In the extras of the UK release of the DVD boxset for Joss Whedon’s Firefly, there is a documentary which talks about the Firefly class ship, Serenity, as being one of the characters. A silent presence which is always there, watching over the characters and protecting them. The series even uses this in the final episode where River pretends to have become part of the ship in order to fool a bounty hunter.
This sort of thing is more common in fantasy and sci fi than you might think, the view of considering a supposedly non-sentient object or place as a character in its own right. I am not just talking here about magic talking swords (which are a silly concept, the less said of which the better) or the existence of AIs or other more direct and obvious examples. Talking objects is another post altogether and range from the aforementioned magic swords to Hal in 2001 and Holly from Red Dwarf. Insead, I am talking about the object or place clearly having a personality which comes out in the ways it is described. This is especially noticeable in the case of cities.
Anyone who lives in a city will know that they are not all identikit urban environments. London has a different feel to York which is different to Edinburgh, which is different to Manchester. Even in the US where there were efforts to standardise road systems into a grid rather than the chaotic tangle of most European cities, you can tell the difference between New York and Atlanta or San Francisco. These differences can be seen in overt ways – the shape of the skyline, the arrangement of the streets, the weather, the accents of the inhabitants - but can also be present in more subtle ways such as the vibe you feel when you walk down the streets or the attitudes of those who pass you. A modern city is the sum of many factors including its geography, socio-economic status, history, layout and political structure. It may not even be obvious which factors contribute to a city’s character. An inhabitant of the city may not notice the nuances of their own home but will pick up on differences when they go elsewhere.
So, in the real world, cities have personality. This also applies to fantasy. If you consider some of the more successful fantasy novels you can often see an element of this concept inherent in them. I am going to consider a few examples and discuss how they bring out the personality of the city.
Fritz Lieber wrote about the city of Lankmhar as somewhere for his two heroes, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, to return to after adventures in the wilderness and, often, as a place for them to have adventures in. It formed the archetypal fantasy city to the extent that it became a cliche and many owe a certain degree of credit to it.
Unlike the cities of Middle Earth such as MInas Tirith, which was mainly portrayed as a large, walled fortress, Lankmhar was a working, merchant city. It comes across in the stories as a very Arabic place – lots of small markets and temples, winding streets and placed on the edge of a desert. The markets stay open late at night and members of the guilds of thieves and assassins wander the streets looking for victims. When you read a Lankmhar book, the city seems familiar because these ideas have been used a thousand times since but it still has a unique feel to it which cannot be replicated.
Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morepork began life as a parody of Lankmahr and all the other fantasy cities that copied it. A particular aspect that Pratchett considered was the ludicrous idea of there being guilds of such illegal trades as thieves and assassins and his consideration of a ruler who formed these guilds on the basis of the understanding that if there had to be crime it may as well be properly organised crime was nothing short of genius.
However, Ankh Moreport quickly evolved and became something more than a parody. As Pratchett moved his style away from Sword and Sorcery style fantasy into what rapidly became a more 19th century setting, the city became something greater. What you get is an amalgam of late Regency/Early Victorian London with a soupcon of modern day New York in the attitude of the inhabitants (it is, after all, referred to as the Big Wahoonie) and an ethnic mix of humans, trolls, dwarves and other creatures living in (more or less) harmony. Harmony meaning, of course, plenty of racial prejudice and the occasional riot. Because it is used as a means of parodying aspects of modern life, Ankh Morepork has acquired such things as an opera house and theatre as well as a mobile communications network and something which comes remarkably close to a modern police force. It is the city on Discworld that all roads lead away from though unfortunately (for them, not the enjoyment of readers) many character choose to walk down those roads the wrong way.
China Mielville’s New Crobuzon comes to us in whole sections of florid prose in Perdido Street Station describing the streets, buildings and inhabitants. New Crobuzon is possibly one of the best described cities and certainly a Masterclass in how to do it for any writer looking to learn.
New Crobuzon has its roots in London but a London with bite. A sprawling, dirty, Victorianesque steampunk city populated by numerous races such as the insectoid Khepri and the amphibian Vodayoni. What gives the city its charm is the gritty realism that Mieville invokes in the political and social structure. The government is brutal – a selfish Mayor running a vicious and secretive militia - and there are anarchists and dissidents aplenty with a simple industrial action by dock workers ending in swift and destructive action akin to the historical actions of Peterloo. Like Ankh Morepork, there is dissent between the races and a dislike of the government but there is no humour here to offset the darkness.
These three examples serve to illustrate how some very similar ideas can be changed in subtle ways to give a city a unique character. Writers need to be thinking about what personality their cities should have and how to twist ubiquitous features such as the government, transport and the types of people you see there to make them indicative of this personality. Also, how a great story can be made even greater by enhancing the setting in which it occurs.