Thus far in April's worldbuilding series we've discussed what worldbuilding is, where to start, the do's and don'ts, how to find the best approach for you, and natural topics. In today's post we're continuing our journey through development by jumping into the societal questions that will help add another layer of depth to your fictional world.
We all live in a society that dictates our patterns of behavior, lifestyle, and choices. But what makes up the details of these cultural expectations and guidelines? The word society refers simply to a group of people who are living together in an organized community or to a club that has been formed for an express purpose. It provides a basis of understanding and allows us to predict how other people within our society will behave. There is also a level of conformity and belonging that allows us all to survive within our environments both through the providing of necessities and emotionally.
Understanding what concepts make up a society will help you further develop your fictional world because your protagonist will either be part of a community or will be rebelling against one. The expectations, values, and rules of their society will influence their way of thinking, their actions, and how they interact with other people they meet along their way. Adding these elements to your world allows for two things to happen: 1) The reader gains a sense of understanding and belonging through your protagonist's connection to their community and 2) They can then choose whether to accept or reject those societal concepts, thereby making your story more enticing through conflict.
What topics fall into the "Societal" category?
How Society Formed: Need vs. Purpose
Starting at the beginning, you'll have to decide how your society came to be in existence. Did someone purposely set out to build a civilization somewhere, like pilgrims coming to America? Was there a disaster of some kind that forced them to establish life elsewhere, like space voyagers abandoning Earth for another planet? Or was it a combination of both, like in a dystopian novel, where disaster strikes and then those leftover form a new "improved" society? Perhaps it is on an even smaller scale, such as a club, clique, or task force formed to serve a specific purpose like the Dead Poets Society from the Robin William's movie or the Behavioral Analysis Unit from the TV show Criminal Minds. Determining the "why" and "how" first and foremost will help you form a clear picture of what your community will look like at large and help you answer the questions raised by the rest of the topics presented here.
Tying into the reason your society was formed, here we map out how your society evolved once it was initially established. Take a moment to brainstorm any significant events that have occurred within your world's society that contributes to the overall betterment or detriment of the community as a whole. These historical events can include things such as wars, battles, victories and defeats, natural disasters, changing of rulers, major cultural or spiritual events, magical and technological gains, an increase in resources, a cultural or technical renaissance, education, a new discovery that changes the lives of everyone, etc. All of these notable events will help color the tapestry of your community and give you information to use while plotting your novel's events and your character's backgrounds.
Societal Rules & Customs
Once your society is formed and it's established what it does or doesn't have based on it's history, it's time to decide what general rules and customs the people within it form in order to thrive. These are the agreed upon behaviors that define what is normal and acceptable. For example, in our society is not acceptable to go out to public establishments without proper attire such as shirts and shoes. These rules bring order to an otherwise chaotic situation. They dictate the patterns of behavior between age groups and different groups of people such as teachers, students, etc. Establishing which roles exist within your society will help you determine where your protagonist "belongs" within their society and what is normal or abnormal to them based on the parameters determined here.
This leads us into the next big question: who or what governs your society? We won't be going into the specifics here, as they will be discussed at length in our next post, but it is a good idea to start brainstorming what forces have the most influence within your world. Think about what type of government (or ruling faction) exists, if there are natural/supernatural forces at work, if social climate and hierarchy plays a role, and whether advancements in knowledge also leads to a growth in power for certain groups of people. Societal rules and customs are usually dictated by the ruling class, so make sure that whatever you developed previously ties in to whatever you've come up with here.
Positive & Negative Reinforcements
This refers to how your governing force retains order within your world. How do they reinforce their role within society? How do they promote the rules and customs so that people conform? How do they handle dissenters and conformists alike? By asking yourself these questions you add another layer to your governing force, but also give yourself a road map for your protagonist's future conflicts. Chances are your protagonist will be challenging something within your society, be it another person, the governing force, or the society itself at some point during their story. Finding out the consequences of different actions now will help you learn the fate of your protagonist later on.
Cultural practices can vary depending on region and groups of people. It encompasses a lot of aspects of the human experience including food, fashion, art, music, education, religious practices, traditions, story-telling, myths and legends, superstitions, entertainment, sports, language, self-expression, architecture, holidays, and leisure activities. It also applies to rituals of birth, coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage rights, and funeral rites. Here is an opportunity to get immensely creative when it comes to the details. By changing what these look like you can add a lot of personality and originality to your work that can supplement your setting throughout your story.
Values are important because they reflect what is most important to the people within your society. These are the basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions. They determine what is "right" and "wrong". They also determine what is important within the context of each group or society. Take a moment to jot down a few that come to mind. Does your society value honesty? Dependability? Loyalty? Maybe they hold ruthlessness, intelligence, and efficiency over all else. Whatever you decide, keep in mind that these will change the overall "feel" of your world. If you're writing a Jane Austen-style universe, you probably shouldn't have it's people value cutthroat business tactics and vice versa, if your world is post-apocalyptic, warm and fuzzy listening skills probably don't belong in that society's values either.
