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Top Questions To Ask When Building Your Fictional City (The Sequel!)

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If you haven’t seen it yet, check out my first post on this topic, where I explore some questions writers can ask themselves when building the foundations of their fictional city.

Once again, I am asking questions that I consider important for the writer to think about as they develop their city, what it is about that particular aspect of the city that makes it relevant to the plot, potential ways it could be used in the story, and some writing prompts where you can implement that part of the city into the story (also known as Brioche’s Excellent Examples!).

And finally, before I start, I just want to add that my intention with these articles is both to help you worldbuild and to help you determine what theme or message you want to send with your story. All stories have some kind of lesson or theme. Is it a critique of the ruling class? A reminder that anyone–no matter who they are–is capable of making a difference in the world? An acknowledgment of both the beautiful and not-so-beautiful things about life and being human? Consider these things as we delve into these questions and hopefully flesh out your magnificent city.

Let’s begin.

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 kind of technology does the city use?

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What kind of technology does your city use, and who can usually use it? Are there limitations to it? Is there any tech that only the wealthiest or most connected people can use? Is there a newer kind of tech that older people don’t quite understand how to use yet? Would your city be able to function without this technology?

Why It’s Relevant: Easy: the kind of technology your city has (or doesn’t have) could have a big impact on the kinds of problems and solutions your characters encounter. Are they dealing with some shadowy, massively influential tech conglomerate with seemingly limitless resources and eyes all over the city? Has the ruling class put a ton of funding into high tech cameras and listening devices to surveil the masses? Can the characters use any of the technology in their city to communicate with one another? Are there ways they can use technology against the antagonist[s]? If so, how?

There are countless ways technology can play a role in your story, and it’s important to establish the capabilities and limitations of it early on, particularly if you’re writing sci-fi.

Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding, conflict

Brioche’s Excellent Example: In Anestead City, having a Bitty Chip is a must. It lets you access everything with the tap of your wrist: your home, your car, your job, your bank account, and even things like elevators and sliding doors. Brandy used to think nothing of the little chip, until one day, she finds that it no longer grants her access to her own belongings. Erased from the city’s extensive database on every single citizen, Brandy begins to uncover a vast conspiracy in which some of the city’s highest ranking politicians are involved.

2. What kind of architecture does your city have?

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How is your city structured? What do buildings look like, and what geological features might contribute to how they are designed? Is magic or any kind of super advanced technology involved? Do different neighborhoods/districts/boroughs have different styles? Are there maybe monsters or unusual creatures that make certain kinds of buildings preferable to fend off attacks? Are the inhabitants of the city built in such a way that would make certain designs for them better than others?

Why It’s Relevant: It probably won’t be the most relevant thing in terms of plot, but it’ll definitely help paint a picture of how your city functions and how your world’s inhabitants have adjusted to whatever it is nature has to throw at them.

Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture, climate)

Brioche’s Excellent Example: The town of Duskgard is fortified by massive walls constructed of pure silver to keep out the vampire threat, and guarded by soldiers armed with crossbows and silver-tipped bolts. Every home is built with large panels that absorb as much sunlight as possible, and pre-installed security systems that bathe the house in artificial sunlight in the event of an emergency.

3. What’s the weather like in your city?

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Is it sunny? Rainy? Windy? Does the magic in your world have some kind of impact on the climate, especially in a city with a highly dense population? Is there any magic or technology that can be used to regulate temperatures in major cities? Is there anything supernatural about the weather, like raining blood, or wind that whispers to you, or lightning that polymorphs you if it zaps you?

Why It’s Relevant: Similar to the architecture, the weather helps to establish the kinds of challenges the inhabitants of your city face and how they adjust to it. A region prone to frequent storms is one thing, but if the bad weather is supernatural in nature, it can get a whole lot more dangerous. How do people adjust? Can they adjust? Or is a massive loss of life every time there is some kind of storm to be expected in this world?

It can also make for a good obstacle for your protagonists if they are not native to the area and don’t know how to handle being caught in dangerous weather.

Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (climate), conflict

Brioche’s Excellent Example: The city of Phalor has been plagued with raining syrup ever since a witch cursed the ruling family for exiling her. Since then, the city’s inhabitants have gotten used to wearing sturdy raincoats wherever they go and building large awnings to protect their homes from the slime. They also make a mean pancake. It’s the best breakfast spot in the realm.

