April 19th, 2013, 10:20 AM
The Road Goes Ever On
What Do You Want From a Fantasy City?
As a writer, the thing I find most ironic about fantasy as a genre is the fact that sometimes the setting (I'm guilty of this) can be based on a very narrow (and skewed) view of Medieval Europe and almost leashed to a few very typical styles. I'm talking of cities that consist of a castle/palace, the obligatory guilds, barracks, city walls etc. The city is usually divided into "quarters" and the architecture is often generic stone/timber fare. I'm maybe not summing this up too well and throwing everything into the same category, but I feel like fantasy doesn't always stretch as far into the fantastical as it perhaps should do.
Looking at someone like Tolkien and his cities/towns (one of the people who helped define fantasy as we know it), they were all very different and imaginative. None of them can really be compared easily to a typical image of a Medieval town. Scott Lynch did a Venice-flavoured fantasy city with canals. Many writers have done gas-powered/lit cities. We've had underground cities and cities built against mountains. But what hasn't been done?
So, here are my questions. What kind of things do you look for in a fantasy city? What kind of things are you sick of or think are overused? What hasn't been tried yet?
April 19th, 2013, 11:32 AM
Well personally, I actually like the standard issue fantasy Medieval Europe city, because I already know what it looks like in my head so I don't need to think about it and can concentrate on the characters and the plot, which to me are the important things. I prefer my fantasy to be more like "historical fiction with a twist of magic" than out-and-out "wow this is new and strange", if you see what I mean. I'd read SF if I wanted that, and I don't.
Funny that you mention Scott Lynch - I loved his first book, in the Venice-alike city, because I could just see it in my head (except the glass towers, which I didn't care for). The second one, in the odd place made of glass islands, I couldn't get into at all. Same characters (which I really liked the first time around) and a decent plot, but I kept getting lost trying to figure out what the hell this place was actually supposed to look like, and what held up the ridiculous 1000 yard glass roof over the market, etc etc.
I don't know, I'm old and I'm old fashioned I guess
Last edited by PeteMC; April 19th, 2013 at 11:38 AM.
April 19th, 2013, 12:08 PM
I'm sorry to say almost every Fantasy city I have ever designed has been based on 17th-18th century Paris.
Originally Posted by Cirias
Part of it, I know, is because in my brain, this is the place where people rush badly about the streets with swords bared, engage in carriage-back chases, smuggle high-borne ladies out of bachelor's apartments, assassinate people in back alleys, start drunken bar brawls and plot elaborate, multi-nation intrigues... in short, I have read The Three Musketeers one too many times. >.>
But by the same token, it shows what I want from Fantasy. I want escapades and acts of crazy, reckless heroism. I want complicated politics and intrigues. I want revolutions and uprisings, and modern human concerns like class and race and progress. I want a city with infinite riches in secret societies, clubs, ethnic quarters, budding new modes of art, fashion, music, science and magic. I like that point in time where the direction of a modern world is being chosen, even if that world will involve monsters and magic.
What I *don't* like is incongruous, badly-researched "Medieval" places, which are really just Renaissance places without anything that made the Renaissance cool. Actually, I think it's just the lack of research that bugs me. Sometimes I feel like people write "fantasy" because they don't have the desire or patience to properly research historical fiction so they think they can just make everything up. But honestly, if your civilization has ubiquitous printed (or even scribed) materials, high quality steel, cosmopolitan adventuring groups, three-masted ships, etc etc etc.... it wasn't "elves" that did it. It was a particular historical trajectory that allowed your civilization to develop these very high-end technologies. So let's see that history! Make it part of your world! Don't resort to cheap stereotypes.
As to what hasn't been tried, I feel like everything has been tried.
April 19th, 2013, 01:35 PM
So it sounds like you also like the "thing you can see without having to think about it, so you can concentrate on the plot and characters," for all that your thing you can see may not look like mine
I totally agree about the ill thought-out settings though. One of the things that always bugged me about WOT is that it's a pre-industrial, pre-gunpowder setting (most of the way through, anyway) but the armies of the world fight in virtually 17th century armour which was adopted once muskets mate heavy plate obsolete. Why? Yes there are (over)powerful magic users, but they're not supposed to be able to fight against people so surely in army vs. army combat you'd still be looking at more of an Agincourt / Crecy level of armour and weaponry than the "breastplate and puffy sleeves" kind of affair that Jordan actually wrote.
