Limyaael's Rants

Change in Societies

Written on 2004-04-14; Read the original post on LiveJournal

I did one post about changing a story from the outside in, but changing a story from the inside out- changing a fantasy world's society in reasonable ways- is good, too.

  1. Show magic or technology changing in your fantasy world, or provide some reason why it wouldn't. The only concession usually made to this is the existence of some Grand Magical Empire in the far past, which collapsed and left everyone scrabbling among the artifacts. I've ranted before about why I don't think this is a good idea (in particular, that people seem to have been incredibly intelligent before the Empire's collapse and incredibly dumb after it, to never have figured out how these artifacts work). Why not show magic changing in the present, too? If it really does have a system of laws and rules the way that a lot of fantasy magic systems do, then perhaps the things people can do with it alter as they study it more and learn more about it. If it's not like science and can never be changed or fully understood, at least an explanation for that should be implanted in the story.

    The static nature of technology doesn't make much sense, either, even in the pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds. Technological innovations did happen incredibly slowly in Earth's medieval period, but they did happen. And most medieval-like fantasy worlds lack several of the factors that made change so slow: heavy ignorance among most of the population, isolated villages and nations, a powerful church, and short, hard lives that didn't allow people to do much. If there are bright, long-lived mages running around, most of the population can read (or so it would seem from those peasant heroes who are never, ever illiterate), the countries are open to each other in a fashion more appropriate to the Renaissance, and there is no central power structure that opposes the spread of a scientific worldview, where is the science? Again, there could be reasons, but I wish authors would introduce them into the body of the story. Don't base a society on Earth's medieval period without having thoroughly studied medieval history and considered what the absence of, say, a unified Church will do to your world.

    Changing magic and technology doesn't have to be the focus of your book (though I would find it fascinating to see more scientist heroes; mage heroes are a dime a dozen). It can just be mentioned, casually, that a hundred years ago mages didn't have the ability to create lighted little balls that float around a room. Or perhaps they did know the trick of making precise clocks once, and lost it.

    This is yet another reason to sing Steven Brust's praises. He uses his Vlad Taltos series to illustrate a world where teleportation and psychic communication are very common, meaning that it's possible to have a truly cosmopolitan and global Empire and not have it collapse under the weight of the reader's disbelief. Magic is employed because it's cheap, easy, and, in essence, its world's science. I wish more fantasy authors who take the trouble of coming up with a science-like magic system would make that magic its world's technology and get past the "Wow, this hero's a mage, and so special!" syndrome.

  2. Why do monarchies remain stable so long? Again, there are possible reasons- including, in a fantasy world, that the monarchs could be more powerful magically than anyone else, or tied to the land in some obscure fashion- but they're not offered. It seems as if everyone in Fantasyland agrees that a monarchy is a great idea, and that any change (including a change to a different monarch) is Bad, Bad, Bad. Never mind that some of the evil usurpers seem to do a better job than a one-month-old infant would do. Still there must be not only a King or Queen, but the right King or Queen, and screw changing the system in any way.

    I find the idea bewildering, and all the more so when I encounter it in science fiction. Why not experiment with societies? Why assume that people in a world where magic exists and where conditions generally seem less harsh than in any comparable period on Earth (part of the product of a modern author's upbringing) would go running to monarchy for comfort? Where are the democracies, the nation-states, the republics, the socialist societies? Hell, for that matter, where are the oligarchies or the constitutional monarchies?

    I think it's entirely possible that fantasy societies could change and evolve, barring some artificial barrier like the monarchs being too powerful to challenge- in which case I want to know how the evil usurper could take the throne anyway- and that this would not make your readers run away whimpering in terror. If some great change occurs, why not let it affect the governmental system as well as other parts of the society? Why not introduce a Marx-figure into your world and see what happens? I would dearly love to see that happen, especially if the monarch was corrupt and there was no real reason to keep her on the throne.

    Which reminds me.

