I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government, some set in fantasy worlds and some set in contemporary real-world environments. When I first began writing I had been reading and studying the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and the many other pioneering sci-fi and fantasy writers of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
This was long before eBooks, and I had discovered the joys of the secondhand book store. Every payday I had several new books to add to my collection. In fact, it became hard to find people to help me move whenever my work took me to a different place, because of my large collection of secondhand books.
Many times the actual details of the society and the infrastructure didn’t matter and didn’t come into their stories at all. But the authors knew them, and their visualization of each character, each setting, and the other elements of the scene came across clearly in their writing.
These are subjects that arise my mind in the second draft because after the story has been laid down in its raw form, the answers to these questions matter. And in truth, the answers to these questions are only important in a peripheral way, an invisible framework to hang your story on. The answers ensure continuity and prevent inadvertent contradictions from arising within your manuscript.
Social Organization: What place does your character occupy in her society? That will determine how she interacts with others. 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 access to a written language determines how knowledge is passed on.
Is there a system for communicating knowledge across generations? How does historic information get passed along? How do they communicate knowledge over long distances? Books? Songs? Messengers? Subspace Communication?
Some ideas to consider:
- How are people educated?
- Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
- How are bards, storytellers, teachers, and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?
Ethics and Values: We currently live in a world where ethics and values are hot topics, and morality in government is a mushy concept. This especially true if a politician has enough plausible deniability or enough bravado to tell and maintain a bald-faced lie despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. In your fictional society, what constitutes morality? What constitutes immorality?
- 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 it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
- How important is it to only tell the truth?
- What level of deceitful dealings is acceptable?
Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?
- How important is human life? How is murder punished?
- How are thieves viewed? What place in society do professional thieves have?
- How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
- What about drunkenness/drug abuse?
Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do people have available to them? What about transport? Low technology generally can begin with an oral tradition and have some written languages. But low-tech means it takes time to pass along messages, and information can get lost or skewed over generations. Low technology in my books ends with the invention of the printing press and widespread access to Roman-style plumbing.
In my work, high levels of technology begin with the invention of the telephone, steam engines, blimps, and other motorized transport, and the use of radio communication. It grows from there to include cyborg technology for instantaneous communication, warp engines, and all manner of nanotechnology.
- Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
- Medieval metallurgy and technology?
- Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
- modern day?
- How do we get around and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, by train, or by space shuttle?
Do they have the use of magic or a magic-based technology? First you must consider who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:
- if the number of people who can use it is limited
- if the ways in which it can be used are limited
- if not every mage can use every kind of magic
- if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
- if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
- if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal
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 it a tribal 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?
Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? Feel free to skip this section if religion plays no role in your tale. If religion 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?
Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?
- If not, why? What causes the tension?
- Can people freely cross borders?
- 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?
When you have cemented the world in your mind, you will leave enough clues in your writing that the environments your characters inhabit will flow naturally, and your protagonists will fit into them organically. Your fantasy 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.
First Edition cover of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Illustrator, Ruth Robbins, published 1968 by Parnassus Press.
The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, image by vlasta2, bluefootedbooby on flickr.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons