So, I’ve seen many blogs talk about fictional cities and the things you need to keep in mind or questions you need to ask when creating one. I’ve found these kinds of posts extremely helpful, but one thing I still always struggled with was how to make these important features of the city relevant to the narrative itself.
I decided that, for this post, I would ask questions that I consider important for the writer to keep in mind, what could make that particular fact about the city relevant, the story purpose it could serve, and possible ways that these questions could appear in the actual story. We’ll call these…Brioche’s Excellent Examples.
Potential Story Purposes:
- Inciting Incident/Call to Action (whatever it is that starts the story)
- Characterization (character’s place in the world, personality, problem, abilities, etc)
- Worldbuilding (culture, magic, climate, plant/animal life, etc)
- Conflict (antagonist, problem the character faces)
1. What is the “hub” of the city? A market, shopping district, garden etc.?
What’s a place in your city that everyone knows about? Why is it so important? What can you find there?
Why It’s Relevant: It gives your city a lot of personality to have a central “hub” that all the locals know about and go to frequently. It also makes for a really, really good location either to introduce your story in an interesting way that gives readers a taste of your world and your city or to make the inciting incident happen. A place with so much activity presents a ton of opportunities!
Potential Story Purpose: Inciting incident/call to action, worldbuilding (culture), characterization
Brioche’s Excellent Example: In this beautiful sci-fi city, let’s call it Toast, there is a huge, sprawling market dubbed But’Ter, right at the center. It’s at this market that our intrepid hero, Jake Ke’Lar, encounters a mysterious hooded figure who sends him on a quest to lead the revolution against the oppressive Toasty government.
2. What is the city’s water and/or food source?
Where do the city’s inhabitants get their food and water? Do they fish from a nearby river or the ocean? Are they a farming village? Do they mostly trade another resource in exchange for food?
Why It’s Relevant: A food/water source is pretty important! Even if it doesn’t play a major role in your story, it’s probably something you should consider.
Potential Story Purpose: Inciting incident, conflict, worldbuilding (culture, climate, plant/animal life)
Brioche’s Excellent Example: In the small fishing town of Brioche, most of the food and water they get is from fishing in the River Ricotta, and they have a lively fish market where they do trade with other villagers for supplies. But trouble arises when evil river spirits start attacking fishermen and claim the River Ricotta as their own. It’s up to young warrior-in-training Byron Elling to defeat the angry river spirits and save his village from starvation.
3. Is there a separation between the “haves” and the “have nots?” If so, what does that separation look like?
Where do the wealthy live? The poor? Or does everyone live in (relative) harmony no matter their social status? Does social status even exist in this city? And if there’s a separation, is it a huge point of contention between the wealthy and everyone else (as it should be, eat the rich)?
Why It’s Relevant: With any society comes its problems and tensions. A divide between the “haves” and “have nots” is a classic and very relevant issue that a city might have. But if you decided to go the route of creating an interesting new type of city where there is no (visible) divide, that’s another thing to think about.
Potential Story Purpose: Conflict, characterization (is the protagonist a “have” or a “have not” and how does that impact their story?), worldbuilding (culture)
Brioche’s Excellent Example: When villagers begin showing up dead on the streets of Meringue, Lord Armstrong knows the Emperor is hiding something. But when the other nobles refuse to act and the Council opts to stand with their Emperor no matter what he may be hiding, Armstrong will have to risk his home, his family, and everything he knows to discover the truth for himself.
4. Who holds the most power in the city?
Is it one person like a mayor, an emperor/empress, king/queen? Or is it multiple people like a council or a senate? Are these leaders fair or corrupt? Politically savvy or incompetent? What impact does their leadership (or lack thereof) have on the city as a whole?
Why It’s Relevant: The people in charge can determine the problems the city (and by extension, the protagonist) faces.
Potential Story Purpose: Inciting incident/call to action (leaders could be the one sending the protagonist off on their adventure), conflict (if the leaders are corrupt), worldbuilding (culture)
Brioche’s Excellent Example: The mayor of Brassica City is corrupt, and everyone knows it. Aly knows it too. So when she’s offered the biggest and riskiest contract of her career–to assassinate the mayor himself–she accepts, not just for the challenge or the money, but for the pleasure of personally killing the most hated man in the city.
5. What kind of challenges does the city face?
Is the city under attack? Is it suffering a resource shortage? Financial hardships? Corrupt leaders (I know I’ve mentioned this a lot already. Get used to it)? Some sort of conspiracy that could threaten the balance? Magic or technology malfunction?