Expectations are the invisible wants and needs of people within our society that we feel we are obligated to live up to. These come into play mostly on the personal level and are communicated both covertly and overtly. Think about our society today. We see beauty commercials and health ads daily on television and from them we take away the "ideal" of what a man and woman should look, sound, and act like. This also can be used to serve the agenda of a specific person or government. For example, Jeanine Matthews in Divergent uses all types of media to spread her propaganda against Divergents and Abnegation. On the personal level societal expectations can harm self-esteem, spread or discourage an idea, or oppress a particular group of people. On the micro-level it could be as small as having a family member project a certain type of role onto your protagonist that is not wanted nor needed.
Gender & Family Roles
Deciding what gender roles there are in your world and what form families come in helps to shape your society. It goes back to roles and knowing what is expected of everyone in your society. What types of genders are there? Are there differences between them? Are they expected to do specific actions or act a certain way in comparison? Who is in charge of a house finances? Who takes care of the children? Who nurses the sick? Who goes to war? All of these questions and more will further define the role of your protagonist who may or may not agree with these roles.
Education is a subjective term. Depending on the age range of your characters and your society's level of development this will change. It could be a school, a mentor, self-teaching, a secret ritual, magic, etc. However you choose to include it, make sure you have a specific purpose in mind. In Harry Potter, we see this take shape in the form of Hogwarts. In Eragon, we see Eragon being tutored by Brom in the art of dragon riding. In The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, we see a combination of everything while a young Kvothe is trying to gain control of his powers. However you decide to use it, make sure that the education level is consistent throughout your world. If your protagonist is learning magic make sure that the way they are doing it stays the same and makes logical sense. If you're writing a dystopian novel where the masses are supposedly "equal" make sure that everyone receives the same level of education.
Ethics & Morals
Ethics and morals change based on what a society values. Ethics is a moral guide to daily living that helps us judge whether our behavior can be justified. It does this by establishing rules, principles, and values on which we can base our conduct. Morality is the "right" or "wrong" scale that we use to evaluate the circumstances and behaviors around us. As writers it's fun to play around with these concepts and explore the "gray" area. In order to do that though, we have to know what ethical and moral codes apply within our new world first. Similar to how you chose your values, make sure that your codes make sense for your story, but also consider the interesting implications that can occur. Think of a society where everyone values honesty and moral purity on the surface. Now create a character who is dissatisfied because they are convinced that something seedy is going on within the community. They can't get anyone to believe them however, so they are forced to lie. Now suddenly that built-in moral compass is at war within your character. Do they feel guilty for having to lie for the greater good? Or do they embrace their newfound "gray" area? The possibilities are endless.
Manners & Etiquette
Manners and etiquette usually get grouped together but are not the same thing. Etiquette is the set of conventional rules for personal behavior in polite society observed by a society, a social class, or a social group. Manners refer to the expression of the inner characteristics of kindness, respect, consideration, and good citizenship. Within your society, these will determine how your protagonist interacts with others on a social level. How your protagonist greets others, shares their emotions, gets to know someone new, and so much more is determined by their manners/etiquette (or lack thereof).
Religion and spirituality also hold influence over your society. Determining what type of religion or spiritual elements are needed can be a lot of fun. Personally this is one of my favorite parts of worldbuilding as there are so many creative aspects involved. We'll be talking more in-depth about how to build this type of system up in our Advanced topics post (coming soon). For the purpose of generalizations though, spirituality gives people something to believe in. Whether this is a divine entity, a magical force, a natural element, or even a highly charismatic leader, this type of system is a powerful force within your character's world. The extent of that power is up to you, as is how much it appears in your character's life.
Acceptance/Rejection Within Society
I'm combining a few things within this category because this post is already a little long. Undoubtedly not everyone within your world is going to like or want to conform to the society that is present within it. Whether this is your protagonist, another character, or a renegade group causing mayhem, chances are these forces who reject society will manifest in one way or another. This includes criminal behaviors, rebels and would-be terrorists, those who wish to topple the governing force, etc. This category also includes those who are made into outcasts because they don't belong, even when those outcasts desperately want to be accepted. While one of these could present a challenge to your protagonist or your protagonist could be one themselves (think Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games or Walter White from Breaking Bad) the other type strikes a cord within all of us who remember being teenagers.
Now that you know what "societal" topics fall into worldbuilding, chew it over for a while. Do some brainstorming and free writing. Remember you're generating all the possibilities and creating without restraint right now because you can pick and choose which details make it into the actual book later on. Keep your geographical information present in your mind while you start building your society. Make sure it fits naturally into your landscape. It has to come together seamlessly in order to be useful in the future.
Next time in our worldbuilding series we'll be exploring the breakdown of governing forces, so stay tuned and subscribe to never miss a post. Stay safe and healthy everyone!