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In this guide I'll be going through many of the aspects you may want to consider when creating a fictional society. Whether you're creating a utopia or dystopia, a primitive or advanced society or something different entirely, all societies share some aspects.
Some societies will lack certain aspects, like art for example. But that says just as much about that society as when it would've participated in art forms. So if you feel like your society doesn't need something, think about why it doesn't need it.
To stick with the art example, maybe the people in your society are oppressed and all art is banned, or maybe they simply consider art to be a waste of time and resources.
In a way this guide isn't as much a guide as it is a 'consider this' kind of article. Every society is different and I'm sure you already have a pretty good idea of what you want for your story, but sometimes fictional societies can feel empty or not thought out enough when they lack certain aspects.
For example, a dystopian society ruled by an oppressive government with a huge difference between rich and poor is a great start to a society, but you'll need to flesh it out with what people do on a daily basis, what the history is and other important factors, most of which I'll cover in this guide.
Whether you have a savage society of brutal orcs, a dystopian society with hopeless humans or a proud and gentle society of elves, there has to be a reason as to how it came to be that way. The reason also has to be a good one.
Let's take the 3 examples a step further and give them a reason for being that way, as follows:
- Orcs: These orcs are savage in nature, difficult to reason with and even harder to lead. A savage society without any real structure is a logical outcome. There are no long term leaders as all orcs want to be in a position of leadership. They will gladly kill whoever is in charge to prove they're stronger and worthy of being a leader.
- Human dystopia: Corrupt corporate businesses grew richer and thus more powerful. Their wealth allows them to influence politicians and even gain such positions themselves. The gap between rich and poor continued to grow bigger and bigger, eventually leading to a clash. The rich were able to easily win due to their positions and influence in the government and thus had access to the military. This all lead to harsher laws imposed by these corrupt figures who now control the entire country.
- Elves: These elves believe their gods have created them as the first higher beings on this planet. They're more than mere animals and were here before humans, dwarves and any other species, which they take great pride in. The gods clearly favored them. This pride and belief resulted in an almost primal need to uphold the values and aspects of the gods, which lead to a gentle society dedicated to honoring the gods and making sure they're not disappointed.
These are just small examples, but they do show how having a reason behind a type of society adds a whole extra layer to a story. Making a society dystopian, utopian or anything else just because you need it to be for story purposes is far from ideal.
You're essentially setting up a historical background for your society and while you don't have to go into full details with exact dates, it's best to flesh out at least a portion of a backstory, it'll help make your society be more realistic and authentic.
Just like you need a reason for what kind of society you have, you also need a reason for the type of leader you have and how that person reached such a high position of power.
In the previous examples I covered this slightly in the case of the orcs. Whoever is in charge is the strongest and most intimidating at that time and will be the leader until a stronger or smarter orc challenges him.
There are plenty of ways a leader gets to be a leader. Perhaps it's due to lineage, like kings, maybe there was a voting, like in a democracy. Maybe there was a corrupt group of politicians who conspired and overthrew the old government for their own personal gain. They could be leading together or maybe they too voted for a 'leader', not a real one, just one who will be the public figure for the common people.
Note that you don't have to go into too much detail here. Just flesh it out a little. There's no need to figure out how the first king was chosen or how those corrupt politicians reached their political status. At least not unless that is an important part of the story.
Law enforcement is a huge part of most societies, it heavily reflects on what it's like to live in that society and it also shows what kind of leaders are in control and how violent the citizens might be. But it's important to note that without a little explanation your law enforcement system could be interpreted in different ways.
Law enforcement could be corrupt and have all the freedom to be that way. But are they corrupt because their leadership doesn't give them what they need to fight the high rate of crime or are they corrupt because there's nobody to stop them and they've essentially become the real leaders.
Are they free to do what they want because the leaders are too scared and powerless to stop them or do they simply not care?
There are quite a few things to consider when setting up a law enforcement system. What's their equipment like and how do they pay for it? How many members are on a pay roll and how many patrol the streets? Does the general public respect law enforcement? Is it clear law enforcement is protecting the streets or do they use hidden cameras and undercover agents? Is law enforcement funded by the government? Is there a separate group who can be hired to do the same job (like mercenaries)? How strict is the law? Can people take the law into their own hands?
There's a whole lot more, but how far and how detailed you're going to go will depend heavily on what your story needs. Some stories need none or just a slight mention, others need a whole lot of information and backstory.
