Does Fiction reflect "reality" -- or inflect "reality?"
Does imbibing violent videogames make people do real violence? Or just incline them to be vulnerable to that impulse?
Does the statement of a Leader cause people to act as a Mob, with individuals surrendering their personal morality to a mob mentality?
Are human beings ruled only by their emotional state, which is caused by external forces they can't resist, and thus must be forced into civilized social behavior, by persuasion, profit, or force of arms?
What is a human being? What makes us human? How do we function inside ourselves as individuals? How do we function when we form Groups -- do we surrender individuality in order to become socialized?
The essence of story is conflict, and these questions bore down into a Conflict that can support a Mass Market Paperback sized audience -- and perhaps, even, a Feature Film size audience.
There are classic questions we've all heard and think we know our answers to, and then there are questions we can't ask because we lack the conceptual framework to pose them. The second variety is the fodder of science fiction.
One such unthinkable question is whether there really is a link between cause and effect when it comes to things like videogames and violence, or Leadership and social order. Do we really need leaders at all? What for? Why do we need them?
What makes a Leader (a Hero of a novel is generally a Leader type even if not starting out in a Leadership Role) different from other people? Nothing? Everything? What makes a King? What makes a Champion (such as a Police Officer putting his life on the line to protect society?)
What causes one person to become a member of a herded group like "society" and another to become a Criminal or a Leader? Is there a difference between Criminal Mentality and Leadership? What of Revolutionary Leaders? Are they just Criminals? Does Humanity need Criminals?
Pick an answer (one single answer) to any one of those questions, and make it the theme of a world you build from scratch to illustrate that answer in the form of a statement.
For example -- there is no link between cause and effect that can't be broken or altered by a) human Will, b) God's Will, c) random chance (Luck), d) some non-material Potency from Another Dimension.
The link between cause and effect was established by Frances Bacon to be the foundation of operational, practical, useful "science." That notion of such a link is traceable back to the Hellenistic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle.
Suppose Bacon had never existed. Would some other human have come up with these Ideas? Would the Idea have been conceptualized but never popularized? Would it have been kept as a "Secret" by some secret magical society that wanted power over people?
Suppose Plato and Aristotle had never existed? Suppose various fragments of their Ideas had been propounded by say, a Chinese Philosopher -- or maybe someone born and raised in Tahiti or Madagascar?
Rewrite the history of philosophy and you rewrite human history.
The history of philosophy and how refuted and discarded ideas leave their traces on modern society (just as malware removed by a security program leaves traces in your Windows Register) is a study that all writers, fiction or non-fiction, need to understand.
Just as a Windows computer will stutter, crash, and malfunction because of Register issues, so will human societies that are running a Philosophy with fragments of alien Philosophy stuck in the operating system.
Human individuals, likewise, have life-issues because of conflicting fragments of opposed Philosophies (and Religion is Philosophy by my definition). You see it in (non-clinical) depression, road rage, divorce rate, job boredom, and general dissatisfaction with life in general. Mass Market Paperback sized audiences can easily relate to a Hero who is fighting an inconsistency inside himself that he sees reflected in his world.
For example, your Hero might set out to fix an injustice in Society, never intending to become Vice President of the USA (seeing becoming President as a disaster not advancement), but because of moderate success at fixing the world, find himself the only candidate with enough support to get elected.
That's the Situation Gini Koch is dealing with in her Alien Series that I've recommended to you so many times. The latest are UNIVERSAL ALIEN and ALIEN SEPARATION which is due out in May 2015.
The series is Mass Market original, and is composed of a vast array of thematic elements (you need a vast array to support long series of long books) that are vastly popular with general readerships. There are Gaming elements driving the plot in a subtle way. There is the hottest human/alien Romance I've seen in action Science Fiction recently. There are Alien physiological quirks, and worm-hole-dwelling people and animals from another dimension -- whose works appear to be Magic. But most of all there are two Heroic Characters each with a separate story, and each sharing a part of a story -- hence marriage is not "the end" but the beginning of the plot which drives all the stories.
And their kid is a complication.
The thematic work behind these characters and their stories is seamless and appears effortless -- which tells me how hard the writer and editors worked on these novels. There are a lot of themes, and a lot of these philosophical questions about "reality" each represented by a Character with a Story.
And here in Universal Alien, we have the introduction of Alternate Universes and doppelgangers for the Main Characters. This novel illustrates how a Character would be different in a different world where the left-over fragments of Philosophy clogging their minds were different. The "person" is the same; yet the differences are stark and well drawn.
This novel is worth studying in depth as you attempt to build a world around your own pet un-askable Question, the Idea you can't grasp because of some left-over fragments of a previous Philosophy.
If you understand where these fragments came from, you can construct Science Fiction Romance worlds which reveal underlying fallacies in our modern world.
That's what science fiction does best -- ask the questions that are literally unthinkable in the audience's society. If you don't understand the links between left-over fragments, you will not be able to frame the question clearly. However, your understanding of origins and connections among Ideas does not have to be conscious to be effective on the scale demanded for Mass Market Distribution.
Here's a novel that demonstrates a way of depicting the Heroic individual as a Champion.
