This is, again, less of a rant than an essay, with some ideas in it. As usual, the ideas are ones I think are good, and thus may or may not have the stamp of approval of your local guild.
This one is also a bit of an experiment in form, in that as I go through I’ll be poking at a possible protagonist/society of my own, and relating him/them to each of my points.
Tradition-driven and collectivist societies get a bit of a bad rap in fantasy—yeah, that’s putting it mildly. Usually, the protagonists are people who escape from such a restrictive society, whether it’s to traverse the wilderness or simply in the process of becoming who they are. Those they leave behind are usually presented as bored out of their skulls, as strangled into narrowness of soul and mind by their customs and laws, or as blithering idiots who can’t see how wonderful individualism is and get extremely upset when the protagonist commits any impropriety (which improprieties, of course, never have any reason to exist in the first place, because the entire society’s code of conduct is a pile of rubbish devoted to oppression of people like the protagonist).
So be aware: If you like that kind of story, you won’t like this essay.
1) Decide the basis of the society’s collectivity.
That is, what makes them consider the welfare of their society as more important than the welfare of the individual? Just a very few organizational patterns, by no means exhaustive:
- Centralized government/empire.
The typical model of a monarchy as embodied in most fantasy novels won’t work, because there the nobles usually are individuals out for their own power and glory and wealth, and it’s expected that their political world is cutthroat and dog-eat-dog. They have no allegiance to anything larger than their own gain. Occasionally I have read a book with a gesture in the direction of competing families, rather than competing individuals, but the nobles who actually act like that are pretty damn rare. Again, usually, you get betrayals within the family, siblings struggling against each other for the inheritance, a parent unfairly favoring one child over another, and a protagonist who hates her family and longs to get away. Most telling of all, those responsible for the safety of the family won’t hesitate to sacrifice a relative, especially to an arranged marriage, if it helps with their own power and gain. Any attempt to frame it as benefiting the family is presented thinly and unconvincingly, usually because, I think, the author herself does not believe in the family head’s justifications. (See point 2, which might be the most important thing in the whole damn rant).
In picking the basis for your society’s collectivity and what kind you want to work with, you might want to ask yourself:
- How big is this story? If it’s limited and local, you might want to concentrate on a city-state. If you want large, you could go for an empire where loyalty to the empire is encouraged over individual competition.
- What themes do you want to use? Obviously, commentaries on blood kinship will be easier to do if you’re working with a society where family is considered of the utmost importance than a society where everyone is expected to put the gods first and foremost.
- Why do you want a collective society in the first place? I suspect the only answer that would not work here is “so my protagonist can show how superior she is to it.”
Let’s say I want a limited, local story; one that plays with themes of blood kinship—and also forgiveness, reconciliation, untwisting old knots, healing old wounds; and I want a collective society because I’m fascinated with watching how people who have drifted to its edge, or who might, are gathered back into the fold. I’m choosing a world without a central government of any kind, without, in fact, the idea of nationalism, where extended families live together and interact with other extended families.
2) Be prepared to write believers.
Few fantasy protagonists are believers of the kind I mean here. Many are skeptical. Many overturn and question traditions. Many are prepared to shuck off anything old and embrace anything new (although, mysteriously, there’s another current that insists a new government in the form of, say, a usurper is not good, that we must turn back the clock to the ancient kings and queens). Many trust to their own opinions above the opinions of others, to the point of doing something suicidally stupid merely because someone else tells them not to. Many inaugurate reforms based on their new beliefs, such as abolishing slavery or making treaties with nonhuman races who were ignored before. If they do start out believing something that the general society around them believes, whether it’s a stereotype or simply a value, the author usually arranges to overturn this as soon as possible.
