Let’s say you want to write a historical story about a rebel uprising and coup d'état. You plan to have your character start in the slums of the capital city before becoming embroiled in conflict that puts him front and centre in the rebel faction. (Side note, this is just my example, these tips can also apply to modern, future and even dystopian worlds.)
Now, one of the first things you’re going to need is a cause of action; some reason to overthrow the current ruler, be they a monarch or president. This can come in various forms, such as corruption, lack of action, or too much action. This will help you build the ugly elements of your world.
A government that overtaxes its citizens to fund a war will suffer from famine and general loss of function as the men are shipped out to fight in the trenches and the women work to the bone just to give their money back to the taxman. That’s going to raise your crime rate, too, as not only do people have less to eat, the police force is going to be even more understaffed. You’re not going to be able to get away from any kind of crime, murder, theft, even rape.
You need your audience to feel that. They need to be truly afraid that the witty, street smart orphaned main character could wake up one day with a knife in his chest for the half a loaf of bread he stole the night before. He lives in a dangerous area known as a slum, where people have no hope.
Something else to consider is hygiene. Living on the street is not the cleanliest, and depending on your story, there will be deaths during the night, and no one may care to remove them in the morning. That leaves rotting bodies outside for rats and other nasty creatures to feast on, while they spread god knows what other kinds of disease to the living inhabitants of the city from the sewers.
But, if that’s not your story, and you have a corrupt government that takes all of the wealth for the upper class and leaves the remaining citizens in the dirt, then the streets will also have a tone of rage and anger. Riots and public demonstrations of force would not be uncommon. Your rebel faction would definitely have a much more prominent presence in that kind of city.
But again, there is no way for you to remove the criminal element from any city. Some people will do anything to live — in some situations they will not care who they do it to, and so children and women would not be safe anywhere. Shying away from this is unrealistic and your readers will lose touch with both your world and any characters in it.
Nick is a second-year student in Algonquin College’s Professional Writing program. He is an avid reader and writer, and can usually be found hiding in a book. He likes rock music and fantasy books, and one day hopes to publish his own work.