Worldbuilding 101 – Structuring Your Society

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So you’ve decided some basic physical and genetic basics about your races. And you’ve decided some broad cultural and societal brushstrokes such as core values of the society (and what the society will do to protect them), where and how the members of the society live, how they interact with other cultures, what their religious beliefs are, and the basics of how the society educates its members.

Now lets flesh out the social structure – the classes (or sub societies) within the culture.

You will be drawing upon most of what you’ve decided previously to do this exercise.

Class system. Is there is class system and how stratified is it? Most societies automatically segregate into classes. At a minimum, there are typically low, middle and upper classes in any society. You can break this down even further: slave, peasant, craftsman, merchant, professional, cleric, noble, king. And often there are sub-strata within each class.

In some societies (such as India) a very stratified “class” system – called caste – exists. Under the caste system, you are born into your caste and can never leave it. People do not marry outside their caste. Social order, friendships, jobs and professions are all determined by your caste.

What are the classes in your society? How are they established? Can individuals move between classes – and if so, are there limits to how high (or low) they can move? What sorts of obstacles are they likely to encounter?

Typically, the lower the class, the poorer the education and the more menial the tasks the members of a particular class are expected to perform.

Value of Life. What value does your society put on life in general? Are lives valued, or are people considered expendable? In ancient Roman times, for instance, the gladiatorial combats slaughtered people for sport. In societies where conditions are harsh and survival is a struggle, death would typically be greeted with practicality. There might be some weeping, of course, over the death of a loved one, but members of the tribe would typically accept and move on.

In some cultures (such as feudal Japan, china, and certain middle eastern cultures), honor is far more highly prized than life, and as a consequence, the societies embrace ceremonial suicide and honor killings.

Family Structure. What comprises a family unit in your society? Families are the core unit of most societies, but the makeup of them and how they relate to one another might be considerably different. Who is the head of the family – does s/he have particular roles associated with that responsibility? Is the family comprised of parent and children, or extended to include relatives (brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents) all living beneath the same roof? How strong are family ties and family loyalties? What, if anything, trumps familial loyalty?

Pair Bonding / Mate Bonding. Is there a mate bond? Is it a chosen bond or a genetically predisposed/undeniable bond? Are matebonds formed for love, political ties (i.e., arranged marriages), as a spoil of victory won by rite of combat, or by divination (gods/priests/oracles determine which couples are to be bonded). Are there effects of complications that typically – or uniquely – arise due to the matebond? Are the bonded mates monogamous? Do the people of this culture mate for life or can mating bonds be broken? What are the social (or possibly even physical) ramifications of that? What responsibilities come with the mate bond?

Children. In longer-lived cultures, children must, by necessity, be a rarity, else the immortal species would soon overrun the planet like an unchecked bunny population. Are children rare or relatively common? Are they raised by their parents or are they fostered or raised by the tribe?

At what age are children of this society/race/species considered to have achieved adulthood? Are there any rites of passage? Are there any physical transformations that mark this transition to adulthood? Are there certain abilities adults have that children do not (or vice versa)? For instance, perhaps magic does not blossom until after puberty.

Gender Roles. Are there specific gender-associated roles in your society? For instance, are women warriors, or is war solely the province of men? Is the society patriarchal or matriarchal (or perhaps the genders live apart from one
another). What happens if a character steps out of a traditional gender role?

Age-Related Roles. Does age play particular significance in what is expected / allowed for individuals in your society? Wizards are often depicted as old men because, one assumes, learning to become a wizard takes a very long time.

Do certain capabilities only come with age? Become lost with age (biological clocks, memory, health, etc.)?

There are many, many more questions you can ask yourself in order to flesh out the structure of your society and how individuals in that society relate to one another. Societal bonds are hugely important to most peoples because socialization, not isolation, is necessary to our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

Now keep in mind, as you come up with these tenets of your society, that the society’s values should mirror, underscore, or challenge your plot and themes. And keep your eye open for all manner of interesting conflicts – because with the ties and expectations of society come the rules and limitations imposed upon your characters by the societies in which they live.

Happy Worldbuilding! In the next article, we’ll talk about how to structure and incorporate Government and Industry in your societies.


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