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Allow me to explain what I mean by 'thematic setting'. I'm talking about a setting which, simply by having the story located in it, shows the reader something: ideally a message - or theme - that you wish to convey to them. You can test a thematic setting by removing the story or plot. If what remains - solely the setting - still shows the message, then you have a thematic setting.

Some examples of a thematic setting are below.

  • Hunger Games. If you assume that the main message of Hunger Games has to do with the oppression of government, then it's easy to see how the setting - namely that oppression - shows that message, regardless of whatever the story ends up being.
  • Star Wars. If you assume that the main message of Star Wars is about how power can be used for good or evil (which for the record I don't believe is the message), then you can see how a setting of the Force, and the conflict between Sith and Jedi, could easily show this. As long as the story centers around that conflict, it can be anything.

Note that I'm not saying these are the messages of the above works. Their settings just happen to be good examples (and also note that - as in the case of Star Wars - 'setting' doesn't always mean the location). I'm sure there are others, but I can't think of any. If you know of similar settings, I would appreciate any recommendations.

Question: I am attempting to create a thematic setting for my novel. I like to plan my novels ahead well before I ever start writing them, so 'just write' isn't the answer here. I need some plan, some formula if you will, to follow. Something which will allow me to take a theme - or message - and correctly identify a setting which will show it regardless of what story I put in it. Do you perhaps know of such a way to create a setting?

NOTE: The whole idea of using 'thematic settings' in novels might be controversial. If you believe I should not be attempting to do this, I welcome your comments on why not. But please only provide an answer if you are answering the question.

Further Note: For those of you who do not equate 'theme' with 'message' please note that I use the phrase 'thematic setting' to mean a setting which shows a message simply by what it is.

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    I understand what you are saying, but maybe I am not understanding a certain aspect but I believe you pretty much answered your own question when you expanded on what you mean. In order to have a setting appeasing to a theme, you need to start with a theme, a lesson, a tone. All horror movies are easily identified because they all use the same cinematography just like most war movies all use the same cinematography style and angles. Once you identified the tone, the theme, the lesson you want to portray, the world around should start being more obvious in how it is built. – ggiaquin16 Aug 3 '17 at 18:06
  • A tone is something I had not considered. I'm not sure if it will yield a setting, but it warrants investigation. Thank you. – Thomas Myron Aug 3 '17 at 18:14
  • Was I some what on the mark though? I wasn't sure so I jotted things down as a comment to verify. I can provide something better as an answer that doesn't character limit me if you wish. – ggiaquin16 Aug 3 '17 at 18:15
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    I'm confused, it seems like your idea of "setting" includes culture, which bleeds over into characters and conflicts. For instance, in the real world there are racial conflicts baked into the setting, and characters who belong to those races. – Ralph Crown Aug 3 '17 at 18:21
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    @RalphCrown I see setting as any central backdrop to the story. That's usually location, but it could be a war or a great loss. Some settings incorporate characters out of necessity, yes, but the characters themselves are not the setting. They merely complete it. Who they are, their characteristics - those are the actors in the setting. It's a fine line. – Thomas Myron Aug 3 '17 at 18:28
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I don't think it is reasonable to call a setting thematic in itself. It should also be said that a theme is not a message. A theme is what you deal with in a story or an essay, not what conclusions you reach about it. You can have two different works on the same theme that reach very different conclusions about that theme.

The role of a setting is to create the ground on which the theme can be explored. If your theme is about war, then your setting might be a battlefield. If your theme is about love, your setting might be a wedding. Neither the battle not the wedding are a theme in themselves, they are simply the occasions on which the theme can be introduced and examined.

Reusing a quote from another answer, here is Erich Maria Remarque describing All Quiet on the Western Front:

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.

That is as clear a statement of theme as you are likely to find anywhere. This theme necessarily requires a certain setting, but the setting is not in itself the theme. The theme is developed by the action of the characters placed in the setting.

  • We'll have to agree to disagree here. You and I have very different definitions of themes, not to mention how they are used in novels. – Thomas Myron Aug 3 '17 at 18:57
  • My definition is consistent with Miriam Websters: a : a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation guilt and punishment is the theme of the story b : a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern the campaign has lacked a theme – user16226 Aug 3 '17 at 19:02
  • Then perhaps 'theme' is the wrong word. I am speaking of a message, and I know many writers here use 'theme' to describe just such a message. I'm sorry if my terminology was confusing. – Thomas Myron Aug 3 '17 at 19:09
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    You are using the word "theme" incorrectly, so yes, rewording is needed to fix that or people will be confused by the question. – user16226 Aug 3 '17 at 19:36
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    @Thomas Myron Agreed. I wrote a whole response with the understanding that the satisfying answer will understand theme = message. – hszmv Aug 3 '17 at 19:37
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I think theme is irrevlevent to setting. After all, the Magnificent Seven (Western setting) is no different in theme than Seven Samurai (Japanese Period Piece (Jidi Geki) setting). The approach to make the theme both serves to translate the latter into a setting so that the them can be grasped by someone not understanding of some nuances of the Jidi Geki genre that may not have been distracting to the original intended audience. Even Star Wars was made so that Lucas could share his love of Jidi Geki with an audience that would find such a setting utterly alien... and realized that if Japanese philosophy is alien to audiences... well... if an alien taught us them, they'd be able to do so from a point that gets around "why doesn't he think like a normal person". Yoda, being a short green frog man dodges the initial rejection of the idea by forcing the viewer to say "that frog man isn't human so he's not going to think like a human... but I like what he says." Remember, we are as far removed from the creation of Star Wars as the creation of Star Wars was from Pearl Harbor... It would be as if today someone wanted to write a story steeped in Arabic Storytelling traditions, but didn't want people to outright reject the theme because of bitterness over the 9/11 attacks.

