Vision: A Resource for Writers

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How to Build Rome in a Day

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright 2008 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

Writers often spend weeks creating the perfect characters, and then toss them into a haphazard world that they create as they go, without consideration of how it fits together.  This is most often obvious in the creation of larger settlements.

Some writers resort to carefully drawn maps, with all the place names labeled and important buildings drawn in -- but a city is far more than a map.  Understanding the background and special nature of the city will help make it more believable and easier to describe in words.  It will also allow you to invent special characteristics which make the place memorable.

Creating a believable city for your story can look like a daunting task, but there are some easy questions you can ask and within a few short paragraphs, you can have the basis of a city that is as alive as any of your characters.

While much of this workshop is aimed toward a fantasy city, it can easily be adapted to a science fiction or 'real' world creations as well. Like all workshops, this is intended not to give the final answers, but rather to point you to areas you will want to consider for your work.


Section 1: Location

This is, by far, the most important section of this article.  Location is dictated by many influences that are important to the makeup of the city, from its overall 'feel' to the structure of the streets. 

Some of this will be repeated and expanded upon in other sections later in the workshop.

Reason -- The most important first aspect to consider when creating a city is to decide why it exists.  People do not just walk to some spot and start building for no reason.  In ancient times, a city was a place of refuge for the farming community, which was often under attack by the nomads who had not yet taken to the sedentary life.  And why should they, when they could just go and raid the fields of their settled neighbors?  Early cities provided protection behind strong walls, where grain could be stored.

As civilization spread, cities grew up around important locations.  Ports, whether on the ocean, lakes or rivers, were very important locations since transporting items over water was far easier than taking it overland.  Fishing villages also grew more important as they began providing food for larger areas. 

Salt pans, usually located at the sea side, were extremely important.  Salt was used to help preserve food in an age when there was no refrigeration.    Controlling the manufacture of salt was a very important and lucrative business.  It also took guards -- and guards needed housing, food, and entertainment.  The rich merchant needed an outlet for his income, so he built fancier housing... and the city continued to grow.

Cities also grew up at important crossroads along the well-traveled paths from one important area to another.  Trade goods might make it from one country to this location, where merchants bought it up and took it on to another area.  Travelers might stop here on longer journeys.  Such locations were often a mixture of various cultures.

A site that has become a popular destination for pilgrims will also likely grow into a place that caters to their needs.  It takes people to run such a place, and that means expansion for the local population as well. 

Each of these cities is going to have a slightly different focus and feel.  A port town is going to have more emphasis (and names related to) the sea.  A city that started life as a trading post at a crossroads is going to have a more 'International' flavor, including names and possibly different quarters in the town where ethnic groups gathered. 

Layout -- A city that was settled later, or was rebuilt after a catastrophe, is going to be built to a plan, where as an older settlement that grew out of a small village is going to be more chaotic in the layout.  Look at the difference between older European cities and newer American cities.  The older cities often have tiny, winding roads that seem out of place in the modern world.  Older buildings are often toward the center of town (or in a port town, they might be closer to the shore), and the city has grown in widening circles around it.

Age -- The age of the city is linked with the reason it exists.  A village that grew into a city is going to have a different feel from a newly created colony, even if they have the same population size. 

Weather -- It is unlikely that a town will be built in an area of really bad weather unless there is another reason for it to exist.  A guard post in the mountains might change into a permanent settlement once the people get used to living there.  A port city in an area where there is no other access to the ocean might be settled despite regular hurricanes.  If you want excessive weather, make certain there is a reason your people built there.

Materials -- Having materials on hand to be able to build a city is also an important factor.  Stone and wood are the most often used, but clay and bricks, especially in a dry climate, can also be used in extensive building. 

Step One:

Choose a combination of the above factors as the base for your city.  Try different variations and see what changes they imply for the creation of the city.  There may be other possibilities that are endemic to your  story, so don't forget to consider them as well!

Section 2: History

Why your city was founded is also an important factor in the feel of the place.  From who founded it and why to the general location will help you decide on the influence history has had on buildings and layout.

Founded -- Who founded the city is going to play an important part in the nature of the setting.  A group of invaders who have kicked out or enslaved the locals might still hold on to some of the old place names.  A city that has been under the hands of one group of people from the beginning is still going to have older place names that will sound archaic compared to the modern language -- as well as names for places that are no longer what they once were.  For instance, a suburb called Galloway might have been built over the old gallows -- surely not the most popular place to live.   