Jesse James Dawson is a "champion" who extricates humans from Possession by demons (creatures from another dimension; possibly theological or maybe not). He has his own complex backstory and current life, with wife, kids and a stake in the ordinary world. But a demon has sort-of befriended him, and bedevils him in his own back yard (over chess). This demon "uses" him in the version of the Great Game played by Devil and Demons, and all their political factions with various destabilizing the human world type goals.
This is an action-novel with magical battles and bloody ones, too. The Characters take damage, and they hurt both physically and emotionally. The action gets "personal."
Jesse James Dawson is a good example of a Hero beset by a situation where the only way out is to do what he simply can not do (not will not; can not).
That's the classic definition of a Conflict.
"I must do what I can not do." and/or "I can't do what I must do because I have to do what I can't do."
Take a Character with a "backstory" growing up that leaves bits and pieces of incompatible Philosophy (example: raised by a Fire&Brimstone Preacher, runaway to a life of Prostitution; now wants to marry a Soul Mate), and give that character a problem that can't be solved without expunging the last bits of the repudiated Philosophy that the Character has no clue reside in subconscious and dictate behavior.
Read these novels to extract the underlying framework of the novel, then create your own Theme and insert it into the framework -- watch how everything morphs. That's not "a formula" -- but it produces a "line" or imprint of books that readers can rely on to deliver the same punch.
That's the definition of "Mass Market" -- or as Hollywood puts it, "The Same But Different." The writer has to deliver the same, familiar, punch at the end, but use material that's entirely different.
Science Fiction does that with Themes that pose the Unthinkable Question and postulate an even more Unthinkable Answer. There are thousands of answers to any of those questions, and millions of such questions. There is nothing even remotely similar about Mass Market novels -- yet they are all identical.
Readers pay a lot for books, or get smelly copies second hand, or borrow from the library, or wait for it to come up free on Kindle -- so readers want to be certain before they start reading that the punch they are paying for will be delivered. But they also don't want the, "I've read this book before," feeling.
Writers achieve that Mass Market appeal from their understanding (conscious or unconscious) of Philosophy and/or Religion and/or Science -- a "take" on the way the world works.
Philosophy can be defined just as Plato's thought-structure,
But as I mentioned above, the way I use the word Philosophy, as pertaining to the eternal questions and our subjective answers. Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want to do about that? Do I have a Soul? (Jesse James Dawson is fighting the "Devil" for possession of Souls given away by signing a contract in Blood) - if I have a Soul, what do I need it for?
"Silly" Fantasy novels -- or HEA Romances nobody believes are realistic, but they are! -- ask that sort of Question, and pose usable answers that might work only for a given Individual.
I did that with my first Award Winning novel, Unto Zeor, Forever. The questions the Main Character (Digen Farris) wrestles with, runs away from, turns and confronts, are hard questions he eventually articulates. The answers he settles on are useful only to him -- in his unique position.
Unto Zeor, Forever is in Audiobook (at Audible.com ) and new paperback (old Hardcover, a couple old Mass Market Paperbacks) and e-book. Some bloggers have sited this novel as one of the original Science Fiction Romance novels -- prior to its first publication, SFR was not saleable in Mass Market.
Having written a book of this sort, based on the unthinkable Questions, I recognize that process when I see it in other novels, and I recognize how difficult these novels are to write. I can tell when a novel has nailed it. I can see how you can learn from reading these as I learned from older novels.
The typical Mass Market Paperback hero or heroine (in Romance Novels, Action Romance, Erotic Romance, or Paranormal Romance etc) simply does not have time to ask and answer such questions during the novel.
Character is rooted in the questions and answers your Heroic character asked and found operational answers to during their childhood. The Conflict is constructed from the Character's unconscious assumptions that the Character has in common with your target readership.
By revealing the "backstory" of a character, the writer is making a thematic statement (thus the character back-stories must illustrate the overall theme of the Work). The most fundamental thematic statement is made about the Nature vs. Nurture controversy.
If the theme is that all humans are simply the product of forces external to their personality and character, that you are a helpless victim of your Nature and/or Nurture, then the backstory of the Main Character reveals how his/her origins are now shaping the character's present predicament and choices.
Generally speaking, the Heroic Main Character has a backstory at complete odds ( in conflict with ) their present predicament.
"Story" is generally defined as the point in a character's life when his/her Life changes or pivots to a new direction. (Astrologers: Saturn and Pluto transits signify such events, thus the time-span the novel plot covers is determined by which transit is focusing the energies).
I'm using the definition of Story and Plot that I've been using in all these writing craft posts. The Story is the sequence of changes the Main Character's personality undergoes because of Events; the Plot is the sequence of Events that impact the Character and trigger personality changes.
Thus Story and Plot are mirror images of each other, and each is shaped from the Thematic Statement the work is making.
Here is an example of The Great Game in 4 novels set in the Contemporary world -- spanning the Middle East and involving Russia, China, and all the Muslim countries. I enjoyed these novels because they are so very well constructed, and very well written. They have a couple of pivotal Love Stories but the Main Character does not reshape his world view or alter his course of action because of the influence of his Soul Mate -- at least not in the early novels. It seems like he's going to have to clean out some decayed Assumptions about Life and his Identity once he understands he's encountered his Soul Mate. If this writer, Dan Mayland, doesn't do it -- maybe you will.
These are in Kindle, audiobook, and paper and agented by a man who used to be my agent -- which could be why I enjoyed them.