Society in Story
There are a number of elements fantasy writers focus on during worldbuilding, traditionally they pour over decisions like mapping locations, designing a magic system and setting empires/species against one another – big, obvious things that shape the story. Yet this can mean they overlook an important aspect that helps to bring all the different elements together, the mesh of society in their world. By society, I’m not just talking about the people, but about the whole nature of their interactions and the way in which the author created ideas mix on the page and are shown to the reader.
To really sell a world and a story the reader has to see it as a believable/plausible place with all the subtle nuances and inner workings that make up our own lives. An author might have designed a fabulous city run by laundry list of different noble houses which all have some magic bloodline power, but unless they also have some down to earth gossip about how one noble is having an affair with someone from a rival family, or a foolish son was seen in the drunk tank again, then these creations will seem stiff and abstract. The author might have set two families at odds but unless we hear it in the sneer of a character during a conversation, or read a scene where two bodyguards hassle a messenger page from an opposing house, the conflict won’t be anything more than a concept for the reader.
It might seem like a small thing to focus on when compared to all the amazing stuff that can happen in a fantasy novel, but it’s these touches that make it a vibrant, living world for the reader. Worldbuilding isn’t just about creating a load of interesting stuff, it’s about knowing how it will all work together and showing it on the page. The Black Guard by A. J. Smith has a good example of this on the subject of the many clerical orders in his world:
“Are they not allowed to take a woman, master?”
“Some clerics do, the Black ones, and maybe the Brown. The knights of the Red and those Purple bastards are forbidden from the time they gain their cloak. It’s one of the main reasons they get such pleasure from riding those armoured horses.” He laughed wickedly… (Smith, 2013, p15).
It’s a fairly innocuous conversation, but it serves to cement the reader’s idea of these orders, give them some more information and above all, aid in the immersion of the world. Seeing the friction as the orders don’t get along gives them a far greater sense of realism that just being told about it. The crude joke about horse riding seeps into the background but also serves to give the world more depth and a culture of its own.
Everything the author comes up with in the planning stage can have an impact, all wedded together throughout the world and narrative. If you’ve added flying horses, slip in a few mentions of an elitist courier guild whose members try to charm the local girls at every stop. If the world is recovering from a plague, how about a note on the unscrupulous plague doctors who fleece the desperate? Got dragons, maybe someone invented a fireproof bomb shelter?
Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, even in a story; it’s the mesh of all the interlocking cogs that makes things seem real and that will convince the reader to engage with the world. The way to accomplish that is relatively simple, a little extra thought and detail on some of the ideas you’ve already come up with, and some careful threading of information throughout the story and you’re set. As always the author must be careful not to slow the pace, yet a few hints are more than enough to paint a rich backdrop and weave various elements of the world together.
Almost every scene in a novel is ripe for this kind of treatment, opening up new opportunities to explore the world and solidify it in the eyes of the reader. Society is a broad canvass and can cover everything from cultural trends, to the laws of the land. Say your character is walking through a marketplace and spies some town guards making an arrest, perhaps they wander over for a look, asking a nearby street vendor what’s going on:
“What’s all the ruckus?”
The merchant glanced over at him, sunlight glinting off the ring in his nose. “Poor fool got himself noticed by the Watch, bringing him in under the Magus act.”
“The ban on all magic of any kind, King’s orders after the last war.”
“Was he doing magic?”
The merchant snorted. “Nah, he’s a street performer, bit of fire-eating and sleight of hand card tricks is all.”
This scene not only gives the reader information about the law that could be relevant to the plot, but gives an idea of city life, how rigorously the ban is enforced and what it means for the people and their culture. You could take it further and have the citizens afraid to make blessing/warding signs from their religion for fear of being accused of witchcraft. All this effort goes into constructing a society, showing the day to day lives of the people, the effects of the author’s choices mixing together, fleshing out the world as more than just a collection of points on a planning sheet. The scene even contains a hint of history with the remark about the last war, serving to ground the basis for the rule. By showing how the current situation and society arose, the novel gains a sense of depth and the reader has a better understanding of the world.
Developing a society can aid in greater world construction and plotting. If an author wants to show that a nation is advanced they might add medical knowledge to the mix, but what are the effects? Does everyone stand straighter and live longer, what does it mean for the quality of life? Can only the rich afford medical care, and what is the result when your hero is injured? Foreshadowing such an event with a few lines or scenes showing the state of medicine and access to it will allow the narrative to flow better and let the reader see it as a natural part of the world.
When it comes to pure fantasy elements the portrayal of a society can be even more important. With all the potential for different creatures and species it’s vital that the reader gets a sense of the world. The evil Drow of the Underdark are as vicious a race as they come and every part of The War of the Spider Queen series shows this twisted culture in action. From their treatment of slaves, murderous plans in the pursuit of ambition, and even a moment of outright betrayal between “friends,” because it’s the Drow way, the series clearly establishes the world for the reader in a method that’s more effective than an essay appendix on life in Menzoberranzan. This method also allows the reader to sink into this strange world as they read in a far more natural way than simply being told everything by the author, allowing them to explore it as the characters go.
So in the future when you build your world, don’t neglect the society that forms as a result, it is the vehicle which links ideas together and encourages the reader to believe in your creation. Think about the consequences of that epic conflict in the prologue, talk about why they can’t wear a particular colour on Tuesdays, show all the spite and prejudice that comes from different classes and different factions living together. Make your world as rich and varied as our own, but more importantly, let the reader see it. Mix all the ideas together and shove the resultant mess on the page, let your characters explore and muddle through, maybe they’ll figure out why the clerics just can’t get along.