I apologize for the wording of my question; it's probably not very clear. I've got this idea for a book that explores a sort of philosophical theory. Similar to some of Ayn Rand's work (not her philosophies, but just the type of book itself). Other than how difficult it is to create characters for this, and settings, and a plot, I'm also concerned that I might not portray it correctly. I don't want to tell the reader outright what I want them to think. No "Thus we see…" I don't want them to feel like this is preaching. How do you create it so that it poses questions to the reader and makes them think and begin to see the argument? Say for example I want to write a book about how smoking is bad. I write a story where a kid's mom gets lung cancer and dies and he gets second hand smoking and gets emphysema. The message is pretty clear and people might hate because it's preachy. I don't want to do that.
The previous two answers have clearly described the effect that a theme can have on a plot and the effects which it can have on potential book sales. Let me instead investigate the relationship of philosophical ideas to the media which best carry their propaganda. The two examples from your question are perfect examples of the extremes on this issue.
"Don't Smoke" is a simple statement and is part of a larger health-conscious philosophy which favors longevity over enjoyment, and conformity over freedom. The principle weapons for its propaganda are the possible negative consequences of smoking. There are no weak points in the don't smoke arsenal and its strongest points can be delivered in still images of bed-bound respirator patients and sound bites from tracheotomy patients. The directness of its propaganda make it a poor fit for lengthy literature, movie or screen-plays, because with so little to say, the author is forced to restate the obvious, over and over again. Because of its endless repetition of the No Smoking ideology's one-note song, anything longer than a one page flyer or a 30-second commercial, automatically sounds "preachy" because that is what it is.
Objectivism, which is the philosophy underlying most of Ayn Rand's writings, is a much better candidate for use as the underlying theme of a lengthy literary work. It favors individual-rights over social-responsibility and panders the virtues of hard working business owners and their untainted right to be fruits of their labor. It is a complex idea with many strong supportive arguments and it conflicts with many well established and equally well supported opposing philosophies. Objectivism can't be sold with a two word slogan, nor can it defend itself from counter-argument with simple still images or sound bytes.
A still image of a silk suited tycoon emerging from a rolls-royce onto a street full of starving homeless people, would be horrible propoganda for the objectivist's cause. Nothing that a successful businessman could say in 30-seconds would ever sell the objectivist point of view. This 18-minute speech by Francisco D'Anconia (a charcter from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged) however, is one of the best ideological sales pitches that I have ever encountered as a reader. It hits all of the ideology's strong points and attacks many of the oppositions arguments, succinctly and thoroughly, but it takes 18 minutes to deliver in audio, and several pages on paper.
What makes these two philosophical messages so different, in terms of their suitability for use as a narrative theme? I believe that their opposition is what distinguishes them for the role. No one is out there waving the pro-smoking flag, but plenty of people have serious and well-thought out objections to Objectivism. Those objections are the harbingers of the most powerful word in fiction writing...
Fiction thrives on conflict. Conflict not only fuels reader' engagement, it threatens and thereby conceals the story's finale. It generates tension and keeps the pages turning. The higher you stoke that tension, the more likely each reader is, to read on to your story's conclusion, to hear completely your argument for the "rightness" of your point of view.
If you are going to use a theme in your books, make sure that it is controversial. Make sure that there are strong arguments against what you are trying to say. Then give each of those arguments a clear and competent voice within your writing. Create a strong and passionate speaker to defend each opposing idea, then address and debate each of those world-views through interactions with character who represent your point of view. Illuminate the entire spectrum of these ideas through the choices, actions and consequences of characters from both sides; then resolve the conflict in a manner which strongly supports your personal point of view.
If you are up for a real writing challenge, walk with your point of view character from their origin in one of the opposing camps to the conclusion which you want your readers to make. Invite your readers to grow towards you, by showing them your most loved character as she travels that painful path.
Choosing a theme should be a carefully considered choice. With a poorly chosen, unopposed theme, good writing can become preachy or even worse, pointless. With the right theme steering the journey, writing can transcend mere entertainment and become a medium for illuminating ideas and teaching wisdom.
Propaganda which looks like propaganda is third-rate propaganda.
