I love a good city for a fantasy setting. I love cities so much some of my favorite books (City of Stairs, The City & The City) have the word smack dab in the title. In one of my favorite short stories, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the city is the primary, and arguably the only, character. Cities feature prominently in most of my own work and, even when they’re in the background, their existence is exuding subtle pressure on both character and plot.
Based on my notes for my panel on City as Character at FOGcon5, I’ve put together a list of questions below to help you create a city that has as much personality, history, and richness as your protagonists.
City Building Basics
Why was your city founded?
Most Earth cities sprung to life centuries ago along ancient trade routes. Large, calm rivers are popular locations. As are deltas, sheltered harbors, and near proximity to mountain passes. Consider where your city is going to get its food and water; fertile floodplains, fishing waters, and freshwater springs/rivers are good starters. A location that is easily defensible is also desirable in the early years of a city’s life - whether it be from bandits or inclement weather.
If your city came into being later in the life of your world, it may be due to a proximity to a holy relic, or a natural attraction of some kind.
What are the local building materials?
Early on in the life of a city it’s usually too expensive to import building materials so, budding cities make use of what’s around them - whether it be stone, wood, mudbrick or grass. As most stories take place in a city’s later years of life, consider what impact these early materials might have on the socioeconomic structure of your present-day citizens. If wood were plentiful in the early days, and marble scarce or otherwise difficult to obtain, then wouldn’t your wealthy residents boast homes of stone over their tree-dwelling neighbors? Or, perhaps it’s the other way around. If quarries are easy to come by, then finely wrought homes of rare woods would become the height of fashion.
And what about your government buildings, and temples? Consider permanence and gravitas when you’re assigning building materials. A bank made of tarp and tentpoles probably wouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence. On the other hand, coming up with a neat cultural reason for impermanence to be inherent in your culture’s government structure might be a fun track to take. Regardless, make certain your buildings fit your people and the land around them.
Has it existed uninterrupted?
Really good places to stick a city aren’t as common as you might initially think, and as such the best locales have a tendency to be inhabited continuously - no matter the rise and fall of the peoples who dwell within them. If your people aren’t the first to inhabit their city, then what of the people who came before? Is your current culture aware of their past neighbors, or clueless? How long has it been since your people have taken over, and what caused the downfall of the previous civilization? Do ruins abound, or is the only trace of the previous people in the layout of the streets? Your characters’ degree of awareness of these past people will add depth and personality to your city.
Consider the possibility of more than one layer of civilization. Rome, for example, has roads that follow ancient goat tracks and ruins of the Roman golden age both.
If your city’s roots are ancient, chances are good your city was destroyed at one point. Whether it be to fire, flood, earthquake, or good ol’ fashioned razing, no city escapes destruction over a long enough timeline. What happened to your city after its first downfall? Did plague make it a multigenerational ghost town, or did a massive fire wipe the slate clean to allow more modern construction? What folktales do your citizens tell themselves about that destructive event?
Any Description of a City Inherently Contains Its Past
Is King’s Square called that because the monarchy was crowned there, or beheaded? Are certain locales within the city considered rife with political unease due to their pasts? Where would the protestors of your city congregate to make their message heard?
The stories people tell themselves about the cities they live in lend it character - here a king was hanged, there a lover threw himself from a bridge, etc.
Art & Architecture
A city’s skyline is arguably its most iconic structure. It’s what travelers see from afar, and the first impression for any visitor. How close your buildings sit next to one another, how stratified your class divisions are, and how neat (or tangled) the layout of a city’s streets are imposes an immediate mood upon the visitor depending on their own inclinations. A high mountain city, with many-storied buildings in tight rows, might inspire claustrophobia in someone used to the plains, and comfort in someone used to close quarters. When describing your city’s vista, never forget to color its impression through the eyes of the viewer.
Once we’re into the city’s streets, you can show a lot about a city’s residents by their decorative flair - or lack thereof. Are temples elaborate things, meant to inspire godlike visions? Or are they austere and humble, paying homage to the citizen’s sense of sobriety surrounding their religion? How about the homes - what art is on display here? Is portraiture common, or perhaps family allegiances are honored by great murals of entwined family sigils?
Are the statues in the public spaces of heroes, gods, nobility? Are folktales present in the local art? What mediums are popular? How about music and dancing? Are music halls celebrated, or crass? Is only a certain type of music and dance considered the “right” type? And, if so, where can one find the “wrong” type?
Without digging too deep into economics (we could be here all day and probably still get it wrong), whatever your city’s major and minor trades are will heavily affect the flavor of your city. Industry, for example, is often loud, smelly, and segregated into its own district. Is your city on the cutting edge of in-world technology? If so, it probably has a fast-paced feel - and is more than likely full of people trying to hustle their way to the top of the pack.
If your city is a cultural beacon, summoning tourists from across the world, then there’s going to be a heavy focus on conservation, appearance, and infrastructure. You don’t want your tourists arriving after a long journey only to discover the streets are too narrow for their horse-cart and all the inns are full.
How do family units, whatever they may be, live in your city? Do children leave the ancestral home as soon as they are able to enter the workforce, or do multiple generations inhabit the same building? How much personal space is allotted to each member of the household? Consider how your family units might handle an ill loved one, or guests coming to stay the night. What are the rules of hospitality - and what are the social consequences of violating those rules? Cities are, usually, high density living situations and space is often at a premium. Is the way the city is constructed impinging on your character’s sense of how family units should be structured?
The way these things are handled often affects the way personal space is viewed within a city, as well. Consider how your people would, or wouldn’t, line up to gain entrance to an event. Are they comfortable crowding together, or is getting too close a faux pas?
In a sufficiently large city, cultural subdivision is inevitable. You can breath life into your city by making your characters keenly aware of these self-imposed boundaries. Where’s your bohemian district, your red light? Where do the merchants congregate, and where do the nobility live? Unless your culture exists within an utopia, there’s always a dangerous neighborhood to be avoided - and an unfashionable one to be gossiped about. Consider, too, just how cohesive residents of these neighborhoods appear to be. Would someone who spends their days in your artists’ district stick out like a sore thumb in the merchant’s quarters?
Who can talk to who, and under what pretenses? Is your city cosmopolitan and free-flowing, or is it buttressed by a system of etiquette? What happens when someone screws up that etiquette? Most cities have an unspoken set of social rules that lubricate personal dealings, and when those rules are violated - even accidentally - the person who perceives the violation is often jarred and wrong-footed by the interaction. These rules are often codified with gestures, salutations, and sometimes even different methods of speech.
How people get around your city is actually a pretty huge deal. Whether it be on foot, by horse, or steam-powered skateboard, transportation affects how far people can go within the city, and in some cases who can access certain areas. Consider sidewalks, what the streets are made of, and how steep the grade on the streets is.
These are just some broad topics to get you started, and I may come back and delve into each a little more deeply in the future - there’s heaps to cover under each category. If you have a neat city feature you’d like to share, or a method you use to make your city feel real, then please do mention it!