And, of course, this means a lot of baggage and automatic assumptions to shed if you’re moving from that kind of story to one focused on someone who does stay within the collective society and accept its beliefs and traditions. I think the deepest is to shed the idea that someone who accepts those beliefs and traditions is inherently less worthy than someone who does not. That’s not true. It can be made to be true, in many a fantasy context, but then, in those contexts, there are usually entire societies who turn out to be wrong, while the protagonist is right. (We will not go into how likely that is). This is one where the society, while doubtless full of mistaken, fallible people, does deserve to exist and have its traditions and customs considered seriously.
So, don’t undercut those traditions and customs via your characterization. I mentioned this in the rant on convincing religious characters, too: so many of them fail to convince me because I know the author doesn’t believe what her characters do, and it leaks through, oh believe me it does. So. No authorial rolling of the eyes and coughing up a sleeve when someone talks about eight ordeals being necessary to prove a true leader, or when someone in power—rather than a mysterious group hiding on the edge of civilization and existing off “ancient wisdom,” which can sometimes get away with it—says that she can’t go to war because her goddess doesn’t want her to.
Obviously, what kind of believers you write will depend on the context you choose. To return to my experimental family-filled society, I’m choosing to write about a situation in which a tapestry of bones grows via each generation to announce the next leader. Say, the fourth bone that grows from the current leader’s bone announces that her fourth child will be the next leader. (I would make it more complicated than this, but I’ll accept it as a beginning idea). There are of course beliefs in place about what to do in the case of miscarriages, stillborn children, children dying in infancy, etc. I bet you, though, with children being prized in this world, that they’ve developed good enough childbirth and childcare techniques not to just automatically lose half their children, especially if they’re settled and not hunter-gatherers, which they are. Each leader, however, is not proven worthy simply by being born. After they reach the age of eight, they need to undergo eight ordeals, one for each year they’ve lived so far, and survive them all. If they fall short, then the tapestry’s choice moves on to a new leader. It’s important that all eight get survived, because, of course, if this leader’s word is law, then the family is placing something incredibly important in his or her hands: their survival, their obedience, their wisdom. This person had better be damn good, and damn committed to insuring their survival and bettering their lives, or at least keeping them steady. (I think this would tend to weed out mavericks from positions of power in my little experimental society right away, though see point 6).
3) Communion, context, belonging.
If someone truly is a happy member of this non-evil collective society, then this becomes important. That means that alienation and loneliness should be painful things, not badges of honor. Belonging and the roles people play are important, not masks to be tossed aside at a moment’s notice and let the “real” self shine through. Those roles will indeed be part of their real selves. Exile will be a harsh punishment, perhaps worse than death. Social control mechanisms, whether they be gossip or something else, will be designed to work, not just slide off like water off a duck’s back. (This has, in part, to do with the sense of limitation. See point 4).
For my money, a book that does this really well is an older fantasy, Joy Chant’s The Grey Mane of Morning. Her main characters are of the Tribe of the Alnei, nomadic herders and hunters who travel across a plains setting, and occasionally come into contact with a settled people called the Kalnat, who demand tribute from them. Since the Alnei believe the Kalnat are their designated masters, they give it without protest. Then the Kalnat take the tribe’s priestess—and sister of the main character—as tribute, which is forbidden. Mor’anh, the main character, gets very angry, but most people in his tribe can’t understand why, until they see some Kalnat close at hand and realize how human they are. Mor’anh eventually winds up leaving his tribe, on his god’s instruction, and traveling a great distance to find allies who can give his people metal weapons to fight the Kalnat. His loneliness and sense of isolation on that journey is very well-portrayed, and his devotion to his tribe and his god always comes first, even before his own wife and son. Even though it portrays a great change, it does it by showing the change happening to the whole society, not just one person, even though one person is largely the instrument of it. (As a side bonus, there’s an individualist in the story, Runi, who’s very unhappy with everything about her tribe, including their gender roles. However, it’s shown that she’s not 100% correct, especially since a large part of her unhappiness manifests in wrecking other people’s lives).
