WorldBuilding: How to Create a City


Or a town, or a village really. I suppose this article should be titled how to structure any kind of populated area. What you call it depends on the size and how the locals identify themselves. I like writing travel stories along the lines of “a boy leaves home…” so each story usually contains several villages. If your character is just passing through, it’s acceptable to do a broad stroke of the place’s highlights, but spend any time there, and you’re going to want more detail.

For instance, Xoe, the heroine in my work-in-progress of a novel, calls the capital city home. She resides within the seat of the region, a huge castle-like structure with an assortment of accessory places, at least in the winter. There’s another capital location for the summer months. The main castle though has always been labeled with broad terms in my head—big, sprawling, all-encompassing—but it’s never been drawn out, or laid to paper in any way. This morning I set out to change that.

  • Starting to sketch

This is by far the hardest step, because if you’re not an artist that blank piece of printer paper is threatening. The first couple of lines you sketch out don’t line up at all with the image you have in your head and you feel embarrassed. Don’t get defeated, though. Equate this first attempt to the first rough draft of the story; it’s going to be ugly and cumbersome. But until you get it on paper, you can’t fix it. Even if all you can do it draw little boxes and label them, it’s a start.

  • Location, location, location

It’s generally a good idea to build cities around sources of clean water; after all, animals need water and people generally hunt animals, not to mention we need water too. The ocean might be a beautiful setting, but without a fresh water river nearby, the people are going to have to rely on rain. Then again, keep in mind that not everyone going to live close to the water, and sometimes the landscape changes. Just be aware that different locations are going to have different needs.

  • Is the city self-sufficient?

Do they have their own herds and gardens? Can they make their own money from trading, wagons for transportation, weapons for defending? Unless you’re writing a small, isolated village, there are probably going to be different tradespeople within the city limits. But regardless of how many trades are happening, there are always going to be people who want something they can’t readily get, thus…

  • Identify what kind of city it is

Some places are trade centrals because they are situated in the intersection of several major roads, and others are agriculture based. What makes this city unique next to the others nearby? Why might your character have ventured here?

  • Use districts

Divide the city into parts. It keeps things more manageable for you as the writer/artist, and also helps define the people therein along invisible lines. Consider these ideas for labeling: higher, lower, merchant, residential, guild, warehouse, theater, and pleasure.

  • Right side of town, wrong side of town

Every place in this world has both, and so should each imaginary place you build. Sometimes they’re established by income, poverty levels, race or access to resources. Sometimes it’s as simple as those people are on the opposite side of the city’s main landmark.

  • Don’t forget the bazaar

No matter how small a place is, there’s generally going to be a “center of town” where all the gossip flows and trade happens. Bigger cities with a diverse trade going will have a bazaar, and sometimes more than one (this goes back to the districts), but keep in mind the location of the city.

Finally, I have a word of caution based on my own experience from drawing maps. Don’t draw straight lines, and don’t draw lines to indicate divisions. Not only do block lines look tacky, but they’re not going to be good representations of what’s happening on the ground. If you need to label where the forest ends and the plains begin, use shading, or draw clustered little trees. You might also try colored pencils.

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12 Comments

  1. Even if you are an artist, a blank piece of paper is intimidating. If you don’t draw a map for your novel, at least draw one for yourself so that you can keep things straight in your story. These are some great points to consider. I especially like the idea of specific districts within the city. Areas along the docks of the river or bay may be a bit rougher and have more taverns for the sailors. The palaces of nobles might be clustered around the main castle. Some cities might be based on some sort of natural fortification for defensive purposes. So much to think about. Thanks!

  2. I loved your line about the drawing : “But until you get it on paper, you can’t fix it. Even if all you can do it draw little boxes and label them, it’s a start.” I finally learned that lesson with my own writing, shucking my “this scene has to be just PERFECT” mentality because really, it just has to be there!

    This entire post is amazing, thank you for posting it!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Melanie. I too have found that when I write, I want it to be perfect the first time around, and only when I’m able to set that notion aside and JUST write am I able to make any progress. But it’s always a battle–each time you sit down at the keyboard, you have to start all over with convincing yourself.

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