Creating vs. Using

When writing sci-fi or fantasy, there’s a great freedom you have in way of creating the details of the world you’re writing in.  You can modify the world around you, into what you want it to be.

With fiction, however, there are more limitations to what you can and cannot have the world around you do. (At least, before it starts to turn into sci-fi or fantasy.)  Yet, you still have the ability to create certain, fictional, things to place within your story.

So, the question is, when writing fiction should you invent things within your world, or should you use what real life has to offer?

For such a seemingly simple part of writing, there are so many questions to ask.  Sometimes you make a decision without even realizing it, and in that way, it is natural to the story.  For example, when flipping through DVD’s to watch, my character goes through Moulin Rouge, Boondock Saints, and The Princess Bride.  I didn’t even have to think about whether or not to make up movies.  I was just writing, that’s how the story came out, and I like it.

But when it comes to deciding something as big as the setting and the town your story takes place in, your choice can greatly affect the story.  This is especially true if the town/setting is a big part of the story.

Ask yourself how you want the setting to affect the story and the characters.  Think about the pros and cons of each, and consider how the places you’ve lived in influence the setting you write about.

Naturally, setting doesn’t always have such a huge affect, but perhaps your main character is really into music.  Or movies.  Or books.  Do you want your readers to be able to associate with pop culture references you can throw in?  Or perhaps you want to do a satirical take and create your own reality tv show that the characters make fun of.

Again, I find myself facing these very same questions, and am still considering them.  Some things come easily, and naturally to the story, but when you find yourself stalled on certain details, be sure to consider why, and how it will affect your story.  I find this is especially helpful in the editing stage.

So what do you guys do?  Do you prefer to create your own fictional places/media/products, or do you like to keep things strictly realistic with things that exist in our current world?  Or if you balance the two, how do you decide which will serve you best?


About Aly Hughes
Unprofessional, unedited, unpublished. Aly is out to make a name for herself by blogging, twittering, facebooking, and general internet-ing. Be warned: She may not know what she's talking about.

25 Responses to Creating vs. Using

  1. Sara Flower says:

    I write in a couple of different genres. For non-fantasy stories, I try to stick with things that are true to this world so people can relate to them. I might stray from this at times and create a made up company or something, but for everyday things like music or books, I stick with reality for the most part.

    Great blog post!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      That’s sort of what I’m leaning towards, at least the small things I want people to be able to relate to. I think it helps also for people to really get a feel for what the character is like, when they read recognizable genre-books or watch certain types of movies etc.

      Thank you for the input! 🙂

  2. TheOthers1 says:

    I usually don’t make things up because I can’t keep everything straight. It’s just easier to stick with reality for the most part for memories sake.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      That’s probably the best reason not to make things up! I think if people invented too many things it would definitely be hard to keep track of it, especially when writing multiple books!
      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Not sure I completely agree, my perspective is different. I think sci-fi and fantasy give the illusion of being open and having more freedom but it is a small difference. In order to make them work you still have to create rules and so on, that is what draws a reader into a story, i.e understanding where the limits are. Characters cannot do things that seem unrealistic to the world they exist in. In effect, you create a world then narrow it down. Some fantasy is terrible when writers just keep inventing stuff and you wonder where it all starts and ends. Sure you won’t get a troll in Moulin Rouge (I think!), so there is that kind of pool of created things to draw on in sci-fi and fantasy, but then you also have to write in how the world works. This, I think, is the main difference, in that, basing a fiction in the seemingly real world, the rules already exist. However even a “real” world in fiction is created, dialogue won’t be totally real but an illusion of real. The characters will get involved in a story of some kind with subtle adjustments for tension and pacing. But, and this is a big but, however real it seems to be, it is all just an illusion of reality.

    That said I prefer to write closer to the “real” world, with maybe some variations on it on occasions, e.g. if doing a horror story or the like. That I think is because the rules already exist and I don’t wish to invent all that other stuff. Well not right now. At the moment I find that an easier approach to invest the emotion into the piece I’m writing.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Fantasy and Sci-fi definitely operate within the confines of their own sort of reality, and you’re right, authors shouldn’t just throw things in willy-nilly. However, the landscape is envisioned by the author, as are the types of villages, towns, or cities, the names of which are created. Certain products, or inventions exist in that world and not ours, and there are people, stories, and general knowledge not of our world. Everything operates within the rules of that world, however the seemingly smaller details are still creations of the author. Many of these are readily acceptable to readers with open minds.

      You’re right, fiction is still an illusion of reality, and the stories themselves are not completely real. And there are no real rules as to how far you can stretch reality in fiction, which is more of what I’m considering. It’s hard to tell if readers will even notice that a town is made up, and perhaps it’s a credit to the author if they don’t realize it. But I do wonder how much of a difference it can make to the story that is supposed to be set in our reality.

      • Well you were right in that you either create some details or use from what you know or can observe. But it is a fine line when you put it down in a story. If you wrote about where you were living now, I might have no idea what the place is like so in effect you are having to tell me enough about it, much as you would a created world. I suppose a part of it is having to balance what you think your audience might know, and what you wish (or need) to tell them.

        The “Real” world is really useful for short stories because if you’re just focusing on character and emotions, the rules of the world are already (mostly) set.

        I think the point I’m getting at is not so much that there isn’t a difference, there is, but e.g. sci-fi is not as open as people tend to think, whereas the “real” world is not as closed as people think either. – But making the choice which way to go is obviously really important.