What is the price of not belonging in this little familial society I’m making up? Well, of course, it varies based on who you are. One of the ordeals each family leader has to undergo is being kidnapped by a different family and held hostage for six new moons—but not longer than that. If the kidnapping family manages to keep the potential leader captive for longer than that or persuades her to stay, then that leader is considered as actually belonging to that other family. Stay away long enough, then, and one loses one’s identity, the tie to the family. Acting and living in common, in concert, is very important. Something different will happen to others, say the “core” around the leader, her siblings and cousins, who are supposed to protect the leader and teach her and help her survive her ordeals and, eventually, become her council of advisors, assisting in the transition between one generation and the next. In the context of this ordeal, they’ll try to rescue her from the kidnappers, but if they fail and are judged to have failed because of lack of dedication or conspiracy with the kidnapping family, they’ll be considered no longer part of the core and set down to a lower position where they can do more good and less harm.
4) Get used to a sense of limitation.
Someone who does value his society/group/family/tribe will need to accept some limitations on his desires and actions. This seems like a stupid and obvious thing to type even as I type it, really, but, well, there it is.
Just to take a few obvious examples:
- Showing disrespect to someone powerful in public—which, again, will vary depending on the society, and might be a priest, or a parent, or a chief, or a lord—should be carefully considered, not the seemingly automatic response it is for so many heroes. Not only does the protagonist have to think about how it will affect his own position, but also about how it will affect the group’s perception of that person. Really, is it the best idea to have a leader appear weak on the eve of a war, just so the protagonist can utter a witticism?
- Considering cooperation and communication with others should come more naturally than it would to someone used to living alone and handling everything on his own. And those people should get some damn consideration for their own lives and goals, too. (I’ve ranted before about characters who have “no friends or acquaintances” and a really snotty attitude and yet somehow produce helpers from every corner of the woodwork when they’re in trouble, so I won’t go into that again).
- There will most likely be things other than the endless growth of his own magical and political power that matter to the protagonist. This is especially true if you have a society concerned with its impact on animals, plants, the land, other people of the same species, or other intelligent species. Striking for the heights and damn everyone along the way is not going to be the single goal worthy of the name.
Imaginary society time again! If I have someone named Jyeran who’s part of the “core” around the leader, who’s his slightly older cousin, and thus destined to be her protector and part of the leading council in the next generation, I sincerely doubt that his first thought when he wakes up in the morning will be, “Now how do I kill my cousin and take her place?” Or, “I really, really hate [insert name here, another member of the core] and want to kill him and take his place.” There are ways he could bring himself to ask this question, but I think more natural paths to pursue would include: whether his cousin actually needs to die at his hand, whether there isn’t any way to address his concerns through legal and usual channels, why the other member of the core needs to die instead of being moved to a lower position in the family, what “place” he’s going to take anyway if they’re all considered as equals, how personal animosity got to this level at all without being noticed and addressed so that the family can work more smoothly together, and what trying to kill either of them would do to the family, as well as to his own power and position.
This doesn’t mean people reared in this kind of society are never going to be selfish, pushy, arguing for their own motives under the guise of what protects and advances the group, irritated with each other for stupid reasons, or chafing under restrictions they think are unfair. I do think it means that most of them won’t automatically decide that they’re right and that chucking out all the limitations and traditions of their society is the right answer.
5) Decide what the larger, interacting picture of this society looks like.
Once again, the rapacious court model isn’t going to work here. Of course, it works in its own world, because outside the court everyone is dog-eat-dog, too. Nobles beat up on peasants, parents beat up their children, children kick the dogs until they howl, and teenagers who hate their families and think they are unfair dream of nothing more than running away and proving that they are really grand and special mages/monarchs/saviors of the world after all.
But in a world where the majority of the society is group-oriented, tradition-oriented, collective, thinking of the group before the individual—use whatever term you want to—then the larger world picture should look different. Once again, no one says it has to be happy and cuddly, or that it will be a world of delicate courtesy, either. But interactions between people, and especially between social institutions, should be something other than just an undignified struggle to see who emerges on top, because being on top won’t be the only thing that matters.