4. What is law enforcement like in the city?

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What kind of laws do they enforce, and how do they enforce them? Are they corrupt? Would the main characters trust them, or not? Do they have any special abilities or technology? Are there laws that they do or don’t enforce that might surprise readers?

Why It’s Relevant: Well, when people think “law enforcement,” they usually think of punitive policing and ways to replicate that within their own world. However, I think it’s important to mention that, while we may never exist in a reality where the public doesn’t believe we need punitive justice rather than rehabilitation, that doesn’t mean the same has to apply to the fictional world you’re creating.

So how do the people of your city manage crimes, particularly violent ones? What steps do they take to make sure that everyone is safe, healthy, and happy? What happens to people who break the law? And if your protagonists come in contact with the law enforcement of your city, how would that kind of exchange play out?

If you wanted to make your setting a commentary on corruption in law enforcement, that of course is always an option too.

Potential Story Purpose: Inciting Incident/Call to Action, worldbuilding (culture), conflict

Brioche’s Excellent Example: In the city of Irigas, there is no law enforcement but instead spectral guardians who work to heal the minds and hearts of law breakers. The needs of all citizens are provided for and community is valued over individuality, greatly reducing crimes out of desperation or greed. But when the magic that fuels the spectral guardians begins to drain from the land, it’s up to the scrappy Dandelion squad to restore the dying magic and save the city.

5. Is the city known for being a major “center” for anything in particular?

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Silicon Valley is known as the “global center” for technology and innovation. So what is your city known for? It doesn’t even have to be an industry; is it maybe the best place to live if you’re a monster or a wizard or a cyborg? Is it where aspiring mages go to learn the craft? Is it partially a city, partially a stronghold for seasoned monster hunters?

Simply put, what makes your city unique? What does the rest of your world know it for, and who might best be suited for it (or most likely to avoid it)?

Why It’s Relevant: Every city has personality. New York City is “The Big Apple,” the melting pot. Paris is the City of Love. Los Angeles is the “Hollywood” city. No doubt, whatever your city is known for will become relevant to the characters in some way, either through the people they encounter, the places they go, or the obstacles they run into. And of course, your city can be known for a lot of different things.

Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture)

Brioche’s Excellent Example: The city of Dracon is a hub for dragons and dragon riders across the realm. It is structured to accommodate flight and the dragons’ immense size, and is situated atop the tallest of cliffs. The city comes under threat when a clan of dragon hunters seize power in the nation, and it’s up to Des and her young dragon Astor to protect the endangered dragons and city from the powerful cult of dragon killers.

6. Is there organized crime in the city?

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If there is, how does it operate? How much influence do they have on the city at large? What is their goal, and how is it relative to the protagonist’s story? Do they have any kind of pull in law enforcement or government? Do they have various “branches?” And do these “branches” have any kind of front, like restaurants or casinos? Are they seen as respected members of the community, a terrifying force that secretly controls the city, or both? What is it about them that gives them power and influence?

Why It’s Relevant: Organized criminals always make great antagonists (or hey, maybe allies) in any story. In the case of sci-fi, they be the owners of a black market in a cyberpunk city, or in the case of fantasy, a magic cartel that runs the city from the shadows. A network of criminals killing with impunity in the name of profits and influence over a city (or even an entire nation, or the world) is not exactly an unheard of in our own world, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put a supernatural or sciency (?) spin on it.

Potential Story Purpose: Inciting Incident/Call to Action, worldbuilding (culture), conflict

Brioche’s Excellent Example: Using wands and other relatively harmless and standard magic tools and ingredients as a front, the Grey Bloods run the realm’s market right under everyone’s noses. They operate in the realm’s capitol city, Shaport, but their influence stretches far and wide–and they have a monopoly on all things magic, especially the dangerous underground spells that those with any good sense would do well to stay far away from.

7. What parts of the city do people usually avoid?

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What is it about these areas that makes people avoid them? Who usually lives in these places? What is the history of these areas–how did they get to be the way they are? Are there any urban legends about these areas that further push the narrative that they are dangerous and to be avoided?

