Special Fiction Writing Week: Creating a Setting

If you’re one of those people who writes articles or ebooks or website copy for a living in order to make enough money to do the other kind of writing – yes, fiction – then this series is for you.

We’re offering a full week (yes, six posts) all about writing fiction and improving your skills. We’ll also have an exclusive offer for Men with Pens readers later on this week; you’ll be able to put your fiction to work for you and earn money off its originality.

Yesterday’s post began the series with tips and tricks on how to create a believable character. We also established that it’s easier to create a setting than it is to create a good character.

For one thing, often your setting has been created for you. Many books have stories that take place in real cities, on streets that you can drive down today, with characters that walk in and out of stores and restaurants that you yourself shopped or ate or got sick in.

Even if you’re creating your own setting, which includes making up a whole new world like Ursula K. LeGuin does in nearly every book she writes, or working with a writing coach to establish your world, building that setting is still a pretty straightforward task. It’s not particularly easy to create all the little bits and pieces that make up a world, but creating a setting is straightforward because no one can argue with you about it.

If you decide that everything in your world is blue, for whatever reason, no one can argue it’s not “realistic”. Readers realize they’re within a sci-fi or fantasy world and move on.

Not so with characters. If your character does something completely unbelievable, no reader is going to go along with it, even if your character lives on the blue planet that they accept.

So creating a setting is a breeze, right? Nothing to see here.

Nuh-uh. Creating a setting is easier than creating a character. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t require some serious thought and attention.

Working in a Real Setting

For the purposes of this article, “real” means “exists in the world in which you and I walk.” That means the setting is in the present time or thereabouts (it can be a few years ago, but not 100 years ago), it’s in a city you can point to on a map, and the buildings, streets, and storefronts are all more or less as they stand today.

This is perhaps the simplest kind of setting in terms of being able to describe where everything is and what the weather’s like. It’ll trip you up if you’re not careful.

For one thing, your readers are going to know this setting too. That means when you write about the impression of the place – it’s “bustling”, or it’s “weary”, or it’s “dirty” – you’re going to have contend with the opinions of people who have actually been to these locations.

If you decide that New York is a clean, cheerful city, for example, you had damned well better be prepared to back that up with some weird quirk of your character’s personality, such as how he sees only the good in everything.

The handy part about writing a setting that actually exists is that it’s completely unnecessary to make up anything. London is still there, and so is Iraq. The religions are established, the history is set. You can just sink into what you already know and begin from there – though if your setting is crucial to your plot, as in a historically based investigation, you’re going to want to be sure you have your facts straight. But it’s pretty smooth sailing insofar as creation goes.

That’s not to say you can just decide you’re good to hit the keyboard and start writing.

If you’re going to write about a place that actually exists, make sure you really do know that place. It’s best if you’ve lived there, at least for a little while. Make sure that your idea of the setting is a valid idea before you go writing it on paper as though it were fact.

Your perception is valid – but if you’ve never actually been to the city you’re writing about or only stayed there on a short visit, your perception won’t matter so much as your gross inaccuracy.

Working in a Made-Up Setting in a Real World

This is a pretty common tactic used by authors who write novels set in small towns. The setting is essentially in a country that actually exists on a map, but you’ve completely fabricated a town within that country.

Your town may be – and should be – similar to towns in that region, for believability’s sake, but creating your own town setting means you have more freedom about the general impression of the place. You can say that everyone in town feels like the place is dead, and no reader can refute you, because this town does not actually exist.

This strategy also works if you’re creating locations that don’t exist within a place that does. For example, if your characters have an underground money-laundering scheme and they need a bar to meet in, make up a bar. Just try not to put it where an actual bar exists or you’ll have blown your cover.

Made-up settings in the real world are also great for fantastical realities. The current vampire craze works like this; so did the Harry Potter books. It works very well to use the real world to disguise a secret, made-up underground that you have free rein to manipulate.

Just don’t forget that the real world is out there. Youre accountable to it. If you decide that your vampires just blew up the town, you have to remember that the National Guard is going to come investigate that, no matter how cool your vampires look smoking cigarettes on the rubble.

Working in a Made-Up World

A make-believe world is the stuff of fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the epitome of doing it well has been (and will probably always be) J.R.R. Tolkien.

That is, until someone else actually invents several different languages, grammar and all, for the various races of the characters created, not to mention writing thousands of years of documented history for said made-up world. Tolkien was a devoted historian and linguist with a lot of time on his hands, people.

In short, you will probably not wind up creating another Middle-Earth.

However, you will wind up creating a history. History is essential for a made-up world, and it possibly one of the biggest drawbacks of using this type of setting.

In a real-world setting, history is more or less as it always was. Your reader knows the history of the real world and has easy reference to it. In a made-up world, there’s a good chance that presumably the Middle Ages never happened, presumably the Greeks never sat around and discussed philosophy, presumably medical advances weren’t discovered at the same time or in the same way.

When you work in a made-up world, it’s not just about writing down how your setting looks and feels. It’s about how your setting got to be that way. Your readers need to know that, in order to accept the setting you’ve put before them.

This is one of the reasons made-up settings frequently resemble our own world quite closely. There’s a hilarious xkcd comic describing why you shouldn’t bother coming up with new names for everything in your world. It’s mostly because then your story becomes all about describing this new world instead of about describing what’s happening within it.

You can definitely name creatures and objects that don’t exist in the real world (everyone’s cool with J.K. Rowling making up Horcruxes and Patronuses), but deciding you have to scrap everything you know and start fresh isn’t going to do you – or your story – any favors.

So which would you choose for your story’s setting? Where are your characters going to live and interact? What does that place look like? What does it feel like to be there?

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.