Find Out When It's A Good Idea to Use A Made-Up Setting

Find Out When It’s a Good Idea to Use a Made-Up Setting

Find Out When It's A Good Idea to Use A Made-Up SettingToo 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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever used a made-up setting in your story? Why did you choose it? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I like switching around which genres I write in. I’m currently doing a Dystopian (trilogy) but once I’m done that I want to go back to something more light and fluffy (to give myself a break from inventing sci fi technology and researching actual cities and brainstorming how they could change in 100 or so years). I actually really like the idea of steampunk because it’s almost a mixture between both options (maybe?). It’s kind of real-world but also with personalized additions. (So I’m hoping to give that a first-try sometime this year.)
    So basically everything you said is so true, and I can’t settle with one or the other. xP

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is why I’ve largely switched from historical fiction to fantasy: I still get to use the historical trappings, but I’m not confined by the details of actual events. Best of both worlds!

  2. For me it’s no contest, because I either have to know every detail of a thing or need the distance to pick and choose when to care. So I don’t dare set anything in a real place, ever– I’d never feel the research was enough.

    Instead I’ve set my current series in a place called Lavine. (“Did you know it dropped from sixth- to seventh-largest city in the US?” Or sometimes I just say “Because Gotham was taken.”) Before that I tried the shell game of never saying which city *Shadowed* was set in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In the old classics, it was common practice to avoid naming places. They’d just say Y——, instead of Yorkshire. :p

    • Lavine’s my last name! Maybe people will have a better idea of how to spell it when your books are published!

  3. I use both. In my “trunk” I have a portal fantasy that starts in Chicago, where I went to college, and the characters live in a place very similar to the residence where I stayed. No research required, and the fact that it’s Chicago means I don’t have to explain away one complication: why the character can’t readily access the firearms she needs to go monster hunting.

    But most any other time I simply make up places. In a trunk mystery I fused together details from a couple of towns near where I grew up, and the name of the made-up town was taken from a street I used to walk past. The street name is much more picturesque and evocative than the names of the real towns. That’s one advantage for using a made up locale: the name you give it can set the tone of the story, though at the risk of getting too cute/on the nose.

    For the trilogy I’ve been working on, I used made up names for the empires of my ancient-Roman/Persian analogues. At the same time, some of the places within the empires are taken from real life: tribes Caesar encountered or Herodotus wrote about become names of countries. The name of the “Persian empire” is taken from a city in Bronze Age Iran, and my Roman empire’s name is taken from an Etruscan word.

    I did it that way to 1) let readers know the flavor of the setting, but warn that I’m not going to be “historically accurate” — gryphons, dragons, manticores etc., are real in my story 🙂 and 2) at the same time, achieve the “Yorkshire effect.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s cool. My portal fantasy starts in Chicago too. 🙂 (And features a minor character named Jamie.)

      • Oh, neat. Is it “Behold the Dawn”? I have that book in my to-read queue and I intend to get to it as soon as I’m done with the Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser anthology I’ve been reading.

  4. I’ve never tried a real world setting. I’d get waaay too stressed worrying over getting a detail wrong. I have been trying to do a better job of researching what I can, though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It *can* get a little stressful. The research I did for my historical superhero WIP Wayfarer (set in 1820 London) was probably the most intense I’ve ever done. Not only was it set in a place I’ve never personally visited, with unique dialects that obviously differ from my own, but it was also set in a very popular historical period. No pressure. :p

  5. Two of my novels were set in real places: Concord, MA and Mt. Greylock, MA. I loved doing the research of these locations, visiting, absorbing the images of the streets, landscapes, shops; it’s very stimulating. And in many ways (because I write supernatural mysteries), setting the story in a real town creates a concrete reality for all the supernatural action. I find it very grounding.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Were they places you were already familiar with? I tend to get myself into situations where I drown in research because I choose places I have no previous experience with. However, my dieselpunk/historical novel Storming was set right here in my western-Nebraska hometown, which was a total delight.

      • I was familiar with them from web searches and books. I traveled to Concord and Mt. Greylock specifically to get a sense of place for my characters. I imagined myself as my characters walking in town and climbing the mountain. It was exhilarating. The research was extensive but I loved it.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I love the research too, even when it’s overwhelming. It’s why I write: to get to experience things beyond my own life.

  6. Bodil Hov says:

    My first ever story was like that, I kept trying to make up a world for it to fit within, but something bothered me. I wanted the freedom to make the world my own, but I also needed a connection with the real world. The solution (after spending hours researching maps) was I picked an “isolated” peninsula, and placed my entire world there. New names, new topography, and all explained by the simple reasoning of the world having been created by the Gods of old. Of course this ties into the real world in my story, but while it may be recognized for where it is, it is still my own.

