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.
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.
Thank you for this post, Stephannie. I usually use fictitious cities and towns, but sometimes I have trouble figuring out where to put them on a map. LOL. You made a lot of good points!
You’re welcome, Lauralynn. And thank you.
I find the best way to create a fictitious place is to figure out what my characters need in regards to scenery and then place the town or city in a region that has those things, which means I usually write the story and then find a place. 😀
Yet another awesome post – Thank you Stephannie. I realize I need to do a lot of work on setting to be able to properly ground my next book!
I’m glad that you got something out of it, Beaulah. 😀 Good luck on creating your settings.
Thanks for the advice. I just mapped out my setting. I’ve had to fix wandering buildings a couple of times and this should help keep them on their foundations.
You’re welcome. I’ve had the same problem at times, Though it’s usually wandering rooms in a building of furniture in the room. 😀 I hope it all goes well for you.
Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing, Stephannie
Great post! As far as specific settings go, if possible, I try to avoid the name/location of the town all together (though with all the &^%$ traveling they do in Amaranthine I have had to give them real world associated places privately so that I can keep track of how long it takes to go from one place to another).
And for world building – YES! consistency is sooo important. I hate books – or series – that suddenly changed the rules mid story. I feel like if the author created the world then he/she should be able to move around in their own confines, if that makes sense.
I once read some good advice about sci-fi or fantasy – “only ask your readers to believe ONE impossible thing at a time. Everything else should be based in fact.” i wish I could remember who said it :p
It’s a good saying. If you try to force readers to believe too many impossible things they balk. Though some writers have pulled it off. One that comes to mind has an impossible world, where the impossible happens all the time. 😀
Excellent post, Stephannie!
This is an excellent post. Thank you for sharing, Stephanie. Many blessings and much love to you. 🙂
I have a question. If your story uses fictitious places based on real places in the history, would that be okay to use real historical references to add strength to the story? In my case, there’s a place called Zanaida, based on real place, Cilicia. The time is around 300 BC and Cilicia used to be part of Persia before being invaded by Alexander the Great, and then later on declared its independence. The historical evidence on Cilicia thoughout 320-62BC is gruesome, not much is found around this time. The only thing we know is that Pompey invaded Cilicia in 62 BC and the place became part of the Roman Empire. So I want to use this historical gap as an asset to create the story. What do you think?
Thank you for your advice and I am looking forward to hearing your views.
Thumbs up! Good to go! 😀
I see nothing wrong with what you want to do, Subhan. Using real events or even changing real events in a fictitious place in your fiction is acceptable within reason. Having modern indoor plumbing during that time would be stretching it, unless you were writing fantasy or alternate reality. Sounds like it would be a cool setting for a book.
Hi Stephanie, thank you so much for your kind advice. The thing is, I am still not sure on how to make this setting believable. The reason is because not many materials are available on the life of the people in that area, and I often have to guess the kind of food they eat as well as the kinds of clothes they wear. Because this is a spiritual fiction whose theme has the central tenet on the delivery of wisdom by the main character, I try to keep settings and plot as secondary, hence not revealing too much on these parts. This is an issue that I am confronting at the moment. Also, you said there is nothing wrong with the approach, but what if people question my claim on the basis that “Alexander the Great had actually never invaded Zanaida”? I am still confused. Please give me some more advice. Thank you very much for your kind assistance. 🙂
I see what you mean. I need more information on the content of your book to give you a better answer and advise. One way to do it would be to find information of people’s live around the area of Cilica and adopt that into the story, or just before everything disappears. Culture changes but there are a lot of basic things that take time to evolve.
Another one way to do it would be to have an author note at the beginning of the story with a brief overview of the history of the area which also states that while Zanaida is not a real place the events and culture is based on known historical data of the time while the rest is pure fiction. If it’s an alternate history this would be another place to state it.
If you want to talk more about it or have more questions, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org