Why It’s Relevant: The problems the city faces are problems your character might face, even if indirectly.
Potential Story Purpose: Inciting incident/call to action, conflict, worldbuilding (anything, depending on what the city’s problems are)
Brioche’s Excellent Example: Cults and magical crime syndicates abound in the city of Urban, where humans and monsters reluctantly live together in precarious unity. Ancient vampire known only as The Disaster is used to death. But when she comes across the corpse of a murdered fellow monster, she is swept into an anti-monster conspiracy that could tear the already-tenuous peace between two worlds apart.
6. How does the city compare to other civilizations in the world?
Is it larger and wealthier than other cities? Is it in conflict with anywhere else? Is it the capital city of its respective country? Does it function differently than other cities due to its location or citizens?
Why It’s Relevant: Context is important and knowing how the city compares to the rest of the world is a good for readers to have in mind.
Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture, climate), conflict
Brioche’s Excellent Example: The underground city of Nether has been at war with its above-ground counterpart, Surface (I’m hella creative, shut up) for centuries. The denizens of Nether worship the dark while the denizens of Surface worship the sun. When Amber, a citizen of the Surface, suddenly finds herself trapped in Nether, she must find a way back home with a mob of angry surface-dwellers at her heels.
7. What kind of transportation does the city use?
Is the technology in the city effective? Are there problems with it that the characters might face when trying to get around? Is it run on magic? Souls? Blood? Laughter?
Why It’s Relevant: It might not sound as relevant as some of the other questions on this list, but if your characters are traveling around a lot (which in a sci-fi, fantasy, or urban fantasy, they probably are), the type of transportation they use could be a cool way to show off your world and the magic/technology it uses.
Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture)
Brioche’s Excellent Example: The Hell Train is the only form of transportation in The Abyss, and it runs on human blood. In order to make it out of The Abyss, one must sacrifice someone they love to fuel it enough to make it to the surface. When Andrew is thrown into The Abyss for leading a revolt against his country’s tyrannical government, he’ll have to find another way to get back home–or sacrifice the one he loves.
8. What jobs can you get in the city?
What jobs are highly respected? What jobs are not so respected or are taken for granted? Which jobs pay the best, and which jobs pay the worst? Are there any unique jobs that the city in your world has that couldn’t exist in the real world?
Why It’s Relevant: A city isn’t just the buildings where people live. It’s a good idea to at least show a glimpse of the kind of careers that the average citizen can have. It also makes for fun worldbuilding!
Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture), conflict, call to action (maybe your protagonist is working at a job they hate and is aspiring towards something better)
Brioche’s Excellent Example: After graduating from Conjure City’s Mystical Academy and officially earning his sorcery license, Nana is on top of the world. A sorcery license offers the best job prospects, from magical defense to harvesting and everything in between. But in a strange twist, he’ll have to use the very magic that earned him his license to oppose his former instructors and the shadowy forces they serve.
9. What role does magic or the supernatural play in the city, if any?
If you’re writing a fantasy, urban fantasy, or any kind of story that involves magic, how does the magic affect how the city functions? Is the magic hidden, or is it openly used? Can everyone in the city use this magic?
Why It’s Relevant: I really doubt a world where magic is possible wouldn’t have cities/towns that make some sort of practical use of it.
Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture, climate, conflict (if the magic causes problems), characterization (does the protagonist have magic?)
Brioche’s Excellent Example: The city of Occult is run by magic and all of its inhabitants rely heavily on it as a result. Magic is power and status in Occult. But when a strange cult emerges and begins purging magic-less individuals in the name of demon lord Rahaman, it’s up to aspiring apprentice magus Essi to uncover the secrets of Occult and put a stop to the demon lord’s cult.
10. When is the city active?
Are the inhabitants human or another species that’s active during the day? Or are they night-dwelling creatures? How does this affect the city’s dynamics?
Why It’s Relevant: If much of the story takes place in your city, you should keep in mind when it’s most active and when it’s least active, especially since the city is probably the most dangerous when it’s the least active.
Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture)
Brioche’s Excellent Example: Dan is a ghost whose friends and family have always roamed the city at night. Lisa is a human who knows how dangerous it is leave the house when the monsters are out after the sun goes down. A spell that forces the city into eternal night will force the pair to come together to bring balance back.
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Bryanna Gary is the founder of The Angry Noodle and a current editorial assistant at Del Rey Books–science fiction, fantasy, and horror imprint of Penguin Random House.