Numerous films have been made that translate a work of Shakespeare to a conteporary setting in part demonstrated that the reason the Bard is still viable to this day is because his stories can be translated to just about any setting and still be good. Othello becomes O, Taming of the Shrew become 10 Things I hate about you, Romeo and Julliete becomes a stock plot for any number of cartoons to squeeze in a kiss scene for a one sided romance... okay, so they're butchered sometimes... but still expect one character to point out that Romeo and Juliette is not relationship goal someone should work towards... Even the Klingons enjoy his works... and often feel they fit into Klingon settings better than even the Bard could have done.

Theme is the message... setting allows you to strip away the distracting elements of the theme and get to the meat and potatoes of the message. One of my personal projects has a recurring theme of "Character is who you are in the Dark" and posits that if you were given the option to do an evil and were quite certain no one would ever find out, your choice is more informative about the type of person you are than the choice you make when the crowd is watching. But then comes the question... if I was not evil because I knew people would see my actions... does that make me evil? Did I do the right thing because it was the right thing to do, or the practical thing to do? I am using a superhero setting to explore this and yes, they gel... but the theme is remarkably broad and could translate to any number of genres and any number of settings. Heck, it's in the Bible with the Temptation of Jesus, Peter's denial of Jesus at the trial, Doubting Thomas, Judas' betrayal, numerous parables. The Cowboy Shane was offered to leave the town before the rest of the settlers faced the ire of the gang for Shane's action. Darth Vader offered Luke a powerful position in the empire if he betrayed his friends and helped lead Vader to victory. It can be a politician who crosses the aisle for personal benefit vs the one who crosses because it is right. And the question of whether Walter White was a good person or a bad person relies on how much you believe his assertion it was for his family verses the accusation that it was all to satisfy his ego.

Setting does not inform your theme... your setting translates your theme into something the audience can comprehend. Because at times, the truth of your words can be difficult to comprehend. But to paraphrase V for Vendetta, fiction is the art of using lies to tell the truth.

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Your question almost contains its own answer. Based on your own definition and examples, I would say you need a setting where the philosophical question you are exploring is built intrinsically into the social and political structures of the setting.

Thus, in Hunger Games, the wealth of the Capitol and the poverty of the districts physically establishes the theme of rich versus poor, and the institution of the Hunger Games both embodies the principle of divide and conquer, and functions quite explicitly as a representation of the domination and exploitation of the poor by the rich. In Star Wars the institutions of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, as drawing on two sides of the same foundational power base, is a structural analog of the dynamic you describe.

So, if your theme is "love overcomes all obstacles," how about a setting where love is outlawed? Or if your theme is environmental collapse, set it in a rural town where the main employer is systematically destroying the town's natural environment for its resources.

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I've always been told there are two ways to deal with setting:

  1. write the story and the setting will follow, or not, several of the best pieces of writing I've ever been privy to are all character and dialogue and could be happening literally anywhere without the setting changing a letter. This is a methodology I understand you'd like to avoid.

  2. write the setting and the story(s) will follow, this appears on the surface to be a useful approach for you to take in this situation. Take the theme or message you wish to write about and build a setting to convey that theme, the story(s) will flow from that process.

Please note that neither of these approaches lends itself particularly well to formulation, in both cases the process is pretty organic. There are some formula based methods for building settings that can help to codify the process, in this case the steps look something like this:

  1. theme, what you want the world to speak to.
  2. world, physical geography, where you want to speak from.
  3. genre, will give you a guide around things like magic, technology etc... that you can use to tell the tale and begin to create;
  4. society, most of the work on your theme/message is done here, technology and magic are nailed down at this stage as are governments, family structures, gender roles, and a very long list of miscellaneous details that go into fleshing out the people(s) from which you will be drawing;
  5. Characters, the actors that tell the stories you want to tell.

You should be able to tell by part way through part 4 whether or not you have succeeded in creating your thematic setting as for helping you to write thematic settings I can't really help there, worldbuilding is always a hit and miss process. There is the Worldbuilding Stack if you need help pinning down some specific details.

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