A city can be a colony created from a larger settlement.  These types of cities often have the 'feel' of home.  The Greek and Roman settlers often built in the style of their mother city, as can be seen throughout the areas where they settled.  We find baths, temples, circuses and military camps throughout Europe and Asia Minor.

If the original settlers were farmers who banded together against hostiles, then the agrarian lifestyle might still be echoed in the basic layout, some of the older buildings, and place names.

Port Town -- Sea ports, and to some degree even river ports, are usually far more 'open' cities than those which are located inland.  They are likely to welcome strangers, even from places they've never heard of before.  Taverns and warehouses will be important to such a place, but so will trade houses where goods can be bought to be sent farther inland.

Port towns will also have shipbuilding, or at least repairing, areas.  If they build ships, there needs to be a good supply of wood in the area (if, again, it is a fantasy world with wooden ships).

Such a port probably started as a fishing village and grew outward from there.  The importance of the port depends on a couple things -- if there are other good ports in the area, and if the port has good access to inland routes.  Port towns are sometimes the access used by invaders, too.  They can also be hit by pirates, who grab everything they can and sail away again.  Such raids can change the look of the port area, and might bring about building better quays, and setting up better security.

And don't forget a lighthouse.  They were present even in ancient times.

Border Town -- Towns that are closer to the borders between countries (or that have been in the past) will often have borrowed from both sides of the barrier.  They are also towns that often have a more volatile history.  Sometimes those old wounds are a long time healing, and the people can be reactionary.

This can be reflected even in the building styles.  Are there ruins from past wars?  Memorials to people from one side or another who protected them?  Massive walls around the town, canons in place...

Or perhaps the town is just the opposite and has decided that one side is as good as the other, and showing force is only a way to create more trouble. This would not be acceptable to the current rulers, of course.  They may have reinforced the town's protections and made it plain that those 'protections' can be turned in either direction.

Heart of Old Empire -- A city that is deep in the heart of a land that hasn't seen any wars or trouble for generations is likely going to be rich, decadent, and full of old and new wonders.  Such a city will have an eclectic, but perhaps old-fashioned look.  The edges of an country are more apt to have innovations because they are in contact with outsiders.

Growing or Contracting -- Is your city growing, or is it past its zenith?  A growing city will have new buildings out on the edges of the settlement, and these will be swallowed up and more new buildings will rise.  There will often be a shanty town as well, where the poor live, far from the better areas.

A town that is losing population may have buildings that are falling into ruin, and the poor will likely have taken over areas that were once in far better shape than they are now.  Roads will be in disrepair, and new constructions may be made by stripping material from older ones.

Wars and Disasters -- Battles leave scars on the land as much as on people.  A city may have been instrumental during a civil war, or it may have been fought over by invading enemies.

Disasters from floods and earthquakes to fires also take their tolls.  There isn't a city in the world which hasn't suffered from some sort of natural disaster.  In some cases, it has left the townspeople wiser about where they build.  If your city is by a river, then it is likely the river has risen above its banks on some occasion.  Flood lines can be visible for a long time afterwards.  Quakes and fires can level entire areas and leave either rubble for later ages or an area rebuilt that does not look like the older parts of town.

Step 2:

Consider the general history of your city based on a location, and decide if it is growing, declining or holding its own.  What wars and disasters have struck the area?  These factors will have an impact on how the city is laid out, and the general appearance of the buildings.

Section 3: Importance

All cities are important for one reason or another, and deciding what created that importance will also help define it's makeup.

Government -- Is your city a major government center?  It could be either for the country or for a smaller section of the land.  Governments take a lot of people to run, a lot of services to keep those people employed, houses and fed.  They tend to have a good amount of military or policing forces, and areas for visiting dignitaries.  It is likely that the city will also have maintenance as a high priority if for no other reason than they want to look good to outsiders.

Trade -- Trade cities are going to have markets, coin traders, camp sites for caravans, taverns, and places for strangers to stay.  There may be banks, safe houses where traders can place their coin, entertainment, and an active policing force.  Such a city is likely to have a lot of different trading districts, and while it might have started out as a horse trading post, it can have evolved into a place where you can buy and sell practically anything.

Such a place might have a lot of makeshift shops built out into streets, sections that are devoted to certain types of items (cloth, pottery, gold, etc.), and probably some back door alley shops for things that shouldn't be seen out on the streets.