Then you get to something like Brent Weeks of course, which is a copy of an ill though-out setting with added ill-thought out Oriental touches, and it all just falls apart IMO.
April 19th, 2013, 02:06 PM
I think I agree about seeing something without having to describe it. I much prefer low detail in my stories; detail just gets in the way of the story for me.
On the other hand, I love strange and evocative descriptions of weird and mysterious objects. But they better have something to do with the story, not just some random place that the story happens to be set in. I suppose there's a subtle distinction between the two.
Basically describe what's really important or abnormal and leave out the rest. I'm not too concerned with the history unless it has some bearing on the story.
I am probably very far into the extreme end of this, however, and I suspect most people want more than I do from their fantasy environments. If you remember God in Monty Python's Holy Grail shouting "Get on with it!" that's pretty much what I'm thinking whenever I read mundane descriptions about cities and other unimportant info.
That being said, that 1000 foot glass ceiling sounds like just the kind of odd mysterious kind of stuff I love to see. I may need to check out Lynch's stuff some day.
April 19th, 2013, 04:15 PM
Well if that doesn't prove that there's no one right answer that will please everyone, nothing will!
Originally Posted by StephenPorter
April 19th, 2013, 08:22 PM
I want the cities to be as if they are their own living entities with their own problems, personalities, and subcultures. I want them to be atmospheric whether they are nigh utopian or wretched hives of filth and wickedness. Everything from architecture to it's denizens can give it a sense of identity, almost as if they are a part of the city's soul incarnate. Whether it is something as alien as R'lyeh with it's alien almost incomprehensible geometry or Lankhmar with it's squalid facade concealing greater terrors, it needs to feel almost as if the city is a world unto itself. If it's a small village they're passing through or something like that, it won't matter too much, but they spend any significant amount of time there, then I want it to feel alive.
April 19th, 2013, 11:37 PM
There is no tomorrow
Agreed, Charlotte! I feel history to be one of the most important elements of any fantasy. In fact, it was one of the reasons I started writing, because I wasn't seeing it in what I was reading.
Originally Posted by CharlotteAshley
Things have to have a reason. Characters, politics, setting. I can understand people questioning what the reason was for the cities of black glass in Scott Lynch's series but that, for me, is part of their appeal. A mystery that is not a part of the plot, but a mystery all the same which I want to know the answer to. Actually, the ways in which Lynch brought the setting of Camorr to life (the Venice-city) are some of my favorites and reading the first book is when I realized that setting can also be a character. And should be.
That doesn't mean a ton of flowery description going on for pages. But I do want to know about the world my characters inhabit. I don't want it to be just some bakery on the corner, I want it to be Marge's Bakery with a half circle of stone steps leading up to the wooden door which sits right under the triangle roof with its carved, wooden eaves. If I'm in the characters heads, either in first person or just seeing things from their point of view in third person, I want to actually see what they are seeing. Not a ton of detail, but enough to set the scene because, yes, setting does influence its people. What do you get from that bakery? What is the personality of the baker who works there? I see a plump, rosy cheeked, middle-aged woman in a pink dress and white apron with yellow stains from cakes and cookies and dough, with her sleeves rolled up, hands and forearms covered in flower. She is kind and welcoming to her customers, but can be a harsh taskmaster with her employees because she cares for her work and loves what she does and has a certain set of expectations for the quality of her goods. That's what setting should do, provide an aide in informing you everything else from characters to plot to politics, etc. etc.
What I am tired of are the dark, dank cities with twisting streets, bland or unimportant architecture. Cities that all have a Poor Quarter or similar name where all the criminals hang out and where you can buy anything from anyone for the right price. These cities are interchangeable, the only thing making them different are their names and the names of the characters inhabiting them whom the story is about. That kind of setting for me is like a song played on the radio again and again and again: it's not bad, but I'm sick of it because it's all I hear and if I hear it one more time I'm going to tear my hair out!
Still, I think I've seen just about everything in a fantasy city. Though I am always on the hunt for the New.
Last edited by RedMage; April 19th, 2013 at 11:46 PM.
April 19th, 2013, 11:54 PM
The two most important things for me are; dynamics and flavour.
