The first of two parts. There is just so much to be done here, and a lot of the information will be more or less useful depending on whether you’re writing urban fantasy set in another world or just using the city as a passing-through point.
1) Follow the water.
Water is life. It’s drinking, it’s cooking, it’s washing, it’s life for animals, it’s a source of food (even if it doesn’t have fish, it might have shellfish, or seaweed), it drives mills and other keystones of fantasy technology, it makes trade a good deal easier, it puts out fires (especially important if the city is made partially or mostly of wood), it makes other things, it attracts game animals, it defends against invasion. And cities will use a great deal more of it than a farm, a village, or a castle. Trying to establish a city in the center of nowhere, such as a barren wasteland or the heights of the mountains or an underground cavern, with no water nearby, is stupid, asking for trouble, and just not worth it. No, I don’t care how many fire mages live in the city to put out fires or start them in hearths, or that your people don’t use mills, or that it’s against this particular culture’s religion to eat fish. This is one of those times when inventing magical or cultural ‘fixes’ to the ‘problem’ is much more complicated than just putting your city near water in the first damn place.
Good places for cities:
- Rivers. Rivers will provide all the advantages described above, except perhaps perfect protection against invasion. At least it will make it a great deal more difficult for anyone to come up on the city from that side or cut it off from its supply of water in the event of a siege.
- Ocean. Not fresh water, but there will probably be freshwater springs somewhere nearby, and the supply of food and trade is more abundant than it is with a river.
- River flowing into an ocean. In addition to everything else, it’s an excellent place to establish a lookout on the craft coming down the river to the sea and collect tolls.
- Lake. A city on an island in the middle of the lake, or out on docks in the middle of it, will have extra protection.
- Oasis. If there’s a city in the middle of bone-dry desert, it can get away with an oasis, but it better be a fucking big oasis.
- Inland sea. You’ll probably have to adjust your city’s priorities depending on if the water is salt or fresh, but it could be interesting to read about several cities set around the sea and trading between each other.
If you plan a city in a more exotic location, don’t forget about the water. It might be grand to have a city in the middle of a giant tree, but if it doesn’t rain very often, what are they going to drink? (And what is the tree drinking?) A floating city will need to capture clouds, perhaps, and milk them of precipitation. A city high in the mountains could use snow, but there are some problems involved with that, and being near a tiny trickle of a stream wouldn’t help much.
2) Cities grow.
Many cities in fantasy are ancient, with crumbling buildings, slums that haven’t been good neighborhoods in centuries, ancient underground passages, and bridges and docks falling to pieces. But there are some circumstances in which that will make more sense than others.
If you’re writing about an empire, and the empire sends forth colonists to settle on a new piece of land, and then someone from the imperial court visits the colony ten years later, there had better not be ancient cities there. Only if the colonists took over a city from the land’s native inhabitants, or if there’s one lying ruined somewhere, would that be permissible. In the first case, there are probably new additions because the colonists are sprucing it up, building homes in the imperial styles and adding new wells and so on. In the second, while the ruins might be a big part of the adventure, the colonists are probably not going to be actually living in them. Would you live in a place where mold could drip on your head and snakes could slither into your bedroom, which is the way most authors describe ruins?
Even in an ancient city, there’s no reason for new construction not to go on, and people simply to live in the shadow of old grandeur. London’s an ancient city. This didn’t stop people from building on to it, or adding new wings on to their homes once they came into money, or extending the outskirts as the city spilled into what was once wild country. When the population swelled with the Industrial Revolution, the men and women heading in to become factory workers either had to refurbish old buildings or construct new places to live—more likely, have them built for them. And when a disaster like the Great Fire struck, people didn’t sit around and stare blankly at the empty places, the way that most fantasy urbanites seem to. They started building again.
You can use old. A fantasy city can be as old as you like. But it’s simply ridiculous to portray it as ruined, wasted, devastated, and people letting it fall to bits just because. In that case, let there be evil magic at work. Try to insist that this is just the way normal people live, and I’ll laugh at you.
