts:

Now on to some things for you to think about:

On a scale of 0-10 (0 being terrible), how good are you with navigating the world (e.g. if you were to set foot in a foreign country)?
Now imagine yourself in another world where there is no Internet or computers (e.g. cellphones) to assist you — how would you go about being resourceful in navigating the world?
What’s your opinion on protagonists who seem to have all the answers and just know where to go and what to do?

As always, think aloud. 


connect: afterthoughtAn // twitter  |  anotherafterthought // goodreads


Post Inspiration:

I had an interaction with a blogger a while back–I don’t remember who but I think it was Carolyn (?)–who gave me creative freedom to speak about this topic.

Moreover, I’m thinking I could expand this theme to be some long string of satirical discussions (I may branch it off and create a new feature instead — who knows) but I hope this is equally relevant as much as I hope it’s entertaining for you. And yes, the #12 is completely arbitrary.


39 thoughts on “[Why I’d Be A Terrible Protagonist] – Reason #12: What Is a Map?”

  1. I believe that I was born with just the tiniest bit of iron in my nose. {I know I have a sliver of steel in my brain, but that’s another story.} I think this gives me an inherent sense of direction. I feel as if I always have my orientation, that is, I always know where North is. This could be my imagination, but it works for me. I also like to trust my instincts and intuition. Perhaps some of these protagonists share these attributes. 🙂


  2. You’re so right. No one ever is lost in books. I actually think it would be a really funny story if a character was lost. Imagine all the possibilities of what could happen when they accidentally went the wrong way?
    As for myself, I like to think I’m a pretty good navigator. I can generally remember how to get to some place after only being there once. I’m going to date myself here, but when I was in high school/college we didn’t have that fancy thing known as Google Maps. (Or maybe I just didn’t know about it?) You had to consult the freakin’ Thomas Guide to go anywhere. My dad used to have one he kept next to his Lazy-Boy. We would consult it when we had to go somewhere new. When I went away to college (approx. 1400 miles from home), I had to use an actual map like the ones you see at convenience stores to get around. I can honestly say that I don’t ever remember getting lost. (But that may be because Phoenix, AZ was developed on a grid.) I also didn’t have a cell phone until my last year in college. So if I was lost, I would be stopping somewhere to ask for directions. It’s crazy to think of how much things have changed in such a short time.


    1. Protagonists getting lost is like turning a bad situation into a good one because they’d like…idk, grow up a bit because they’d be complaining and talking more and stuff like that. Well, that’s just what I’d imagine would happen. It could be boring as shit though.

      I’m actually the same! I’ll “know” what the place looks like upon taking it once and future times, I’d just follow the same route. Yeah, I remember way back in the 90s going to cottages for the first time and it was like using a paper map and [asking] for directions. WHAT A THING OF THE PAST.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Frankly, I would get lost with or without a GPS. I have zero sense of direction and I still get confused when people say east and west (and I have to sing Emblem3 in my head to remember). So it definitely seems unrealistic when characters can remember EVERY STEP THEY TOOK to get there – even when they have ADHD or something like that (cof cof, I’m talking to you Mr. Percy Jackson).
    Plus, let’s think about the amount of adventures those characters could go through just by taking the wrong way. I’d love to see more characters getting lost, then!


    1. I’ve heard of Emblem3 and now I need to find this holy grail of a tune that helps aid in direction for myself.

      I get the need to properly pace a story to keep it upbeat and interesting but when they’re actually traveling MILES from a-to-b, sometimes it’s curious that they “just make it there” all safe and sound. Bah. I’d say they’d grow up a lot during their misfortunes of going the wrong way!


  4. I am excellent at navigation. If I’ve been there once I am usually great at getting back there again without a map, but I think I would be pretty decent at navigating in a fantasy world … as long a it’s on land. I wouldn’t know how to navigate using the wind and a compass.

    I tend to like protagonists who don’t have all the answers. I think it’s good for them to know their immediate surrounds and fun when they land in a place where they have to ask for help; it shows how they handle unusual situations. I think Six of Crows is a good example of both those aspects.


    1. Yeah I think with most travel stories in Fantasy, they’re going somewhere for the first time so it’s interesting when they arrive without a hitch.

      I love that you mentioned Six of Crows and how well it handled the travel aspect; mainly because the Dregs had Matthias/Wylan in their team that it lent itself to a smooth ride (minus in-house bickering). It’s so many other stories that go from “okay we’re off on our journey!” to the next chapter being “we’ve arrived” — like, whaaaaat?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. More satirical discussions? Fuck yes. Sign me up.

    “I hark on books that lack realism when it calls for it. This is one of those elements typically glossed over.”

    And you’re right, it’s so aggravating. Even if everyone in a group is able to figure out which direction is north by looking at the sun/stars, just saying “The city lies north, let us away” is roughly equivalent to “The city can be literally anywhere on the planet between us and the northern pole, let’s walk ourselves into a bog and die.” Because that’s what I’d do: die in a bog.

    I’m pretty quick to figure out my surroundings and how to get around in civilization, even without a map, but put me in the wilderness and all hope is lost. But my husband’s even worse; he still sometimes forgets how to get to the grocery store we’ve been shopping at for years (that’s approximately a mile and a half from home). It’s incredible.

    Love this post, and looking forward to more like it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How about:
      “We need to head north.”
      “Yeah, my gut tells us to go north”.
      “Okay but we have to walk around this brick wall blocking our path–” “WE MUST GO NORTH”
      “But sir, this wal–”
      “Through the wall?”

      First off: fuck this protagonist for leading us to our doom (new discussion on this incoming).

