June 2022: Ordering a Society – Settings and Storytelling

Over the past year or so, I’ve been talking a lot about how to build a society, in the pursuit of building a believable, internally consistent setting which can stand up to narrative expansion and change. Of course, I have a lot to say about it, and worldbuilding itself, while enjoyable, is also a lot of work. However, it’s important not to lose sight of why all of this work is being done in the first place: unless you are in a very specific set of circumstances, you are not worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. A complex, well thought-out setting will never be useful to anyone except yourself so long as it stays in your head, or your private notes. Worldbuilding exists to facilitate storytelling, because stories rely on worlds to provide the context for their narrative – while fictional worlds and societies become known and current through the stories set within them. Thus, it is important to make the story consistent with its setting (so that the audience can understand the story through the ‘rules’ set down by the worldbuilding), but it is also important that the world provide the means for interesting and compelling stories to take place within it.

This is what I’m going to be talking about this time: how to find and create opportunities for storytelling within a fictional setting.

Stories, are ultimately about conflict. This doesn’t necessarily mean fighting, but includes basically any set-up where two or more parties want mutually exclusive goals, and are willing to antagonise each other to achieve them: an economic rivalry is a conflict, a labour strike is a conflict, a child custody case is a conflict, my wife and I talking about the validity of pineapple on pizza is a conflict. They do not have to be acrimonious, they do not have to be violent, and they don’t even have to be resolved, but they do have to exist to serve as the core of a narrative, both to give the characters motivation and to give them obstacles which they must overcome while in pursuit of that motivation. Without a conflict (or two, or three, or however many you want to throw in), you don’t have a story.

As for conflicts themselves, there are generally two extremes, psychological, and sociological conflicts. Psychological conflicts are ones between characters in their capacity as individuals: people who are opposed to one another because of their own personal motivations, desires, and opinions. Sociological conflicts are ones in which the characters are representatives of, or a product of their environment, and thus are in conflict because the world they inhabit and the space they occupy within that world have provided them with motivation, obstacles, and goals. It’s tempting to see your own story’s conflicts as one type or the other, but the truth is that most conflicts between characters contain elements of both to some degree or another. A character fleeing an arranged marriage may seem like part of a sociological conflict (with the antagonist ultimately being the marriage traditions and cultural mores of the society they live in), but this character’s decision to defy a custom which the majority of those around them still defend and uphold is an act of personal agency – a psychological motivation. Likewise, a character out for revenge for the murder of their family might seem like a psychologically motivated one, but the way they pursue that revenge and the method in which they extract it will be informed and perhaps even directed by that character’s culture – a sociological factor.

What this means is that while it is important to consider a character’s own personality and agency in setting up any form of conflict, it is also necessary to provide a setting where a conflict can be easily set up. This is especially important when you’re writing a setting for someone else to tell a story in, whether that be part of a collaborative creative project, or something like a tabletop RPG setting, where the intended audience are also the intended storytellers. While it’s possible to create a compelling conflict in just about any setting, it is much easier to do so when the setting itself provides much of the groundwork – something which is important to remember if you’re writing for the benefit of hobbyist storytellers (like TTRPG Game Masters) or any other setting that’s intended to play host to not just one, but a whole plethora of narratives (even if you plan on writing them all yourself).

So how do you set up your fictional society to be a good source of conflict? Well, if you’ve been following along, you shouldn’t have to. Throughout this entire series, I’ve been trying to present elements of a society not as completely passive elements of a harmonious whole, but as living, breathing institutions which are constantly in competition with each other for resources, for social prominence, for acceptance, and even for the mere right to exist. If you’ve been following my process on how to build a setting, then in theory, you should be able to put together a fictional society which is not only detailed and internally consistent, but chock-full of potential fissures and frictions, ready to be turned into the driving conflict of a story.

On a side note here, I’d like to point out that just because a society is internally consistent doesn’t mean its pieces fit together perfectly. We have yet to construct a perfectly harmonious society, mostly because everyone in a society has at the very least, a slightly different idea of how to go forward than everyone else. However, so long as most people can agree on a few common values (in the case of our own liberal democracies, those being the protection of certain civil and political freedoms, as well as the determination that no one person should have enough power to make themselves unquestioned ruler), a society can continue to muddle through, even as its tensions and contradictions force evolution, reform, and sometimes revolution.¬†

Of course, that last part is important: a society with ongoing tensions can’t simply leave those tensions unaddressed. The difference between a fictional society which can ring false and one which feels like something which real people live in can often be the fact that the latter changes because of its internal tensions, and is seen to change. A society with even relatively minor tensions left completely unaddressed for generations on end doesn’t make sense, whereas one with all sorts of internal contradictions can still seem realistic (or at least, authentic) if that society is shown to be constantly in flux as a result.

So ideally, a good fictional setting for stories should be one which may not seem entirely consistent, but one whose internal contradictions and competing interests leave it in a state of some uncertainty or change. Thus, creating a setting which is capable of supporting narrative is about having a knowledge of how conflicts arise, who get involved, and how their resolution (or lack thereof) shapes the progression of that setting. Medieval Europe, for example, often gets used as sort of a cultural touchstone in fantasy fiction for a sort of stationary setting, where individual interest groups “knew their place”, and nothing really changes. However, anyone with a cursory understanding of the real European Middle Ages could tell you that the societies which made up that time and place were in constant tension; not just kings against kings and lords against lords, but kings against lords, kings against the church, lords against merchants, individual towns against each other (even if they were under the rule of the same lord or king), townsfolk against rural peasants, peasants against lords, and that’s not even getting into the extremely complicated multi-sided class conflicts that often occurred (robber-barons leading peasants against princes, peasants appealing to the Holy Roman Emperor against their local prince!)

A worldbuilder who creates their own fantasy setting based on that initial, stationary, and commonplace idea of Medieval Europe is going to create a far less fertile field for storytelling than one that takes the messy, dynamic European Middle Ages as they were, with all of its societal changes and cultural variances. While the former might still offer some grounds for storytelling (especially in the “traditional” high fantasy mould), the latter offers far more interesting conflicts for any storyteller to work with.

Of course, a worldbuilder’s time and effort are limited. To create an entire setting with the depth of real history (even when it comes to the parts of history we have relatively fragmented evidence of) takes more work than most of us can get away with. What this means is that a worldbuilder often has to choose what kind of story they want to tell, or that they want their audience to tell, and then focus on building up the parts of their setting that creates the conflicts which drive those stories in greater detail. If you want to, for example, write a story about a junior cavalry officer in a war set in a blackpowder fantasy setting, then the first priority is to flesh out armies, social hierarchies, and international politics. Stuff like civilian fashion, royal succession laws, tax collection – those are important, of course, but you can generally get away with working on them in more detail later, when you want to have stories driven by conflicts about them instead.

Ultimately though, the best way to make a setting feel “real” is to make it one that is capable of supporting just about any kind of story – because that’s the kind of world our reality is. Hopefully the advice I’ve given you here will help you create a the sorts of fictional settings flexible enough and expansive enough for just that.

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