Creating a fictional society is perhaps the most exciting and frustrating part of worldbuilding. The ability to create a whole new culture from scratch is an amazing power, and when done right, it can captivate the imaginations and draw in the interests of people who are willing to commit as much time and energy to considering, examining, and talking about a fictional creation as they might the society they live in. However, getting to that point takes a lot of work. After all, societies in the real world are often extremely complex and intricate structures, ones which people can spend their entire lives studying while only scratching the surface. While a creator shouldn’t necessarily have to put in that kind of work to deliver a fictional society which will capture the attention of an audience, the creation of a believable fictional society with any kind of depth or complexity is a long and drawn-out process.
Needless to say, this will be a multi-part series.
The key to creating a believable fictional society is consistency, not only with the other societies of that setting, but also within itself. A constructed society should, in other words, “make sense”, with its differing elements reinforcing or complimenting the others. This doesn’t mean that everything in a fictional society should fit perfectly together, of course. People rarely act the ways their societies would prefer them to, and the influence of outside forces and changing circumstances will quite often introduce tensions and contradictions within the structure of a society which demands some manner of restructuring or reform, lest the whole thing come tumbling down. However, in a more or less stable society, the main elements of that society do reinforce one another, not only creating justifications for the other parts of that society which its members believe in, but also convincing the individual members of that society that their society is one which is worth living in, despite the demands it might levy on them.
The foundation of these societal elements is a system of beliefs – not just in the sense of religion or cosmology, but a coherent idea of what’s right, what’s wrong, what has value, and what the greatest threats are. It is a sharing of these beliefs which tie a society together: when the members of a society can’t agree on what they believe to be right and wrong at a fundamental level, a society won’t be able to agree upon a set of ethical values upon which to build a code of behaviour. A society where everyone has a radically different idea of what’s right and what’s wrong will tear itself apart as individual members of that society come to realise their neighbours behave in a way which they can easily describe as evil. A society which disagrees on the nature of the threats facing their society will fail to coordinate effectively to counter those threats – which is one of the reasons people banded together to form societies in the first place.
Of course, none of this is absolute. People are not the same and people can disagree with each other; and most societies have some means of allowing those disagreements to be resolved. However, if a part of a society are unable to even accept the existence of another part of that society as morally consistent with the values of that society, then the society in question exists in a state of tension – one which must ultimately be resolved through some form of restructuring, reform, or collapse.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
While we’ve established the importance of a society having common beliefs, that doesn’t really establish where these beliefs come from, a process which is both simple to describe, and difficult to replicate.
In short, a society’s beliefs come from the shared conditions which its members exist within, because a society, fundamentally, exists as a group of people who band together to make it easier to survive, thrive, and become comfortable under the conditions they live in. In our own world, this means that climate and geography in particular played a massive role in how our societies developed: whether an area was mountainous or flat, cold or warm, fertile or unsuitable for agriculture. All of these things determined how societies developed: Classical Greece was politically oriented around city-states because mountainous terrain and narrow passes made the area around a city easy to defend and difficult to conquer. The Mongols created a society around nomadic tribes because poor soil made farming impractical and the wide spaces required for herding made moving quickly important. The Mound-Builders of the Mississippian Civilisation built massive cities when the medieval warm period made their home territory prime agricultural land, and broke up when the little ice age made farming less effective.
The conditions in which these societies lived in determined how they organised themselves, because their system of organisation was seen as the “right” way to do things within their local conditions. A person from Classical Athens might consider a society built around the defence and maintenance of a fortified city-state to be a “correct” society, but on the Mongol Steppe where stone is scarce and the land is flat and food is too thin on the ground to support a large sedentary population, that society and the laws and moral codes built to support it would seem wrong – just as the Mongols themselves had a great deal of trouble wrapping their heads around more constricted, agricultural terrain like South China and Vietnam.
There is also another set of considerations, for creators making societies in fantasy or science-fiction settings with non-human societies. While Humanity itself offers a vast selection of societies to draw inspiration from, they all possess one thing in common: they are all ultimately peopled by the same intelligent warm-blooded hairless apes with two eyes, two arms, two legs, and two ears. Likewise, the ways which the societies of our world have respond to geographical conditions are likewise the responses of those same hairless apes. Things change dramatically if you fill those same geographical conditions with species who can live longer, or shorter lives, ones with higher heat tolerance, or functioning wings. Ones which are cold blooded, quadrupedal, ones with different ranges of perception. If you’re creating a society of non-humans, the ways in which they differ from humans – and the ways these differences would allow them to interact differently with their surroundings – should be taken into account as well.
These patterns of belief manifest themselves at every level of a society, from the openly stated social and political views of its individual members, to the most fundamental terminology and categories which a society uses to describe the world around it. Even the most basic classifications which we use to make sense of our world are ultimately constructed descriptors which those who came before us created to make sense of the world in a way which conformed to, or were compatible with their own belief systems. Even concepts as seemingly self-evident as species, race, and gender are ultimately subjective; constructed shorthand to make it easier to abstract wide groups into single categories for the sake of easier organisation and communication within a society – and how these categories are constructed ultimately has a lot to do with what a society believes.
What this means is that when creating a fictional society, a creator must be willing to question even the most basic assumptions they have about society as a whole. They must be willing to accept that even the most “common-sense” sorts of categorisation in our own societies are the result of the unique conditions which those societies developed in, as opposed to some universally essential taxonomy. Something like the common understanding of “race” in our own world originated as a way to sub-categorise humanity in a way which justified the exploitation and enslavement of one sub-category by another, and the dissemination of the interpretation of that concept has served to reinforce the power structures which that concept first sprang from. Acknowledging and dissecting the origins of these concepts makes it easier to work with them in the context of a worldbuilding process, allowing a creator to be able to more accurately judge whether a fictional society’s belief systems would support a similar concept, or rely on a different form of categorisation, one more suited to its own circumstances.
Being able to determine a society’s belief systems and the ways those belief systems manifest in abstract concepts will help you answer one of major questions a worldbuilder has to ask themselves when constructing a society: who has power? By nailing down the patterns of belief that a society derives from its circumstances, and the ways which it conceptualises the “natural order” based on that system of belief determines which group or individuals that society would consider to be “entitled” to hold power within it.
Next time, I’ll go into more detail about how to derive a power structure from the fundamentals we’ve established here. I’ll talk more about how these concepts help maintain and stabilise existing power structures, as well as how power structures can change when the circumstances – and the systems of belief they support – are subject to internal and external pressures.