In a month dedicated to the art of world building, we have had some great articles come out covering a vast array of technique and minutiae. But, as tends to be my way, I want to turn this world building idea on its side. Or rather, put it under a microscope and delve down deep into the world of city building.
Ok, I’m not talking about SimCity or Cities: Skylines… albeit, great games if you haven’t played them. No, I’m talking about those wondrous creations that have become the place of epic stories unto themselves.
Waterdeep. Neverwinter. Baldur’s Gate. Undercity.
Oh? Never heard of Undercity? That’s okay, it’s still in the development phase. But, due to it being the home for a book of short stories I am working on, I thought that I would share with you some of the fun (and hair pulling) that has come from this process.
What is Undercity?
Set in the distant future, Undercity is an area that, like its name suggests, is under the city proper. It is what the citizens who live there call home. Hundreds of years of building new structures on older structures have created a honeycomb maze of hovels that the less fortunate have found themselves cast into. There are even a few who have chosen to stay. But, mega corporations and corrupted governments have ensured that the rich stay on top and the others stay on the bottom.
First Things First…
When I started developing Undercity, I started with an idea. Big surprise, right? But that idea had to answer some fairly simple questions. What type of places are represented? Where do food and water come from? How are areas subdivided and what does each area represent?
Very similar to building a character, answering questions that may never come up in the story help you to develop it into a real place. A great example of this was when I was writing the initial story for the book and had to answer a simple question as to why the character would ever have left in the first place. Turns out that the megacorps that run the city proper are always in need of grunts to do their dirty work on and off world, and so, my character had a reason already built in.
The big difference between designing a world and designing a city is that the world has width. Cities don’t have that luxury. Instead, I chose to go with the parfait effect. Layers. And we all know, everybody loves a parfait. What I mean by that is that Undercity is a hive city, with the lower levels built upon by the upper levels.
In fantasy, this is accomplished by sublevels and towers. Sewers and caves create the underworld were denizens flock to conduct nefarious business and towers reach to the sky where wizards and royalty plot and connive to overthrow and stay in power.
Although there are no forests, mountain ranges, swamps or oceans to contend with, biomes are still an important factor for fleshing out the feel of the city. In one section of Undercity, an old power plant, the gang that runs it has contracts with other groups for necessities. This creates a symbiosis of sorts that also feeds into the power struggle that occurs down here. Another area has tapped into the water supply from above. Then there is the Scav’s who delve into the darkest parts of the Undercity to find the things that everyone else needs but are too afraid to look for.
There are countless differences, but the truth is, the level of detail that you will put into creating a map of the surface world goes almost double for a city because you do have width (albeit Undercity at it’s widest point is less than 2 miles across) and then you have layers.
And about those layers. If you chose to draw a map, and I recommend at the least a crude idea, you are going to have to make sure that it makes sense. If you have an old power station it has to be fueled by something and the waste is going to have to go somewhere. Or in the fantasy realm, your sewers will have to flow out somewhere (a lake, river or ocean) and the caves that you have built under the city are going to have to have a great amount of support to ensure that the castle isn’t directly over the giant open cave where the dragon is slumbering (unless there is some form of magical incantation that is making sure none of it collapses).
Sure, that sounds trivial, but remember that if you draw the map, you will most likely include it in the book, and if you do that there is always going to be “that guy” who is going to look at it and tell you how the rock that you use wouldn’t sustain the amount of weight that you are saying is on top of it, and the water from the ocean is going to erode that wall which will make the whole thing collapse.
Which leads me to look at that guy and say… don’t be that guy. Just don’t.
Truth be told, there are a lot of drawbacks to building out a city. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the future like Undercity or set in a fantasy realm like the great city of Waterdeep. City building is difficult because you have so much that can happen in such a small space. Just as an example, even though millions of people might live inside the walls, there is a good chance that your heroes won’t stay anonymous for long, which can create a brand new set of circumstances (bad guys have a tendency to not like good guys interfering with their business). Just be careful
However, those drawbacks can become major bonuses and lead to great plot points or, in my case, ideas for other short stories to include in the book.
However you go about creating your world, whether it be an entire universe, a single planet, or a great city, the key is to enjoy the process and dig into it just as much as you would a main character, because, as so many have said before, setting is a character (and quite possibly the biggest character) in your books and stories.
R.Todd is many things: an attached wallet to a wife; a detached wallet to two offspring; a player of games; a writer of words; a biker of cycles; caretaker of two cats; someone who hates writing about himself; but mostly a man full of snark. When not working on writing one of his several novel ideas, he practices his short-fiction at A Flash of Fiction… and regales the populace with his personal viewpoint on matters at Thoughts from the Front…