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THESIS: Atmospheric Setting: How Fiction Authors Foster Heroic Imaginations in Their Characters

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

It is with great pride and utter relief that I release this research into the world. It is my 25-page critical essay for my grad program at Hamline University. In July, I will graduate with a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

This paper describes how authors of fiction construct atmospheric settings that foster the heroic imaginations of their characters. It is a discussion of oppressive forces in our country, specifically white patriarchy, that creates what Dr. Philip Zimbardo calls "total situations" among Black Americans and women. The four texts I used were:

~ Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Dr. Gary Schmidt

~ The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

~ Chirp by Kate Messner


~ Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold

I am looking forward to presenting this work to my cohort, my fellow Pipers, and my professors in January.

Here is an excerpt. You can view the paper in its entirety by clicking on the pdf:

Download PDF • 222KB

Setting is place and time, but it is also atmosphere (Burroway 169). Unjust social systems embody specific atmospheric conditions that provide fertile ground for authors to grapple with current systemic societal ills. These atmospheric settings enable authors to delineate between what Dr. Philip Zimbardo describes as bad apples (individuals), bad barrels (settings) and bad barrel makers (entire social systems). When authors construct ‘total situations’—complex scenarios in which the line between good and evil is actually quite permeable—their characters must make choices and respond in any number of ways—deplorably or heroically. Some will fail to act at all.

Zimbardo’s work has unveiled eight contributing factors where evil thrives:

· Unjust systems

· Group pressure

· Power and control

· Obedience to authority

· Diffusion of responsibility

· Dehumanization

· Moral disengagement

· Anonymity (Zimbardo 0:36).

However, research has not been able, as yet, to discover what compels people to be heroes. The list of contributing factors for people to rise up and act heroically could be any number of possibilities. “It could be that heroes have more compassion or empathy; maybe there’s a hero gene; maybe it’s because of their levels of oxytocin—research by neuro-economist Paul Zak has shown that this ‘love hormone’ in the brain increases the likelihood you’ll demonstrate altruism. We don’t know for sure” (Zimbardo 0:48).

What scientists have figured out is that:

… an important factor that may encourage heroic action is the stimulation of heroic imagination—the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s action and the consequences. By considering these issues in advance, the individual becomes more prepared to act when and if a moment that calls for heroism arises. Strengthening the heroic imagination may help to make people more aware of the ethical tests embedded in complex situations, while allowing the individual to have already considered, and to some degree transcended, the cost of the heroic action. Seeing one’s self as capable of the resolve necessary for heroism may be the first step toward a heroic outcome (Franco et al.)

Much of Zimbardo’s work asserts that ordinary people have the propensity to become heroes or villains based on any set of circumstances or variables. He has studied at great length the capacity for depravity as well as valor among humans. His Stanford Prison Experiment and his investigative work into the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison by American soldiers has led him to conclude that good people certainly can and often do engage in immoral behavior when put in ‘total situations’ where they are subjected to seemingly insurmountable stress and pressure, especially when that situation was created by an institutional system that allowed for such wrongdoing. In short, “situational power affects all of us” (Zimbardo 42:35). These soldiers were simply deemed ‘bad apples.’ Zimbardo, however, points out that the situation of war itself was the ‘bad barrel’ which provided the atmospheric setting and was also a significant contributing factor in the devolution of these soldiers’ behavior. Certainly, bad barrels do not create themselves. These atmospheric settings are a result of choices and decisions created by those in power. These are the politicians and policy makers Zimbardo refers to as the ‘bad barrel makers’ (Filabi).

If Dr. Zimbardo has taught us anything, it is that the line between good and evil is permeable. Any one of us, given the right set of circumstances can act reprehensibly or emerge heroically. “A key insight from research on heroism so far is that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds” (Zimbardo 1:05).

Just as this permeable line exists in prisons and war zones, it exists in fiction. How do authors construct bad apples, bad barrels, and bad barrel makers in literary works for young readers? The same oppressive influences that affect our world affect the worlds of young adult authors.

The history of our literature is infused with white patriarchy. Gary Schmidt, Angie Thomas, Kate Messner, and Elana K. Arnold have written novels that attempt to disrupt and dismantle it in different ways. To examine the ways in which white patriarchy fuels oppressive atmospheric settings, they create narrative situations that play out within a world in which the heroic imaginations of their characters are fostered and empowered.

For those who are interested in reading more about Dr. Zimbardo's work or how we can ALL foster within ourselves a heroic imagination and make the world a better place, please visit THE HEROIC IMAGINATION PROJECT and/or CLICK ON THIS INTERVIEW!


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