Where an author decides to lay their scene is crucial and seeps into every single aspect of a story. Why, then, do some authors censor or change the names of locations in their novels?

Some novels censor town names to add mystery to a story and make readers believe it could’ve really happened. Or maybe an author used a real place as inspiration but wants the reader to use their imagination. Another reason might be to speak openly about sensitive issues without naming names.

Continue reading for an in-depth exploration into why authors censor place names and why it’s often less nefarious than it sounds.

Adding Mystery to a Story

Sometimes authors use real places as the backdrop to fictional stories, as with Downton Abbey, Versailles, and The Greatest Showman. These stories may be based on truth, but five minutes of Googling could tell you whether or not the events really happened that way. 

When audiences discover that these stories happened very differently in real life, it pops the bubble of fantasy that the writer set up. So, to combat this, writers omit place names.

Suspended Disbelief

An excellent example of a story keeping the fantasy bubble intact is Andrus Kivirähk’s book The Man Who Spoke Snakish. The book is set in medieval Estonia at the dawn of its modernization and movement towards village settlements. 

The details in the story could never be true…or could they?

The writer never specifies where exactly in Estonia the story takes place, only that it happens deep inside a forest. This allows just enough blank space for the readers to suspend their disbelief and indulge in the fantasy while lending credibility and realism. 

The author mustn’t fictionalize a place or time period too much, as a level of realism needs to be upheld to suspend the reader’s disbelief.

This realism can come in numerous forms, but the most effective is politics. The author can include the world’s political, social, religious, and economic climate and enhance it if the climate matches what we experience in reality. 

So if an author includes the exact name of a place, they need to be stricter about what facts they fictionalize, or else the reader will notice something’s amiss. 

Romanticizing Reality

There are times when fiction doesn’t match realistic fantasies, and goes in a completely opposite direction. The Bronté sisters very much took this approach to their writing. 

They changed the names of people and places because although the events they wrote about were possible, they wanted them to be ambiguous and mysterious. If these everyday events happened in a town that everyone knows the name of, the story would be mundane.

However, by censoring or changing the town’s name, it could be talking about any city in England or America or wherever the more extensive background is. This creates an air of mystery and excitement to an otherwise familiar story of romance or grief.

It alludes to the idea that anyone, even the reader, could find themselves in this situation if they were there at the right, or wrong place, at the right time. 

Making the Reader Use Their Imagination

Authors use actual places as backgrounds for their fictional stories, but they also use them purely for inspiration. Readers read a story and may have an inkling that the setting the author describes is somewhere they’ve actually been, and often they’re right. 

However, the mysticism would be broken if the author had to outright say that a story definitely took place in London or Iceland. They choose characteristics from those places to inform their fictional world while still giving the readers something they can picture clearly and relate to. 

Here are some examples of fictional worlds that drew inspiration from real locations: 

  • Suzanne Collins created The Hunger Games’ Panem based on Henry River Mill Village in North Carolina and DuPont State Recreational Forest. 
  • David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas draws inspiration from New Zealand, Korea, Hawaii, London, and Zedelghem. 
  • Stephen King’s The Shining was inspired by Estes Park, at the entrance to Rocky Mountains National Park. 

Once you see the connection, it’s hard to see how you didn’t realize the similarities immediately. In fact, readers notice these similarities, which compels them to believe the stories more and form a deeper connection with them. 

Openly Discussing Sensitive Topics

When discussing censorship specifically, as opposed to just changing a town’s name, it’s most often a result of the author avoiding repercussions. 

For example, exposing corruption could get people in serious trouble, so instead of throwing caution to the wind, the author omits the town’s name to make it more ambiguous and not out themselves. 

Authors can also use fictionalized versions of real places to discuss socio-economic and socio-political issues without offending people from those places and avoid readers bringing in their preconceived notions or associations and tainting the message. 

For example, it’s become relatively common knowledge that the fictional Gotham City is strongly inspired by New York City’s infrastructure and reputation as a place with a lot of crime. 

Although this, of course, rubs New Yorkers the wrong way.

Gotham offers a plateau for writers Bob Kane and Bill Finger to explore corruption and violence often concentrated in cities without accusing anyone or ruffling too many feathers. The result is a darker timeline in New York that mirrors our reality more than we care to admit, albeit exaggerated for effect

Gotham has extensive history and meaning, both within and outside New York. 

Several fictional works address real-life issues and injustices with a fresh perspective, removing what the reader already knows about their world to give them a more black-and-white interpretation that draws from all angles. 

Because novels don’t have time to explain thousands of years of politics and history, they must condense them. The best way to do this is to make them very stark and exaggerated, with very clear “good” and “bad guys” while not directly pointing fingers. 

Electric Lit lists seven fictional books that frame real-world issues in a new, stark, and often terrifying light. 

Conclusion

Authors choose to censor town names and location names in general, predominantly to strengthen the feeling of mystery and ambiguity that readers feel while reading the novel. 

Censoring or changing names allows the reader’s imagination to roam free, beyond the confines of the real world but sticking to it just enough to be believable and relatable. 

However, sometimes censoring town names has a more serious function of allowing authors to write about sensitive topics and issues without repercussions so the reader can view them in a new light.


Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.