Fictional vs Real Settings: How to choose
Last week, I wrote a list of questions that can help you determine the setting of your novel. One of the first questions was do you want a real or fictional setting.
There are good reasons to go with either option as well as negatives for each one. So how do you choose which one is best?
Every situation, every story is different and will have different setting demands. Some stories only work in a fictional setting (think Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars). And some benefit from real-world settings. And then there are some – such as romance – that could work in either location.
Here are some of the pros and cons of using fictional and real settings.
You get to create a whole new city/country/world. Everything is the way you want it. You pick customs, government, the local law enforcement, where the hospital is located as well as where the forests, mountains and beaches are located. If you are creating your own world, no one can tell you that your society is wrong. It is your creation and yours alone. If you want two moons or for people to live in pods, it is all up to your imagination.
Creating your own city or world can be time consuming. You are starting with a blank canvas, and you need to fully develop your setting for your characters to work and live in it. The type of city or world you create will determine the reactions and behavior of your characters. Fully developing your city/world includes making a map of the area so you are consistent on where everything is located, and how long it takes to travel to those places. There is no immediate connection with your reader. When you mention Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon, readers can visualize the place. In your fictional world, you will need to add more descriptions to make this place come alive for the reader and be believable.
There is typically less research when using a real location as your setting. This is especially true if you write about a place you know well. You know how it smells, how the morning air feels, how the people move and talk. You will know the layout of the city. You won’t have to research the setting as you know it and hopefully that knowledge will come out in your writing. Readers already know some of these places so you can spend less time establishing your setting. When you mention the Manhattan skyline or the Washington monument, people will know what you are talking about. The history, folklore and local stories can be woven into your story and give it authenticity.
You have to know the place you are writing about well especially if it is a popular place like New York or Las Vegas. If you get something wrong about where something is located, or how long it takes to travel from one place to another, then those readers who know this place will be irritated, and these inaccuracies will chip away at your novel’s authenticity. If you are writing about a well-known real place, no amount of research on the Internet will replace actually going to the location. Using a real place in a fantasy setting can actually sometimes make it harder for the reader to believe what is happening. They doubt things that contradict what they believe to be true. In this case, a pure fantasy world actually might work better.
And no one said you can’t do a little of both. You can set your novel in a real city but have your protagonist live on a fictional street or subdivision. Or you can start in a real place like London and ended up at a fictional magical school. You just need to pick a setting in whatever location will work best for your story.