Rules are made to be broken.
This is a common saying, but it is also a more common tool in story telling than you might think. In fantasy, our characters might battle dragons, fight in wizard duels, or march towards blue-eyed beasts that plan to eat our children. But this isn’t all they go up against. A lot of times, our characters end up fighting against society itself.
In Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, Richard and Kahlan are out to stop the oppressive Darken Rahl from leading the world to ruin. But Kahlan finds herself going up against so much more. As a Confessor, she is taught never to love because her power will only leave her with heartbreak in the end, destroying the man that she loves. She has to fight against her own beliefs–beliefs that society has passed down generation after generation–to find the truth of her power.
Frodo was a simple hobbit living a simple life, not getting involved in the affairs of men and elves. That is the way of the hobbits. They are a peaceful folk. And yet he sets out on an adventure much like his uncle and ends up being the key to saving Middle Earth.
I could go on and on with examples. To get to the point: Fights against mythical creatures or epic magical battles are not all there is to a story. There are layers upon layers of challenges, trials, and strife our main characters must overcome. So it is important we know how the society of our world works and the government that keeps order.
How do we start? First, you need to figure out where the power is. Some might argue that in society today, power is in money. Those who don’t have it constantly strive to make ends meat in the hopes of one day making their lives better, while those who have it make the rules for the rest. So what is the key to power in your world? In Estridia (my world), it is magic. People are born with magic in varying degrees, and those who have the most rule over the worlds. Those who have none are shunned as the Tainted, treated as though there is something ghastly wrong with them.
Okay, so now we have the key to power and know who might have it. But what about the people under them? One person or group can’t rule over everything because they can’t be everywhere at once. There’s a certain amount of delegation in government, which means other people will have jobs as well that help to maintain order. Who would those people be? Relatives, like the Lannisters? Or people with the next tier of power? Perhaps just trusted friends and confidants of the leaders?
The answer to that question will also tell you a lot about the society. If power is merely passed down from generation to generation and dependent on a blood line, how fair and just do you think that world might be? They might get lucky and have a benevolent ruler from time to time, but a family that breeds power might also breed monsters (coughJoffreycough). A leader who counts on friends and confidants to help him/her rule might be more reasonable, or be surrounded by mewing idiots that tell him/her what they want to hear.
Every society has an order of power that enforces the rules of that society. Marriage laws. Taxes. Armies. How heavy a hand the government rules with will determine a lot about the society. Do they determine who can and cannot marry? What professions the people are allowed to enter into? What sort of taxes are imposed? Is the lower class taken care of or downtrodden with despair? Are the races allowed to intermingle?
I’m sure you see my point. I could probably write a whole other post continuing on how to define the lines of social classes, but that might venture (even more) into rambling territory. For now, I will leave you to mull over the questions of society and government with this piece of advice: Study the different societies around you and the ones from history. Figure out the differences and how the political climates might have been for the people of that time or in that area now. You might find your answers a lot closer to home than you think.
Next time, we will talk about races, and then after that we will conclude this series with a big factor in a lot of fantasy series: Magic! Hit the comments to tell us about the society of your world!