Quotes: Being Awesome While Female

Sam Hawke guest posted at Fantasy Book Cafe about tomboy protagonists for the blog’s annual Women in SF&F feature in 2019:

“There is a particular kind of character in SFF. You know her. She’s smart and tough, determined, decisive, and she can kick the collective arses of any takers. She comes in a few varieties—in better stories she’s an Alanna of Trebond or a Brienne of Tarth, with depth and history and more than one dimension; in weaker ones she’s an empty Strong Female Character™ who has no real contribution to the plot other than Being Awesome While Female—but either way it’s her prowess at fighting, particularly against men, that sets her apart. […]

“Instead, I wrote a woman, Kalina, with a chronic illness who couldn’t fight to save her life. Literally. I wrote a book in which the main characters’ problems couldn’t be solved by the strategic and entertaining use of violence even if they had the skills to deploy, and I did it purposefully. I did it in part in response to my own sewing test.

“Let me explain.

“The sewing test is failed when a book deploys a lazy code to tell me how much better, more interesting, more deserving, the female character is than those silly other women by making a point of having her hate sewing or embroidery or [insert other feminine-coded activity or trait of your choice—but you wouldn’t believe how often it’s sewing]. These days, if a book does this, I’m out. It’s not just lazy, it’s not just a cliché, it’s a statement by the author that I’m expected to cheer on one woman by disparaging the rest of them. […]

“Basically, there’s a nasty underbelly to over-reliance on this very limited model of ‘strength’, and it’s rooted in the same insidious patriarchal BS that gave us the old style women-as-objects-to-be-rescued stories: here are traits which are traditionally coded as masculine, which you have been taught are more valuable than traits which are coded as feminine. See how you should cheer on this woman because she’s different and better than those other women, who are weak and shallow and worthless. Reward her for those traits, and punish those who lack them.”

author Sam Hawke at Fantasy Book Cafe blog, 2019
Hawke City of Lies

Hawke is perfectly right, if you ask me. As awesome as ass-kicking women are, other ways of being awesome exist and should be recognized more widely. Because the variety of life skills to be excelled in is much, much wider than merely physical prowess, fighting skill, or attitude.

Moreover, as we all know, there are situations where the application of know-how or just the right tool will create such a better outcome than anything else that at best it’s not even fair to compare them. Why should genre literature forget these skills when women stand in the protagonists’ shoes?

I’m going to be adopting the phrase “being awesome while female” for all kinds of amazing things that women do. It’s just that awesome. 🙂

P.S. I just read City of Lies, Hawke’s book with the female protagonist who has a chronic illness. I thoroughly enjoyed her strategic and entertaining use of her brain—and ditto for the male protagonists, Kalina’s brother and his best friend.

Image by Eppu Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Writing Prophecies

Prophecies are a staple of fantasy fiction, and for good reason: they are a convenient way of providing the heroes with information to get the plot moving while also imparting an aura of ominous mystique. How do you write a good prophecy for your story or game? Let’s start by looking at how prophecies worked in historical cultures.

Nearly every people in history has believed in some way of communicating with supernatural forces in order to gain special knowledge or insight, but the methods, purposes, and results of that communication could vary widely from culture to culture. By “prophecy” we usually mean something more particular: statements about specific future events which impart the necessary knowledge for the recipient to avert, influence, or at least cope with the effects of those events. Numerous cultures in history believed in some way of gaining these kinds of insights.

The problem that historical oracles faced, of course, was that predicting the future doesn’t actually work. The priestesses at Delphi or the authors of the Sibylline Books at Rome had no special insight into the future any more the authors of modern horoscopes and fortune cookies do. Nevertheless, many people believed in the power prophecy. The Histories by Herodotus, a work which makes frequent references to oracles, gives a useful view of the ways in which people coped with the unreliability of prophecy.

Reasonable guesswork. Prophets may not have special knowledge of the future, but they can make reasonable guesses about what is likely to happen, the same as anyone else. When the small Greek city of Miletus led a rebellion against the powerful Persian Empire, it didn’t take much special foreknowledge to predict that things were going to go badly for Miletus. The Delphic oracle produced this prophecy: “Miletus, you who scheme at evil deeds, will be a feast and splendid gifts for many. Your wives will wash the feet of long-haired men. Strangers will tend my shrine at Didyma.” (Herodotus, Histories 6.19, my own translations) This prophecy turned out to be true, but plenty of other Greeks claiming no connection to the gods also knew that things were going to go badly for Miletus, and so refused to join the revolt.

