My God Is Lawful Evil: Alternate Morality in Alternate Worlds
There are certain common steps that we are all aware of when it comes to creating an alternate world. You probably start with a map, or at least a few place names. You add in races and maybe languages. If you are thorough, you’ll come up with historical details. Sprinkle all of that with a few quirks that make the world your own.
From my experience as a reader, this is as far as most fantasy writers will go before moving on to characters and plot. But sometimes, especially if an author goes through some effort to show us how special and different their world is, there is something jarringly missing from the overall picture – and that is, an alternate set of ethics and morality. This is something that science-fiction is very good at, what with its several decades of tradition of exploring the Alien; when you have a species coming from a different planet, with completely different evolutionary and biological background, you can’t just lampshade the issue with “it’s like us, but with magic”. But fantasy, too, can stand its ground, especially when it comes to races that are inherently amoral or immoral (even Tolkien’s Orcs can be said to have different morality from the norm – the morality of pure evil) – and it’s something a self-respecting writer should always at least try.
Not all books require whole new morals, of course. Classic epic fantasy, for example, inherits the ethics of its Medieval setting wholesale (or what we think is the ethics of the Middle Ages), even if the world in question never had the equivalents of Saint Paul, Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. This is good enough for a slash’n’hack plot, where good guys and bad guys (and the grey ones in between) are instantly recognizable to the reader. Often, introducing complex philosophical issues is distracting and out of place.
Another good example is a straightforward alternate history where all religions and philosophies exist just as they do in our world. If the only difference between your world and ours is the existence of super-effective aether-powered steam engine then, naturally, the morality of your characters can easily be copied from the Victorian Era without anyone batting an eyelid.
But if you really want to give that special feeling of “otherness” to your world and characters, there is no better way than to provide them with ethical system as different from the real one as a half-elf-half-spider is different from a city stock-broker (well, at least the elf part). Here are a few primers on how to achieve that to good effect.
Loot and Plunder
While not advisable when you’re in charge of an invading army, this is perfectly proper when you’re a writer. Use what’s already out there. Try to move out of your comfort zone. This approach works whether you’re a Western author, basing his ren-faire fantasy on what is essentially a fairy-tale Western Europe, or an East Asian writer feeling familiar only in post-Confucian situations; whatever the case, try to reach out elsewhere.
Our own world is – and was – filled with a multitude of cultures, each with a different set of societal rules. Of course, some basic tenets will be the same, because they stem from the fundamental laws of nature; killing without valid reason is pretty much universally frowned upon (or is it? Discuss in comments :)) But there’s still a lot to take from. And often, it doesn’t have to be an entire system that you need to borrow; sometimes one little thing is enough to throw the reader off-guard. Roman praise of noble suicide, Thai and Iranian acceptance of transsexuality, and so on.
Whatever culture – or bunches of cultures – you choose as your template, there is one thing that is crucial: do your research. Try not to base your morals on an easy stereotype of a culture. Societies are rarely as simple as the stereotypes show. Avoid the jarring tropes like “wise Indian” or the “cruel samurai”. For best results, go further than just skin-deep.
Mind the Gods
Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology aside, the moral systems in pre-modern societies tend to derive from their religions. If the major religion of your world is different from that in ours, chances are the ethics will be different, too. Start with well-defined gods, and go from there.
This approach requires some deep thinking on your part; a full-scale religion is, after all, more than just a few commandments from god or gods, even if you choose to have the gods as literal, physical presence in your world, Forgotten Realms-style (an exception to this rule would be a place like Discworld, for obvious reasons). I mentioned various fathers of the church earlier; if your religion has lasted for thousands of years (as fantasy religions tend to) then it must have produced its own range of philosophers, and maybe even entire schools of ethics. Think of what they would come up with, given the circumstances. What are the ethical consequences of there being a god that demands constant human sacrifices? (see point 1 – steal from Aztecs) What about the world ruled by the Goddess of Love? These are the questions you should at least try to answer if you’re serious about your world-building.
For example, in one of my worlds, none of the major monotheistic religions ever happened, and the basis of the Western ethics are the writings of pagan neo-platonic philosophers. This was not easy to pull off, and I’m not claiming to have done it well, but it definitely was fun trying.
Twist n’ Shout
When all else fails, just go crazy. Mix the various ethical systems and rules in a bowl, dip your hand in and see what happens.
Bend the morals to your will. You are the creator here, and anything goes. Let your imagination run wild; your readers will appreciate it just as they appreciate the snail-people of Fire Wastes you put so much effort into. Strange morality makes for strange, but, when done well, very compelling and well-rounded worlds.
This is something the good folk at TV Tropes call “Blue and Orange Morality”. A moral system so off the grid it goes beyond the usual black-grey-white axis. If a system of ethics based on cowardice is not good enough for you (Larry Niven) then how about one that is only concerned with aesthetic beauty (China Mieville)? Whatever you come up with, consistency is the key – unless the “system” you implement is a purely chaotic one. But chaos is never appealing, in the long run. It’s much more effective to keep to the rules, however strange they may seem.
The alternate morality system can be very useful in setting your world apart from others. Try to be subtle and clever about it; refrain from hammering in your world views through the characters, unless you feel confident about your skill. (Some writers get away with that, but they are few and far between.) Above all – don’t be afraid to experiment. You’re in the business of writing speculative fiction – so go on, speculate! I guarantee you’ll enjoy it – and so will your readers.