Dynamics means the town needs to be in some sort of flux, undergoing a change somewhere. All towns have something going on, they are all either growing or shrinking. You need to give settlements a sense of movement and also a history of what came before.
Flavour means the town needs to have something distinctive about it. It doesn't always have to be something wacky, but something to set it apart and make it memorable. Even of its just a different stone they build with because that's the stone they have in the locale.
April 20th, 2013, 12:01 AM
There is no tomorrow
I can't remember the name of it, and I haven't read it, but there is a book out there (a series?) in which the people are divided into two groups, those who are active at night and those who are active during the day. The daylight people can't touch darkness or they die, which makes me think of reverse-vampires. The nighttime people can't touch light or they die (like vampires). I can't imagine what that world must be like because, under our clothes, there is shadow. So does that mean the daylight people go naked everywhere and can't ever stand in shadow, not even each others? Somehow I don't think the author made the world quite that but, really, that's how it should be with those kinds of natural laws about these people.
April 20th, 2013, 12:25 AM
Well I don't expect the authors to write their cities like I would write my city in a secondary world fantasy. I don't expect the author to create a city in an imaginary world that is an exact copy of an Earth city in a historical time period, unless they want to, in which case that's nice too. Instead, I'm more likely to see a city that is a blend of time periods from ancient to 20th century to create an imaginary reality, not an Earth reality. Most of the time, the authors have in fact done historical and mythological research; they've just picked and chosen from that research what they want to use. They've often used the version of society that is in myths rather than history because it suits what they are doing in the story, and the look they want the world of the story to have, which may not have realism as its goal. Which is peachy for me in an imaginary city in a fantasy tale. I in fact like anachronisms and steampunking and odd inventions that reflect more modern things when they have them because the author is playing with ideas and symbols that work in the story and make the city interesting for me. Basically, I want the authors to make the most of the settings they've settled on, and for those settings to work with the story and the thematic focuses of the story. And I'm an anglophile and so I don't mind all the variations on British and Germanic villages and towns.
For contemporary fantasy, it's interesting to see what authors do with actual cities like New York, reconfigured or partial versions of those cities, fully alternate versions of those cities, and then with creating imaginary cities or large towns, like Charles de Lint did. The imaginary cities are often reflections of real cities, but they give the author more flexibility. Alternate versions also do that. Historical fantasies set on Earth are probably the ones where I expect a city to be close to the historical record, unless it's an alternate history story in which the history has been changed and then anything goes. Tim Powers does perhaps the tightest historical fantasy that I know of, but even he I'm sure takes some liberties. Futuristic fantasy stories often have the most interesting ones, like Emma Bull's unnamed city in Bone Dance, set in a post-nuclear explosions apocalypse future on Earth. That city is a blend of leftover tech from the 20th century, some new tech and magic aspects.
I have a fondness for cities with catacombs and extensive sewer systems, even better if there are ruins of past civilization down there too. I found N.K. Jemisin's city in the sky in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to be very interesting -- it's essentially one really, really big palace. I would like to see some winged folk cities. We had a number of them in the 1980's and 1990's, but I haven't seen some for awhile. Of course, some may be doing them and I just haven't heard about them yet. Alan Campbell's city of chains over a crevasse in Scar Night was a really interesting city, so I guess I probably like cities with weird architectures. In that respect, Lynch's setting was less interesting for me in its Venice aspects (which have always been popular in secondary world fantasy,) then it was for the magical inventions/imagery that the original species that made the city left there. The fact that the city was a ruin inhabited by human squatters who had a slight fear of the original, unknown owners returning some day suddenly was a lot of fun. I also like it if they have weird games and competitions in secondary world cities -- those are always fun and they work well as symbolic tools. I thought Jordan doing a variation on Slides and Ladders and then having that game be critical in the magic of the plot was fun and that Sanderson, who had to do the end part of that, did a good job reasonably in Jordan's style.
April 22nd, 2013, 11:20 AM
it could be worse
For me, as a reader, it is not about the 'cool' factor of how a city is constructed. Whether it is fantasy or not, I like it when an author evokes a unique sense of place.
Originally Posted by Cirias
When you read Zafon, the city can only be Barcelona. When you read Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, it can only be that future, broken down Bangkok. The cities are like characters.