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I am trying to write novels where the setting plays a large part. I want the setting to naturally and passively show a truth to the reader. Sometimes it is easy to create such a setting, and other times it seems impossible. This question is about those impossible times.

Before I go further, I realize that some of you will want to tell me how I am wrong, and how I should not use setting in this way. Please do this, but please, PLEASE, do it in a comment. ONLY answer, if you are actually answering the question.

Back to the question. Here's some examples of what I'm talking about. Suppose I want to show government as being oppressive. That is easily done, by showing the result of oppression. Maybe people are starving and are imprisoned in their villages (Hunger Games). As long as the protagonist jumps to the conclusion you want the reader to reach, it becomes obvious that the government is oppressive.

Or maybe I want to show how power is neutral, and not good or bad. Enter Star Wars, where the same power is used for great good and terrible evil.

Note that these are examples only. If you think the setting is actually showing something else, great; let me know in a comment. But please reserve answers for answering the question, below.

These settings are easy to come up with, and show the 'truth' perfectly. This isn't always the case. I am currently trying to create a setting which shows how we are responsible for our actions, rather than the tools we use to perform those actions. I cannot for the life of me create a setting which shows this.

How can I create a setting which shows a truth?

Note: I have found that settings which are defined by the truth generally show it without a problem. Witness Hunger Games and Star Wars. Both of those settings are easily defined by what is being said (intentionally or not). How do I define a setting by saying we are responsible for our actions?

Note that this is not a dissertation on the messages of Hunger Games or Star Wars. Whether or not the creators of those stories intended their settings to present a message, and whether or not that message is central to the stories being told, is irrelevant. I am using them purely as excellent examples.

  • I am wondering if an example of your dilemma (that we are responsible rather than our tools), might be - the debate over gun rights; the role of gun laws in society. For example, I believe you are trying to show a setting in which the truth is that we are responsible for gun violence, and guns are not. Is this correct, or a close enough analogy to the issue on your mind? Perhaps, if you are wrestling with an issue like gun violence, the setting you are looking for is one in which every person has a gun, and only certain people act violently. Is this anything along the lines you are thinking? – DPT Nov 8 '17 at 3:32
  • Gun control is the primary reason behind the novel, yes. I think you might be onto something with that setting... can you perhaps think of a formula, or some way I can reliably find the setting for any truth I want to show? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 8 '17 at 5:07
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    I believe you need to make the thing you do not want the message to be about (tools), neutral. And play up people's intentions. In my comment above universality of guns makes them neutral. But, you could make them neutral by giving the guns a mental safety switch. They only operate when the owner is in a certain mental state. Another example would be artistry, such as music, painting, and carving. Good tools allow artistry, but if everyone has the same tools, it is obvious that the person with the best art used them well because of something inside themselves. Formula = Tools are neutral. – DPT Nov 8 '17 at 15:01
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First things first: let's get our terms straight.

DISCLAIMER: I understand that most of my quotes come from Wikipedia. If you find a better source that succinctly explains the terms and makes sense to a peasant like me, please drop me a link.

Setting

Setting is a distinct literary element. It's a very common one in fiction. I (and Wikipedia) would define it as:

both the time and geographic location within a narrative or within a work of fiction

Setting can contribute to truth, but not much more. For example, if the Setting of the Hunger Games was the Jurassic period in some desert wasteland, it's a lot harder to create a convincing, oppressive government because they probably don't have access to things like guns, metal fences, the concept of law, and other advanced technologies that help keep people in line. BUT, the Setting alone (place and time) doesn't do so hot on communicating a truth to the reader. That's where Backdrop comes in.

Backdrop

Backdrop is where we can be more creative and start to show events and characters (albeit historic) that mean something. What is Backdrop? I'm glad you asked. Once again, I shamelessly quote Wikipedia to illuminate us on Backdrop:

the history of characters and other elements that underlie the situation existing at the main narrative's start

History is meaningful, and more often than not relays truth. Why? Because it's made up of people (characters) and actions in a Setting.