Vagueness. The standard dodge for prophets from Delphi to Nostradamus is to give an answer vague and cryptic enough that it will seem to suit whatever actually happens. The most famous example is perhaps the Delphic oracle’s response to the Lydian king Croesus, who asked whether he should invade Persia. The oracle replied that by doing so, Croesus would destroy a great empire, neglecting to mention which empire would be destroyed. As it happened, Croesus’ attack on Persia led to the Persian conquest of Lydia, but if things had gone the other way, the oracle would still have been right. (Herodotus 1.53)

Unspecificity. Some prophecies, like the one given to Croesus about his war with Persia, gave vague information about a specific event; others gave detailed information without specifying what event it related to. For example, a little-known Athenian seer named Lysistratus predicted that “The women of Colias will cook with oars,” which came true when wreckage from the naval battle of Salamis washed up on Cape Colias and was used as firewood by the locals. (Herodotus 8.96) This prophecy is unambiguous about what will happen, but says nothing about when or why. Colias was downstream of an important harbor and shipping channel; it was not hard to predict that wreckage from some significant event would wash up there and be salvaged sooner or later.

Selection bias. People tend to remember things that confirm their beliefs and forget things that don’t. People who believed in the power of oracles accordingly tended to remember prophecies that turned out to be true or could be interpreted to be true. Almost all the historical prophecies we have recorded were written down only after they had apparently come true. A number of recorded prophecies from the Delphic oracle begin with the word “But,” suggesting that some preceding part of the oracle has been left out, possibly because it turned out to be wrong or not relevant, such as in another Delphic reply to Croesus: “But when a mule becomes the king of the Medes, then flee, soft-footed Lydian, by the pebbly Hermus, and do not be ashamed to be a coward.” (Herodotus 1.55) This part of the prophecy was interpreted after the fact to refer to the Persian king Cyrus, whose ancestry was both Persian and Median, analogous to a mule, which is the progeny of a horse and a donkey.

Intrigue. Sometimes prophecies were manipulated in order to achieve the results some party wanted. It was an open secret that the priests at Delphi could be bribed to give particular answers. Other oracles and seers were no doubt similarly open to influence. The Alcmaeonid family of Athens were known to have bribed the Delphic priests to encourage the Spartans to help them against their rivals in Athens. (Herodotus 5.63) Another kind of manipulation is exemplified by Onomacritus, a collector of oracles who tried to encourage the Persian king Xerxes to invade Greece by sharing only those prophecies in his collection that seemed positive for him and hiding any that seemed negative. (Herodotus 7.6)

Now, as an author with full control over the world of your imagination, you don’t have to resort to any of these dodges. If you want your ancient prophecies to come true, then they will. The problem with prophecies in fiction, though, is they risk undermining the agency of the main characters. If prophecies predict the threat or its resolution too reliably or in too much detail, opportunities for drama are lost. If your work is for a game or some other setting where other people will have input to the plot, you can bet your dice that as soon as you hand them a prophecy they will try to exploit, invalidate, or weasel out of it in some way.

Uncertainty is a source of drama. When your audience already knows how everything is going to end, it’s harder to keep them interested in the story. Prophecies risk diminishing drama by introducing too much certainty. How do you keep the uncertainty in a story when there’s a prophecy involved? The techniques mentioned above are a good place to start because they serve the same function for a different reason: historical prophets had to keep uncertainty in their predictions because they didn’t actually know what was going to happen. You can use the same ideas in order to avoid tipping your hand too much to your audience or players.

Reasonable guesswork. If an in-story prophecy confirms something your heroes already suspect or adds useful detail to a picture that was already becoming clear, it can add impulse to the plot without dominating it. Conversely, a prophecy that doesn’t provide answers but spurs your heroes to ask important questions can be a good way to get things moving.

Vagueness and unspecificity. Both these techniques are good ways of keeping a prophecy from overwhelming the agency of your characters. If the prophecy refers to a specific event but doesn’t give clear details about it, or gives a clear prediction without specifying when, why, or how it will come about, there’s more room for your characters to work around it.

