How does one go about creating a fictional city? Could anything be more strange, vibrant or improbable than Mumbai, or Rio de Janeiro, London or Orlando? Where does one start, what should one focus on, how much detail is needed, and how much is too much?
Most fantasy cities are generic European medieval knock-off’s. There’s a castle, an inn where the hero stays on his first night, a town square, docks, whore houses, and all of it divided into quarters (merchant’s, noble’s, poor, middle class). Cobbled streets, open air markets, patrolling watchmen, etc. There are a thousand of these, and none are memorable.
Than you have the more distinctive cities. New Crobuzon by China Mieville is a steampunk vision of London, replete with just about anything and everything you could imagine. Vast ribs from some gargantuan monster arch up over a part of the city, encasing it, while a huge snowglobe encases a desert micro-ecosystem to house the resident cactus people. It’s vibrant, gaudy, raucous and brilliant. Criss crossed with railways, bubbling with political crises and so real it seems tangible, China’s creation is a paragon of fictional cities everywhere. But how did he start?
Do you grow your city organically, postulating why it was originally settled, what economic factors brought it into being, and then fast forward the timeline, taking into account invasions, wars, political developments, until you end up with the modern product? Or do you figure out what elements your novel calls for (catacombs, a massive port, a house of congress) and fill in the rest as you go? Do you simply base it off another city as China did with London, and recreate it in your own style?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how great cities I’ve never been to such as Mumbai are portrayed in great novels, and wondering if I could achieve that level of verisimilitude with a truly fictional one. What gets shown, what doesn’t? What is explained, and what is left for the reader to figure out? How much history and local politics is revealed, and how much is irrelevent? I think I’m going to do research on this not by reading fantasty novels, but by reading classic texts that are dominated by their settings (Paris-Sentimental Education, Mumbai-Sacred Games, Moscow-Anna Karenina).
Wish me luck!