Thursday, March 14, 2013

What goes into building a fantasy city

Rome wasn't built in a day.

Yes. I know, but I'm not trying to build Rome. I'm trying to build a city for my book.

Probably Rome

That must be a very impressive book if you need a city to house it in.

No, no. I'm not housing the book in a city, I need to build an imaginary city.

So that your imaginary emo bunnies have someplace to live?

*Sigh* You're just not getting the point. I'm writing a book. In it, the characters are visiting a city, so I need to describe it to the reader. That's what I mean about building a city.

And don't call my emo bunnies imaginary.


It's okay. So about that city I'm building . . .

Why do you need to build a city for your characters?

I'm glad you asked. Stories need settings. Does the book occur in a city, a desert, a forest? . . .

I don't know. It's your book, silly.

Quit interrupting. The point is that the setting needs to be developed for the reader. So I'm going to explain the process I go through in writing a city setting.


Right? Okay. So I've decided I need a city in my current book.  I spent some time coming up with a name for it.  "Aest" (I originally named it Amarash)  I've also decided that it will be the capital city of the kingdom it's in.

So now I have to decide how much of this city to describe.  That depends largely on how much time my characters are going to spend there.  If they're are just passing by, I can say they saw the city in the distance and leave it at that.  If they're staying for the night, I have to tell a little bit more.  If they're going to interact with anyone or anything in the city, then I need to go into a fair amount of detail.

The city I've described the most in the world of Ryallon is Dralin.  The first book of the Dralin Trilogy is named Dralin, which gives a few clues to as to how much I had to explain it.  I went into great detail about the building styles, politics, people, dress, weather and just about anything else.  Dralin is its own character.

What does the writer need to know about the city?  What does the reader need to know?

You might think that the writer needs to know everything about the city, and many do.  I used to spend a great deal of time going over the details, but my writing style has changed.  I only figure out what I need in order to tell the story now.  It saves a great deal of time.  Occasionally, I'll figure out more details for my own curiosity, but I don't always share them.

Then I look at it from the character's perspective.  What's important to them.  What do they notice?  This is all the reader needs to know too.  They need to see the city from the characters' eyes.  They need to see the parts the characters interact with.


So I'm building the city of Aest and the characters are going to stay there for a few days, maybe a couple of weeks.  It's important to give a good amount of information.  These are some of the things I'm going to look at describing to the reader.

1. What does the city look like, sound like, smell like, taste like and feel like?  I believe it's important for a writer to communicate to all of the reader's senses.  There are a lot of details that goes into this.
2. What are the people like?  More than anything, this will tell the reader what the city is like.
3. What are the politics like?  This will go a great deal in influencing the reader's perception.
4. How powerful is/are the religion(s)?  This can have great affect on the city.
4. Is it at peace, war torn, or under the threat of war?  A surprising detail that establishes the mood of the people and affects the appearance of the city.
5.What is the weather like?  This is a detail that helps to establish mood.
6. What's the air quality?  An odd fact that can help add detail and mood.
7. Does it have a sewer system?  Vital for thieves guilds, assassins and secret entrances into anywhere.


What does the city look like?  Start with how the buildings look.  Are they wood, stone, or possibly tree houses?  Are they run-down?  Are they well built? Does the city have a wall?  These details can tell the reader a lot.

You can also add whether or not there are parks or statues, a sign of wealth and concern for the citizen's comfort.  Are the streets paved?  

What does the city smell like?  Do people refuse to bathe?  Is the city thick with smog?  Is there trash in the streets?  Does it leave a bad taste in the mouth?

What does the city sound like?  Do people shout and yell at each other?  A marketplace is always noisy except at night.  Is there a low hum of noises?  Do children laugh in the streets?  Perhaps it's quiet because people are afraid to come out of their houses.

What does the city feel like?  You can tell the reader that it's grimy, or that the air is clean.  You can say that your readers get an uncomfortable sensation from walking down an alley.

