Sunday, 28 August 2011

Creating a Fully-Developed City

My current WiP is set in a Gotham-esque city, where a few days ago I had a rough idea of four districts – shopping, business, industrial, and suburban. I scribbled out a map. I made notes of descriptions, what the bustling shopping district would be like against the ghostly industrial district. I was pretty proud of myself. The city was dark and eerie and a whole character in itself.


I got notes back from a beta, who commented on the less-than-adequate world-building. What? But – but – the districts! And the flashing lights! And the darkened alleys! How could anyone not love that?

Apparently, plenty of people.

A few more hours of research, I figured out what I was doing wrong, and it was a lot. (I’ll take this moment to bow down multiple times to my beta reader.)

I’m going to take you through the steps I used to design a city from scratch. Hopefully you’ll come out of the world-building process looking much better than I did the first time around!

Step One: Google images

Yep, I’ve mentioned it before in other posts, but I’m going to do it again. Designing a city in your head is all very well and good, but it’s those little details you won't come up with on your own that makes your setting real to the reader. This time, I’m going to give you a search phrase:

big city district map

You can change big to small, or city to village or town, or district to districts or get rid of the word altogether, whatever. Vary your searches and see if you can come up with a map that looks roughly how you pictured the city in your head.

Step Two: Alteration time!

Use Gimp, Photoshop, hell, even Paint, and make any changes you want, adding in coastlines or parks or mountains etc. It might not look great, but trust me, the visual makes a difference. Next, mark out the different districts you want in black or red. Use a key, because this part will be coupled with –

Step Three: Create your city districts

After much internet browsing (which wasn’t procrastination, I swear!), I discovered a few important elements to consider when creating districts.

Residents – includes wealth and ideologies, and will have an impact on infrastructure
History of the city
History of the district
Geography (whether it’s near ocean or river or mountains, etc)
Materials of buildings
Nature – parks/hedges/lakes/fountains
Relationship with other districts
Best-known places, run by people with history and personalities of their own
Religious buildings
Law buildings

Okay, that was more than a few.

But you don’t have to use all of these for every district. It’s just good to keep them in mind.

Let’s go with an example:

The Docks district is on the shoreline between the Vista and Noda districts. Colloquially known as the ‘Salt-Licker’ district, it’s packed with traders, fishermen, and travellers. There are plenty of storefronts and pubs, honeycombed with erosion and exotic enough to be suited to the many sea-faring visitors. The most popular tavern is Maychips, owned by Hardy, a retired fisherman who has hung plasters of his many spectacular catches over the years on the paint-peeled walls.

This is only a simple description, loosely based on one of my own districts. The reason it’s so simple is because it’ll never even show up in my story. But for my sake, I’m glad to have such a solid idea in mind. I have twelve districts now, each distinct, each adding their own flavour to the imagery of my city as a whole.

Isn’t that better than just “shopping, business, suburban, and industry districts”?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to research district descriptions if you’re creating your own city. Try generating some ideas from role-playing games, where world-building is essential.

Do you have any world-building tricks? Can you suggest anything I might have missed?


  1. I don't have any tips, but this is so helpful to me. The idea of going outside my comfort zone and creating my own city, as opposed to just saying it's, IDK, Chicago, and leaving it at that, has always been nerve wracking. I'm afraid I'll mess it up!

  2. Don't be afraid! There are positives to designing your own city. You don't have to worry about what coffee shop is where, or whether someone's going to pick you up on a mistake, or when the city will (inevitably) change.

    Have a go, and good luck!