Think of an epic fantasy you’ve read that featured a thriving city or a charming village. If you read closely enough, you’ll see the writer didn’t go into a massive amount of detail about every building, person, business, or landmark within the city, but you still felt it was alive and brimming with energy–even if you never got to see every corner! That’s the effect of great writing, and hopefully in this post I can shed some light on how to make a village, town, or city in a high fantasy setting come to life.
Let’s start small. Most stories I’ve read in the fantasy genre begin in a quaint little village, where our hero is tending to his farm or off on a hunt in the forest (admit it: these are fantasy cliches and you love them). While we’re getting to know the hero, we’re also introduced to his world: the little homes along the riverside, the farmland bordering the woods, the tall windmill and the old man who tends it, and that gaudy manor in the centre of the village where his arch nemesis lives. We may never explore half the village, but we know it’s full of people and things are happening all around the hero. The best writers never give us pages of information; they describe the world through dialogue, senses, and inner thoughts.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: show, don’t tell.
Knowing how many people will live in a village, town, or city is a great place to start when you map it out (if you decide to make a map, which I recommend). Villages range from about 30 to 1,000 people, and hundreds–if not thousands–of them are scattered throughout a kingdom. Population is important to keep in mind in order to create a realistic environment. For example, in a village of about 100 people, you wouldn’t see an inn–maybe not even a tavern. Travellers would have to camp in the wilderness or ask to bunk in peoples’ homes during the night.
Small villages of low population would usually be composed of family members, with perhaps a church inhabited by a few clergies. Services would have to be found in other villages or towns. People would have to travel to seek medical help.
A village is perhaps the easiest of the three (i.e. village, town, city) to write. Having your hero recognize everyone he passes in the village, chatting up the locals, helping others, or sharing stories with them would all be great ways to give your reader the feeling the village is small with few people living there. If your hero complains to a friend about how long the trek is to a neighbouring village to get supplies, you can easily assume the village is fairly isolated.
Let’s move on to towns. They usually have a population value somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 people, and many types of businesses would be established there. Larger towns would have surrounding walls if they felt threatened–or if the rich residents paid for walls to go up to protect their estates. Towns would have some form of education system that villages wouldn’t have, and local doctors on hand for families.
It’s simple to say the town had a few thousand people or the town was “large”, but there are other ways to go about it. In The Wheel of Time, the book opens up to reveal a festival is soon to occur. The whole town is pitching in to make it happen. You really get a feel for the town in this chapter, and the various businesses there. This is a great way to stir things up and start your story off in a fun and interesting way.
Cities range in population from 10,000 to 100,000 people. It’s easy for your hero to get lost in a large city, or to constantly run into strangers. Most people who live in cities don’t even know their neighbours. A large city could have a thriving marketplace, or businesses scattered throughout. One or two of the capital cities in my high fantasy will be home to castles. This is where royalty will be found, and those rich in wealth and status.
Cities are often classified into rich and poor sections (a.k.a: the wealthy side and the slums). You’ll find all the riffraff down in the slums, the sketchy businesses, brothels, drug rings, rundown taverns, and black markets. Homeless people wind up living in this area. The wealthy side will be where all the nobles, merchants, and everyone in-between live. You’ll find upstanding folk and businesses, though that doesn’t mean secretive dealings aren’t happening under your nose.
Easy ways to identify a city include your hero making comments about the gaudy clothes of the nobles, ranting about the life of a poor person while the rich indulge, commenting on the busy streets or the lines at the market, having them push through crowds, and bumping into strangers while walking. Lots of noises and smells contribute to the picture.
An array of jobs are available in medieval times, including (but not limited to):
- Wood seller/wood carver
- Wine seller
You can also include guilds in your world, and they’d most likely operate out of large cities where the business is good.
Societies function well only if they are written well. If you create a town by an ocean, make sure it’s believable. The salt of the sea should be in the air, the wind should be constant. Fishing is popular and boat making key to their survival. Winter is cold and summer is perfectly cool. Fish-drying and cleaning will be set up on the beach; the market will be always stocked with fresh fish. Everyone knows how to weave and throw a net. People love to swim and sail. Traders come into town to buy from locals, trading inland foods such as meat and crops.
But don’t tell your reader all of that. Instead, show them.
Clammy sand sticks between Rowan’s toes as he hauls his boat to shore to join the other vessels lined up on the beach, the shadows long in the late evening. Nets filled with fish lie at the bottom of the old boat, and Rowan starts on cleaning them. He’s meeting a foreign trader in a few hours to swap his catch for a pound of meat. His mouth waters at the thought, and he rolls up his jacket sleeves to get to work.
Here we learn many things. Rowan is a fisherman, and so are many others where he lives. He hasn’t had meat in a long time, which means he can’t catch it locally–or he doesn’t know how to hunt, which means hunters aren’t common in his town. The shadows are long in the late evening, so we know it’s summer–or close to summer–and since he’s wearing a jacket, we can assume summers are cold by the ocean.
No long info dumps–just a simple paragraph of our hero going along with the plot–and we learn so much about where he lives and what makes up his daily routine. This is what I really love about authors like Robert Jordan or Patrick Rothfuss. They are able to write without needing to explain the whole picture.
Give writing villages, towns, and cities a try with what you’ve read in my post. Let me know if I’ve left out any important details!