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Two Characters Walk into a Bar…

Mos Eisley Cantina by Ralph McQuarrieWhat is it about bars, pubs and taverns that makes them so darn fun to read about in fantasy? I don’t know about you, but I get a gleeful little kick when authors create the perfect watering holes where characters can wander in and grab a drink.

The right bar setting can become iconic:

Mos Eisley Cantina
Arguably the single most recognized and remembered bar scene ever! It’s a perfect way to show Luke the vices of the great wide universe and to introduce a street-savvy anti-hero like Han Solo.

McAnally’s Pub in Dresden
Wise, mysteriously silent barkeep? Check. Best beer around? Check. Accorded neutral ground for otherworldly peace talks? Check.

The Three Broomsticks
Leave it to Harry Potter to give us a bar that makes us feel like kids again and serves a sense of wonder along with drinks.

The Prancing Pony
Not only is it a great bar, it’s a great turning point for the Lord of the Rings story. Frodo and crew have finally ventured beyond the Shire. They realize Gandalf is late/missing and they’ll have to continue on their own. They meet Strider. They flee in the night. When you think about it, that evening at The Prancing Pony marks the end of normalcy and the start of adventure.

Prancing Pony tavern by daRoz

Series like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, and Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards showcase a rotating set of bars and taverns, each with its own vibe, crowd and purpose. It got me thinking about the ingredients authors need to brew up just the right mix for us readers.

The Ambiance

D&F by LEE MINGIMusic, lighting and table arrangements all impact the mood of a bar and the mood of the book’s overall setting. You want a dingy little hole-in-the-wall, or a sleek high-end façade with jazz playing in the background? A cozy Irish feel, complete with dancing, or a wild thumping club with strobe lights and a bass louder than thunder?

There are literally endless combinations, and I love that fantasy plays with it all. SFF TV shows also are great for this. Think of Star Trek, Farscape or Firefly, and the variety of bars for each world visited.

The Bartender

This is especially important if the bar is a recurring locale in the novel. The bartender’s clothes, personality, physical appearance and dialect tend to be pretty colorful. Sometimes, they stick behind the counter like superglue; other times, they’re constantly running back and forth between tables with pitchers of beer and hot meals.

One of my favorite examples of the bartender-as-character is Mac from the Dresden Files. I don’t think the guy says more than two full sentences in the entire series, but he’s irreplaceable. (And I have a sneaking suspicion we’re about to learn oh-so-much-more about our beloved barkeep!)

The Name

Cyber Bar by delowarI spend far, FAR too much time naming my bars in my own work. It’s crazy fun to come up with the perfect moniker that will capture the right flavor. There’s a little open-air bar in Key West that I love called Two Friends Bar. Its motto is: “No greater love than the enduring, tender love of one drunken friend for another.”

Fantastic, right?

The Booze

My first WIP was set on a sailing ship, with open decks, rolling seas and coarse sailors. Flavored martinis and wine coolers were NOT going to fit in with my characters. Choosing your booze is almost as important as choosing the rest of your bar features. It’s fun to create a whole menu of options (okay, not a literal menu).

Some of the best books pick favorites for each character, decide if certain regions or nations have a “home brew,” or make up an entirely new concoction! Klah and Butterbeer are two of my favorites.

Bottoms up!

Title image by Michael Komarck.



  1. Two bars I’d mention are the bar in the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books (can’t remember name) and The Mended Drum in Ankh-Morpork (which descends from the former).

    On the other hand, though they are a fantasy trope, public houses are a fairly late medieval occurrence (in our world), so there’s every chance a different setting may have a different way of distributing alcohol (and again, medieval beer was quite different to ours). I’m not saying don’t put a bar brawl in, just don’t take the bar for granted. 😉

  2. […] fantasy fan should recognise this archetypal place, and feel immediately comfortable in the world.  There won’t be too many surprises here, but […]

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