    In my current novel I have gone “all the way” and created my own world. Fun but lots of work. I am especially proud of my map.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very often, I’ll create a made-up setting in the real world, based on a real place, but change the name, so I have freedom to keep what I want and ignore what I don’t.

  7. I want to go for a ride in that magnificent airship. A story that includes that in its setting would be one I want to read.

  8. Great post, as always!

    I’ve never really written a completely made-up environment for my characters. Most of the time I’m researching real places – some of which I’ve never actually visited – and trying to achieve the verisimilitude you’re talking about. It’s a bit of a balancing act, though. Too much ‘authentic’ detail and the reader gets bored or thinks you’re showing off, too little and the reader gets bored and thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about!

    I’ve had to do a lot of research for city car chases (I write thrillers), but if I put in too much detail it slows the action. But it still has to be believable. One of the things I’ve tried is to invent locations that fit in well with the environment I’m writing about, rather than constantly having to research real places – a fictitious gas station here, a fabricated train station there. I think that can work well in the ‘real’ world too. As I say it’s a balancing act.

    Thanks for the post. It made me think more deeply about what I choose to reveal to the reader – the real world, or tinges of a surreal world.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would think car chases in written fiction would be especially challenging. They’re so visual! Sounds like a fun challenge though.

  9. I only have one WIP but I chose a made up town. However I do give lots of details here and there so I think it sounds like a real place. Using a real place scares me as I’m afraid of offending people by giving a wrong fact or making a place sound bad and upsetting locals.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s really the key to any great setting–bringing it to life so readers *believe* it is real, whether it is or not.

  10. The good thing about the internet is that you can look up a place you’ve never been to and learn all about it with just a click of a button. That has helped me in some instances but I still prefer writing about places I’ve actually been to even if I am going to rename that place for the purposes of my story.

  11. J.M Barlow says:

    My premises would never fit in the real world… also most of my premises fit into the same world that I have created. I have dozens of “some day” story ideas… ehh the hope is one day I become established and full-time in writing (also considering other medias as well, such as graphic novel).

    That graphic novel project is one of my few premises that doesn’t directly apply to that world. For the most part.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      An interconnected story world is fun. Saves on worldbuilding time from story to story too!

      • J.M Barlow says:

        yeah, and for me personally it’s always fun when there are easter eggs that refer to other stories, or recurring characters. I imagine I’m not alone.

  12. My WIP uses both. As a reader, I find that moving from a real setting to a fantasy setting in the same novel can lend more credibility to fantasy setting – the reader has a logical way to get there from here. It can also enhance the real setting, by portraying it in a larger context with more possibilities. Of course, suspension of disbelief ultimately depends on how well the novel is crafted in general, which is why I read this site 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Fun! I did that in my portal fantasy Dreamlander, moving from Chicago to the fantasy world. It was a lot of fun, although I’ll be visiting the “real world” much less in its sequel.

      • Dreamlander’s on my list. Looks like fun! Dream themes and portals remind of an otherworldly children’s animation piece called “Rarg” (https://goo.gl/XieS8e). The story setting moves backwards from Fantasy to Real, and I’m not quite sure where it ends up. There’s no antagonist (although there is a threat), and yet it’s interesting and enchanting.

        Some other Real world to Fantasy stories off the top of my head: the Narnia books, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and maybe Harry Potter since the muggles can’t access Hogwarts (though it is on Earth).

        Does Real to Fantasy setting always mean “Portal Fantasy”, or do you need an actual portal? I’ve read that some agents are down on portal fantasies. Not sure what that was about. Maybe they were down on the escapist simplicity of some of them – just leaving and rarely interacting with the real setting again.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, technically, I believe all the stories you’ve mentioned (with the possible exception of Harry Potter) would be considered portal fantasy. Agents are down on gimmicks. If you do it well and they love the story, they’ll love it regardless if it’s portal fantasy or not.

  13. Joe Long says:

    When I started this piece I thought of a BBC show, “DCI Banks”, that I’ve been watching on Hulu. It caught my eye as it was set in a fictional small town of Eastvale, “a little north of Ripon near the A1 in Yorkshire” which is where my grandfather’s family was from.

    The books the series was based on described Banks as a detective who fled London for small town life in Eastvale. However, the TV show had him in in a large office with a city out the window. The first couple seasons no other cities or towns were mentioned, but there’s only a handful of cities in Yorkshore so after that they dropped the pretense and frequently referred to Leeds and Harrogate, with Banks living in a farm house near Bedale (The village my grandfather’s family was from!)

    For my own story, it’s set in the town I grew up in and once again live in. I’m intimately familiar with the geography and history. I never mention the name in the story, although someone familiar with the place will recognize it. There have been two major movies made here around the same time (1979) that my story is set, and both changed the name of the town after depicting it in not-so-glowing terms, a place everyone wanted to leave. It’s one of those medium sized steel towns in a valley in western Pennsylvania, where in fact, everyone wanted to leave (but I came back).