Why It’s Relevant: I could get into a whole big thing about gentrification and the deliberate efforts of those in charge to deny certain areas with certain demographics important resources to make them appear more “dangerous” or “bad,” but that seems like an Angry Noodle post for another day.

Instead, I’ll just say that if there’s a part of the city that people avoid, it will usually end up being place the protagonists need to go to find something rare and important that they need, whether it be a person with information, a message or code, an object of value, etc, etc. “The place that no one goes” can be many things in a science fiction or fantasy story, but it will usually also serve as a place where the heroes run into some kind of obstacle to get that valuable thing they need.

Potential Story Purpose: Inciting Incident/Call to Action, worldbuilding (culture), conflict

Brioche’s Excellent Example: Seim City is distinct from others in that it is the Silicon Valley of android innovation. But there’s an obsolescence problem: whenever a new model of android servants is released, the previous model is relegated to a shoddy, neglected district where they are soon forgotten. This has led to that section of the city becoming a hotbed of criminal activity and malfunctioning androids long forgotten.

8. Is there any kind of “shady dealings,” “black market” kind of place where you can buy illegal stuff? (Naughty, naughty)

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Kind of going off of organized crime (sort of?), but let’s talk about the illegal stuff instead of the people who profit off of it. What kind of things can be bought, sold, or traded here? Is this place very well hidden, requiring the right connections to access? Does your city’s law enforcement know anything about it? Are any of them part of it? What are some of the most dangerous things you can buy here–illegal tech, dangerous magic, weapons, hard drugs? Does it stay in one place or do the “vendors” move around frequently?

Why It’s Relevant: If your world (and your city) does have some kind of underground black market–whether physical, through some kind of network, or hell, in dreams or something–it can be relevant for a few things: One: It shows the reader what kinds of things the citizens and the government value by showing them what is strictly not allowed and why. Two: It can serve the ‘part of the city no one ever goes to’ purpose. Maybe your protagonists know of an important artifact being sold and they need to brave this underground market to find it. Three: You can demonstrate just how messed up you want your world to be. No, seriously. If you’re writing a more lighthearted, feel-good kind of fantasy story, you could write about a black market that trades in more powerful magic without really going into more detail. Or the things traded at this market are things that, to us, aren’t even that bad or dangerous. But if you’re writing something pretty dark, maybe that black market buys and trades sacrifices? Body parts? Drained souls? I don’t know man, but I’m sure you creative, twisted, talented writers will figure it out.

Potential Story Purpose: Inciting Incident/Call to Action, conflict

Brioche’s Excellent Example: Callisto is a city that exists only in dreams. It is a beautiful, magical city so perfect that all waking people who know of its existence anticipate the moment where they can finally go to sleep just to visit it again. But a rare few know of the secret, nightmarish version of the city, where the shadowy inhabitants trade addictive dreams for pieces of their soul, slowly draining the life and spirit out of their desperate customers.

9. How are citizens treated? Is everyone in the city treated the same?

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Is there a ruling class that gets preferential treatment? Is there somewhere in the city they tend to live (think Billionaire’s Row in Manhattan, NYC)? Are there any laws or regulations that clearly favor certain people over others? Any buildings or neighborhoods that only allow particular groups of people? What privileges do the “higher status” people get that everyone else is denied? Or what injustices do some groups of people face that the rest of the population doesn’t even think about?

Why It’s Relevant: Hey, man. We live in a society. And more than likely, your characters do too. Typically, that unfortunately means that inequality is a part of that society. But how does it manifest? Think about the themes that your story is trying to capture, and see how that might translate to your story even if the society featured in your story is wildly different from our own. If everybody is a blob, for example, what separates the high status blobs from the middle and low status blobs? Is it the texture? The color? The (general) shape? The number of tentacles?

Or to use the better, Rick & Morty example, is there tension between aliens with “flat concentric nipple rings” and “cone nipples,” that could result in an alien race war after being released from the mental imprisonment of being infested by a hive mind parasite?

Potential Story Purpose: Characterization, worldbuilding, conflict

Brioche’s Excellent Example: In The Core City, every Crux is created equal–except the detestable Hexxers, whose dark magic and addiction to pain make them the most reviled inhabitants of the city. They live in a district separated from every other magic class and their respective districts, and are monitored closely by the city’s government agency of telepathic spies, the Core City Bureau of Intelligence.

