Some timeless stories are remembered for their strong, inspiring characters, or their thought-provoking, universal themes. But sometimes, what we remember most in a beloved story is its sense of place—the tangibility and sensuality and home-ness of a place that feels as real as we are.
Whether it’s the rain-slicked grittiness of Gotham City, or the cozy warmth of the Shire, place has the power to elevate a story to a new dimension. Let’s look at why place matters in fiction, some examples of effective literary settings, and how to create settings that readers will long to return to again and again.
Why is place important in storytelling?
Place in fiction is what makes a reader believe your story.
Seems strange, doesn’t it? You put all this work into dynamic protagonists, cutthroat antagonists, and satisfying story arcs—and yet, without a strong sense of place, stories have a tendency to fall apart like a cheap theater backdrop. This is because your story or scene needs to feel like it could not have happened anywhere else.
Think about it: what if Batman was skulking the rooftops of Santa Monica, or the Cotswolds? What if Frodo and Sam had begun their journey in a grubby Dickensian town, instead of the cottagecore homegrown comforts of Hobbiton? Place shapes your characters, their experiences, and ultimately their choices.
The same is true of real-world places, too. The same narrative would play out very differently in 18th-century Paris than it would in 21st-century Seattle or Baghdad.
Real-world settings vs. made-up settings in a novel
Using a real-world place in fiction—Paris, Rome, New York, New Jersey—offers the advantage of being able to visit it, google map it, experience it in a real and tactile way. The disadvantage is that if you make a mistake, your readers will know.
Real places also need to be approached with sensitivity, especially if they’re a place you’ve never been or have only spent a short amount of time in. For example, if your Paris is nothing but flower markets and accordions and berets, you’re going to alienate some people who know there’s more to the City of Light than a Instagram-worthy postcard. If you write about a Brooklyn where people get mugged on every corner by hired mobsters, you’re going to offend those who are a part of the borough’s rich arts scene.
Just as a real place serves your story by bringing it to life, you have a duty to that place in return: to show it in all its facets, its messy beauty, its darkness and light.
The advantage of building an entirely new place is that you can maneuver its landscape and social ecology however you wish. The challenge is that it takes more work on the part of the writer to make it feel real. Using a relatively small amount of space, you need to crystallize it as a place that could exist—just off the next exit, just one more stop further on the train, just beyond the fields we know.
You can learn more about this in our super handy post on building fictional worlds.
Tips for making your setting real for your readers
Whether real or imagined, historic or contemporary, your setting needs to jump off the page in living color. Here are some things to keep in mind as you craft a clear, dynamic place in your storytelling.
Keep it rooted in reality
Your story’s setting needs to feel like a real place—either a place that exists in the world we know, or a place that could.
If you’re setting your novel in a real environment, do your best to experience it with your own body. If you’re not able to travel to the country, city, or village in which your story takes place, look to other resources like photographs and videos to help you get inside the character of the place. For example, YouTube often has “walking tours” in which someone films a location as they walk around in it. This can help you articulate and describe the setting as if you were there.
If you’re making up a brand new environment, it still needs to feel real to the reader. You can do this by drawing combined inspiration from real places. For example, in The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman created an entirely fictional graveyard in which his story takes place. However, he built it out of other graveyards he saw throughout his travels—a hill from one, a crumbling monument from another, a creaky gate from a third. Taking these real, grounded elements and using them to create something new helped make his setting feel alive.
The novel If We Were Villains did something similar with their fictitious university, which became the crux of a dark academia murder mystery (of course).
You can do this with towns and cities, too. If you’re creating a fictional place, consider incorporating elements of real places and giving them your own spin. The novelist Thomas Hardy often drew maps to remember where everything was and how things fit together; this can be a helpful tool for your own writing. Remember—even an impossible place should feel possible to the reader.
Be mindful of specificity
Sometimes, a small, clear image can communicate a much bigger world. Instead of describing a vast, sweeping desert landscape, describe how a single flower has become so dry and brittle it’s almost calcified. Instead of describing a blue sky full of skyscrapers, describe the harsh edges, angles, and colors of one particular tower that stands out from the rest.
