Posted by: kshayes513 | October 17, 2009

Building the City of Poets, part 1

Someone in a LinkedIn writing group recently asked for advice on creating a city setting that is “rich, detailed and integral to the story,” a city that becomes a character in itself. He was asking what literary tools he would need to portray real cities, but the question can be asked just as well of imaginary ones. I’m currently working on that very thing for my newest story, which is set in the City of Poets I’ve been thinking about since the spring.

Emerald City

Emerald City

I tried to make a list of famous imaginary cities. To my surprise, I could only come up with four from literature: Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, Frank Baum’s Emerald City, and Charles de Lint’s Newford. Is this very short list a reflection of limitations in my reading, or is it really the case that science fiction and fantasy writers don’t often set their stories in cities? If you can add to this list, please jump in! Maybe the great gaming worlds, like Warcraft and Halo, have important cities too?

If I look to comics, there are several famous ones, notably Superman’s Metropolis and Batman’s Gotham City. Like Khasran, both began as versions of a real city (in this case  New York) and evolved to have lives and personalities of their own.  This reminds me of a few more additions to the list: alternate versions of real cities in our world such as the London of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the Oxford of Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and the dragon-friendly Peking of  Naomi Novik’s Throne of Jade.

So what does it take to build a city from scratch – especially a city that has a unique personality? Maybe spec fiction authors avoid cities because they’re such complicated entities. A city has as many elements to it as a whole world: geography, history, economics, government, culture, commerce, plus the pure physical challenge of thousands of people living packed together like cattle in a barn.

The vast majority of cities have grown from small settlements, for specific reasons, usually connected to geography and history.  There has to be a reason why so many people settled in this spot. Maybe it’s at the intersection of important trade routes, maybe it has a good harbor, maybe a king chose it to be his seat of government, maybe there are significant natural resources nearby.  Pick a reason, or a dozen, and see what those resources get you.

Then there’s simple geography. If your city has a harbor, it has to have a port district. If it’s in the mountains, i’s going to have lots of steep streets. If it’s in or near a desert, it’s going to need ways to keep cool, and it’s going to need a reliable water supply. A great Indian king built a huge city that was abandoned within a generation because local water couldn’t sustain the population. How does your city’s landscape and climate affect its street layout and its architecture?

Then there’s politics: maybe your city is a government center of some kind? If so, there are going to be a lot of bureaucrats or other officials in the population; and maybe a lot of official ceremonies and events as well.

Is your city a religious center? Then it will have temples, more ceremonies, visiting pilgrims, and lots of people holding religious offices.

Does your city need defenses from some enemy that’s always threatening attack? Low tech defenses might be walls and armed soldiers, or maybe a corps of wizards or others with paranomal ability. High tech defenses might be missiles, energy shields, or geosynchronous defense satellites. A city at war has a very different personality from a city at peace, with lots more security checks, and suspicion of spies and attacks.

What do your city’s inhabitants do for income? Every city needs industries to keep it alive; most cities have more than one. And a city with only one industry, like Detroit, is going to be in serious trouble when that industry moves elsewhere, unless it can find other sources of income.

Most interesting to me  is how your city manages to keep all those people living harmoniously and safely (relatively speaking) in such a confined space. Who grows their food, how does it get to the city, and how is it distributed? What happens to all the garbage and sewage that so many people produce? And especially, what keeps all these people at close quarters, in a reasonable social order? What keeps factions and economic and ethnic groups working together instead of trying to kill each other?

See how much fun you can have with just a few questions? Next up, how I’m starting to answer these questions in the City of Poets.

And remember, if you know of other imaginary cities, I want to hear about them!


  1. I’m rather fond of how Starhawk envisions San Francisco in 2050 in her book _The Fifth Sacred Thing_. And her vision of L.A. in the same novel is nothing short of chilling.

    Then, of course, there’s always Minas Tirith!

  2. I thought about Minas Tirith, but apart from its 7 layer architecture, it’s rather unsatisfactory as an example of a vibrant imaginary city; its population is completely homogeneous, and we learn almost nothing about its daily life except for Pippin’s brief experience as a soldier in the Citadel guard, and the annoying chatter of Ioreth. Bree, Laketown and Caras Galadon are the nearest things to interesting cities in Middle Earth. But then, I don’t think Tolkien was especially fond of cities.

  3. It may be my bias, but there’s a host of fantasy cities in RPG gaming that can inform the stories of said setting. Waterdeep in the FORGOTTEN REALMS campaign setting is the one that leaps to mind most easily (as I’ve worked with that setting since 1993 and have two novels published using it as a backdrop setting).

    I’m also working on worldbuilding some cities of my own via my website and published stories, but I’m glad to have found this site as well.


  4. Steven,
    When you are creating cities for an RPG, vs creating cities for a novel, do you find there are differences in what you need to emphasize or how you present the city?

    I’m impressed with your worlds-within worlds creations. Bulwark’s long publishing history reminds me of the imagined history of English magic in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. In both cases, I thought the history was real until I read more closely. Verisimilitude, the worldbuilder’s dream!


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