The background to the story, revealed in the first novel of the trilogy, explains how Chicago in the post-apocalyptic far future is now a society that defines its citizens by strict conformity to their social and personality-related affiliation with five different factions, which removes the threat of anyone exercising independent will and re-threatening the population's safety through war or some other human-created catastrophe. The factions are Abnegation for the selfless, Amity for the peaceful, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the brave, and Erudite for the intelligent. Those who are tested with equal aptitude for more than one faction are deemed "Divergent". Due to their capability for independent thought beyond the restrictive nature of the factions, Divergents are considered threats to the society, hunted and killed by the ruthless leader of Erudite in order to eliminate the "threat" of independent thinking. Factions are meant to be a lifetime allegiance, far more important than family—"faction before blood" is a societal motto. Those who fail the initiation of their particular faction or subsequently leave it are "factionless", a permanently homeless underclass deemed to be a drain on society.

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