Five Interesting Questions When Building a Society

Most of my posts on building worlds have been at least one post per topic, sometimes a full series—which is nice and all, but not very good when covering things that don’t need ages of explication. So instead, I’m looking at simple questions with far-reaching ramifications that make for an interesting way of characterizing a society at large. Note that in all of these, we’re looking for an average; I can’t think of any in which I don’t routinely work with or around people with whom I am simply unable to come to a consensus, never mind what happens when you get an entire society involved.

1. Where do the youths go? I had a project a while back which was nearly scuttled by the question of what in blazes I was supposed to do with a bunch of well-educated (by family-employed tutors) noble youths, nearly all of whom had skills in at least one sort of craft for societal reasons.

2. How educated is educated enough? It’s good to at least have a ballpark figure (even if, as today’s world demonstrates, people from one country can’t really agree on it). And what sorts of skills fall under “an education”; are we talking academics, trades, woodcraft, street-smarts, dirty politics?

3. How much of an answer is killing? I recognize that, particularly in RPG worlds, death does seem to be a comparatively reliable solution, and killing someone in self-defense, particularly a repeat offender, tends to be shrugged over. But it’s really interesting looking at the differences between settings, and between societies within the settings—and there are consequences with much more potential than death out there.

4. What sorts of nonintuitive things are seen as evil, or at the very least morally dubious? I’m not talking about things that we ourselves recognize as morally wrong, but things that we see and wouldn’t think of as problems, but that the society objects to strenuously. They might have basis in superstition, in an extremely broad reading of somebody’s holy texts, or in something else—figuring out what they are and why they are can be fascinating.

5. Can you name one person who never reached the highest position on his or her career track, but whom most of the society knows by name and deeds anyway? What did they do, and what does everyone remember them for?

These are mine. What other interesting questions can you think of?


  1. KreenWarrior says:

    A couple fairly obvious ones:

    6. What is the counterculture like? All societies have forms of rebellion and transgression against the norms of said society. Of these, which are fashionable at the moment? Which are considered truly outside the bounds of tolerated behavior and which are simply risque? What drug are in style right now, and how do homosexuals meet up and have sex? (Trust me, they’re around). If there’s a dominant religion, what are the heretical branches and the underground faiths?

    7. What’s happening right NOW? When writing fantasy especially, it’s easy to slip into the mindset that there are long stretches where nothing of importance is going on besides the A plot. In reality, people will always be concerned about some new development, even when it seems utterly unimportant in retrospect to historians. Sometimes, this is obvious stuff like the economy or war (or rumors of war). Other times, entire countries become suddenly and temporarily obsessed with flowers ( Whatever your society, there are plenty of things going on right now in the story that probably don’t have anything to do with your main plot.

  2. UZ says:

    8. The Idol. Nearly every society has an ideal that they follow, surprising ones in some cases. Some idolize their own species as perfection, some idolize a predator that defines their environment, and a surprising number idolize the virtues of animals that they eat. (Note biblical references to sheep.) What’s the ideal?

    How does it come out in normal conversation? In North American shared culture, calling a man a “stallion” is OK, but calling him a “boar” will probably be misinterpreted.

    How does it come out in art? Dogs are treated derisively in conversation but are the subject of considerable veneration in the visual arts – dogs usually represent loyalty and stability, and wolves are common ciphers for spiritual rectitude.

    In a counterculture sense, what animals are considered anaethema by “common” society but are still afforded grudging admiration, like the vulture and the hyena? (Or in rural North America, the wolverine and to some extent the raccoon…)

    @KreenWarrior: The “drugs” part makes me laugh, this is a major weak point in my writing, the only drug I can think of from any of my works is a candy that gives people nightmares. I write like drugs don’t exist.

    Traditionally fantasy drugs are some kind of powder referred to colloquially as either “sugar” or “spice”, which presumably means that little girls are made of something else in these contexts. That’s OK, I never liked the spear version of that poem anyway. Made of slugs, eugh.

    @Ravyn: I tend to be an utopian and so concomitantly fall down on the vices when I write. Please devote some attention to this subject and save me from future embarrassment :)

  3. KreenWarrior says:

    @UZ: Heh, I don’t usually think about drugs either. I brought it up because a drug is a minor plot point in the Exalted game I’m currently running. Basically, there’s a city near a Wyld zone (basically magically irradiated area where physics doesn’t work correctly and where things tend to get mutated). Said Wyld zone’s influence has led to a unique strand of trees that produce “dream sand”, a drug which is soporific and tends to induce extremely intense dreams. Because the Wyld is also inhabited by Fair Folk, who eat dreams, the town offers drugged up, specially trained lucid dreamers to the Fair Folk in return for protection and trade with them.

  4. UZ says:

    @KreenWarrior: Ha, if that’s your current story you might read “The Winter Market” by William Gibson for a bit of entertainment.

  5. UZ says:

    I just realized, line 5 of my first comment should have read, “What’s the ideal, yo?”

    Sorry about that.

Leave a Reply