5 Tips to Creating a Fictional Place in your Fiction

A few days ago I wrote a post that talked about using a real place in your fiction. Today I want to talk about creating a fictional setting for your fiction. The good thing about creating a fictional place is that anything can happen in that world. The bad thing is that some authors think they don’t have to follow the rules because their world is not real.

You have to follow some rules though. Yeah, I know. You create this world from your imagination and it’s not real, so why should you have to limit it. One simple reason: Readers have to believe in your world and accept what is happening to your characters.

Just as I mentioned in Ever Want to Use a Real Place in Your Fiction and Get Away with it? readers may be willing to suspend belief, but they also have certain expectations, and while they may allow you to get away with fictional events and monsters, their minds will immediately contradict something it knows is not true.

Rule # 1: Pattern your world on real places.

You can use a real city or town as your template. You can rename the places, the streets, and even move around the buildings or add more in any way that furthers your plot.

Creating a sketch of your world where your action takes place can help you keep details straight. You can include street names, parks, city walls with entrance gates, hotels, stores and markets, businesses, farms or ranches, way stations, estates houses, and anything else the involves your characters. The more details you have, the better you’ll know your setting and the more life your book will have for your readers.

If you don’t want to sketch out your place you can make a description of the place. Include details about the building materials used in homes, foods eaten by your characters, plants that grow in your world, clothing worn by your characters, even the animals found on your world. The more details you jot down, the better you’ll be able to track how your world operates. A character setting sketch can help.

Rule #2: Pattern your world on real time periods.

Use aspects of different time periods in the story to add realism. You can set your story in a pre-technological society, or something more modern with traces of the old world. An author I know created and alternate world that is not part of our history as the basis of her stories. There is a blending of modern technology, such as electricity and running water with an old world feel.

Remember to do some research at the library or on the Internet. You’ll be surprised at some of the “modern” conveniences that appeared before the Middle Ages. The Egyptians had all types of make-up (eyeliner, eyeshadow, creams, oils, and moisturizers). The Chinese had fireworks for centuries. The Greeks used a weapon called Greek fire that was probably a lot like napalm.

You can use anything from the clothes they wear to the weapons they wield. If you are going to use weapons learn the different types and the damage they can accomplish. The state medical examiner’s office can help you with details on death and dying. The more realistic the details you use, the more believable your story becomes.

Rule #3: Be consistent with your World.

You can write about some far-off place you’ve never been, a place that doesn’t exist, space, or another planet, but don’t move the bank from Main Street in Scene 1 to 3rd and Elk Street in scene 5. Readers will notice the inconsistency. This is why I suggest a sketch.

Rule #4: Be careful to keep some things based in reality.

If you have the characters time-travel know some theories of time-travel so that it seems real and believable. In order for a totally made-up world to set well with a reader, it must have the same sense of reality and continuity as our known world. You can use the non-fiction articles to help create a fantasy world. This can give your story a basis of reality and credibility.

Rule # 5: Follow the rules of your world.

Make sure that your reader knows the rules of that world. If there is magic in your story decide how much exists and who has it. After you decide who has the magic, you need to decide sources of magic: the gods, nature, sacred places, plants and animals, artifacts, and innate talent. Also what is the price of using magic? Are there non-magic users?

If all your wizards suffer from a mood disorder because of magic, except your wizard hero, there had better be a really good reason for it. Because if your characters don’t remain true to those rules throughout your story, your readers won’t accept and continue reading your story.

Summary

I’ve mentioned before that setting is important and should be treated like another character in your story, but it should also blend so well into your story that it doesn’t jerk someone from the story. Be sure to check your facts. Talk to experts in the field if you can and learn as much as you can. Allow your characters to do real things like eating, sleeping, and taking showers, but don’t overdo it. Your world won’t be real to your readers until it’s real to you.

Ever Want to Use a Real Place in Your Fiction and Get Away with it?

When I taught Creative Writing to teenagers, they were a fountain of questions, kind of reminds me of my four-year-old now. But instead of the dreaded “why?” question, it was always “how?” How do I do this, or that, or make the impossible believable?
One of their questions was: Could they use a real place in their fictional world?
The short answer is yes. If you want to use a real place in your fiction no one can stop you. The long answer is yes. A real place adds authenticity and a sense of reality to your setting, but you have to be careful.

Readers may be willing to suspend belief on a one-hundred foot Godzilla terrorizing the city and create all sorts of havoc. They may be willing to believe aliens can rise up from the ground and use humans for plant fertilizer in their attempts to transform Earth into a more habitable place. Or even enjoy monsters ripping a bloody path through a backwater town. But if the small town lane is mislabeled or the High School isn’t where it’s suppose to be in real life, there are readers who will know it and call you out on it.

Readers have certain expectations, and while they may allow you to get away with fictional events and monsters, their minds will immediately contradict something it knows is not true. Locals will complain when you don’t do a place justice or respect their town. So be sure to do your research and make the layout of the town as accurate as possible.

Larger cities will be more forgiving if you add a building for your detective to work out of or street for your librarian to live in because most readers will simply accept it as one they haven’t noticed. That might not be as possible in smaller communities. A made-up street is more noticeable.

Now if you want to write about a place you’ve never been and it’s just not possible to for you to stay there, either for a short visit or any extended time, then you’ll need to find resources that will allow you visit the place in your mind.

The Internet and the library can help. You’ll want to look for pictures, narratives, websites, webshots of the area that will give you a feel for the setting without actually traveling to the location. Good luck with your settings. 😀

Setting Sketch

I usually have a general setting sketch that I fill out before hand if it’s an actual place or as I go along. I thought this might help someone. Good luck NaNoMo or writing in general! I’ll see you all at the end of November. 

Title:

Name of Setting:

Characters living in:

Region/Time Period:

Season:

City and State:

Describe or draw a picture of the Surrounding area:

MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:

The Importance of Setting

Setting is an important part of writing a story. It is as important as characterization and plot. When used properly it fades into the background of the text, nearly invisible, giving to your readers a sense of place and time. Setting is needed, but can be overdone or underdone. and when it moves into either of these two extremes, you’ll either bore you audience or confuse them.

Like many readers, I prefer a happy medium. I prefer a rich tapestry of setting and description that does not run on and on for paragraphs, but whose threads are interwoven into the dialogue and action.

My best advice, when creating settings for your novels, study writing that you enjoy, imulate but don’t copy the writing of authors you like to read, and write the stories you love. Don’t make a laundry list of descriptive details, or do, just don’t put them all into your first paragraph. Use the details that are important to the story or help create the mood you want you readers to have going into a scene.

The best advice I’ve recieved over the years is: if you like lots of discription in your stories, use lots of description, but during the edits use beta readers to pare down the too long parts; and second, if description bores the hell out of you, write your story and then ask your beta readers to look for parts that might need clarification or unanswered questions that might need to be answered.

There will always be readers out there that will like what you write, you’ll just have to find them. And don’t give up, live your dreams and make them a reality.

Do you find setting to be important in your stories, or do you mostly ignore it?