Discussion: Real vs. Imaginary Settings

After creating characters and piecing together a great story, the next important step is creating a believable setting.  Since I usually work in fantasy, I’ve never had to face the problem of using a real setting versus a created one.  I’ve never even had to think about the different options, until now.  My NaNoWriMo manuscript isn’t a fantasy – it’s stuck somewhere between mystery and thriller and is supposed to take place in CollegeTown, USA somewhere.

This realization brought my progress to a halt.  Do I use a real town or make one up?  Are there any issues with using an existing place?  When creating an imaginary place, can it be used in connection with real places?

In true My Literary Quest fashion I’ve made a list of pros and cons.

Real Locations

  • Already created
  • There are pictures and maps available
  • Many readers will already be familiar with it
  • Has a built-in history
  • Must stay accurate to physical layout
  • Readers may have negative associations with location
  • Any error,  however slight, will be noticed
  • Might encounter legality issues using real names (See Personality Rights)

Imaginary Locations

  • Flexible to meet needs of story
  • Doesn’t need in-depth research
  • No one will know if you get it wrong
  • Can become its own character – think Gotham city
  • Reader will not be familiar with it
  • Has no built-in history with reader
  • Requires more brain work by the writer to make it feel real
  • Feels disconnected from the rest of the world

After considering the different pros and cons of both options an imaginary setting would suit my story best.  It gives me the flexibility I need without worrying about getting every last detail correct.

Readers, what are your experiences with reading or using real versus imaginary settings?  Can imaginary towns be mixed with real ones?  Are there other pros and cons that I might not have considered?

Let me know in the comments!

About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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8 Responses to Discussion: Real vs. Imaginary Settings

  1. jenniferneri says:

    I like using real places and times when I write. My current wip is literary woman’s fiction, with a historical setting. I don’t write historical fiction. My first novel takes place in our time in our cities, but with different technological advances (it’s speculative). I suppose for me, I like to be grounded in something real, and I love reading books with a real setting.
    That said, I love fantasy – one of my favorite authors is Gay Gavriel Kay, who tends to blend history with make believe and he does an excellent job!
    I think, like you say, it depends on the flexibility needed. Some stories can never take place in a real setting. It would destory the premise.

    • tsuchigari says:

      I just read a writer’s newsletter that had an article all about setting, it talked about some favorite books out there like Harry Potter, Narnia, and such where the setting is just as magical as the story. It made me reevaluate if there was a way to make my setting more stimulating! To me, fantasy settings are much more fun, can add all sorts of unexpected impossible touches.

  2. nrhatch says:

    I guess I go with a hybrid ~ a “real” geographic area (like the Gulf Coast of Florida) with a self-created town.

    The larger setting allows readers to nod knowingly at the palm trees and white sand beaches, while the fictional setting gives me complete creative license.

    • tsuchigari says:

      That makes a lot of sense. I was struggling with the massive task of capturing the essence of a town without giving the reader anything familiar to hold on to. By giving them that reference it gives them something to hang any other details the writer provides.

  3. oldancestor says:

    Using a real location can be tricky because something about it might change. From the time you write the novel to when it is published, at least two years have passed. Buildings can be torn down or burned in a fire, new highways can be put in, slums can be replaced by a shopping mall, and so on.

    For my first manuscript I used fake towns in real geographic areas. My second one took place entirely in New York, so I used real streets and neighborhoods but fictional apartment buildings and coffee shops and such.

    • tsuchigari says:

      That is a very good point – and one I hadn’t considered. To be 100% true to an exsisting city instantly dates the story, never a good thing. I guess it would help to be familiar with the geographic area to be able to write it well. Rocky Mountains here we go!

  4. Cally_Jackson says:

    I also use a hybrid. The small towns my characters move from are fictional, but they move to Brisbane, which of course is real. Within Brisbane, I have a mixture of real places (the mall, particular suburbs etc) but made-up specifics- houses, workplaces, university etc. Hopefully that’s not too confusing!

    • tsuchigari says:

      No – it makes perfect sense, especially after reading the other comments. I like the idea of mixing both existing and created spaces withing the bounds of the story, gives huge flexibility to the writer and familiarity to the reader.

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