Untouchable Concepts

In any world, there are some things you don’t question. They are, and that’s all there is to it. Or at least, that’s what everyone says. (Which of course means that some main character, particularly if what we’re dealing with is a game because those things beg for PC questioning, is going to question them.) So what are they, and how does one go about establishing them and why they haven’t been questioned?

In general, the hallmark of an untouchable concept is that there are people who want it to remain untouched, and some sort of price, either to them or to everyone, for touching it anyway. Usually, the price is to the people who want it to remain untouched—sometimes a devastating price, yes, but sometimes the price is just the requirement that people actually think about something a different way (gasp!). For some reason, the latter seems to create a stronger incentive to keep the untouchable concept untouched.

But people with interests aren’t the only things keeping untouchable concepts untouchable. The population’s force of habit will often do the same. After all, if something is not to be questioned, people are likely to grow up learning that questioning it doesn’t get anything except something somewhere on the spectrum between punishment and being treated like a mental deficient. (Which of these actually keeps them from questioning it anyway is another matter entirely.)

And before you decide that all untouchable concepts are only so because of manipulators who know better and the sheep who follow them, consider also that many untouchable concepts do have evidence behind them, and some are even truly beyond question. If the untouchable concept is, say, a god’s existence, there are probably signs that the god does indeed exist, or things that can easily be interpreted as such. If it’s a decision that changed the course of history, it’s probably pretty easy to tell what came of it (maybe even what led into it, if the person or people deciding had a good archivist), and it might actually have been the right decision to have been made. Of course, people will still make the assumption that anything set up as an untouchable concept is going to be ripped apart by the end of the story, so why not take advantage of that, and let the surprise be that it is indeed correct for this world? (This does, of course, work better when it isn’t easy to read as message fiction.)

Have you set anything up as untouchable?


  1. Michael says:

    I had quite a lot of these in my fantasy world Atragam… the existence of the gods, of course, and the practices devoted to them; but also certain pieces of folklore or superstition such as the belief that the Zaiadron had actual magic powers. And since you mentioned it, certain beliefs about their own history would fall into this category as well — like the belief that the Ileuran war was just, that Keiu was an ignominious traitor and Masra a hero worthy of veneration.

    But the thing is, these beliefs were just part of the set-up of the world. If I ever got round to writing novels set in Atragam (and I may yet, one day…) there was never any question of whether they would be proved true or false by the end of the novel: it would be neither. The point would be that it doesn’t matter whether they are true or false, they can still have a significant impact on events just because people believe them.

  2. UZ says:

    I sometimes like untouchables that are actually legit. For a couple of real-life examples:

    The Kilogram. A measure of mass drawn from a constructed example, a literal definition existing in the world as a cylinder of platinum-iridium alloy. We’re lucky that it’s currently a standard based on the mass of water of a specific volume, so at least we can make a new definition if the old one gets visibly broken.

    But, consider a pre-atomic society that uses such a material definition for weight – if the weight degrades unpredictably over time, then all previously observed measures of weight steadily lose their meaning. Protection of the material definition would be of deep and abiding value to science, to trade, to the historical record… untouchable.

    On the other hand, we have the concept of quarantine – a technology that works fairly well as long as you understand the process. On the other hand, the process is the first thing to go out the window in most stories, generally considered to be inferior to love, loyalty and human decency.

    Jack: You have to let me go out there! She’s all I have left! She nursed me through my terrible head injury and she deserves the same treatment!

    Old King Cole: You’re a fool Jack! Can’t you see she’s already gone?

    Zombie Jill (from outside): Uhhhh…

    Jack: I’m going!

    Cole: No! Don’t open that door! The old woman’s shoe is the only building strong enough to keep them out!

    Jack: Jill! You remember me don’t you? How we fell down the hill together? How you bandaged my head with that thing that kind of smelled?

    Zombie Jill: Om nom nom

    Zombie Jack: Uhhh…

    Cole: There’s a moral here somewhere but I’m too hungry to figure out what it is. What kind of old lady doesn’t keep any food in the house?

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