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Social structures

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Tom, Dec 3, 2016.

  1. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    Hey, so I've been thinking about this for a while and I thought I'd share it. One of the things that fantasy doesn't seem to mess with is social structure, even though that's an area that holds a ton of potential for new and interesting stories.

    The basic family unit and other modern social conventions pop up in fantasy all the time, though there's no reason why they have to. Turning the expected upside down is what fantasy is supposed to do! For much of history, in fact, the social structures that a lot of fantasy worlds use did not exist. For instance, our idea of the nuclear family being the "default" only started in the last century or so.

    So what are your thoughts on this? Have you created new social structures for your cultures?
     
  2. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    About the only thing I can think of in my stories is the fact that my merfolk in one WIP regularly engage in polygamy/polyamory and same-sex relationships. The MC of said WIP has three parental figures (father [cis-male], mother [cis-female] and stepparent [hermaphrodite], all of whom are married to each other) and is also a lesbian; her girlfriend is bi.
     
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  3. johnsonjoshuak

    johnsonjoshuak Troubadour

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    I messed around with this in my current WIP. Families (especially wealthy families) regularly include up to 4 spouses of any gender. So one of my characters is male and has 1 husband and 2 wives. In their society, the max is 4 (total) but those without more than 1 are considering poor because they can't support a larger family.
     
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  4. Hmm...I totally agree; it's fantasy, why do we have to accept these things? Subverting them could be fun.

    In (one of) my WIP's, I have a cult which (in addition to other beliefs) completely demonizes sexuality. They refer to one another using familial terms; people of the same age are "brothers/sisters," people older are "mothers/fathers," people younger are "sons/daughters." Thus familial relationships are rendered completely meaningless. The nuclear family isn't exactly restructured, it doesn't exist.

    (Reproduction is a legalized ceremony which the participants are not expected to take pleasure in, and their memories of the experience are erased afterward.)
     
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  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I've put some thought to this for Altearth, because I'm determined to make my dwarves more than merely short humans, elves more than tall ones. And there's much more to social structure than just family organization.

    Gnomes are a case in point. Embedded in their culture is a notion of service, so you'll never find a gnome settlement separate; they will always be living near humans or dwarves. They are farmers and craftsmen, and they tend to be treated rather like serfs. There's no need for legal constraints, but both humans and dwarves have become so accustomed to having gnomes provide part of their crops and crafts as "levies", and so sure that the gnomes would never leave, that exploitation does happen.

    Gnomes are collectivist. There are personal possessions, but property is always at the service of the vill. Since decisions are taken in common, no one is taken advantage of. Indeed, the idea of taking advantage of someone is abhorrent to gnomes. As you might imagine, people like orcs or trolls treat gnomes very badly indeed.

    There are similarities between gnomes and dwarves, with the latter's emphasis on canton and clan, but dwarves do not share the gnome service ethic. They sometimes refer to gnomes as sky brothers, for gnomes do not live underground, because the relationship is highly symbiotic. Dwarves are lousy farmers.

    Elves are still rather a puzzle for me. I'm somehow going to use the frerèche, a medieval French practice in which property is held in common among brothers, and if a woman is widowed it was common for her to be taken in by one of the brothers. The property was constantly being reapportioned, but ideally always within and among the brothers of a family. Seems like there's some good potential there. Also looking to loot the matrilineal family structures of the Mosuo.

    Finally, I want to find some way to work magic into social relations. Maybe through heavy use of adoption.

    Great topic, Tom!
     
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  6. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    Now that I'm home from my school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I can add some of my own stuff!

    I've recently been thinking about a culture that lives in villages made up of one massive extended family, each one ruled by a matriarch. When a girl comes of age, she sets out on a journey to discover who she is and to find a partner. When she finds a suitor in another village, the two villages compete to see who can give the most lavish marriage gifts. After the wedding the couple lives in the bride's village.

    One of the cultures in Southerner, the Yianlai, are matrilineal and matriarchal. Parents, children, and grandparents all live together as one family. Another culture, the Vazkyrohk, don't have a concept of marriage and frequently practice polyamory. Instead of children having the last name of one parent, their surname is made up of the last names of their parents hyphenated, with the last name of the parent whose clan the child belongs to placed first.
     
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  7. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    I have considered this already, but it's an excellent topic of discussion. I have been developing a race not unlike gnomes with different views about marriage and mating.

    Firstly, they are typically a matriarchal society, mostly due to the natural 2-1 female/male ratio. Beyond that they are a meritocracy, believing that is always someone who is best to fill a certain role.

    Secondly, there is no concept in their society for marriage at all. If a woman wants a baby, she chooses a male and with the blessing of a priestess they spend a week together and then go their separate ways. That offspring is raised by a collective of educators and priestesses. There is very little emotional attachment between mother/ father and children. Thus, the surnames they are given have more to do with their abilities/talents than with matrilineal/patrilineal lines.

    Lastly, sex is a deliberate exercise, they are very restrictive about "random encounters." They can only have spur-of-the-moment encounters during a week-long religious festival that honors the goddess of fertility. Masks are worn at all times so the various rungs of the social hierarchy can mingle freely.


