In speculative fiction, we often have one culture that is more advanced in contrast to the neighboring, somewhat more primitive cultures. Each of these societies have unique cultures, and if you know the culture of your characters’ homeland, you understand your characters and why they think the way they do.
But what is a society formed of? Initially, people come together and form small communities, or tribes, for protection. They find it’s a good way to consolidate more consistent sources of food and resources. With adequate food and shelter, people live longer and are generally healthier. Out of a need to get along with each other, they develop certain commonly agreed upon rules-of-the-road for sharing that wealth. Eventually these common rules become a complex social structure. As life becomes easier for the population in general, other amenities of civilization begin to be a part of their culture.
I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. When I first began writing I knew it was important to know what the social structure was in each fantasy world, so I made a list of questions to consider when I begin constructing a new society. I was new at this, so please bear with the randomness of the order in which these things are listed:
- Social Organization: Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? are there
- A servant class?
- A merchant class
- A large middle class?
- Who makes up the poorest class?
- Who has the power, men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?
- Language, the written word, and accounting: Do they have a written language? This is really important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a really low-tech society, because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition.
- How are people educated?
- Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
- How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?
- How is monetary wealth calculated?
- Do they use coins? What is their monetary system? If you are inventing it, keep it simple. (I generally use gold, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver/ 10 silvers=a gold)
Ethics and Values: What constitutes morality?
- Is marriage required?
- How are women treated? How are men treated?
- How are same-sex relationships viewed?
- How are unmarried sexual relationships seen in the eyes of society?
- How important is human life? How is murder punished?
- How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
- What about drunkenness?
- How important is truth?
- What constitutes immorality?
- How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
- Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? If it is central, ask yourself: Is there one god/goddess or many? If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals, and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.
- What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
- What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
- Who has the power?
- Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
- How does the priesthood interact with the community?
- Who can join the priesthood
- Do people want to join the priesthood or do they fear it?
- How is the priesthood trained?
Level of Technology: What tools and amenities does this society have available to them? What about transport?
- Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
- Medieval metallurgy and technology?
- Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
- modern day?
- Or do they have a magic-based technology?
- How do we get around and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, by train, or by space shuttle?
- Government: There will be a government somewhere, even if it is just the local warlord. Someone is always in charge because it’s easier for the rest of us that way:
- Is it a monarchy, theocracy, or a democratic form of government?
- How does the government fund itself?
- How are taxes levied?
- Is it a feudal society?
- Is is a clan-based society?
- Warlord, President, or King/Queen?
- How does the government use and share the available wealth?
- How is the government viewed by the citizens?
- Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?
- Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?
- If not, why? What causes the tension?
Waging War: This is another area where we have to ask what their level of technology is. It is critical for you as the author to understand what sort of weapons your characters will bring to the front, and also what the enemy will be packing. Do the research and choose weaponry that fits your established level of technology.
- What kind of weaponry will they use?
- How are they trained?
- Who goes to battle? Men, women, or both?
- How does social status affect your ability to gain rank in the military?
This is by no means a comprehensive list. It was initially meant to be a jumping off point, just a short list of things for me to ponder, but I thought I would share it with you today. Considering this little list of ideas always leads to my realizing a kajillion other rather large concepts that combine to make up a civilization. You are welcome to use this roster to form your own inventory of ideas about society.
What I originally did was to write the whole story of the community my protagonist grew up in, a word-picture of about 5000 words, and then I set it aside, to use as reference material. This is the method I still use today.
When you have cemented the society in your mind, the world your characters inhabit will flow naturally and your protagonists will fit into it organically. Their society will be visually real to the reader, even if the world it evokes in their minds isn’t exactly your vision of it. You will have done your job, by giving them a solid framework to imagine the story around.