If you’re writing about a fictional village, consider not just the cobblestoned streets and old houses but the way those stones have eroded over time, leaving gaps that catch at unwitting ladies’ heels; the way the paint is peeling from the houses and the door jamb is sinking into the earth.
It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes focusing on one particular image or moment will make the wider world around it seem even more vivid and real.
Embrace symbolism and metaphor
What symbolic role does your story’s environment play in your plot? Look to both the broad environment and to particular structures and places within it to convey a deeper symbolic meaning (writers of gothic novels are great at this).
For instance, maybe your protagonist is returning home after a long absence studying abroad. How can you convey their feelings through motifs in their environment?
Feelings of stagnation and disillusionment could be conveyed through a city park that’s been left to rot under ivy and rusting beer cans; feelings of societal pressure and false ideals could be conveyed through the same city park that’s been meticulously manicured, with every blade of grass cut to the same length and the same right angle. Use all of the senses to explore the emotions and impacts of your world.
Look for small ways you can use your landscape to symbolically enhance the theme of your story. This might be something you explore during revisions in your editing process, rather than during your first draft.
Look to the natural world
Nature has a way of sinking into the human experience, even in the most sterile cities. When you’re designing your story’s place, think about its ecology. What kind of plants—if any—grow in the cracks in the sidewalk? Are there trees? Are they towering and powerful, or desperate and stunted? What about birds, pests, and other animals that pass in and out of human life? What might you meet on your travels through this place?
Also consider the impact of weather, climate, and the changing seasons. Does the place flood? Dry out dangerously in high summer? Is it often drizzly and grey? This is also a good way to incorporate symbolism and metaphor in your writing, as we looked at above.
Consider its people
Often, communities bound together by geography, climate, and history will share a distinctive identity. As writers, we don’t want to accidentally slip into stereotyping; however, it’s worth considering the way this setting’s natural advantages and disadvantages, and its unique social and cultural constructs, have shaped the lives of its people.
Is your population laid back, judgemental, inclusive, suspicious, do they embrace the natural world, fear it, work with it, fight against it? Do they have a thriving arts community? Are there many young people living there, or is the demographic largely elderly people? What makes people choose to stay in this place, and what makes them choose to leave?
Considering the way your settings shape your characters can tell you a lot about your world, and maybe even reveal new surprises.
Examples of evocative place in literature
Here are a few examples of literary settings that have elevated a simple narrative into something memorable and extraordinary.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
You know it’s important because it’s right there in the title—Wuthering Heights would be nothing without Wuthering Heights, the cold, dark manor house that looks out over the desolate Yorkshire moors. One of the most famous gothic novels in history, this book enhances its plot, characters, and underlying themes by grounding it all in a rich sense of place. When the novel reaches its conclusion, it becomes clear that it couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Delia Owens’ breakout first novel is set in a very different landscape, but it’s equally rich in symbolism. Unlike the barren emptiness of the Yorkshire moors, the marshland of North Carolina is filled with life. The setting is so integral to the book that the heroine becomes known as “the marsh girl,” and her experiences interacting with this land drive each key plot point forward.
The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin
The fictional location of this 1972 satirical horror novel has become so famous that it’s now used as an adjective to describe the unnervingly domestic and pristine. The wholesome American town is used as a literary device both to juxtapose the horrors taking place and to highlight the flaws in the domestic American ideal. This novel, and its subsequent film adaptations, uses a sense of place to imply that the events of the plot could happen anywhere.
Bonus: Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village, by Maureen Johnson
This hilarious survival guide is a work of nonfiction (sort of), but it highlights the way a very specific type of place has come to represent something in a larger canon of literature. The motif of a small village in England, peopled with heartwarming characters with an unfortunate tendency to murder each other, is a staple of the “cozy mystery” genre. Maureen Johnson’s book, which might just save your life, makes fun of the way place has been used in these types of novels. (You can read an excerpt of it here.)
Vivid, informed worlds elevate novels and short stories
When writing fiction—or when crafting any form of prose narrative—place tends to get treated as a vehicle for an idea, rather than an essential part of the story. But as we’ve seen, place can have a huge impact on the lives of your protagonists and make them that much more real in the reader’s imagination.