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. Kinda tricky to set that in an imaginary French town!
In other cases, only fictional settings will do – Lord of the Rings or Alice in Wonderland, for example.
For most novels, 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. Here are a couple of the advantages and disadvantages to consider…
1. Fictional Settings Take More Work
Imagine you’re writing that romantic novel 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 readers have all the information they need 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.
Of course, 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 descriptive writing will have to be vivid enough to…
Dismantle the pre-existing mental image that readers bring to the novel.
Construct a new mental image closer to the one you have in your head.
With fictional settings, however, readers bring no preconceptions with them. So their minds will be a blank canvas for you to paint on.
Also, you may enjoy the challenge of inventing an entire city (or at least the parts of it you’re going to use in your story) from scratch. As the novelist Alice Hoffman said…
2. With Real Settings, You Must Get Your Facts Straight
If a character in your Parisian romance takes the Metro from Point A to Point B 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 is that a romantic novel set in Paris will have a far stronger “shelf appeal” to the casual browser than a romantic novel set in a city, or even a country, that no one has heard of (because it doesn’t exist).
Of course, the “shelf appeal” of real settings only works for famous places, like Manhattan, Mumbai or a cruise boat on the Nile. Choose a lesser-known real setting for your novel and 99% of your audience won’t have heard of it anyway.
The Best Bet? Hedge Your Bets!
If your novel would work in a well-known real setting, and if you’re willing to put in the research to get your facts straight, go for it. Otherwise, my best advice is to hedge your bets. In other words…
“Broadly” set your novel somewhere real: a real country, a real region, a real town or city.
But make the heart of your setting fictional, such as an imaginary district or street within a real city.
This gives you the best of both worlds…
You’ll benefit from the glamor of setting your novel in a famous 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 main 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, not the other way around.
Beyond Place: Using Reality In Other Ways
If you’ve already read the main article on setting, you’ll know that setting is a lot more than just streets and buildings. It includes the weather, the town’s history and the main character’s occupation, for example.
Why do I mention that?
Because 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…
Realistically, you’d need to invent a fictional football team. But would you be able to use the names of other (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 characters 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 that’s 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 main 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!
Unless you happen to be famous, you’ll struggle to incorporate reality into your own fictional settings in quite the same way. But with a little creativity, you may come up with an equally ingenious way to incorporate reality into your novel.
For some novels, only a real setting or a fictional setting will do. For many others, either choice could work equally well.
If you decide to set your novel in a real place, consider using a few fictional elements – an imaginary street in a real town, an imaginary hotel in a real street, and so on. This gives you the ability to build your setting according to the demands of your story, rather than having to twist your story to fit the limitations of the real world.
If you give your novel a fictional setting, consider “rooting” it in the real world. Mention real towns, real people, real events that make the headlines during the timespan of your story.
Once you’ve made your decision, it’s time to bring your setting to life by working on the nitty-gritty details. The main article on setting will show you how.