How to Describe a Fantasy City
When writing descriptions, there is a constant battle between technical accuracy and word flow. You could write a long-winded description that leaves no room for misinterpretation, but it might come off as boring. Or you could write a quick, flowery description that sounds great but leaves the reader confused about where everything is.
I can’t say I know the magic formula of the two, but I do know that I tend to lean towards the flowery, vague descriptions. Because of this, I developed a questionnaire to help myself figure out what is in the city before I describe it. Not every answer should be incorporated into the description because then you’ll have the long-winded version, but I feel like its an important exercise, especially for early writers, to get a feel for what is important in any given scene and how to create rich environments.
This particular article will focus on a fantasy city (though it would probably apply to other types of cities as well) and I hope to write similar articles in the future focusing on other aspects of a story that need strong descriptions.
Ask Yourself: What Does It Look Like at First Glance?
General Building Structure
Shape, color, texture, and/or building materials. For example, a building made of sandstone with dark wooden lining will look much different than a building made of grey brick and a slate tiled roof. Similarly, circular buildings will look much different, and be organized differently, than square buildings.
Are the buildings closely packed with each other, creating narrow alleyways, or is stuff spread out? Are official buildings/castles separate from the common homes/markets or are they integrated? Is the city free-floating in a field of grass or is there a giant stone wall, or land form, that protects and separates this city from the elements and/or would-be attackers? Also, think of the different sections of a city. One area might be slum-like while another is a thriving market. Often there is a royal area where people of high birthright can avoid the riff-raff. Drawing an overview map always helps even if you’re not an artist.
Current Physical State
Is the city old and decaying? What is decaying specifically, the homes, roads or wagons? Maybe it's not decaying, but it’s just dusty and the floorboards always creek, or the wood is cracked. If it is not old, then the city might be newer; maybe represented by how clean the streets are, or how bold the paint is on the market signs. Maybe the people walking around all have crisp new clothing, or just generally keep themselves cleaner.
There could be fresh fruit and neatly arranged suits of armor for sale. Good and evil play a role, but not necessarily in the way one might think. A city could be engaging in the good side of a war effort, but it will take its toll on food, weapons and general morale of its people. Conversely, the leader of an evil city might love extravagance so his city is pristine and well kept. This ties a lot in with the plot your book is following and which characters hold influence over the city.
What Can the Character See?
You, the author, need to have the aerial view, but your protagonist probably doesn’t. So think about what they can see from their vantage point. Can they only see a few homes immediately in front of them before a road turns off in another direction? Do they see the roofs of taller buildings/castles above the others? Can they only see the city or is there a view to the countryside between some of the buildings?
Also, what is the plant to building ratio? Some cities have parks or strategically planted trees on the roadside. Is there harmony between nature and man-made objects or is one dominating the other? Similarly, statues, fountains, post boxes, and benches are all things that contribute to a city’s personality and realism.
How Is Your Character Going to Travel Through This City?
If the city is small, they can walk or travel on horseback, but what if it’s much larger? Are there roads built for wagon travel? Are there bridges over roadways to avoid traveling vehicles? Are there any special transportation methods specific to that city? (This would probably apply more to a modern/future city that uses monorails or subways.)
What Is the Collective Emotion and How Is It Reflected in the City?
Is the wood damp with sorrow? The gold shining with hope? This can also tie in with what I mentioned above about good and evil. An evil city could be pristine, but everyone lives in fear. A good city could be at war, but everyone looks out for each other. For example, a city that is heavily worn and faded could still feel warm and cozy, just like something overly extravagant could feel cold.
What Other Senses Are Dominant?
What Sounds Carry Through the Street?
While your character won’t notice every little sound (like a mouse skittering in an alley) they will notice some of the more obvious sounds when they enter. Are there cries of pain coming from the sick people in the street? Are their prostitutes on the street offering up their services? Is the city safe enough to have laughing children running without supervision? Also, take into consideration how the sound/mood changes when your character walks indoors. How does everything change? Is it better or worse than the sounds/sights outside? Noises get muffled and smells become less potent. Plus, inside there is likely to be more decorative objects because they are isolated from the elements outside.
Here are a few things you could consider: wagons and horses walking by if it is busy, wind and weather variations depending on how sheltered it is from the open air and weather (with a wall protecting it, the wind wouldn’t be as strong), animals sounds (horse neigh, bird chirp, dog growl), chattering crowds, laughter, children screaming as they chase each other, doors opening/closing, fountain water splashing, music, speeches from town officials or even the sound of banging metal if your city has a blacksmith.
What Smells Dominate the City?
If there is a plague, rotting flesh would be prominent. An older city would have to deal with horse manure, but flowers, ill repute, oil, and alcohol would all add a unique smell to the area. Consider how fresh the surrounding air is. If it is far enough away from plants it could seem musty or stale. And too much of any given smell will burn your character’s nostrils.
What Are the Finer Details?
How Are Objects Arranged in This City?
Think about what stuff is lying around; crates, carts, barrels, bums, horses, carriages, plants, etc. Are these things neatly stacked and organized, or are they lying in the streets, broken, or piled up in a corner? Also, think about how the houses/buildings are arranged. Is only one house dirty and unorganized while the others are clean, or is it the other way around?
Which Buildings Does Your Character Notice First?
The extravagant or the dilapidated? Think about why these buildings stand out. Maybe they have a different architecture, color, shape, or size. You don’t have to know much about design to include recognizable markers like pillars, animal statues or nature designs. Then think about what these designs, or the state of the building, commands; is it respect or shame and why? Does the building represent this emotion or the way people treat it? Figuring out these details will help develop stories for each important structure.
What Is the Land Surrounding the City Like?
Are the grass and trees dying or are they living harmoniously with a city that demands constant resources? Are other cities or settlements nearby? How do they affect the economy of your main city? Are they visible, or just mentioned? Consider what sort of dangerous animals live nearby, and whether or not they pose a threat to the city’s inhabitants. Figuring out the general terrain around your city will go a long way towards structuring their way of life. Putting it in the middle of lush grassy plains will be quite different from a desert.
What Sort of People Are Living in This Town?
Think about how age, race, size, language, demeanor and clothing styles all enrich a city’s culture. Ask yourself how the locals react to the characters as they enter the city? Are they happy to see a newcomer or annoyed? If they were to whisper something as your character passes, what would they say? How would they greet your protagonist, if they greet him at all? Does their behavior towards him reflect a collective mood?
What Are the Peoples' Lives Like Outside of the Story You're Telling?
So, what are they doing when your character arrives? Are they eating, playing, working, being lazy? Are children running through the streets while old men smoke and women buy fruit? Does the city come to a halt at the sight of new travelers or is it a common occurrence?
Once you have all of this information, you are then tasked with picking and choosing which ones are important. The purpose of this exercise was to bring out the details for you as the author and to enrich your descriptions, but you will have to cut it down for the story. Focus on what is important for the character to see (and thus the reader) and what flows well together.