Conclusion regarding the terms

The Setting must work together with Backdrop to create a time, place, and history that feel real. With those things, we have the tools we need to communicate truth.

So how do I do that?

In short:

Tell the truth

Sounds ironically unhelpful, doesn't it? Allow me to explain how I'd go about this (keep in mind that I'm not a professional).

First, you stated that the truth you'd like to show is that...

we are responsible for our actions, rather than the tools we use to perform those actions

My question(s) to you is: Why is this true to you? What have you experienced, what have you seen that makes you think this way? Was it a manipulative sibling? Perhaps something more politically charged, like mass shootings? Whatever it is, you need to come to grips with your experience and think about what led you to believe this. If you don't actually believe it, you're going to have trouble coming up with a believable Backdrop and Setting. It's possible, but hard.

Once you've done that, pick an event you witnessed, create a similar, fictional situation in your mind, and let it play out in your Setting. You now have one possibility for a backdrop that has the potential to communicate your truth.

Note the words "possibility" and "potential". This is not a cut-and-dry procedure. Communicating truth through fiction is hard work, but I think you've chosen a good place to start.

Just to recap: You need to tell what is true to you. In my opinion, anything else is way too much work, or pointless.

Best of luck to you.

EDIT: To Mark's point, there's no 100% guarantee of communicating your truth to the reader through fiction (no 100% guarantee for any genre, for that matter), so don't get your hopes up. But an author communicating what they want to the reader is really every author's goal--whether they want to craft experiences that their readers are hungry for, or whether they want to communicate truth through Backdrop and Setting, or both.

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Stories create experiences. Stories that are heavy on setting create an experience of that setting. People sometimes simply receive an experience for what it is. We are experience junkies. Stories are one of the ways that we satisfy our need for experiences. They help keep us sane.

People often draw conclusions from their experiences. Sometimes these are tacit conclusions. That is, they affect how we think and act, but we don't boil them down to an aphorism or a conclusion. Sometimes we do articulate our conclusions.

You cannot force a reader to draw a conclusion from your story, still less to articulate one. They may simply receive the experience as they might receive the experience of walking in the woods or eating ice cream. They may tacitly form a conclusion without articulating it. In particular, they may not draw any conclusion from your story alone. Sometimes it takes many repetitions of an experience before any conclusion is formed -- something advertizing people are well aware of.

You also cannot force the reader to draw the same conclusion as you do from your story. Different people draw different conclusions from identical experiences, if for no other reason than that they interpret them in the context of their other experiences and no two people have the same experiences.

But there is also the issue of confirmation bias. Whatever our views are on a subject, we go through life looking for evidence to confirm that view. We see evidence that supports our position, are blind to evidence that undermines it, and interpret our experiences as evidence favorable to our positions. Different people see different things in the same experience, at least in part because they are looking for different things. People will form different opinions on what your story "means" based on what they want it to mean. For evidence of this, you have only to look at the conflicting readings that book reviewers and literary critics have of major works.

But if you cannot force your conclusions on the reader, you can at least work to shape their experience in such a way that it favors the conclusion you want them to draw. One of the most basic techniques for doing this it to engage the reader's sympathy for a character before you reveal something about them which might make the reader hate them if you led with it. Another is essentially the opposite, to make the reader hate them initially before showing redeeming features that make the reader question their first judgement. ("Luke, I am your Father!")

But you don't get to show a truth to the reader directly in a story. The best you can do is to give them an experience that is true and hope that they reach the truth for themselves. Of course, you could just write an essay to state your truth didactically. But there is a reason that we write stories: the truths that people find for themselves through experience are much more firmly held because they are not someone else's truths, but their own.

