Worldbuilding is one of the most exciting elements of writing, but it can be equally intimidating. It's easy for writers to invest themselves in the process of describing their story's world, whether they're diving into research for a real-world location or building an entire land from scratch.
Determining which of the two your WIP's setting falls into can be easy. It can be instinctual, found in a sense of what works best for the author's process and what is the most fitting for their story. Genre can guide this decision. Fantasy writers might be inclined to craft their world from the ground up, while writers of a cozy mystery or historical fiction piece may prefer to have their characters dwell in real locations like Cape Cod or Dallas.
Others might fictionalize an IRL spot, like introducing their audience to a secret coven of witches populating Vancouver.
No matter if you choose to stick with using IRL settings or crafting them yourself, or decide to take the hybrid approach and blend real and fictional settings together, each kind of setting has its pros and cons, which we'll be examining in a short series here on the blog.
Last week, we explored those of real locations. Now, let's take a look at the pros and cons of using fictional settings.
Pro - You Get To Decide Everything
The freedom of creating fictional settings is often the greatest appeal to writers who use them in their work. Unlike using IRL locations, those invented for your narrative give you complete control over them. Every little detail like weather patterns or holidays to larger details like government systems and cultural histories are left entirely up to you.
There are no rules. Even though the need for consistency is there regardless of a setting's origins, those rules are up to you, whether it's a simple local custom or an intricate magic system. No one can tell you that you've portrayed something incorrectly or that's not how something works because, simply put, that is how something works in your story's world.
Con - You Have To Decide Everything
The first pro on this list can also be something of a con.
As mentioned in last week's post, real-life locations provide a sense of structure and parameters that are sometimes harder to bend.
These decisions can be a lot to take on. Tools like creating a series bible, various software and programs, and drawing maps of your setting can help you keep track of it all.
You may also find these helpful if you're like me and work with fictional locations that are based on real places. One of the main settings in Forged in the Salle, for example, is a fictional resort town based on areas like Brighton, Eastbourne, Blackpool, and Ramsgate. I tend to have a running list of things I come across in my research that I want to incorporate in my fiction or events my characters may find themselves at.
This can also be of use to writers of series so you can refresh your memory if it's been a while since the last time your characters visited a setting.
Pro - Always More To Explore
Fictional places have no limitations.
As with the case of being able to decide everything and design the world they wish to center their stories around, writers may also prefer fictional settings because there are no restrictions. They have the power to invent things and add new elements to their world at their will, even if it doesn't happen with the first story set there.
I reference The Hunger Games quite often here, in part because there is a lot the series did well, including the introduction of each District. The first book opens in Katniss's home of District 12 before she and Peeta are whisked away to the Capitol where readers get a sense of the government and how the titular Games are seen more as a sporting event for the elite's entertainment than the cruel ordeal it is for the lower classes in the Districts. With Catching Fire, the Victory Tour takes readers through the other Districts and demonstrates how common the mistreatment of Panem's citizens is nationwide, raising the stakes and emphasizing how dire the need for change truly is. Additionally, Katniss's eventual alliance with other Quarter Quell Tributes provides additional information.
These details are points of interest, but throwing them all at the reader in the first book could have been overwhelming for readers because at that time it's not as relevant, whereas exposing Katniss and the reader to these circumstances later on in the series keeps things fresh while raising the stakes.
Con - Rabbit Holes
Creating your own worlds gives you boundless parameters to work in. You're not limited to the constraints of IRL conditions or constraints, giving you free rein as you craft your story.
That freedom, however, can send you spiraling head-first down rabbit holes. This note of advice is something I see given primarily to writers of fantasy, but it can easily go for any genre. You want to create an expansive world with plenty of detail for the reader to experience and immerse themselves in, but what you don't want to do is overwhelm them with descriptions.
As we explore our settings through brainstorming, researching, and drafting, it's hard to not keep expanding. There might be an interesting tidbit you come across in a nonfiction book you want to incorporate, a scene idea that would spark an adorable encounter between love interests, an area you've visited and want to spend more time in, whatever the case may be. These might be fun to write, but they're not always the ones that serve your story in the end.
I think this urge to overindulge in details can stem from a number of worldbuilding exercises and prompts out there. I remember one fiction class I had in college where we were given a sheet with a bunch of questions to fill out as we were working on our settings, ranging from everyday things like the typical weather and terrain to details like methods of garbage disposal or how many streets run through town. Though many are worth considering, much ended up being extraneous and having little or nothing to do with our WIPs. It's more important to focus on the things that matter to your plot and what your character has access to as they move through the world.
Murdering your darlings is a concept I've covered here in the past but if you're unfamiliar, the premise relates to cutting sections of your WIP that you may love but ultimately have no bearing on the plot.
In my case, a lot of these come from worldbuilding, usually pertaining to historical details. I read a lot of nonfiction in my spare time, mostly on topics relating to ongoing WIPs, and it's not long before I have dozens of little flags marking things that pique my interest. More often than not, I want to find ways to weave these facts into stories, especially when they feel like something I can fit into an already-existing project.
