The City As A Character

I guess there is a bit of the romantic in me when I watch artsy movies. I like looking at the sprawling city, watching passers-by do their daily things, with some pleasant music in the background. Things like Slumdog Millionaire especially, where the setting is just as important as any other plot device. Maybe this is why I hate tragic action films where the whole city is gunned down either by the military or by aliens.

But it’s not just in film that we see elements of the city emerging as a character on its own. Even in books, even though you can’t see the city in its full glory, good authors will incorporate the unique elements of these cities in their stories. Things like in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, where the Spanish identity seeps through in the tale, or even in something imaginary like 1984 by George Orwell, where the doom and gloom of a global communist regime can be seen. I like to think sometimes that characters form the micro-structure of a theme and cities form the macro-structure. Cities tell us what will happen when a concept goes large-scale. Look at the city of Ravnica in Magic: The Gathering and compare it with the city (plane) of Innistrad. Magic is an example of how stories can be told without central characters but with the use of setting and mood.

Most cities capture the truthful feelings of an author, even if characters and stories don’t. Authors like to set their books in their hometown, where they can take relevant landmarks and apply them directly in the story. If I were a Singaporean, would I write novels set in Singapore? Would they then be defined as local writing if they were, and not local if they weren’t? The setting comes with it culture, language (such as Singlish and its colloquialisms) and mannerisms special to it. It is not as believable for Jon Henry The Third, Junior to be a Singaporean as it is for Lian Ah Beng, and Jon Henry the Third cannot have experienced the same things Ah Beng did as a result. A city affects a character’s backstory, and a backstory is central to a character’s personality and traits.

Perhaps this is why world building can be so exciting, especially in fantasy. Making an entire city out from scratch, infusing life in the right mixture the way you want it, and then letting it run on its own. Because cities can be left alone on their own and still function with their own judiciary and economy and defence system, whereas characters tend to be riddled with conflicts and you can’t quite leave them alone in the story without some attribution, or at least where the central characters are concerned.

Some stories seem to be there to describe the city alone. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie can’t be divorced from India, and Cheng Nan Jiu Shi (城南旧事) by Lin Haiyin is a very beautiful collection of tales that revolve around China — Beijing in particular. Without the city as a backdrop, the books themselves become very plain and boring.

So what is your favourite city? Have you read any books that portray your home in a good light?

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