Yeah, can’t think of any grander title than that.
1) Make sure other parts of the city exist than just ones that tie in to the city’s “reputation.” Just like fantasy countries, fantasy cities get reputations assigned to them. One might be a decadent city. One might be a city of learning. One might be a trading city. One might be the city that was once the center of a flourishing empire but is now dying. And so on. There’s nothing wrong with these reputations in moderation; they can help keep cities straight that would otherwise blur in readers’ minds, and they let the author have some idea about what bits of her plot to set where. And they’re similar to reputations that many cities in the real world acquire.
However, think about cities in the real world for a moment. Not everything in them is true to the reputation. Many people probably think “horse-racing, Churchill Downs” when they think of Louisville, Kentucky, for example, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the city works in horse-racing and wastes all their money on bets. Many people might think “rude” as a stereotype of New York, but would as easily acknowledge that not everyone from there is rude. On it goes.
Yet fantasists create and enforce these stereotypes of their own cities as if they were truths. Only people who confirm them appear—often with no regard for things like class distinctions that would produce, oh, different vocabularies and dialects—and many times the protagonist/other stranger to the city even thinks something like, “In his coldness, Shanna knew, he was a typical inhabitant of Essamoron.”
There’s really no one to blame for this but the authors who do it. They’re the ones creating the cities and those reputations. They’re the ones who choose to group everyone into lumps that turn out to be no more exciting, in the end, than the typical lumps like “pretty” for elves and “evil” for goblins. It’s boring.
Once again, knowing the geography, politics, and history of your city are key. Those will have much more effect on people’s lives than any reputation, especially if they’re not functioning as tourist traps. There might be a stereotype, as perpetuated in a bardic lay, that all the lower-class workers of Essaidiot are friendly and helpful to strangers. But if the unemployment rate among them is high, they live near the river where malaria spreads like wildfire in summer, and there’s traditionally little option to break free from hard work and an early death, they wouldn’t have any reason to turn all bright and helpful and sparkly when a stranger comes along.
2) Go deep in geography. This is the price for a story set largely or entirely in a city. You have to know its geography, and how the different parts of the city act on each other, in a way that you don’t when the characters are trotting over indistinguishable hills and through innumerable forests that all resemble each other, and staying in inns that could be transplanted from one place to the other with no trouble. Of course, I think a good journey story won’t ignore the differing landscapes either, but so much else is happening on a journey story that readers often fall easily into ignoring the geographical blips as long as characterization and action are high.
In a city, even a big one, there’s not as much lateral motion to lull the reader and convince her that the story has a destination. You have to know what the different districts are, what divides them, what happens when one district suffers a fire (of the kind that heroes often set accidentally or on purpose) or a scuffle (of the kind that heroes often find themselves involved in), what the escape routes are, what businesses are where, where the streets are alleys and where they’re broad and open, what kind of areas are quiet at night and which are not, where you might reasonably expect to find good restaurants and well-respected temples and quiet places to speak, who hangs out at which location…
You see the trouble. Sketching in a wild place can work. There aren’t often many people there, and the characters are just passing through. At most, there may be convenient trees for an enemy to hide behind and inconvenient streams to ford. In a city, there are many people (most of the time) packed closely together, and if the author says in one chapter that the best district is south of the river, then in the next chapter that it’s north of the river, the contradictions are a lot likelier to get her in trouble. Readers can forgive all they like, but if the character runs the wrong direction, it can screw up the entire plot, given the contained nature of the setting.
So. Go deep. Be prepared to wield details when you need them. You’ll still know more about your city than any reader will ever find out, but at least you’ll know it, and not be tempted to treat the geography as if it were one more grassy meadow under the stars with a single tree and a running stream for water.
3) Know the most important, and most vulnerable, parts of your city. One good rule of thumb might be to look at the largest buildings in your city. Are they the most important? Perhaps not. Perhaps their owners just have enough money to build them that high. But, in that case, their owners might be important. And it can give you a good clue as to what the city made its reputation on.
Temples? Why are the gods big here? Perhaps the city was founded by the child of a god. Perhaps a god performed a miracle here. (Manifestations of the Virgin Mary and Jesus have often lured Christians to many out-of-the-way places in our own world). Perhaps the gods regularly bless people with their favor. To promote Simon R. Green again, there’s an entire Street of the Gods in his city of Haven, with gods and weird manifestations and their priests making space-time bend like crazy.
Banks? You’ve probably got a mercantile city. The banks, or whatever else you use to store and count money, don’t have to be big and imposing…but on the other hand, why not? Bigness often does the work if you want to impress people, and so does decoration, and there’s no question but that owners of banks would usually have the money to do so.
Sports arenas? Well, admittedly, there aren’t a lot of organized sports in fantasy unless they’re based on our own world, but they could be gladiatorial arenas. Then you get to think about how the gladiatorial business started, and perhaps envision a trade in slaves and/or hopeful mercenaries willing to try their luck that could become important to your major plot.