  4. Samir says:

    If writing fiction, I prefer keeping it all as real as I can. I think this is a basis for the reader to identify with because familiar names and locations strike a chord and make it more engaging to follow the character’s journey. The downside, in my case anyway, is the research that is sometimes involved.

    If writing alternative fiction then I love world building and this is the bonus of writing in such genres. It’s fun and exciting to create my own rules and parameters to work with. Perhaps it’s the reason why I’m not fond of hard SF since this would seem to be more of a blend of the two processes.

    Great post!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      That’s true about writing with familiar names and locations. My only thing is that I’m setting it in a very small town that few people would have been to/heard about, so familiarity is not really a factor unless I write it specifically for the people who live here…in which case I’d have a very small readership! 😉 But I do see your point, and it is nice for readers to be able to connect to the story. It’s a lot easier to write in earnest about a real thing than a made up one.

      I love writing and creating new worlds too! It’s such a fun process, and it really gets the creativity and imagination going. 🙂

      Thank you so much for your input!

  5. kzackuslheureux says:

    I find it is very hard to stick to a real place and keep it entirely fictional. Like it can relate to real places but a small town outside of L.A. can be very much like any other suburb of L.A. without it being an actual town you then have to mimic. You can find hip little towns in every part of the world or a small, lonely town off the beaten path, both are very much a real part of the world, but they don’t have to be the exact town that gives you inspiration. It gives you a little more freedom in your setting but doesn’t take away from the reality of your setting either.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I like what you said about the towns not having to be exactly like the setting that inspired you. I love thinking that there’s that freedom to really explore and mold a setting to fit your story. Thank you for the great comment!

  6. When I was starting my novels (the 1990s), I was seeing a lot of indie movies, so I was inundated with clever pop culture references (think Kevin Smith, Tarantino, etc.) and I didn’t want to do that, partly because it can be too easy and partly because it can age your story really fast (also, I’m nowhere near as clever as either of those guys 🙂 ). Today’s clever pop culture reference is tomorrow’s forgotten trivia, after all. There are two Star Trek references (which fit too well to leave out), but I think that’s it.

    Also, I don’t nail down exactly when my stories take place, and they are clearly somewhat of an “alternate history” (like those “what if the Nazis had won the war?” stories, but nowhere near that extreme). So, they take place in a place which doesn’t exist, and where most culture is local and live (local bands, theater, etc.). No computers and no televisions.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      You’re right, I think the pop culture references can age a story. Especially with how quickly our society tends to move on to the “next big thing”, easily forgetting the trends of the year before. Of course, there are classic references that transcend generations. (Like Star Trek 😉 )

      I like that you don’t completely set when a story takes place. I used to love that about Harry Potter, you know, until Rowling announced it took place in 1996, then the illusion was shattered. Haha!

      But you definitely put some things in perspective for me, especially about the advantages of keeping it timeless. Thank you for your input!

  7. I’m a complete hypocrite! Lol

    When I write, I have a place in mind, but I usually change the name, but when I read, I LOVE reading about places I know *snigger*

    I think I’m just very aware of being sued 😦 Ian Banks (who sets all his books in Edinburgh) says you have to be very careful giving details of real places because if you describe a real place negatively (say a bar or restaurant) you could find yourself in trouble.


    • Aly Hughes says:

      haha! I can totally be like that to! I love knowing places and being like “I’ve been there before” or “I know that place!”

      You’re right, that’s partly why I’m hesitant to use the actual inspirational places in my novel. It’s such a small town except for the huge university that pretty much makes up the entire town! I’d hate to run into trouble by using the actual places. It seems kind of like an unnecessary risk in comparison to the story I want to tell.

  8. Well… I am Greek, and I would like to go into e-book publishing. This means that I have to write in English. But I have never been to England, or America, or so. This restricts me concerning the setting. I will either have to write about Greece, a place with which most Americans and English aren’t familiar with, or about a completely non-existent town, village or whatever. So yes, the setting can be a tough choice.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      You know, I think you could find a readership with setting your stories in Greece. I think a lot of American authors shy away from it because of all of the research involved, however as a reader I know I would be interested in reading more stories set elsewhere. Even if it’s a fictional Greek town, I think your ability to put a lot of realistic qualities would really capture the attention of English speaking readers. Especially because we love stories that can transport us to different times or cultures, and the more authentic, the better! 🙂

      Thanks for you comment!

  9. I think it depends on context. Right now I’m writing a book set in the Southwest Pacific during World War II — and I’m trying to make that as true to life as I can. On the other hand, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of characters in this book go on to fly in the first starships, so at some point the realism has to change to creation. The funny thing is, when I started writing about WW2, I realized that I had to use a lot of the same techniques we do in SF, because no one today — aside from a few old geezers and history nuts like me — knows the technology. Besides, how did the old folks do it without computers? 😉

    • Aly Hughes says:

      That’s really interesting that you’ve been using SF writing techniques for your historical fiction. I haven’t written historical fiction yet, so it never occurred to me how much you would have to create and sort of establish for that historical world.

      haha, Nothing wrong with history buffs! And how DID people live without computers? 😉 Baffles my techno-era mind!

      And thank you for stopping by my blog as well! 🙂

      • One of my friends is an 88 year old retired airline captain with 37,000 hours of flight time. He HATES computers, but his reasoning is if you’re the pilot, you’re supposed to be flying the damned airplane, not some bunch of circuits! But I’ll tell you this, writing a story on a computer, as opposed to using a typewriter…oh, boy, I’d NEVER willingly go back to that.

  10. BTW, thanks for stopping by my blog!

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