Fictional vs. Real Settings: Which Are Best?

Alice Hoffman: Place matters to me. Invented place matters more.

Some novels use fictional settings and some use real ones. Which are best? And how do you make the right decision?

The answer, of course, is that there is no "best" – it all depends on the particular story you have in mind. Different novels demand different settings...

  • For some, real locations are essential – a novel about a magician who plans to make the Eiffel Tower disappear, say.
  • In other cases, only fictional settings will do (think Lord of the Rings or Alice in Wonderland).

For most novels, though, either choice could work. If you plan to write a love story set in a city, say, it would work just as well in New York as it would in [insert name of fictional city here].

The decision, then – fictional setting or real setting? – will boil down to raw preference in the vast majority of cases. As you might expect, both possibilities have their advantages and disadvantages...

1. Fictional Settings Take More Work

Imagine you're writing that romantic story and you decide on Paris as the setting. The good news is that your readers will already have a strong mental picture of the location before they read a single word of your novel.

Mention the Eiffel Tower and they'll already have enough information to form a mental picture. Add a brush stroke or two of your own (the golden glow of the lights and the distorted reflection of the tower in the water) and – voila! – your audience has all the information it needs to picture the character in that setting.

Set your novel in a fictional city, however, and you'll need to put in more work to describe that city's landmarks.

Having readers already know the setting isn't necessarily a good thing.

Most people's "knowledge" of a real setting will be limited to the picture-postcard views of the city, and the Paris that you want to portray in your novel will possibly be very different.

This means that your descriptions will have to be vivid enough to, first, dismantle the mental images that readers bring to the novel and, second, construct a new mental image closer to the one you have in your head.

With fictional settings, however, readers bring no preconceptions with them. Their minds will be a blank canvas for you to paint on!

2. With Real Settings, You Must Get Your Facts Straight

If a character in your Parisian romance takes the Metro from point X to point Y and the journey takes ten minutes, you'd better be sure that in reality it wouldn't take significantly longer or shorter.

For readers with local knowledge, any such slips would chip away at your novel's authenticity – never a good thing.

Stories set in real locations, then, demand detailed local knowledge and/or meticulous research of the setting. But the payback, of course, is that a romantic novel set in Paris will have a far stronger "shelf appeal" than a romantic novel set in a city (or even a country) that no one has ever heard of.

The same would hold true if your novel was set in Manhattan or Mumbai or a cruise boat on the Nile.

Choose a lesser-known real setting for your novel, however, and 99% of your audience won't have heard of it anyway.

So Which Is Best?

If your novel would work in a well-known real setting, and you're willing to put in the research, go for it. Otherwise, my best advice is to hedge your bets...

You can do this by "broadly" setting your novel somewhere real...

  • in a real country, or
  • a real region within that country, or even
  • a real town within that region.

But make the heart of your setting fictional...

  • a fictional town or city within a real country, or
  • a fictional district or street within a real city, or even
  • a fictional house set in a real (possibly famous) street.

Taking this option with your setting offers you the best of both worlds...

You'll benefit from the glamor of setting your novel in a place that people know (be sure to include plenty of real-life references to keep your readers satisfied).

But because you'll use fictional settings for the specific locations (the lead character's house, their favorite restaurant, and so on), you'll have the freedom to build your setting to meet the needs of the story – and not the other way around.

Settings are important in fiction. But plot and character must always come first.

Beyond Place: Using Reality In Other Ways

As you'll know from the main article on setting, a story's setting is made up of a lot more than just bricks and mortar (and trees and rivers and things!) And so this "fictional vs. real" debate extends to every aspect of your setting.

Let's say, for example, that you're writing a novel about pro football. Can you use the names of real teams in the story?

The answer is yes. You can name the teams, the individual players, even the actual game results. You're free to use reality in any way you want in fiction.

But here's the thing...

Be careful you don't upset anyone if you don't want to get sued...

  • Saying things about a real person, say, which are factually accurate is fine, even if the facts don't present that person in a good light. Stating opinions (or having your novel's character's state them) is okay, too – so you could have your hero say that he thinks the NY Giants suck!
  • But you can't say anything which is factually inaccurate (particularly if the "fact" also happens to be offensive). For example, you couldn't have your character speculate that one of the named players in the Green Bay Packers is a wife beater.

So what you have to do is be a little clever when you incorporate reality into your writing. Here's a nice example...

In John Irving's novel Until I Find You, the story's lead character wins an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. All of the real-life movie stars are name-checked during the ceremony – everyone except for the guy who really did win the screenplay award that year.

You might think that the real recipient wouldn't be too happy being overlooked like that. But the actual winner that year was Irving himself!

Neat, huh?

Unless you happen to be famous, you'll struggle to incorporate reality into your own fictional settings in quite the same way. But it demonstrates that, in fiction, anything goes.