Selection bias. Lean in to the fact that prophecies can be wrong. If your characters (or their players) are aware that prophecies are unreliable or only seem true after the fact, their doubts about the truth or usefulness of the prophecy they’ve received can be a good source of drama.

Intrigue. There’s even more drama to be mined out of the fact that a prophecy might have been tampered with or invented, or that an authentic prophecy might have been delivered to your characters in such a way as to influence their understanding of it. Such puzzles open up interesting possibilities for side plots and interactions with antagonists.

As an author, the future is in your hands, a power that historical prophets never had. Still, you can learn from their examples how to make your prophecies sufficiently portentous without overwhelming your characters and plot.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

History for Writers: 2021 Compendium

History for Writers explores history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s what we’ve been talking about in 2021:

Worldbuilding exercises

Organizing society

Thinking about history and justice

The details that make a different world

Join us in 2021 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Fantasy Religions: Divinity and the World

It’s been a while since I last wrote about ways of making religious elements of a secondary world feel more authentic, but here’s another thought worth considering when you’re writing: how people feel about the gods tends to reflect how they feel about the world.

Traditional religions tend to see the world differently and posit that divinity exists within the world, that the physical world around us and the social world we inhabit as humans is also inhabited by sacred forces. Interacting with the world means necessarily interacting with divine entities. Some modern religions preserve this view of the divine, notably Hinduism and Shinto. In traditions like these, divine forces are located within the world, whether they are gods associated with natural features such as mountaintops or rivers, or divinities connected to human relationships, such as blessed ancestors or household spirits.

For many of the major modern religions, by contrast, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and some versions of Judaism, the divine exists outside the world. The physical world we live in and the social world we inhabit as human beings is a barrier between ourselves and divinity, and the function of religion is to help us transcend that barrier. Attachments to worldly goods or to social relationships are seen as impediments that must be resisted or shed in order to achieve harmony with the divine.

This distinction is not an absolute one. Traditional religions can also understand divine forces as abstractions or seek ways of achieving a closer communion with the divine through asceticism, and modern religions can see sacredness connected to specific places and people. Still, one of the defining characteristics of any religious tradition is whether it encourages people to seek harmony with the divine by inhabiting the ordinary world in meaningful ways or by escaping from its distractions and temptations.

The point for writers is not that one or the other of these religious approaches is right or wrong for an imagined world, but that each one responds to the needs of societies under different circumstances. People are inclined to see the divine in the world around them when they feel at home in that world. Well-established cultures with a strong sense of identity and long history moored in place are likely to see the world itself as sacred. Shinto in Japan and Hinduism in India both arise out of this kind of long history. Religions that see the world as a barrier to be overcome tend to arise in times when people are unsettled and feel powerless within the world they live in. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all arose among peoples who lived with chaos, violence, and a lack of control over their own destinies, while Judaism has been deeply shaped by a history of diaspora and oppression.

What kind of religions exist in your invented worlds depend on what the people in them have experienced. If your characters feel connected to and safe within the world they inhabit, they are likely to perceive divine forces all around them; if their world feels dangerous and alien, they are likely to feel equally alienated from the divine.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Stupid Writer Tricks: Character Voices

Writing dialogue is not one of my strengths as a writer. I often struggle to give my characters their own voices. So I have a stupid trick to help me get the voice right for characters I’m going to spend a lot of time with: When thinking of their dialogue in my own head, I give them a distinctive accent, tone, or speaking style. It doesn’t always come through onto the page, but it helps me think about how a particular character would talk.

For an example, here’s how I wrote the voices for the main characters in my story “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters.”

The story is about Mnestra and Lampedo, two flute girls working the streets of Athens who get caught in the chaos when the rich, ambitious aristocrat Alkbiades uses a mysterious artifact to make the city’s statues come to life and go on a rampage. To make the story work, it was important to convey the personalities of these three key characters.

