Worlds are comprised of plants, animals, and geology. But if intelligent life forms live in that world, societies will also exist.
We humans are tribal. We prefer an overarching power structure leading us because someone has to be the leader. We call that power structure a government.
As a society, the habits we develop, the gods we worship, the things we create and find beautiful, and the foods we eat are evidence of our culture.
If your society is set in modern suburbia, that culture and those values will affect your characters’ view of their world. You will still have to build that world on paper. But the information and maps are all readily available, perhaps in your own backyard.
But what if you are writing a sci-fi or fantasy novel? You must create the background material to show your world logically and without contradictions.
- Authors must know how society works in their created cities and towns.
- They must know the technology whether it is set in a medieval world or on a space station.
Merchants, scientists, priests, soldiers, teachers, healers, thieves – no matter the setting, each occupation has specific technology. They may also have a place in the social hierarchy, people they can and cannot associate with.
Society is always composed of many layers and classes. Below is a list of what I think of as “porch questions.”
This is the stage where I sit on the back porch and consider the world my characters will inhabit. Going somewhere quiet and pondering these questions brings clarity to my vague ideas.
The following is a list of points to consider when creating a society. Feel free to copy and paste it to a page you can print out. Jot the answers next to the questions and refer back to it if the plot raises one of these questions.
How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
- Is there a noble class?
- Is there a servant class?
- Is there a merchant class
- Is there a large middle class?
- Who makes up the most impoverished class?
- Who has the power, men or women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?
Ethics and Values: What constitutes morality, and how do we treat each other?
- Is marriage required?
- How are women treated?
- How are men treated?
- How are the different races viewed?
- Is there a cisgenderbias, or an acceptance of different gender identities?
- 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 betrayal, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
- What about drunkenness?
- How important is the truth?
- What constitutes immorality?
- How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
- What is taboo? What is “simply not done” among that group?
Power structures are the hierarchies encompassing the leaders and the people with the power. Government is an overall system of restraint and control among selected members of a group. Think of it as a pyramid, a few at the top governing a wide base of citizens.
Religion is rarely a sci-fi trope but often figures prominently in fantasy work. In sci-fi, science and technology often take the place of religion or are at odds with it. They both have similar hierarchies and fanatics, but with different job titles.
Archbishop might be replaced with Head of Research and Development.
Cardinal or Pope might be replaced with General, Admiral, or CEO (Chief Executive Officer).
Level of Technology: What tools and amenities are available to them? What about transport?
- Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
- Medieval metallurgy and technology?
- Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
- Or do they have a magic-based technology?
- How do we get around, and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, train, or 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 it a clan-based society?
- How does the government use and share the available wealth?
- How do the citizens view the government?
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 weapons your characters will bring to the front. You must also know 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?
A common trope in fantasy is magic, which brings up the need to train magic-gifted people. Do your sorcerers/mages rely on
- dumb luck and experimentation?
- apprenticing to sorcerers?
- training by religious orders?
- or as in the case of Harry Potter, a school of some sort? What are the rules of your magic?
The Church/Temple is the governing power in many real-world historical societies. The head of the religion is the ruler, and the higher one rises within the religious organization, the more power one has. The same is true of both universities and research facilities.
Power in the hands of only a few people offers many opportunities for mayhem. Zealous followers may inadvertently create a situation where the leader believes they are anointed by the Supreme Deity. Even better, they may become the God-Emperor/Empress.
The same sort of God complex occurs among academicians and scientists. Some people are prone to excess when presented with the opportunity to become all-powerful.
If you were unsure what your plot was before you got to this stage, now you might have a real villain, one presented to you by your society.
What sort of society do you envision in your world? How does that culture shape your characters?
Being the leader means bearing responsibility when things go wrong. Scrambling to keep things afloat occurs far more often than basking in the glory.
When things are going well, it’s good to be the queen.
However, the Tiara of Shame weighs heavily when things go awry—and that is when we have a story.