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.