Mnestra, as narrator of the story, was the most important to get right. I wanted her to come across as self-possessed, confident, and a little snarky. I also wanted her to feel accessible as a character, someone we felt like we knew. With a story set so far in the past, there was a danger that the characters would feel distant and hard to identify with. Mnestra’s world is certainly not like our own, even before the monsters appear. I wanted to close that gap and make her feel real. There’s also a long history of ancient Greek and Roman characters in modern fiction written as if they were stiff upper-class Brits (in no small part because Greek and Roman literature was for a long time a crucial part of upper-class British education). I didn’t want Mnestra to sound like that.

So when I was thinking about her lines, I thought of her as a jaded teenager. I wrote the first few sentences of the story almost before I really knew where the plot was going, just to make sure I had Mnestra’s voice down.

Okay, so that thing with the statues? The smashed penises thing? That was my idea. But let me explain. I had a good reason for it.

She’s a little overly blasé and vague like a teen trying to play it cool. She leads into the story gradually, like a high schooler with a bent fender sidling up to a freaked-out parent.

In the first draft of the story, there was a lot more of Mnestra’s attitude throughout, but in revising, I found that I didn’t need all of that, and in fact once the action picked up later, it just slowed things down. I edited out most of it, but kept a few sarcastic asides in where they felt appropriate.

Lampedo was a different problem. Her character changed a lot as I was writing. I originally wrote her as shy and delicate, but some good editorial feedback made me rethink her relationship to Mnestra. I rewrote the pair to be less “surrogate sisters” and more “buddy cops,” which gave the story more to work with. Lampedo instead ended up being tough and prickly.

I had a hard time writing the new version of Lampedo’s voice until I started thinking of her with a Russian accent. Not just a Russian accent but a Russian attitude: proud, prematurely world-weary, fatalistic. Here’s a little dialogue between Mnestra and Lampedo after they first get away from the attacking statues.

“Isis’ milk!” I hissed at her. “What did you think you were doing, trying to fight those things?”

“A warrior always attacks,” she answered, grabbing a wine jug. She pulled out the cork with her teeth and drank a big glug.

“We’re not warriors!” I snapped. “We’re flute girls. Don’t you get that? We have to be smart.”

“You say ‘smart,’” she scoffed. “You mean weak.”

“Have you ever seen an old flute girl?” I asked her. “No, there aren’t any. Most of us end up as graveyard women spreading for scraps. You only get through if you have a plan.”

“What’s yours?” she asked. “Hide in a storeroom?”

Alkibiades was a different challenge. Alkibiades is an aristocrat, and his driving motivation in my story (as in history) is that he feels he has never been shown the respect that his status entitles him to. Unlike with Mnestra, I leaned hard into the “stiff upper-class Brit” mode with him to convey that not only is he of a much higher social class than the flute girls but he’s also to an extent putting on an act of what he thinks an Athenian aristocrat should be like. If you can imagine a sinister version of Bertie Wooster, that’s what I heard in my head when writing his lines. Here’s how he intervenes when some potential clients are threatening to get violent with Mnestra and Lampedo.

But before anything could happen, a man on horseback came riding up and waved the twits back.

“I say, is that any way for an Athenian to behave?” he rebuked them. “Tussling with girls in the street? Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

Later, at his dinner party, Alkibiades tries to reassert his status after having his political position usurped by his rival Nikias. He starts a philosophical dialogue but is undermined by his own guests:

“Friends,” Alkibiades began, “let us make this a festival of the mind, not only of the body.” A couple of men near us snickered, but Alkibiades pretended not to notice. “Let me propose a subject for our discourse. What is the measure of a man’s worth?”

“The length of his cock!” a drunken voice called out.

“The quality of his wine!” another added before the laughter had faded.

“His virtue,” proposed an old white-head. A few other suggestions floated around the room. When the merriment had subsided a little, Alkibiades offered his own answer.

“I should say that the measure of a man’s worth is the greatness of the challenges he has overcome. The greatest of all men I name Leonidas of Sparta who faced the Persians at Thermopylai. When the Persian king demanded that the Spartans lay down their arms, he answered: ‘Come and take them.’”

“Then they all died and the Persians burned Athens,” someone objected. Alkibiades was undeterred.

“What more can a man ask for than to face an unbeatable foe with unwavering courage?”

“Sending Nikias out to do it!” came an answer. Alkibiades’s face went red and he sat down as the rest of the room exploded with laughter.