    Although I don’t name the town or the college, I do have names for the high schools which are variations. My high school was in one of the movies, and in my story I gave it the name from the movie.

    A friend had warned about using names of real businesses, but I think I’m okay because I simply mention them as a bit of realism without making any judgements about them. The people shop at Giant Eagle (a major local chain) and the A&P (a national chain which existed then but no more) and the Sheetz convenience story is occasionally mentioned.

    Oh, and my friend has also published a novel set here. She used the real name of the town, but changed the name of the club where she used to DJ. I used her character’s name and her name of the club in a scene in my story for a bit of a crossover.

    • Joe Long says:

      Forgot to say in the first paragraph – and then I scrolled down and the first place Katie used as an example was Yorkshire.

    • Joe Long says:

      I’ve enjoyed watching DCI Banks on TV. The novelist Peter Robinson has so far written 23 books in 29 years. None of the 4 published since the TV show started or the first 5 were made into TV episodes, but 11 of the 14 written between 1992 to 2010. After seasons 3, like Game of Thrones, they departed from the books and the last 6 episodes of the show were not based on books.

      Googling just now I found a very interesting interview with the author who talks about getting started and then also watching the first time one of his books was adapted to film. To the point here, he also talks about setting the story where he was from while he was studying in Canada.
      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/8016841/Peter-Robinson-on-DCI-Bankss-TV-debutp.html

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, sometimes the safest route is to use a real setting but just change its name. Gives you more flexibility too.

      • Joe Long says:

        I believe that it’s best to change the name if your writing is going to make the location or business look undesirable. “The names have been changed t0 protect the innocent.”

  14. In most of the books I’m writing these days, I try to mix it up between real settings and fictional ones. Generally I get more detailed with the fictional locations, partly because with the internet these days, if they want to know what it looks like, they can just look up pictures.

    The fictional locations are sometimes within a real city, but a fictional building or hideout. Sometimes they’re out in the countryside, like abandoned mines, fictional castles and mansions, and underground bases. Probably my favourite fictional place I’ve created yet is an ancient, underground city in Transylvania that is physically impossible to enter if you’re not a vampire.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Mines, castles, and underground bases–those all sound like a ton of fun!

      • Especially the ones that are abandoned long ago, whether they’re being rebuilt into something different, or they’re collapsing all around the action.

  15. Trevor Veale says:

    Changing aspects of the reality of a “real life” setting is perfectly all right with me. To write fiction you have to get into a fictive dream and in dreams anything goes! All my reality scenes are set in the future anyway, so changing details is mandatory.

  16. What are you thoughts on using made up places in straight up historical fiction (e.g. using made up baronies or castles in medieval England). Ken Follett did, but it’s been years since Pillars of the Earth came out. Does this sort of thing still fly? I can’t really think of a mainstream histfic novel that’s done it since.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, it flies. As long as the verisimilitude is good and readers can suspend disbelief, you can definitely pull it off.

  17. Suzan Robertson says:

    My novel is set in a future New York City and Paris, and a couple of other places. I never mention the actual city names but there are references to the “old” NYC and Paris landmarks, like the Stock Exchange and Eiffel Tower. At first, my setting was very much like the real life cities, but it wasn’t working for my plot. So invented an entirely new NYC and Paris, 50 years into the future. Cities and their unique characteristics aren’t too important in my future world. Most cities are pretty much the same. The way the government works and how the people are segregated are more important to the setting.

    My preference is writing made up settings. Unless I know the setting very well, doing all that travel and research for accuracy really slows me down and I get bored.

    Besides, when I read a novel, I cringe if someone gets my place of birth – NYC, wrong. I don’t want to be that writer!

  18. I have a fictional county in SC , broken into a few towns for my characters to run around in. What I like about it is it is set right near Columbia so they can also go to real places.

  19. DirectorNoah says:

    Hi K.M,
    This is a bit of a complicated question, so I will try to explain it as clearly as possible.

    If you have a real setting that transforms into a fantasy setting, how much do you need to explain about how the fantasy magic exists and functions around this setting in the real world?
    For an example, let’s say something unbelievable were to happen, like a well established manor being magically removed from the world and disappearing forever from the map.

    Would I need to write an elaborate cover up to give credabilty and realism to its disappearence, or if some detailed magic or powerful being, like a modern-day wizard is at work, it’s enough for the readers to suspend disbelief and not need a complex explanation of why this particular anomaly has gone unnoticed to the outside world, or exactly how the wizard has kept it a secret?
    Many thanks in advance! ?
    Noah

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Depends on the story and its “rules,” but I’d say generally just having a nominal explanation (like the wizard) would be enough.

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