The Societies of World-Building

One of the hazards of world-building is creating the society your story is set in. For stories set in the present day (or recnt past), a writer can copy the one around them. It has the advantage of already being in existence. But for a mediaval fantasy, this doesn’t work so well. Especially if it closer to a historial work. And I apologise in advance for a heavy topic. I’ll try to tread lightly.

What passes for today’s current “western” secular society is basically no older than the end of the Industrial Revolution. It was during the latter that family and social structures were upended and redefined. Before the Industrial Revolution, working-class people tended to take up the trade of their father or some other close male. They lived their trade, grew up into it and helped the next generation do the same. The Industrial Revolution changed this. Now working fathers would travel to “work” (often in a mine or factory) and their children no longer got to grow up watching their father work. It broke the transition of child into adult.

Now before you protest that I’m demonising the Industrial Revolution or post copious responses showing that I’m wrong, I have to explain that I’m simplifying enormously. And the reason I am is because my point is that we actually do know that this period of history really did vastly upset the process of simply growing up. Over a generation or so, the social structures of human beings that worked for thousands of years were broken apart.

Authors like Steve Biddulph and John Eldredge know this. They have both spent considerable time understanding how to turn boys into men and how to repair things for those where things haven’t worked. Or even happened. Both authors explain in their various works how pre-Industrial societies took very good care when turning boys into men (and girls into women, but for a variety of reasons, the problems and processes are different). They taught them how to be accountable for their actions, their thoughts, their beliefs. They showed them – often through stories! – how to be responsible adults and then generally did their best to make them be so. Those that went ahead were rôle models and continued to be so for the rest of their life for those coming behind.

Anthropologists use the term initiation for this step. Sometimes so do fantasy writers, but the more common term is “coming-of-age”. Stories about coming of age are legion. It should be a critically important step in a person’s life and these make for some of the best stories because for those involved it is a story.

I believe that the world-builder of a pre-industrial fantasy world based in history needs to know this. If they ignore it, they will build a world that looks like ours but without a lot of industrialization. Not that that is necessarily bad, but it will be considerably more fantasy than history. This might, of course, be what is desired!

But what if it’s not?

If a society has largely abandoned any sort of formal initiation process, you get the “man-child” effect. The initiation step hasn’t been skipped: it, and everything that is supposed to follow simply hasn’t happened. One of the hallmarks of our moden western secular society is the widespread pervasiveness of this! Many many adults are simply not good at being “all grown-up”. And though they can fake it much of the time, a significant portion cannot. Worse, most don’t have much of a social structure to catch them when they fail. Instead, they remain children in an adult’s body and often don’t even know that that is even the case. So they get upset when people who in ages past would be regarded as authority figures talk about “taking their toys away”. Or “taking their freedoms away”. And I strongly believe that in such ages past, these topics wouldn’t even be a concern.

What a dystopia.

Great writing fodder, of course. If you like writing about that. I’ve said before that any writer who does any serious world-building has to understand society and history.

In fact, I think many more people should take the time to understand this. Especially if you find yourself commenting on it.


Filed under world-building

2 responses to “The Societies of World-Building

  1. Theses are little details that I like to read up on because they are so often overlooked. World-building can be fun, as far as what kind of plants what kind of creatures are there, what kind of culture. But part of all of that is structure, society, coming-of-age, types of people, beliefs, etc. One thing I’ve learned as a writer is to always include more than you think you will need, because in the end, it gives us a better grasp on what we’re writing, and gives us a pool to fish out of when we need it. The Coming-of-age is a great thing to make sure you understand, and history and society make your world. Very helpful. 🙂

    • A lot of my knowledge about this is part of own journey of maturity, but much is also borne out of a desire to understand a very common story tropes: The Hero’s Journey.

      There is clearly a deep desire in our society for being able to live these stories, and many people do so only vicariously through what they read (or watch). Being able to inspire a reader into actively taking such a journey is a high achievement for a writer. And definitely worth striving for.

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