Seats of government? This is pointing towards a political fantasy (on which I must do a rant at some point). The government that can afford such a huge and impressive building is going to be important, and almost certainly influence other parts of your story, unless they’re very self-contained and never spill over into illegal/violent activity that would attract the government’s attention. But please, don’t follow the usual stereotype and make all of the city council into intriguing buffoons whom the hero will shock with his “straightforward manner.” If they’ve got that much money, they’re doing something right.
As for vulnerability, I mentioned the water supply in the previous rant. Are there routes into the city that aren’t well-guarded due to disuse or people not knowing about them? (I have no words for fantasy characters who know about the routes and yet refuse to guard them, beyond, “That’s stupid.”) For riots and rebellions inside the city, the very size of some buildings will make them targets. A mob might decide that priests are the enemy and attack the temples. And if a building has very open porticos, glass windows, and broad staircases, it’s not going to be easy to defend. If it’s distant from the guard barracks, or wherever else armed protectors usually gather, doubly so.
For this one, you’re going to have to think like an enemy. Know, by all means, what your heroes can do stop an invasion, but also think of where the enemy would strike in the first place. Enemies often make what seem like half-hearted attempts, and this in turn makes me think that authors are thinking too hard as their heroes and want to give them a strike they can stop.
4) Remember, fine crafts= workers to make them. I sometimes have the impression that no one in a city exists but the higher class/nobles (along with, sometimes, their servants) and the thieves/assassins/people of other illegal professions. This does not strike me as a very efficient way to run a city, especially one that the author wants to write a lot of short stories in or use as the detailed background for a novel.
This doesn’t mean that you have to have a middle class. I’ve read some complaints that they just don’t fit into a medieval fantasy novel. Fine, fine. But at the same time, your nobles are wearing necklaces and rings, and sipping fine wines, that you claim were made and grown in the city. All the while, the only characters who continue to exist are the nobles, who certainly won’t stoop to such menial labor, and the thieves/assassins, who are busy stealing the fruits of the menial labor rather than making them.
You see the problem.
Here’s where a touch of the ordinary will serve you well. You might not have time to delve into every crafter’s shop, or the open market, along the way. But it will do you good to know where those shops are or that market is, to know what crafts are common in your city and which are rare enough to result in high prices or imports, to know what kind of ordinary people might serve as the protagonists’ allies and spies and acquaintances and passerby. A city, by its very nature—gathering a bunch of people in one place—insures that there will be filth to be cleaned, meals to be cooked for more than one individual or family, social activities to be engaged in (who fills the temples with congregations and the banks with money?), and complex tasks to be performed that aren’t possible if only sixty or seventy people live in one place.
Keep a sharp eye on this. It’s wonderful if your city has an economy, since that’s a branch of worldbuilding fantasy too often ignores. But remember: economies depend on people as well as products.
5) Know the condition of animals in the city. The first question you might want to ask is: Are horses allowed?
Yes, I’m serious.
You see, horses are extremely common animals in most fantasy cities, to the extent that I’ve only seen one I can remember where horses were generally discouraged (Steven Brust’s Draegara City). But they present problems. They drop wastes all over that are hard to clean up and can cause disease. There are many places—up steps, down narrow alleys—that they can’t go. A reckless gallop on the back of one endangers people on foot. Carts and carriages can get away from their drivers and cause more death, or damage to property if they hit a building. Horses are prone to slipping on cobblestones, possibly breaking a leg, or dropping and killing their riders. When snow and rain come, the danger of slippage on cobblestones increases, and dirt roads become hard-to-travel mud. A noble lord who rides his horse through mud is going to have to wait longer than normal for a servant to brush it off.
Before you initiate a reckless horseback race across the city, decide whether they’re allowed, and why. Remember to make arrangements for the problems they present. Reconsider allowing them in all districts of the city; a noble might keep his horse for show when trotting to a friend’s house, but wouldn’t ride it down by the river, where there’s not only stone made slippery by water but plenty of horse thieves. It’s another easy touch of reality to add.
-Rats. Often a problem, especially if they carry plague-infested fleas. A good sign of a clean house might be if no rats are in the offing.
-Dogs. Why do people have them? Why do they let them roam outside? A pet left to roam the streets stands a good chance of becoming part of a feral pack or someone else’s dinner and gloves in a medieval environment. If the owner keeps hunting dogs, then why bring the dogs into the city? (Unless there’s a private game park).
-Cats. They may be better able to take care of themselves than dogs if they roam, but they’re certainly not immune to harm. And cats having babies anywhere they like, or leaving dead rats likewise, may not become the most favored of animals.
-Pigeons. Yes, your characters can train them as carrier birds. They’re also absolute pests, given their noise and shit and filth.
Other animals in a city are not necessarily going to live in harmony with humans. Think about it before you include them. An urban environment isn’t natural; how do they adapt?
Aaaand adult bildungsromans are next. And then writing fantasy without magic.