3) Know the architecture, and how it helps or hinders legal and illegal activities.
Authors with thieves love to show the way that thieves can climb in windows, or use the roofs for daring breakneck escapes, or dodge through narrow alleys to get away from the police, or hide in the very cellars of inns without anyone being the wiser. Sometimes the city seems specially crafted to favor illegal activity.
Seriously. I want to know. There may be excellent reasons for easy-to-open windows, broad flat roofs with plenty of handholds, twisty alleys in which no one can move but thieves, or secret entrances that the innkeepers never bother to board up. Some even make sense; if the city was built haphazardly, piece by piece, without a sense of an overall plan, alleys and roads that dead-end are more likely than not, and people may have forgotten all about the abandoned cellars if the original owner died or moved away.
Other things don’t make sense, and will not no matter how much the author twists my arm. This city gets a lot of snow. So, um, flat roofs? Hello? Put as much of a blizzard in there as many authors like to put, and you should have buildings collapsing. Also, flat roofs are not much use in the case of rain; they would tend to leak. Consider these kinds of things.
Also, I think it only fair that guards who have spent their entire lives in the city would know it at least as well as thieves who have spent their entire lives in the city. Yes, yes, guards are dumb and thieves are clever, blah blah blah. What-the-fuck-ever. In a city where wealthy nobles and tradesmen live, money should talk. They should be able to afford fancy magical alarms for their homes—ones that not just any thief from the gutter could disarm—and windows that don’t spring open at a touch. Also, if the guards are after a thief on foot, why couldn’t they sprint ahead and catch him when he tries to take an alley that’s a well-known route of fleeing pickpockets, instead of just following helplessly behind him and getting lost? This is their city, too.
Consider the attractions of well-defended houses, pointed roofs, broad wide roads, insider knowledge among people other than the ones in the slums, and deeds to houses that detail every feature, including hidden cellars. A lot of people would, and could, pay to have them. The author can still have a thief protagonist, but beware warping the city to benefit one and only one kind of person.
4) Use sound.
Many fantasists use sight—cities are a dumping ground for the author’s exotica—and smell—I would be more surprised to read about a fantasy city without smells of sewage and rotting food than one with. (There’s something people often ignore about that, actually. See point 5). Sound would be as potent a force in the city, though, especially for people who just came in from the country for the first time.
People talking, shouting, greeting, brawling, making bets, selling wares. Animals crying, screaming, clucking, neighing, trotting. Cart and carriage wheels on the move. Restaurants, inns, churches, theaters, grand houses spilling noise into the streets whenever their doors open. Hammers ringing on anvils, machinery rumbling in factories, slaughterhouses at work. Music from street-corner musicians or large festivals. Noise of collisions and disasters and crowds. Clanging of weapons as the guards fight or train. Hammers and chisels and other tools where a new building rises. Children crying. Ships or boats coming in. And on, and on, and on.
Don’t forget this sense. It’s one of the easiest ways to make the city come alive, because of its endless variations, in both form and language; an author can slip in onomatopoeic words unnoticed long after readers have tired of big whopping descriptions of buildings, clothes, and exotic people. It can be more overwhelming than sight or smell, because it’s a lot harder to get away from. And it can function in a way that sight, limited and confined by the necessity of streets and buildings, can’t, to let your protagonists know that something is coming from streets away.
I don’t know. I just think it’s fun to play with.
5) Lots of dirty people in one place = disease city.
This is why sewers are a Good Thing, and not just to have convenient places for the hero to sneak into buildings from. They carry away the waste that otherwise might build up in the streets and make people sick. If you do the crazy thing I derided in point 1 and try to establish your city away from any water whatsoever, then no sewers for you! (I wonder what the people in the floating city do. Do they dump everything over the side? I can’t imagine that would make them very popular with the neighbors they’re passing over at the moment. “Gods damnit, they’re raining their shit on our heads again!”)
But even if you have sewers, lots of people crowded together + dirty state of most fantasy cities + lack of advanced medical technology = a whole hell of a lot more plague and localized outbreaks, logically, than most cities seem to suffer.