If your society is theocratic and everyone involved is working with a sense of destiny for the greater glory of the Laughing Lady, who decrees that people aren’t supposed to kill each other unless there’s no other choice, I doubt there will be a bunch of church assassins running around assassinating members of churches with different interpretations of the Laughing Lady’s doctrine. Oh, yes, you can say that one church just pays lip-service to the ideal and really sends its assassins out all the time, but, once again, that’s saying that a collective group is evil and corrupt at its very base, and here comes the shining hero to overturn it and free everyone and teach them the virtues of standing up for oneself and little green tomatoes, spare me. Besides, if one church did start hiring assassins and sending them out to kill members of, oh, fifty other churches, I find it hard as hell to believe that those other churches would not unite against their common enemy and come down on them like an avalanche. It wouldn’t be left up to the plucky lone hero to do.
In Family Society, which needs a better name, the families interact within the patterns of ordeals, if nowhere else. They need other families to kidnap and hold their potential leaders hostage, and to participate fully in the ritual, both not making their escapes easy and giving in gracefully if their hostages do manage it. The morning that Jyeran sneaked into the neighboring family’s stronghold disguised as a herder and ended up galloping away on a horse with his cousin would not have been a morning that the incensed neighbor family marked down his name, and then came after him later en masse, beat him, and left him for dead. That would be stupid, considering that this ordeal is a sacred tradition in this society and any family that violates it by beating up a successful helper has their bone tapestry stop growing.
6) So you’ve got your mavericks and your loners. Where do they go?
There will always be misfits, even in a society that tries its best to accommodate them. I tend to think that most misfits in a collective society not being portrayed as EVIL EVIL EVIL will try a little harder to fit in than loner heroes usually do, but they might not succeed.
I find it impossible to swallow that running away is their only choice, though. For one thing, the lack of belonging might not be their fault. Or they might not fit the position they were originally meant for, but really, if they could do something else, is that a problem? And if they’re the kind of misfit who really is out for their gain and intends to rise to the top, then why not harness that drive and energy and let them rise? It benefits the group that way, it doesn’t have insiders waste time fighting each other, and it melts sulkiness and rebellious tendencies.
There’s also the case of the person who might drift to the edges of the society and then want back in. Perhaps there are paths designed to allow that to happen. If they broke a certain rule, perhaps a period of service to others, or a movement to a lower position, or undergoing a whipping, will be enough to get them cautiously back into everyone’s good graces. If they’re considered vicious and violent troublemakers who strike out for no reason, perhaps they’d have to prove they can behave themselves, even under strain. If they’ve been exiled, perhaps they have to show that they want to benefit their group now, rather than just use it for their own gain. This way, you get to write about forgiveness and reconciliation and justice, not just revenge, all of which I think are fuller and fitter themes.
Returning to Imaginary Family Society again: Jyeran has an uncle who simply couldn’t control his temper, and struck out once too often, to the point he got exiled from his core and pushed to the very outer edges of the society. In an effort to show that he can behave, he offers his home as a sheltering place for their new potential leader, Jyeran’s cousin, and some members of the core during one of the leader’s ordeals. When they arrive, the uncle gets into a quarrel with Jyeran, who does his best to forget it, since, after all, the uncle istrying to reconcile with everybody. But he’s going to be watching him like a hawk after that, to make sure he causes no more trouble, and the uncle, fearful and suspicious and upset that his efforts at coming home are being undercut by this hawk-watching, might get irritated and have another quarrel. Now I’ve got a collision course, and the seeds of a possible plot.
It was surprising, really, how many plot ideas I had to reject as I went through that because they would have required a protagonist who believed in his own good above everyone else’s, or wanted to oppose his society Just Because. Almost every time I wrote an example, I thought, “But!” Interesting. I, at least, would have a lot of assumptions to consider and rip up before I could write about a society like this successfully.