I have a great admiration for people who can write rich, fluid dialogue that drips with character. That’s not where my strengths lie. This is the stupid trick I use instead, and it works for me.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

How Wars Begin: The View from Ancient Greece

Explaining why wars begin is an urgent question for a lot of people: if we knew how they started, maybe we’d figure out how to stop them. It is also an important question for a lot of writers. Many works of fantasy literature are set in times of war, and even if the main characters don’t know or understand how it all started, in order to build the world around the story effectively, the author should have some idea of how and why it began.

Greek vase showing hoplites fighting

In European literature, interest in the causes of wars goes back as far as the literary tradition itself. The first major work of literature written down in the West, the Iliad, is about characters caught in the midst of a war whose origins are so remote as to be beyond human knowledge. Much of the tragedy of the Trojan War myths comes from seeing how people suffer because of the capricious rivalries of the gods. Many other stories of Greek mythology have to do with the causes of war, such as the legends of the “Seven Against Thebes,” which follows the tragic fortunes of Oedipus’ family as they suffer the consequences of his rash and misguided actions as a young man. Works grounded in mythology tend to place the causes of wars in the hands of individuals, whether human, divine, or in between. The mischievous spite of Eris caused the Trojan War, and Oedipus’ hotheadedness embroiled generations of his family in conflicts around Thebes. Many Greeks were happy to apply this same kind of mythical thinking to their own history: the playwright Aeschylus’ account of the Persian king Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480, The Persians, focuses on Xerxes’ personal arrogance and irresponsibility.

Early historians shifted their focus away from the personal to look at larger causes. Herodotus, attempting to explain the wars between the Persian Empire and some of the Greek cities, continued to make much of personal motivations, especially when it came to Xerxes. Herodotus expanded on Aeschylus’ portrait of the king, adding more nuance to the image of an overbearing, capricious monarch. At the same time, he was also interested in deeper forces. Herodotus was interested in the idea of balance and reciprocity, and ultimately saw the Persian invasion of Greece as balancing the cosmic scales for the legendary Greek invasion of Troy. He was also interested in how the choices of individuals interacted with and were shaped by the political structures in which they lived, pointing out that Xerxes’ arrogance had such devastating consequences because in a monarchy there was no one who could step in and prevent him from making rash decisions.

Herodotus’ younger contemporary Thucydides witnessed his home city of Athens go to war with Sparta with terrible consequences for both. He dismissed anything that smacked of myth and instead sought explanations in the hard realities of power. Athens, he argued, was becoming more powerful while Sparta was becoming weaker. It was these forces—the results of human actions, but in themselves impersonal and abstract—that led to the conflict, he argued: the Athenians fought out of a desire for more power and wealth, the Spartans out of the fear of losing what they had.

Some centuries later, the historian Polybius, writing at a time when Greece was a newly-conquered province of the Roman Empire, examined the causes of wars with more nuance, using Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire as an example. Polybius distinguished three different elements: what he called the beginning, the cause, and the pretext. The beginning was the first event of a war; when Alexander crossed into Anatolia with his army, that was the beginning of the invasion. It is useful for historians to identify the beginning of a war, Polybius argued, but the actual cause must come first: what was it that led people to decide to take that first action? In Alexander’s case, it was a century of Greek experience on the fringe of the Persian Empire which showed that the Persian position in Anatolia was poorly organized and vulnerable to attack. The third element is the pretext, the statements that people put out in public to justify the actions they have already decided to take. In Alexander’s case, the pretext was revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece generations earlier; Alexander’s own actions later showed that his anti-Persian stance was never more than a front to keep his mostly Greek army unified.

How you approach explaining the origins of the wars in your stories depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If yours is an epic tale about the desires and passions of larger than life heroes, then let mythology guide you: have a war that starts because someone didn’t get invited to a party, or because someone got road rage and picked a fight with the wrong person. If your story is more grounded, but you still want some epic flavor, Herodotus may be a good model: let your war start because of the personal, human decisions made by your characters in the context of grand forces beyond their control. For a gritty, hard-edged story of war, follow Thucydides: people start wars because they think they can get something out of it, or because they’re afraid of losing what they have. In any case, remember Polybius: how people start fighting, why they decided that fighting was worth it, and what they said to justify it are three different things.