You can use magic to make compromises, if you like. Perhaps the city government keeps a whole host of water-purifying mages on hand, just to make sure that people don’t get cholera.
You can use it to show classism. Perhaps, if disease breaks out in the slums, the higher classes wall them up and leave people there to die in primitive quarantine.
You can also make accommodations that will help the plot. Perhaps there are street-cleaners, and the runaway heroine can hide in their guild because no one would think to look for her there. Perhaps the nobles flee the city because of the plague, and the city really is half a ghost town, populated only by the sick and those healthy who can’t or won’t leave. Perhaps enemies besieging the city put something that induces disease in the city’s water supply (though they would have to be clever to do so, because leaving their water undefended would prove the city-dwellers are really stupid). Perhaps a “normal” outbreak of disease in one of the slums is treated as just a minor problem at first, but it’s actually the first coming of a plague that will make the Black Death of Europe look benign.
I’m all for introducing disease into fantasy cities, or considering the possibility. Hell, here’s a force that will shape your plot, make you more sharply define your city’s government and architecture, and dump drama and momentum and motivation on the characters that yet another horde of faceless conspirators couldn’t drum up in a hundred smoky rooms. Plus, it makes sense.
6) Tie the city in to the politics around it.
Whether your city is a city-state, the capital of a nation, a trading port, the residence of a king or noble, or something else, it is still part of the fantasy world. It’s a more volatile and delicate part than, say, a single village, because while a village’s political pull is often easy to estimate, a city’s can vary enormously, and run in two directions: it might command the attention and loyalty of the villages around it, but be itself subject to threat from another country, command from the capital city, and rivalry with another trading port.
So, know how your city will bend and flow in the shifting tides. Among things to consider:
- Capability of defense/attack. This is not automatically a corollary of its population. Remember, if 50% of a city’s inhabitants live in teeming slums and have never held a weapon, it’s unlikely that they’ll make good trained soldiers. Sword fodder, maybe. Their overlords might not be comfortable letting them have weapons, either, because what if they decided to turn on enemies closer to home?
- Food. Always a concern, since most cities won’t have gardens or fields in the midst of them. If the enemy manages to cut off incoming carts or ships, never mind besiege, starvation will come a-hunting.
- Trade. A city could make a lot of money choking tariffs off incoming ships—if the incoming ships would stand for it. What’s going to happen if a rival city takes offense at the tariffs, or the rival drops tariffs and attracts trade to itself instead? For that matter, what’s going to happen if someone discovers a new trade good at a distance from or near the city?
- Being traded. If the city is near a border, and the country it’s currently in loses a war, it might be traded to the enemy as part of the peace treaty. Then it might be won or lost or traded back. How do people deal with that? Do they consider themselves citizens of both countries? Neither? Do certain classes or groups hold more loyalty towards one nation than the other, and what might they do if they fear that “their” nation is about to lose the war?
- Intra-city politics. A merchants’ group or guild might favor building a new road through the mountains to get back and forth faster, and thus make money. The masons, or whoever else does roadwork, might like that, too. On the other hand, there will be politicians who want to use the money elsewhere in the city, makers of certain goods who don’t want cheap goods from another place pouring in, and “concerned citizens” who look ahead to the immigrants the roads will attract and dislike the prospect. Never neglect how easily a “simple” issue can get snarled up by this kind of thing.
And on, and on, and on. The main thing is to remember that, no matter how grand and magnificent and ancient your city, it’s not static or isolated. It has got to change to survive, particularly if the world around it is dynamic.
I have more ideas, for the second part, but that’s enough right now.
Interesting city-oriented fantasies:
- Terry Pratchett’s Guards subseries of Discworld novels
- Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic duology
- Steven Brust’s first two Khaavren Romances, and certain books of his Vlad Taltos series (particularly Teckla, which deals with what happens when the despised human immigrants start revolting against the Empire—in the Empire’s capital city).
- K. J. Bishop, The Etched City.
- Paula Volksy, Illusion.
- Simon R. Green, Guards of Haven and Swords of Haven.