10. What are the most important buildings in the city?

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What makes this building so important? What does it look like? Who frequents it? Is it important to the story, the city, or both? What kinds of things can you find in this building?

Why It’s Relevant: Its relevance to the story depends on what makes it important. Is it a government building where the tyrannical dictator that runs the city resides? Could the final showdown happen there? Is it the place where a portal to your world’s magic realm exists? Is it where your hero encounters someone important to their journey? Hell, is it a place that every native of the city knows of but maybe isn’t immediately relevant to the story?

Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture)

Brioche’s Excellent Example: In Current York, the immortal Council of York meets at the Great Conference Building once every year to decide what blessings or misfortunes should befall each of the city’s inhabitants. It is a huge spectacle, and everyone crowds into and around the building that day to witness the Council make their grand appearance. But one year, one of the Councilors is missing and the people of Current York are cursed with great misfortune, worst than ever before.

Bonus:

11. What are the best restaurants in the city?

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Where’s the spot to get a delicious meal? Is it a breakfast place? A bougie brunch spot? A quiet little diner in a small corner of the city? A street food vendor somewhere? Is the food cheap, expensive? What do they serve there? What makes it the “best” place to eat? Who works there? Are they significant to the story in any way? What might the characters order? Would they like the food there? What would they talk about if they went there?

Why It’s Relevant: Honestly, this isn’t what I would call a super important question to ask yourself about your city, but it’s where the cute date between shippable characters can take place, so it’s important in my book!

Potential Story Purpose: Characterization, worldbuilding (culture)

Brioche’s Excellent Example: In the superhero city of Atomomore, Noodlenetic is the best noodle shop, and everyone knows it. It’s a tiny food cart close to the apartment where Essi lives and only a 15-minute walk from where she studies: the University of Future Heroes. It is at this little noodle cart where she goes to order some broccoli alfredo (the best noodles) that she meets her future sidekick and partner–little does she know!

12. Is your city a hot spot for tourism?

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Is your city a popular tourist destination? Is your protagonist a native of the city, or are they also just visiting? Do the city’s natives like having tourists, or do they see them as a nuisance? What are the cool landmarks or fun spots for tourists to go when visiting your city for the first time? Are there any tourist traps that aren’t really that impressive, but it’s the first thing people think of when they think of the city? And going off of cool sites to see, what are some things a visitor to your city should keep in mind? Any scams, things to look out for, cool unique spots that other tourists don’t usually go to see?

Why It’s Relevant: I usually imagine this kind of question as a great thing to brainstorm when looking for a place for characters to go when you’re in that chill part of the story where they’re all getting to know each other. It’s also a fun way to breathe life into your city and show off what makes it uniquely yours.

A lot of writers put a lot of thought into their worldbuilding only to never get to put most of it to good use. But I am of the philosophy that [most] books, even the darkest and bleakest of them, can have some kind of moment of peace where the protagonists just get to be themselves–even if only briefly. This is the kind of place where that moment can happen.

Potential Story Purpose: Worldbuilding (culture, climate)

Brioche’s Excellent Example: The monster sanctuary Jand has several major tourist spots, but the biggest one is Fiasco, a human buffet downtown. Monsters from all over the world visit just for a taste of the delicious human treats that have become increasingly scarce as of late. It might sound morbid, but hey, it’s one of the demon lord Reyadh’s favorite spots to meet with friends and plot world domination.


NOODLE NOOOOOOOISES!

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For this post, I want to give a special thanks to the wonderful SARAH TOLLOK. Not only has Sarah been a Patron of mine for over six months now, but she has been one of the most supportive and wonderful people I’ve ever met on my writing (and noodly) journey.

She also happens to be a fantastic writer whose author site you should absolutely check out.

It means a lot that she’s a beloved Patron, but words can’t describe how amazing it’s been for me to have someone encourage me the way she has, even in small ways. It has been an honor and a joy both to read her work and to have her as a Twitter buddy. So as always, thank you so much, Sarah!

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2 thoughts on “Top Questions To Ask When Building Your Fictional City (The Sequel!)”

  1. Pingback: The Core City - The Angry Noodle

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