Military -- The Roman military often built their own little towns, and those later grew into cities.  If the military has a permanent encampment in the city, or close to it, there may be signs of military presence in the city.  Since it also probably means that there is a reason to have the military close by, such a city might have more signs of security such as stronger gates.  The streets might be made to accommodate marching men, and there could be a number of military-based triumphs and statues.

There may also be family housing within the city, and areas for camp followers of various types.  Horse markets, weapons' fairs, and various things directed at the military might also be present (depending on the age in which you set the story, of course.)  Building styles will likely be plain and utilitarian with the military doing the building in the early years.

Religious -- If the city has an important religious function, then the temples or churches are going to be the focus of the city life.  Such a place is a magnet for pilgrims, so along with a likely elaborate religious hierarchy, complete with massive buildings, there is going to be a poorer area that caters to people who will not arrive with much income.  It may be the work of the temple to feed and house such people, and that might include entire sections where there is little more than makeshift rooms with beds.

Living under strict religious rule might also mean less ostentatious building anywhere but the religious buildings, control over taverns and food establishments, and even control over who is allowed to live in the city.

Agrarian -- A city may have started as a place where farmers gathered at night for protection, and where they housed their grain to keep it safe from marauders.  The city might grow quite large and still serve basically the same function if it is place in a fertile, crop growing area.  Farming might include domestic animals as well, in which case the city might be a place where animals are gathered to sell to traders who take them to other markets.  Stockyards are huge, smelly stalls where cows and pigs wait their fate.  There can be good money in feeding others, though, and the city might be surprisingly wealthy and plush.

Step 3:

I've listed five main types of controlling influence that could go in to the makeup of the city.  Any of these can be combined to make a city that has more than one purpose, and perhaps has conflicting controlling interests.  A military and religious combination might come into conflict on a number of issues, for instance, even if the military is necessary to keep the site safe.

Come up with the combination that will suit your city and consider how it will affect the layout of the town, the types of buildings, and what might not be allowed.

Section 4: Population

The size and makeup of the population, along with how they are fed and where they work is the last major influence we'll consider.  These are important factors that will also give you a special feel for your city.

Size -- In medieval times, a town of five thousand was huge.  Now it's hardly worth a dot on a map.    London was a huge city of about 50,000 in the 1300's and 200,000 in the 1600s.  Consider the size of your city based on what is appropriate to the time and circumstances.

Outsiders -- No matter how modern the world has become, we still tend to segregate the people who came 'later' to a settlement.  Such people often provide an important workforce for a city, taking care of low paying work, and at the same time infusing the area with a new culture.  Where these people live, and where even temporary visitors stay, will influence the look and feel of certain sections in the city.  The longer they stay, the larger the population grows and the more powerful they become as a force in the city. 

And then a new group moves in and starts up the ladder to acceptance.  These groups each have their own influence and their own areas. 

Food -- The population of a city has to be fed.  This doesn't just mean setting a market area up.  The food has to be brought in, animals need to be butchered, and if (like Rome) many of the people live in small apartments with no cooking areas, then street-side vendors will be common.  Make decisions on how you are going to provision your story city.

Work -- The final question is what all those people do to make a living.  I've pointed out some of the needs in service areas for supporting different types of settlements.  There may also be other work, depending on the 'timeframe' in which you place your city.  Factory work -- especially if there are resources close by -- could take some of the population.  Or there could be pottery makers, goldsmiths, tanners, woodcarvers or any other artisan types that might also take advantage of local resources. 

Places like ancient Rome had large, non-working populations to feed, clothe, and entertain, and they often got out of hand.  Such groups can be useful inciting trouble or as a mob to back someone who needs brawn to win an argument.  In Rome, these were not the outsiders, but rather people who were often Romans by birth and descent. 

What your people do to support themselves will help you set up parts of your town and help create a working-class atmosphere where you need it.

Step 4:

Consider these last four sections and create a simple idea of how to handle them in your city.  You need not go into a lot of detail, but be aware that they are important factors in city creation and survival.


With these four sections you can have the basis for a city that is more than lines and names on a map.   The work need not be extensive, but it can still give the author enough background material to help the characters move through areas that are more than blank walls and empty streets.

Below is a list of the factors mentioned in this workshop:


  • Reason
  • Layout
  • Age
  • Weather
  • Materials


  • Founded
  • Port Town
  • Border Town
  • Heart of an Old Empire
  • Growing or Contracting
  • Wars and Disasters


  • Government
  • Trade
  • Military
  • Religious
  • Agrarian


  • Size
  • Outsiders
  • Food
  • Work