  3. Dynastic families seem to be copies of each other too regularly- in particular, parents get reflected in their children. This happens especially when the author has written one series or book about the parents, and goes on to write the second about the original characters' children. I've rarely seen this transition handled well (looking at you, David Eddings, oh yes). Names get repeated, with children being named after people who died in the first book. Personalities seem to be carbon copies of one parent's or a combination of the parents', as if personality were entirely genetically encoded. That could be possible, I suppose, but I'd like some mention of it happening that way among all humans, not just this one particular subset. The children also tend to go through all the parents' trials, or copies of them.

    It's all right to leave one set of beloved characters behind. Really. It's all right to change a family, even when they're the center of some world-spanning story. Show their fortunes rising and falling. Show characters that are not named after some distant heroic ancestor or a dead friend, and show them living their own lives. Perhaps the perfect wonderful family has a few black sheep; the larger the family, the more likely it should be.

  4. I would find dynastic fantasies a lot more interesting if it seemed that the families changed in response to changing conditions in the fantasy world, instead of remaining miraculous retreads of each other.

  5. Let interesting and dramatic historical events other than wars and quests happen in your world. Looking over a fantasy world's timeline can make my eyes glaze over. Where are the great discoveries, the treaties, the political and religious schisms, the plagues and famines, the social movements? Nowhere, it seems, unless the author feels the need to add a plague from the Dark Lord or a famine that comes about because the right King isn't ruling the land.

    This is yet another reason to make changes happen in society; it gives you something new to write about. If the only events of any note or importance happen when the good and noble Queen wins a war against the Dark Lord or when someone finds the mystical Sword of Gorgoros, why? Is there a magical or theological reason? (That would make me sit up and take notice, but alas, it's all too rare). Why do no other people not involved in wars or quests ever change the world? Why do the wars and quests themselves seem so isolated, for that matter? They seem to happen and then lapse back into nothingness, barely rippling the pond. And this goes back to yet another favorite pet peeve of mine: the perfect happy ending doesn't leave me with a sense of closure, but of cheating. I want to see how the Queen deals with the people who don't immediately accept her, her Kingdom devastated in war, and any disaffected agents of the Dark Lord.

    Oh, right. I forgot. Everyone who is good accepts and cheers for her, and those who don't are killed. The devastation to the Kingdom only happened to peasants, who aren't important. The disaffected agents of the Dark Lord are either dead, for refusing to bow down to the Queen, or just melt away and go home. They couldn't possibly, for example, take up banditry on the roads in the wilder parts of the Kingdom, or form guerrilla groups who intrigue and harass against the Queen. Her coming to the throne restores everything to perfect order.


  6. Keep an eye on how groups might work against each other. I'm often disappointed by the ease with which fantasy heroes persuade certain groups to join them. This is a central feature of fantasy quests, this bringing together of disparate groups (a theme inherited from Tolkien). But there's no truly serious conflict in the end, no matter how serious the author tells me the conflict will be. The heroine sympathizes with the death of the leader's son, or speaks a few "witty comebacks"- in your dreams, author- or gives some wise sermon, and suddenly they're all on her side.

    And none of these groups ever, ever act against each other, even if they have long-standing histories and hatreds of their own, or totally opposite goals.

    What the hell is the point of developing a complicated fantasy world, with different nations and different cultures, if you don't use it? If Group A is a group of elves living in their forest and very protective of it, and Group B is a group of human woodcutters who live near the forest, would they really demand complementary prices for their aid? It sounds as though they would be conflicting, rather.

    Most fantasy authors solve this by making the heroine forge "bonds of friendship" between them- whatever- or including some very simple and obvious solution that somehow nobody has ever thought of before until the heroine announces it. (See the part above about people apparently becoming dumber as history rolls on). There's no hint of future conflict, either, of the woodcutters coming to the heroine and demanding that she let them expand their territory at some point, say perhaps when their population has grown.

    Connect groups in your world. They can't live next to each other, except behind very forbidding geographical barriers like mountain ranges, and not influence each other. They might not like each other. Why? If they do like each other, why? If they both agree to aid the heroine, why? A lot of very realistic tension and political infighting could go on between people who aren't evil, just suspicious of each other, and get the fantasy world out of the Light/Dark divide.

There should be more change. *kicks frozen fantasy worlds*

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