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  • I do not see how this answers the question. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 7 '17 at 20:59
  • @ThomasMyron I suspected you wouldn't. But to get to the bottom of that we would have to take several steps back. Ping me in chat if you want to talk about it. – user16226 Nov 7 '17 at 21:12
  • Over time I have come to the conclusion that we are incompatible. Our opinions and thoughts repeatedly contradict each other. Part of the problem is that I am self-taught. I believe you are either a traditionalist, or also self-taught, but the result is that we believe in fundamentally different approaches to and views of writing. I need an answer to my current dilemma, and while I appreciate your offer of time, I can't help but feel it would only serve to raise more questions and set me further back. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 7 '17 at 21:18
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    @ThomasMyron My father was a professor of English, so I was steeped in literary theory from the cradle. I have been a professional writer my whole career, though my successes in fiction have been few so far. So I come out of a pretty deep study of the subject as well as long practice. None of which makes me right. But it does mean I recognize certain patterns of thought. We have to ask ourselves, why fiction at all? Why not an essay? the answer to that lies in the difference between experience and assertion. Fiction technique is about accomplishing things through experience. – user16226 Nov 7 '17 at 21:32
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    @ThomasMyron The first paragraph is not about the reason for stories, it is about the nature of stories. Not the why, but the what. Brains crave stories. Story is that which the brain craves. We can't change what it is. We can use it for several purposes, but those purposes are subject to what it is. Any attempt to use if for a purpose other than its native purpose of providing vicarious experience has to start from an understanding of what it is. Only if you understand what it is can you successfully manipulate it for any other purpose. To make it work you must know how it works. – user16226 Nov 7 '17 at 23:04
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I think the word "setting" is too broad for what you are talking about; in both your examples, Star Wars and Hunger Games, the specific component of "setting" that you are referring to is the culture of the characters.

In Star Wars, all the main characters know and believe in the magic of The Force, and the plot would not exist without it: No Vader, no Yoda, no Jedi, no Obi Wan, no Emperor, and Luke is just a not very special kid.

But that is a cultural thing, nothing to do with the space ships, asteroids, planets, technology, alien bars, their money, and so on.

If what you want to do is highlight a "truth" [in quotes because it is your truth, and you will be manipulating characters to behave as you wish in order to demonstrate your truth, which may be far from what people do IRL or what some reader that believes your "truth" is a falsehood would consider realistic or likely] then invent a cultural element that is the opposite of it, or in line with it, and a story that hinges on it (like Star Wars hinges on The Force). Note that Star Wars chose simplistically, a literal magical Power to represent figurative powers (political power, the power of wealth, the power of physical coercion, etc). The same kind of story can be told using Magic as the power to be abused, and "White Magic" and "Black Magic" have been used thusly in stories for thousands of years.

If your story is about gun control, you must have a cultural component where "gun control" plays a central role; either the presence of it or the lack of it. Maybe guns are prohibited by law and nobody has them, or the opposite: Guns are mandated by law and everybody has them, perhaps even first graders.

Then find some conflict: Rebels, corrupt officials, whatever (I'm not going to write your story).

IMO it is improper to call this "setting". Star Wars would be a completely different film with nearly the same exact plot if we were talking about magic wizards in medieval Europe. All that need remain the same is The Force and the cultural composition of it (a few good guys, a few bad guys, an unwitting public). The robots and aliens could have been just some humans, R2D2 just a dwarf with a few magical talents, the City in the Clouds just a City on a Mountain, and Luke drops away off the mountain, getting a magical new hand later.

Also note that in Star Wars, the vast majority of the culture is very little different than the modern times. Hans Solo and Leia have a pretty normal American love story; a simple transplant from a romantic comedy about a cowboy and a rebellious young girl that ends in a kiss. Ships are not run differently, a captain in charge giving orders to subordinates and passengers alike [it is not the ONLY way to run a ship]. Neither the rebel or emperor army are run much differently. The ruling councils, how the bar is run, how planets are run is all quite familiar to the audience. Even Yoda's teaching is quite traditional.

Whatever the central "truth" is you want to represent, start with a culture the audience will find familiar (or at least easily understandable), and ADD a new cultural element that you can use to show what happens with your "truth". Adjust the rest of the culture, as little as possible to accommodate this new element.