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2016
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  8. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    That sounds a bit like my merfolk; they're also matriarchal and matrilineal, and have a female:male:hermaphrodite ratio of 6:3:1. They don't have surnames, exactly -- children are given names like Rain-on-Waves or Reflection-of-Stars, and their matronyms blend the names of the child and their mother (or carrier, in the case of a hermaphrodite giving birth) with the word "under" denoting lineage. Ex. Rain-on-Waves, daughter of Colors-of-Coral, is also known as Rain-under-Coral.
     
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  9. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    I have indeed subverted social structures from time to time, including in one of my current WIPs.

    However, for some reason, writing about different social structures has generally fallen more in the realm of Sci Fi than Fantasy.

    Although IIRC a certain successful self published writer who posts from time to time on this site has done this...
     
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  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    How about magi-lineal? Magusarchy? Clumsy word, ugh.

    In any case, people can have sex and families and all that, but property belongs to the wizards. They manage both its distribution and its inheritance. They also make the laws, collect the taxes, and raise armies. They're more powerful than anyone else, so naturally to them flows wealth and power.

    I have not adopted this, but it's intriguing.
     
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  11. johnsonjoshuak

    johnsonjoshuak Troubadour

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    I think a society like this would make an amazing basis for a gunpowder fantasy: the story of the commoners creating or importing gunpowder to overwhelm the tyrannical magocracy.
     
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  12. Somebody write this.

    *remembers that saying, "write the book you want to read"*

    I have my work cut out for me, do i? So many books I want to read...
     
  13. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

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    Firstly, I just have to quickly mention that Skip's gnomes sound awesome. I'd love to read about them.

    --

    Now, as for the topic at hand: I agree that there's a lot to play around with, and frankly, I'm guilty of sidelining it quite a bit. But I suppose it comes back to the whole new/familiar dynamic. I.e. leave some things familiar, rather than changing every single thing that is possible to be changed.

    But, at the same time, the moment you add a new element to a story, you need to look at how your social dynamics will change.

    E.g. the magiarchy as mentioned above. When you have magic, and wizards with ridiculous power, it would be quite a natural shift to something like this, where they gain social power by way of their ability to set everyone on fire. In the same way, if you have a magic that only awakens in every 5th child born, you'll see a lot more families with children in multiples of 5.
     
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  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Ooh, like, La Volpe! Not every fifth child but every seventh. Seventh child of a seventh child would be super awesome. And lots of really unwanted sixth children. Or eighth!
     
  15. sandtrout

    sandtrout Dreamer

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    Pratchet had this in one of his books, the eight son of the eight son would be a creativ magus, kind of a very powerful wizzard.
     
  16. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Every eighth son of an eighth son is a normal wizard. If a wizard has eight sons, however, that kid is "a wizard squared... a source of magic... a Sourcerer."
     
  17. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    Gotta love Terry P. I like how he tweaked it a bit--in folklore it's usually the seventh son of a seventh son who's talented in some way.

    It just occurred to me that in fantasy I've never really seen a society where children are raised by their grandparents. I'm using the idea for one of the cultures in Southerner, and I think it fits a culture that venerates elders particularly well. In the culture I'm writing, the elders of the village raise the children while their parents are working. This culture worships ancestor spirits, so elders are considered wiser than younger people because they are closer to death and thus, the spirit world. They are responsible for passing on the knowledge of their religion and history to the children of their community.
     
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  18. Alyssa

    Alyssa Troubadour

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    Normally magicians are the most powerful individuals but in my project they're slaves, it involves a covert magical ruling class who have subjugated all other mages and forbidden the magical language. As my magic system is language based it means that this ruling class has a monopoly on personally useful magic. However, no one knows that the ruling class are magicians (rather than just "commoners" using magically powered weapons)...
    However, simply killing people with the ability to become magicians is so wasteful. So, the ruling class made these magicians into slaves, taught only how to channel power for storage into crystals for later use. These essentially free sources of power were then used to power a magical industrial revolution, meaning larger cities, less agrarian lifestyles, easy healing, quick transport etc. and a social structure built upon that of a magician slave class.
    Seeing as I like darker themes, the slave class manages to escape from their centralized magical powerplant (it's not actually called that) - it's not necessary for them to learn magic as all the machines grind to a halt and you have pure anarchy due to the lack of a power source. And due to the easy availability of free magical power there is no steam powered transportation or gunpowder and other non-magical progress has been retarded. Because of this chaos, the slaves are able to escape the continent and learn useful magic, whereupon you get two factions - one who wish to reassert the old order of magical supremacy, and the other faction who feel guilty for the death and chaos as a result of the withdrawal of magical power (think all the oil in the world dissappears overnight, all the nuclear fuel too, solar panels, wind farms etc).
     
  19. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

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    Naturally, the elites are going to be the top dogs of your society.

    However, who the elites are depends on what that society values. If they value knowledge, then scholars will rule, or warriors if they value the strength and tactical knowledge.

    If your society is religious, then the elites would likely be priests.

    It can be fun to combine those classes. You could have society run by warrior priests, scholar priests, warriors who value the pursuit of knowledge and education, etc.

    The elites could also be the possessors of a scarce resource that the common people highly value.
     
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