If the idea that you are trying to push is important, then embracing the idea has consequences, rejecting the idea has consequences, and being ambivalent about the idea has consequences.
Depict the consequences of all three of these paths. The people practicing the right way (as you see it) should prosper as a result of their actions. The people who cling to the wrong way should suffer chronic difficulty. The people who try to sit on the fence should, if your ideas have any true importance, enjoy temporary success in the near term but face a crashing disaster in the long term.
It is important that the consequences of each choice be direct, natural consequences. If the good that happens to the good guys and the evil that happens to the bad guys appear as highly implausible coincidences, or as rewards and punishments handed down from on high, you will be preaching to the choir.
There are many ways to actually do this.
Create a setting that's completely different and develop the plot based on the setting- One example would be Animal Farm by George Orwell. The whole setting is about animals in a certain farm who try to be free from humans. The whole setting- talking animals on a farm- is fictional but the main concept of the story was actually based on the events leading to the Russian Revolution and the characters- the animals- are actually how George Orwell wants to explain the situation about Corruption through the Animal Farm setting of what has been done during the events leading to the Russian Revolution. Therefore, George Orwell actually told what happened during the events leading to the Russian Revolution and about stopping corruption through a book about talking animals. However, you can't write a story about animals smoking so maybe you could create a setting where the point you are trying to argue is suitable.
Create problems from the point you want to argue- let's say you want to argue about smoking, yes, you can create problems like lung cancer and such but wouldn't it be more captivating to talk about problems that the reader might have faced before? Talking about lung cancer, the reader may say stuff like, "Oh, I'll never get lung cancer" but if you put stuff like, for example, the protagonist who smokes faces social problems due to everyone steering clear of him or, for example, the smoker is discriminated by maybe the parents or something. These are all things that the reader can relate. No matter how much we try to argue, there is definitely social problems and discrimination in our community and majority of people would have faced it and felt the effects of it. Thus, this creates the thought that "I'm troubled enough, I don't need more problems so I won't smoke."
Don't tell what it is first, create suspense- I use this A LOT in writing and this really works. Let's say you are talking about smoking, you can say, for example only, "The silent killer crept swiftly toward its umpteenth victim. The unsuspecting victim himself, too naive to notice the presence of the killer. Slowly. Silently. Taking a piece of the victim away bit by bit. Leaving the victim in a swirl of confusion." So in this case, you're not saying that the killer is smoking but you're creating a sense of hatred towards the killer and then later when you reveal that the killer is actually smoking, they find out that smoking is bad.
Be VERY subtle- the smallest of events can create a big impact on the reader. If you want to talk about, say smoking again, you can say that the protagonist maybe faces people who smoke every day or she incurred a loss due to smoking. You can say, for example, "Airi crept into her house and closed the door silently to not disturb her temperamental brother. As the putrid smell of ash slowly dissipated, she welcomed the fresh air and longed to be free of the haunting memories of her deceased parents. She wished her brother would not share their fate." SO in this case, we're talking about how her brother smokes and that the protagonist does not want her brother to end up dead like her parents. Why? Because of what the brother is currently doing- smoking.
I hope you find my answers useful and wish you all the best in your writing journey! 💗💗
You are right: people want to be entertained, not preached to. That doesn't mean they don't want to be challenged.
Consider the nature of the idea you want to explore.
Is the idea central to the plot? Are your conflicts and characters designed around the idea? Perhaps you already have a story, and the idea is more of a prism through which you want the readers to see and understand the story. Here are some devices to consider:
--voice and overall mood: think about how you are telling this story. Who is telling this story? Who is the narrator? How authoritative is the narrator? Is it metafiction? Should the reader trust the narrator? How much does the narrator know? Is the mood hopeful? regretful? satirical? ironic? comic? cynical? serious?
--''a Greek chorus'': certain characters who introduce the ideas through dialogue or through creative endeavors such as art or performance.
--memorable quotes: this is a good way to introduce some of the most important slogans or tenets of your philosophy. Maybe fake song lyrics (remember including actual song lyrics in fiction will require you pay royalties), movie posters, a radio announcement, graffiti, poems, a story someone tells, an SMS, anything! Be creative.