As for the REST of the setting, many time periods, levels of technological development and civilization are possible. Pick whatever allows you the most leeway to tell your story and raises the stakes the most. If your hero and/or protagonist need to kill a lot of people and never think about them again, you might need a more "wild west" (little law enforcement) setting, like Star Wars. If your hero is going to be trapped by a government with no way out but to fight, think Hunger Games. Think about whether the hero has public support or is a public enemy, whether they have much leeway to act or little, whether they have many resources (as the rebels do in Star Wars) or nearly none.

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A starving population does not have to be caused by an oppressive government, and there are examples of totalitarian governments with less starvation than in the USA. The interpretation that there is some correlation between the starving population and governmental oppression in the Hunger Games is explicitly made by the protagonist of that novel and suggested to the reader by the author.

The "truth" that oppression causes starvation only seems to be self-evident from the setting of the Hunger Games, because that belief coincides with the belief commonly held by the book's readers: that "freedom" (i.e., non-oppression) leads to well-being is the prevalent ideology in the USA. It is therefore quite difficult for a US-American reader not to come to the conclusion that the Hunger Games show how oppression leads to starvation. It is what that reader believes anyway, and reinforcing that belief is much easier than arguing against it. You can easily see this in the amount and aggression of criticism that novels recieve that try to show how a state of (semi-)oppression might lead to more well-being than complete freedom. In many parts of the world, such as Europe, the prevalent ideology is that freedom needs to be balanced with communal responsibility, and some Asian countries such as Japan even hold the opposing ideology, that subordination under communitarian goals leads to well-being.

Since it is a commonly held belief in the Western world that individuals are responsible for their actions (for example, our understanding of law is based on that idea), you really don't have to do much worldbuilding (or anything, actually), to convince your readers of that "truth". They will believe it anyway.

Therefore the first and most obvious solution to your problem is that you do what all authors do: tell the reader how they want the reader to interpret the narrative, either explicitly, through narrator commentary, or implicitly, by how the protagonist views and experiences the world.

Now let us assume that you wanted to convince your readers of a truth that they do not hold before they read your book.

If it is a truth that you believe is true in our world:

  • Think about what makes you believe that truth. Which experiences and observations led you to that opinion?
  • Create a world in which a character will necessarily make similar experiences and must come to similar conclusions.

If it is a truth that you believe is not true in our world:

  • Think about what makes you believe that it is not true.
  • Create a world in which these counter arguments no longer hold.

Let us take the idea that we are responsible for our actions as an example and let us try to come up with a world in which people are not responsible for their actions.

Why do we believe that we are responsible for our actions? Because we believe in free will. So let us create a world in which there is no free will. You could either use current psychological theory (begin your research with the neuropsychology of free will) or religious belief in preordination (see predestination) and build a world in which either or both theories are stringently true. For example, you could have the world be a computer simulation where all our actions are programmed and we only believe that we act of our own free will (there is a story by Stanislaw Lem about this setting). Or you could have a world where people attempt to sway God to allow them to act differently. And so on.

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  • I already agreed with the first two paragraphs; that's why I put 'truth' in quotes every time I said it in the OP - because I wasn't suggesting it was an inherent truth. I see how my example of the Hunger Games could be misleading though; I've edited it some to provide clarity. That being said, without the first two paragraphs, this is a very good answer which provides a clear path to defining a setting. I would be open to accepting this as the answer if it didn't start with a long paragraph about whether or not starvation implies government oppression. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 9 '17 at 18:17
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    @ThomasMyron At the beginning of my answer I argue that writers (of popular fiction) don't, as you assume, show anything through any part of their writing, but rather base their writing on the beliefs of their audience. That is, the work that a writer does is the other way around from what you ask. From that argument I then derive a first solution to your question. If I deleted the beginning of my answer, my answer would lose the explanation for that first solution. – user27685 Nov 10 '17 at 10:16

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