Landmarks and Distinction

There’s a lot that goes into design of a city: things like its population, how it’s governed, where it gets its food and water, what sorts of things it imports and exports. Your audience, be they reader or gamer, might remember those, but that’s not what seems to stick in most people’s minds when they visit a fictional city. Instead, I find that what most of them remember is the landmarks.

Most cities (and smaller) have them, one way or another, from world-famous tourist traps like Disneyland to little things like that house on the corner that decorates like mad for every holiday. If the place is more than just a collection of houses, odds are there’s going to be something that counts as a landmark somewhere in there.

From a narrative perspective, a landmark is not only a place made for the characters to remember, but for the audience to remember as well. Something that’s worth its own spot on the map, if you will. Maybe it’s where you plan on having several important events take place, or something you like keeping in the backdrop; perhaps it’s somewhere you want to be enticing enough to be worth exploring, or that can serve as symbol for the city or its history.

So what makes a landmark?

The most important thing about a landmark is its narrative distinction. Sometimes this is just visually distinctive, like Half Dome or the Tower of London—it’s not easy to mistake for something else. It doesn’t matter if it’s pretty, or ominous, or just unusual—heck, it might even be a wall with an inscription on it that nobody can remember the history of, as long it’s worth remembering. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be on the outside, though that’s going to be more of a narrative landmark than an in-character landmark.

For other landmarks, what matters is the historical distinction. The place might look pretty average—like any forest, or any meadow, or any building, but something happened here. Most of the time the something seems to be rooted in conflict—battles, protests, nasty magical accidents—but other times it might be inventions tested, or historical figures visiting.

Another distinction can come from who’s already there; this often overlaps with the historical distinction. In many places, this is the owner, whether the resident of a house or the manager of a business. Sometimes, though, it’s a regular visitor or a worker—someone who doesn’t actually live there, but visits often enough that they might as well be associated with the place.

Then there’s the distinction in the plot itself; what this place is remembered for is what’s happening or has just happened in it, in this storyline. Perhaps it’s a place the characters keep coming back to, or maybe a place where an event that changed the storyline took place. Or maybe it has symbolic value to one or more of the characters, so it tends to be referenced a lot.

Of course, it might be more than one thing at once. Most landmarks that are worth covering in a story are; after all, if all it is is visually interesting, that’s enough to have it pop up once, but then you have to ask yourself why you bothered creating a visually interesting landmark if that’s all that’s to be done with it.

So when you’re mapping out a city, figure out what deserves a spot on the map, and why it deserves it.


  1. UZ says:

    I’m terrible for using landmarks – a lot of the landmarks I introduce are for the purpose of narrative placement or setting construction and so never actually show up.

    (Consider: “I’ll follow him around the Horn, and around the Norway maelstrom, and around perdition’s flames before I give him up.”)

    As a personal example, in the novel I’m currently working on there’s a holy site called the “bones in the desert”, which only exists in the past, as the environment has drastically changed. No living person has ever seen it, but when people are inducted into the religion they gain a memory of it. A sort of spiritual landmark, I guess.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Yeah, my landmarks could do with a bit of work too. Though I tend to define just about anywhere where things happen as a narrative landmark, whether it’s actually visually interesting and used to orient people or not.

    The bones sound nifty.

  3. UZ says:

    Actually one of my biggest problems is smaller-scale placement, like within a room. Too often I have characters floating around in some undefined space. Maybe that happens with the geographic scale too… not sure about that.

  4. Ravyn says:

    Hm. This probably sounds a bit odd, but have you tried drawing a floorplan?

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