Although I initially feel this can further expand the narrative, many of these little tidbits end up being scrapped and saved for later. Things like grave robbing and the surprisingly common practice of folks selling unearthed corpses to medical schools for use as cadavers fascinate me to no end, but that doesn't exactly fit in with a romance about bookbinding.
While crafting an immersive world is a priority shared among writers, it's also helpful to know when to step back.
Pro - Shaping Your Setting To Your Narrative
Some writers go into a project with a particular issue they want to explore or point they want to make.
Themes can be woven into a narrative or a character's actions, but they can also be influenced by the setting of the story.
Writers using real locations may dive into the history examine how events impacted society or changed its values, or bring a critical lens to a trend.
Those using fictional settings are able to do this, too, though somewhat differently. Invented settings task writers to create their histories, so if there is a topic that writer wants to bring into their work, it can be easy to add events that happened well before the protagonist's time. War, gaining independence, a visit from the Gods, a natural disaster, or that time a guy chased a dragon into the town square, whatever the case may be, significant points in your setting's timeline can shape society for better or for worse.
In turn, these inciting incidents may the reasons things are as they are—or shouldn't be, and your character is on a mission to change that.
Fictional worlds give us the ability to explore topics and issues without trying to weave them into a real-world narrative. Instead of bending the narrative to fit the setting, the setting can be bent to serve the purpose of the narrative.
Con - Guided Tours
Writers have the secondary role of tour guide, walking their audience through the settings of their story and making them feel at home. This might be done from the outside in third-person POV or from the perspective of the narrator in first-person POV.
Nowhere is this more true than in entirely fictional settings.
This can be a positive to many writers out there eager to take their readers on a journey, but it can also be intimidating.
If you're writing a story set in Paris, mentioning the Eiffel Tower in the distance is an image most readers can conjure in their mind without much difficulty. A less commonly known spot might necessitate a bit more description, but the reader might end up doing a quick Google search if they get curious and want to see it for themselves.
Setting a book in a completely fictional setting lacks that familiarity. As such, readers may not know what you mean when your character describes a temple they pass by every day on their way to archery practice. Here, the reader needs tangible details like the type of stones it's built from and the shape. Vividness in this case is clarity for the reader.
Even when it comes down to a quick adjective or comment from the narrator, these details ground the reader in the world.
Pro - Distance
Being able to look at things from a distance isn't always a bad thing.
While readers often desire to get cozy in a fictional setting and escape the mundane and the hectic nature of their everyday lives, these fictional settings do give writers a means of tackling heavy themes with a softer blow.
Some readers choose the books they dive into because they cover serious matters, but this makes others shy away from those texts.
I've heard many writers talk about writing real-world issues into their made-up settings because it acts as a clean slate free of preconceived notions. As readers make their way through the story, they might draw new conclusions about the world around them.
It can also prevent readers from feeling hit over the head by these discussions. Feeling like the author's political stances are being shoved down their throat is a complaint I've seen commonly in negative reviews. From my observations, this happens more when the story is set in real-world settings.
With fictional settings, writers can slip themes in more subtly. There can still be a moral to the story and the reader can feel like they learned something from their time spent with the book, even if the bitter truths and hard-to-swallow pills are covered in peanut butter for undetected consumption (or rolled in an Airhead, as my parents used to do for me as a kid).
An Additional, Important Note
While there is an abundance of freedom in creating fictional settings, this does not mean a writer who does so is absolved from criticism should their story take place somewhere drawing on real places—especially if the aspects featured are included unkindly or for sport.
One episode of Nickelodeon's Victorious titled "Locked Up!" sees Tori and the gang end up traveling to perform in a country called Yerba.
Although Yerba was made up by the show's creator, Dan Schneider, and Tori is stopped before she can say where the country is located, it's easy to see where some of the inspiration came from.
As stated on the episode's Fandom wiki page, "The episode is a reference to a number of Sacha Baron Cohen films including Borat and The Dictator as seen through a parody of Eastern European cultures and totalitarian regimes."
Additional allusions to other nations can be observed during the episode. Yerba's use of Cyrillic script references several countries throughout Asia and Europe. "Buddy" has a role akin to that of "Comrade" in post-Soviet states. The government resembles a dictatorship noticeably resembling Cuba, as it is also an island with a similar military presence and uniforms.
"Locked Up!" also drew criticism for its almost lighthearted and comedic portrayal of a developing country caught in a civil war.
I lovedVictorious as a kid. In retrospect, however, this particular episode has become less entertaining due to the aforementioned references woven into Yerba and having a better understanding of where the line between humor and harm lies.
Using a fictional location in your story does not mean you're automatically in the clear. Drawing on existing cultural history and peoples for your story's setting can still rightfully warrant criticism from those communities if portrayed poorly or offensively. Fictional settings do not absolve authors from scrutiny or judgment. Choosing to have your story revolve around a fictional world can come with a lot of work, but the payoff often has writers returning to that method time and time again—with readers eager to revisit these settings they have come to love. The creative freedom that comes with worldbuilding has its appeals and its downfalls. What matters is choosing the kind of setting that works best for your process, and where you as a writer feel most at home.