--extended metaphor or parallelism: All sorts of symbols can be used to echo major themes. Maybe it's the relationship between two characters, the state of someone's home, a garden that thrives or wilts, a holiday party over the years with fewer and fewer guests.... The thing with symbols, is to be sparse. Choose no more than you can count on your finger and make them strong ones.
--stream of consciousness: you can really go philosophical with the way characters think, how they perceive things around them, how they form decisions. Thought processes can be very interesting.
This question has deep roots which go back to the American Dream, democracy, the free market economy, and The Jam.
The public gets what the public wants.
After a recent debate on this site the consensus suggested the overwhelming reason for writing was to make money. (I do not hold this theory).
However, 'individuals' may be smart people' are stupid - like children. If you ask 5th graders to design their own lunch menu they'd live on candy, McDonalds and ice-cream.
Oh wait, is there currently an obesity and diabetes epidemic?
To answer your question: the majority of successful novels push very rudimentary themes and agendas. "Good always overcomes evil", however it is always a skewed point of view. Citizens of the country your villain comes from may not see your villains as evil by default. "If you work hard enough you can accomplish anything." "True love conquers all."
If you attempt to push an unpopular agenda or moral you will invariably lose sales. Or you need to bury it so deep the 'stupid' public won't get it.
In order to win the hand of the princess and the keys to kingdom, the prince goes to another realm to fight his enemies (dragons etc) and to bring back riches to set before the king. The prince fights the dragon and steals the gold. But the dragon is only wounded he is not dead. The dragon recovers, summons demons and trolls from the dark realms. Together they enter the prince's realm breathing fire and burning villages . . .
Nobody is going to say: "Oh, I get it . . . we went to Iraq to steal their shit now everybody from the region is trying to blow us up."
The reader always identifies with the hero. It is extremely difficult to push an agenda on them that they don't like. "Dances with Wolves" springs to mind but successful attempts are rare.
Write your story from a moral standpoint, not to a moral standpoint. If you have a strong and clearly articulated set of beliefs, that will naturally come across in your work. But if you try to push people to that place, it will come across as preachy and disingenuous.
One of my favorite books is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, who was a libertarian, a philosophy I don't particularly personally ascribe to. Some of his other books have been accused of being preachy on the subject. But in this book, the libertarian paradise at its heart is revealed to be critically unsustainable, and in the end, is destroyed by the heroes, even though they love it.
Because he let his society have its own life, and follow where the plot led, rather than what the messaging demanded, he created a far more three-dimensional and compelling portrait of libertarianism, than if he had presented it as a unrealistically perfect Randian utopia. In many ways, you the reader value the place that much more because you share the characters' pain at losing it.
As I understood the question, "Smokin is bad" was merely an example, and I will try and answer the question without including the topic of smoking.
Genre and scenario
Now, I may be influenced by my own work in the genre - and you don't mention a genre yourself - but perhaps sci-fi would suit your work.
Create a scenario (This could be a fictional world, or simply an exaggeration of a realistic issue) with a conflict that doesn't directly focus on the message/morale/point that you want to convey, but which would be more easily solved/handled/defeated/understood/prevented if people saw/followed/understood/used/knew "what you know to be right".
If you wanted to push the message that "paying attention is key",create a scenario where no one necessarily mention it, but it slowly seems like a valuable skill to have, if you want to strive in the society in which the story takes place.
Without going into detail, I'm writing a story in which some people have access to "things that can manipulate the experience of human beings". In the story there's a great amount of seemingly unnecessary details when we follow our main characters, but the more you read, the more you realize that anything you pay attention to (or don't) could be of significance. The story focuses on a critical conflict between two opposing sides over the "things than can manipulate..." but upon and after reading hopefully leaves the reader wondering about how much they pay attention to their surroundings.
Shortly adding to @HenryTaylor's point about following a character's journey from one side to the other; Your protagonist could also be working desperately to disprove the message you want to convey, only to fail over and over again and finally "realizing the truth" - Be it that smoking is bad, that paying attention is crucial, or that money can't buy you happiness.