      The thing i struggle with in fiction is that most environments are generally new to the hero (not to mention stranger danger) so even if it’s a metropolis with civilization, as you say, it’s still plausible in some regards to have hiccups in their travels. But alas, you’ve just admitted to me that you’d be the sociable one who asks for directions so you are a wonderful addition to any crew.


      1. NO MERE WALL CAN STAND IN OUR BRAVE HERO’S PATH. I mean, literally, sure, but CHARGEEEE.

        Looking forward to the new discussion; just let me know when I should put the popcorn in the microwave.

        I mean, yes, I can possibly charm the directions out of any passerby–but I gotta warn you, I can neither pick pockets nor strangle my enemies with my bare hands, and I can’t go more than a few days without Tex-Mex before I start wasting away. I’d be more trouble than I’m worthy, for sure.


  6. Haha omg I relate to this on a spiritual level. Seriously, I can barely navigate the streets in my own home town so put me in the wilderness and I’d be snatched up by some wild thing before you could say ‘Google Maps’. I could take the same route a bazillion times and still get lost. Like really, all the streets and trees look bloody alike to me!

    Generally, I usually have a sage friend when I navigate the wilderness of my streets so I’m saved from ending up in God knows where. Most of the time. Heh.

    And when in books the MC goes Ohhh that’s the North Star, lets follow it and I’m like whattt – all the stars look equally pretty so fuck that. Like don’t even get me started on constellations. They all look like pizza. HOW DOES ONE DIFFERENTIATE WHAT SORCERY IS THISSS

    Glad to know that I’m not the only hopeless potato, Joey. Terrible navigators, unite!! 😀


    1. “Shit, is this the right way?”
      Critters in the background laughing their asses off that they can’t find the main road. The skunk laughs so hard it emits it’s putrid scent.
      ‘UGH, GEORGE (the skunk), CAN YOU NOT.’ says a passing squirrel.
      — a novella to your favourite fantasy world with lots of travelling would.

      Yeah sage friends are all the rave to have but what if you’re not the sage friend…and your friend isn’t the sage one. Basically dead.


  7. I like to think I have a decent sense of direction. I’m not sure how well it would serve me in a totally different world, though. It is funny that nobody EVER gets hopelessly lost in books! Great discussion topic, by the way!!


  8. Well, I guess this is another addition to the build-up of annoyingly, unrealistically, perfect characters. I can only remember Neville and some characters from Harry Potter who lost their way. I’m glad though that Mare (from RQ) and the gang know their maps because otherwise, it will be an extra 10-page description of an exasperating monologue. LOL.


  9. My sense of directions is pretty close to being non-existent, so I can safely say that I probably wouldn’t even make it to page 10. Even when they talk about how they can follow constellations or the sun’s position, I don’t get how they can all be that good.


    1. If I’m being honest, I laugh when they follow the constellations etc. It’s such baloney to me unless the world is written in such a way that the star-patterns actually hold meaning AND the protagonist is competent enough to understand it. (Which, I guess happens to be the case every time BUT REGARDLESS IT MAKES NO SENSE.)


  10. I’m with you about people mysteriously knowing how to get where they’re going. All I need is a mention of a map or a local guide and I’m okay with it (or following a trail or heading towards where you sense magic), but otherwise I’m always wondering how these people know where to go. I mean, I can get lost even with a map sometimes, especially if it’s an area I’ve never been before. But so long as I have a map (or a GPS unit in the modern day/future), I’ll get there eventually.


    1. This is exactly the reason why maps benefit the reading experience. Even if you aren’t going through the arduous task of detailing the travels, having a map sort of circumvents that by letting the imagination do that for you so long as the destination is clearly provided.


  11. I would be hopelessly lost all the time without my GPS. Seriously, how did we live before these things? I suppose there’s an assumption that people in fantasy worlds are better at navigation because they’ve been taught it (due to that lack of GPS and all), but you’re right that they should definitely get lost every now and again!


    1. I can definitely see [some] subset of protagonists being competent enough to navigate on their own merits but find it hard pressed that most get to where they need to go without a hitch; especially when they’re traversing perilous landscapes being experienced for the first time!


  12. -5? Because I literally have no sense of direction when it comes to finding places. (I’m that person that has a car without a GPS and can never multitask with a phone while driving. Therefore I tend to look up the direction to the places where I need to go and memorize all the directions. It’s easy if it’s a straight drive on a highway but when it’s the inner roads with left turn, right turn, right turn… I tend to get super lost. XD )


  13. I’m taken aback by the amount of poeple with little or non existent sense of direction in the comments. I belong to this surprisingly big group but I definitely thought we were a minority haha

    I wonder how would we survive if Google Maps goes bankrupt, all the aimless people roaming around and never getting anywhere. It seems like a good idea for a dystopia.

    Great discussion 🙂


    1. LOL We’re here for you! I feel like people just overstate their abilities. I mean just throw someone in a different country with no cellphone or map and have them try to navigate back home (which is basically the same thing as the shenanigans protagonists go through, yeah?)

      We’ll revert back to the old days of having to talk to people for directions. Yikes.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I asked my sister if she would volunteer for me in the Hunger Games and she said no, so there’s that. BUT YOU’RE RIGHT. I was reading Ruined a while back & they escaped the castle, then knew exactly where to go. Exact direction and everything. The hell?? I can barely follow a GPS. These MCs are too brave and/or technological intelligent.


  15. I’ve unfortunately had to deal with directions more since moving to Toronto and I have not gotten better at it. I can usually find my way around if I’ve been in the area before but ask me to go north and I will walk in the opposite direction, 85% of the time. Even Google Maps has messed me up if I don’t get it to walk me through step by step so I don’t start walking the wrong way


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