For anyone who doesn’t know: A ‘setting’ is basically when and where a story takes place. Modern-day New York for the Avengers, 18th-century Japan for the 47 Ronin, Outer space sometime in the future for Star Trek and Star Wars… you get the idea.
Every story has a setting, and it’s one of — if not THE — earliest decisions a writer makes before he or she starts writing. If I write my story in Elizabethan-era England, my main character is most likely going to have a different name and personality than if it’s set in ancient China or an alien mothership (with a few exceptions, but that’s for another time).
There are, of course, real settings. There’s plenty a writer could do with the modern world. I could set a story in Seattle, if I liked. One of my earliest unpublished stories was actually set in Walla-Walla, Washington. That story is going to remain unpublished for the time being, though.
But there’s also the possibility of inventing a completely new setting. Like Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter. I don’t think I’m ever going to find Middle Earth, or Naboo, or Hogwarts.
Which is better? How can I possibly answer a question like that? I guess we can start with the pros and the cons.
Let’s start with real settings: on the one hand, you probably won’t have to explain too much, if it’s set in the modern day and in a famous place. New York City, for example? Readers are going to know at least a bit, and anything unknown can easily be researched. Sometimes, it’s better to let the readers look things up on their own.
Plus, if they need it, a writer has plenty of information available, thanks to the internet: places you can go, maps in real time, travel guides, etc. It gets a bit trickier when you’re setting a story in the past (for example: no Google Earth), but there’s still plenty of info available with a quick internet search and browsing through Wikipedia source links. I was able to find a bunch of sources on Victorian-era etiquette for my 19th-century books quickly.
But the attitudes and beliefs of your characters are most likely going to be affected by who they are and where and when they live. It would be radical, if not slightly ridiculous, for a white man in the slavery-era southern US to believe in racial equality.
Even stories set in the modern day but in other countries and cultures can cause issues. For example: Japan generally has much more traditional gender and family roles, and much more emphasis on respect and doing one’s “duty,” than western countries. As such, audiences from the west might find stories showing these values as silly, insulting, or demeaning, and Japanese audiences might find western stories to be overly rude or dismissive. A few continents can make a world of difference (get it?).
Note that I’ve never been to Japan; correct me if I’m wrong on any of this.
And if you’re writing a story set in a real place, you had better check your facts. Because if anyone who actually lives there reads your book, and you got something wrong, they’ll know. They’ll definitely know, and they’ll mention it. For example, I live in Seattle. Here’s some information for Twilight fans: Washington State does not have enough cloudy, overcast, and rainy days for the Cullen family to skip each sunny day. They’d probably face criminal charges of some sort for truancy if they really skipped every single sunny day during the school months.
And if the story’s set in the real world, in any time period, readers are less likely to suspend their disbelief if something is seriously wrong. A female character in Victorian England strutting around half-naked, publicly sleeping around, and supposed to be a “lady?” Absolutely not. Now, you can have women who enjoy sex during that time period, but they better be discreet about it, or society had better hate them for it.
And there’s the fact that certain people or groups in the real world will always have a certain reputation, people will always think of them a certain way. No sane writer I know of would ever write a story with a Nazi hero, unless he was a traitor against the regime. Then he might be acceptable. But that’s still a big if, because people today know how evil Nazis were, and they’re going to remember that when judging your story and your character. Even if the Nazi character tries to be a good guy, doesn’t hurt anyone over the course of the story, readers are not going to forget that he’s a Nazi, and they will not let him get away with it.
Onto fictional settings. One: you don’t have to deal with social rules you don’t like. Want your prince to fall for a peasant girl? I don’t think that would have happened in the real European past, but maybe it’s acceptable in Shendoria. And the story’s environment and geography can be whatever the writer wants, as well. Yes, there can be a glacier in the middle of the tropical rainforest. It’s an alien planet — it doesn’t follow Earth rules.
Research also won’t be quite as necessary. Most of the rules will be up to the writer, unless the fictional society and culture is clearly based off of a real one. And readers will be more willing to believe unlikely scenarios. Picture my very sexually-progressive female character from above. Victorian England is one thing, but in a fictional setting, that might actually be permissible.
Of course, there are negatives, as well. Most sci-fi and fantasy books are longer than other genres because they need to make room for all the backstory and explanation, and that can be hard to handle elegantly.
I’m pretty sure everyone knows about info dumps: when the story gets put on hold for a whole bunch of backstory that only the reader benefits from? Also known as “As you know” situations, where a bunch of characters go over information they should already know for the benefit of the viewers.
Example: video games where you get to create your own character, especially fantasy. There have been a few games where it’s necessary to give the reader information about X fantasy culture, which is fine. But if your character/avatar happens to be X, then all the explanation is pretty stupid. I keep expecting the character to say “I already know this!”
Writing a fictional setting also takes a bit more work than grabbing a conveniently pre-made location for your book. What’s the road called, where do the people get their water, what’s the weather like? You need to map out your world, your characters’ situations, if you want continuity. Which is important, trust me.
I can also argue that writers who use fantasy settings need to be more creative than real-world setting writers. I mean, it doesn’t make sense that absolutely every alien species out there looks like humans, communicates like humans, and has similar biology to humans, does it? There also has to be diversity within one planet/race/species. I mean, if all humans don’t look the same, who’s to say that all “Dornians” look the same?
There is no right answer, when it comes to settings. I know, I keep saying it: there’s no one right answer, I can’t explain it, it just is. But it’s true. Because each story is different, requires a different setting, different characters, different morals.
I, personally, prefer fictional settings. That’s because I like melding out worlds and societies and cultures in my spare time. But I’m probably going to tackle a few books in a semi-realistic setting some time. It’s all about the writer, the story, the characters, and what’s being demanded.