Religion can play a huge role in society as well. Not only does it affect the way people live their lives, it can also affect the law and the rulers of a country.
Things get really interesting when not everybody follows that religion and thus might not agree with all aspects of it or when there are multiple religions, each of which have some influence on society.
Fortunately and unfortunately real life provides plenty of examples of how religion affects a society, both in positive and negative ways. If you want to make it more original or if you want more inspiration, try searching around throughout history.
I've created a separate guide on creating a religion with a lot of details right here.
Another large aspect of most societies are traditions. These can range from religious and spiritual holidays to simple family traditions, both of which have an impact on society and both of which help flesh out your story universe.
Traditions show what's important to the people living in your society, they might show their values and morals and they're a perfect way to make a society more unique.
There are a huge amount of possible traditions, ranging from holidays like new year's eve and important historical events, to ways of dressing like lawyer wigs and guard outfits, to communication like hand gestures and welcoming and greeting others, to family behavior like bedtime stories and birthdays, to relationship traditions like weddings.
There are thousands of traditions from all around the world you can take inspiration from, both from those existing today and those used throughout history. But remember that traditions don't always have to be a positive things. Human sacrifice, dueling to settle disagreements and foot binding are just a few examples of terrible traditions, but there's plenty more found throughout human history.
Culture's obviously a huge part of any society. We've already covered the religion and tradition aspects of culture, but there are a whole lot more you may or may not wish to consider.
Music, dance, art, architecture, food and cooking, language, literature, philosophy, science, education, morals and values, clothing, games, sports, drama and comedy, privacy and many more aspects can be used to enrich your fictional society and make it feel more authentic.
Obviously you don't have to cover every single aspect, at least not in most cases, but not covering any will make the world you've created seem hollow, boring and unnatural.
As I just mentioned, sports and recreation in general are part of culture and thus part of society. But in terms of creating a society, fleshing it out and having great aspects for a story, sports and recreation offer many opportunities.
Sports and games involve emotions, they could require some organization and they tend to involve money and thus businesses. They can be a simple, gentle competition among friends or a battle of life and death between prisoners.
In terms of story purposes, recreation can be used to reflect the state society is in. A calm society would have normal sport events, people enjoying each other's company and people walking their dogs at the park. They can also show how brutal a society is by using gladiator fights or how the government uses big events to keep the attention away from more important issues by turning simple events into huge ones.
Struggles tie into pretty much every aspect of society, whether it's the messages in art, the way holidays are celebrated or the way the law is enforced and who it's enforced upon.
Struggles can be something big, like racial struggles and other forms of inequality or the way war is fought, but they can also be something relatively small, like trying to make sure a stable economy continues to be that way or the way relationships with other societies are handled.
Struggles are part of virtually every society. Struggles cause change and change is usually always sought after by people. Even in a utopia there will be some forms of struggle. Of course, in a utopia the struggles will be small compared to those in a dystopia or a racist society, but there will be struggles nonetheless.
For example, in a utopia a new technological development may be invented and the question will be whether this new technology is indeed as beneficial as it seems and whether or not this technology should replace the current one. In the grand scheme of it all this issue is barely an issue at all, but it does show how every society, no matter how ideal it might seem, has some form of struggle.
Not as much an element on its own, but more something which you might wish to tie into others, is how aspects of your society were realized. For example, your society might have enormous and impressive buildings, but were those build upon the honest and hard work of the citizens or upon the lives of slaves?
Your society might be safe from enemies, but at what cost? Torture? Sacrifice? Or simply the incredible ingenuity and skills of its citizens?
Most of these elements will be tied into the history of society, which is mostly part of the first two steps where we figured out the reasons of why and how the society is the way it is and how the leaders came to be in power. However, some of these negative or positive elements might still be part of your society today.
There are more aspects to a society than the ones I covered here, but I decided to only cover the major parts. These aspects are often the most important ones in a story, but if your story is a little more specific you might wish to cover those aspects as well. Aspects like education, work and work ethics, crime types, money and how (un)important it might be, sleep and similar activities, drugs and alcohol, medicine and a whole lot more.
Most of these 'minor' aspects are tied in with the aspects I've covered anyway. For example, when you're setting up a law enforcement structure you'll likely also cover what types of crimes are committed, how they're seen in terms of severity and how they're handled.
Creating a society can be a daunting task, but just remember to take it slow and do one part at a time. You'll notice it's not only easier to do it that way, it's also easier to make everything a part of a whole, rather than having interesting aspects which don't really match each other.