These details really help immerse the reader into your story.  Don't over describe though.  Try to slip in a few details about it in between conversation if you can.


This will tell the reader more about the city than anything.  Try to establish this right away.  Have your character talk to someone that represents the average person.  The attitude of the people on the street will help to explain the prevailing mood.  People will be different at day than night.

Also, have your character talk to a guardsman or soldier of the city and use it to describe whether the people are oppressed or happy by the manners of law enforcement.  A guard that challenges the character makes the city hostile.  A welcoming guard makes the city friendly.

Innkeepers are one of your most useful resources.  They have all the information about the town, as do inn patrons.  Is the inn expensive or run down?

Shopkeepers are another good source of setting the mood.  Do they trade freely?  Do they haggle?  Are they honest or dishonest?

Probably people


Is the city a small town run by a mayor or council?  Does the military run it?  Is it perhaps the capital of the country, as in the case of Aest.

Is the government just or corrupt?  This is probably the most vital piece of information that will determine how the main characters are treated.


Religions tend to bring order to a city.  If there is a large religious presence, then a city is more likely to have strict laws and moral codes.  If there is no religion or system of belief, (like a monestary, or Druid grove) then it the town is likely to be lawless.  Too much religion can create a suppressive environment for the citizens and make it difficult for your characters to accomplish anything.

You can also have negative religions, like a death cult, or temple of trickery.  Those will add completely different flavors to your city.


If a town is at peace, it will likely have happy citizens that walk around freely, and children playing in yards.  Information will be freely given.  The weather is likely to be sunny and the season likely to be spring.  You'd be amazed at how much weather affects the opinions of the reader.  Flowers will grow and birds will sing in the tree.  Houses are likely to be painted and clean.

If the threat of war looms, people will be nervous and huddle in groups.  There will be lots of frowns.  Soldiers will patrol the streets and be suspicious of any newcomers.  The weather will likely be cloudy.

And if war has beaten the city down, there will be feral dogs and rats on the streets rather than people.  The citizens will be huddled in their homes or in taverns, worried that their drink may be the last.  Shadows will be everywhere and the weather is likely to be too hot or cold in the middle of summer or winter.  Buildings will be in disrepair.

Another side affect is cripples and homeless.  War leaves people broken.  A beggar's guild is very likely in a war torn city.


In the last section, I mentioned weather.  This doesn't apply to just cities, but every scene in just about every genre of book.

Sunny days show hope, but too much sun can beat down and oppress the characters.
Rainy days are sad, but a light shower can wash away worries and the day's heat.
Blizzards get people lost.  Utter cold drive despair into the stoutest of hearts.  However, a light fluffy snow can be fun for children to play in.

Weather is quite simply one of the most effective tools a writer can use to set the mood of a scene.

Probably weather

Air Quality

Here's something few writers think of.  Is it smoggy?  Are there a few chimneys with smoke.  Is it a nice, pleasant village with trees and pure air?  Dralin, in my world, is filled with pollution, both magical and mundane.  It clogs the air and even poisons people.  Air quality is an underutilized detail in writing often times.

Sewer system

Sewer Systems are very useful for hideouts, especially in D&D style stories.  But in addition to hideouts for thieves, rats and human waste, they also help to tell how clean the city is.  A good sewer system will allow trash and waste to flow from the streets.  A city or town without one can flood easy and is likely to have trash built up in the streets as London was in the dark ages.  As with London, that can lead to disease and plagues.

Probably a sewer


There are countless other details, but these are a good start for things to consider while city building.  As far as my city of Aest goes, it's a capital city with a castle, a university and a fair amount of adventure to be had. :)

All my best,

John H. Carroll


Borg said...

Very helpful. I've been "hobby" writing off and on since I was a kid but have never dedicated the time to do a complete work. I'm trying to get more serious about it and have been looking for some direction. This post is very helpful for me. Thanks.

John H. Carroll said...

It's a good time to really get into writing, Borg. :) The possibilities are endless!