Too often, writers take the old adage “write what you know” to mean they should never do anything so rash as to, you know, make stuff up. At the very least, shouldn’t you adhere to reality whenever a corresponding reality exists, as, for example, when it comes to the choice between a real-life setting and a made-up setting?
The answer is: it depends.
But let’s get something out of the way right off. There is absolutely nothing amiss with creating a made-up setting for your story—and this holds true whether you’re writing fantasy set within an entirely imaginary world or very realistic fiction set within our world. It doesn’t even mean you can’t create made-up settings within real settings—or alter bits of your real setting to suit the needs of your story.
Writers will need to choose between specifying a real-life setting or slapping a name on a made-up one. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, all of which should be considered before making a decision.
6 Advantages and Disadvantages of a Real-Life Setting
1. A Real-Life Setting Is Instantly Recognizable
Even if readers have never visited Yorkshire, most will recognize the name and conjure up certain associations that will help them fill in the blanks and build the setting within their imaginations.
2. A Real-Life Setting Offers Built-In Verisimilitude
The very fact that your setting is a real place gives readers a firmer belief in it and all the story events that happen there.
3. A Real-Life Setting Requires Less Brainstorming
Because the facts are already there for you to draw upon, you won’t have to worry about creating a real-life setting from scratch. All you have to do is record what you see or learn.
4. Real-Life Settings Require More Research
If you choose to forego the creative demands of creating a brand-new setting, you will bear a greater responsibility for establishing an accurate portrayal.
5. A Real-Life Setting Demands Accuracy
Get something wrong, and some reader, somewhere, will notice.
6. A Real-Life Setting May Invite Criticism
You’ll also have to deal with the possibility that real-life people living in your real-life setting may not like how you’ve portrayed them or their home.
2 Advantages and Disadvantages of a Made-Up Setting
1. A Made-Up Setting Frees You From the Burden of the Facts
If you want to maintain the verisimilitude of a real-life town, but need to tweak a few minor details, all you have to do is rename it. If you want to get a little wilder (as you almost certainly will if you’re writing speculative fiction), a made-up setting gives you the power to alter whole swatches of reality. To some extent, all stories include made-up settings, even if it’s only a street or a house.
2. A Made-Up Setting Demands Active Creativity
With the power of total creation comes total accountability. Because even the most realistic of made-up settings will always lack the added punch of being real, your attention to detail must be even more obsessive than usual.
In most instances, the choice between a real-life setting and a made-up setting won’t significantly affect your plot (for example, Batman could just as easily have lived in New York City as its made-up doppelgänger Gotham). But, in application, the decision will affect every page of your story. Take time early on to consider if grounding your story in a real-life setting is worth the research. Or would the freedom of a made-up setting be worth the potential sacrifice of authenticity? The choice is up to you.