Setting: Real or Fictitious?

Choosing a setting for a novel isn’t always an easy task.  A writer friend advised me once to chose a fictitious setting for one of my novels, and she was absolutely right. In that case. The advantages of choosing a fictitious setting are many. Such as:

  1. The writer can make it look and feel however he or she wants.
  2.  There are no preconceived notions in a made-up setting.
  3.  It encourages the reader to use their imaginations much more to create the landscapes and sights and sounds of the locale.
  4. No one can say you got it wrong! Let’s face it, if you use a real location and aren’t really specific about it, mistakes can be made. Readers don’t like to read something incorrect about their hometown. I know, I’ve heard from one before when I misspelled a city’s name. Oops. Yes, embarrassing!

On the flip side, real setting can:

  1. Ground a story in historical details which might be crucial to the point you are trying to make.
  2. Enables the readers to readily identify with a scene. For example, if you put your story in Manhattan, everyone can easily imagine what it looks like even if they haven’t been there.
  3. Readers can be attracted to storylines which take place in their backyard or their home country.

As you might imagine, there’s no right or wrong answer about picking a setting. You just need to determine if a real location will make the story more effective or not.  My novels about Vietnam – The Reach of the Banyan Tree  & Beauty Rising absolutely depend upon the stories taking place in Vietnam. They are strongly mixed with history and real places and people that putting them in a fictitious setting would completely defeat their purpose and water them down to nothing.

However, my novel A Love Story for a Nation is set in an unnamed country. I did this on purpose as the story centers around one man’s struggle for freedom in a country under a dictatorship. These common themes can be seen in many countries around the world and it did not need to be specified. I remember one of my reviewers was confused at first because she couldn’t figure out where the story took place until she commented that it could have taken place anywhere. Yes, that’s the point.

In my other novel Which Half David I was playing a lot off of my southeast Asian experiences in creating a diverse culture that was a mix of many of the places I had lived and visited. So I decided to create a brand new island nation that would be a cross-section of those places. I think it worked well. I’ve seen this also in one of my favorite novels The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. It’s setting is the country of Sarkhan which is a mix of Thailand and Vietnam. The history of Sarkhan mimicked the post-WWII Vietnam history but the language and culture of Sarkhan was closer to that of Thailand.

As I’m starting writing my next novel – first two chapters finished – this topic has reared its head again because I still haven’t decided how to set this novel. I think it will end up being set in Malaysia. I’m still weighing the pros and cons.

So, think it through and get it right! Then commit to the setting with all you got.

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