Image: Vase painting of hoplites fighting, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; c. 560 BCE; painted pottery; by the Fallow Deer painter)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Worldbuilding for Democracy

Whether playing a game of thrones or awaiting the return of the king, fantasy literature tends to have a lot of monarchies. This is true in part because the genre grew out of literary traditions created to justify the power of kings and aristocrats and in part because royal families lend themselves so well to drama (it seems to be the only job the British royals have left, for one example).

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. There’s plenty of room for fantasy to explore societies without kings or thrones. Many cultures in the past have had alternatives to monarchy. Most famous may be the democracies of ancient Greece, but other ways of sharing power out among multiple individuals, families, or factions can be found around the world, in places like the early city-states of Sumer, the medieval cantons of Switzerland, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in North America. Not all of these societies operated in ways we would recognize as fully democratic today (for instance, Greek democracy excluded women, immigrants, and slaves), but they all represent functional alternatives to a monarchy or entrenched aristocracy.

These forms of governance came about as the result of particular social, historical, and geographic circumstances. If you want to build a democratic society (even in such a loose sense) into your fantasy worldbuilding, here are a few approaches to consider.

Friends don’t let friends start monarchies

Small-scale societies are usually egalitarian and tend to resist individual claims to power. In societies small enough that people all know each other or are bound together by ties of family and friendship, personal relationships matter more than formal structures of power. One person trying to put themselves above others in such a culture is a threat to the stability of those relationships and can expect little support. With the rest of society so closely bound together by ties of kinship and affection, resistance is easy to organize. Monarchies only work in societies large enough that most people are strangers to one another.

Poor lands make poor kings

One of the defining features of monarchy is that it consolidates wealth in one or a few people’s hands. This isn’t just a perk of the job (although, as Mel Brooks said, it’s good to be the king), it’s necessary for keeping a monarch in power. Kings justify their power in many ways, sometimes by providing the benefits of stability and order to the people they rule over, sometimes by cloaking themselves in religious ideology, but at the base of it all is a threat: do what I say or my soldiers will come burn your house and take your stuff. That threat only works if the soldiers will actually back it up, and while a good king may earn the personal loyalty of his troops, you can’t eat loyalty. An army big enough to keep a monarchy in power will fall apart if it doesn’t get paid, and maybe even turn on the monarch themselves. A monarchy can only sustain itself in a place where it can command enough economic resources to be sure of being able to pay its army in a crisis. In regions that don’t have that kind of wealth, or whose wealth is difficult for any one faction or family to control, monarchies tend not to last long.

The divided are hard to conquer

“Divide and conquer” is all well and good, but when the landscape itself divides people, it is hard for even a conqueror to maintain control. Fragmented landscapes that limit the movement of troops and supplies make it hard for would-be rulers to assert control. They also tend to foster a strong sense of local identity that limits a monarch’s ability to command the people’s loyalty. Many different kinds of landscape can have this quality, such as those divided into many small islands or mountain valleys, or lands broken up by marshes and forests. Wherever people are used to being isolated and having to rely on themselves and their neighbors, they tend to create societies that distribute power rather than relying on a distant and unfamiliar king.

We are struggling together

The points above have a common thread: the smaller a society is, the more likely it is to be democratic. The bigger a society gets, the weaker the forces keeping it egalitarian and the more likely that someone will succeed in establishing a durable monarchy. Large-scale democracies tend to arise from a particular historical experience: when lots of small societies find themselves having to work together. When several tribes, clans, islands, or cities of comparable wealth and power have to coordinate their efforts, such as to resist pressure from an invading empire or to control valuable natural resources, compromises have to be made. A single leader is unlikely to get everyone on board without making concessions to ensure the sharing of power and resources. These arrangements can take many forms, such as governance through a council representing all members or rules of succession that guarantee no single family line has a lock on power.

Many different forces can be at work at once in any given culture. Small mountain villages that are egalitarian because of their small size and poverty may band together in a democratic league to coordinate their response to pressure from a nearby kingdom in the lowlands. Once that league is well established, it might expand to take in some of that kingdom’s outlying cities, even pull together an army to conquer the flatlands for itself while still preserving its democratic basis. What happens to such a democracy when it comes to rule over people accustomed to the claims of monarchy? How do people used to being ruled by kings adapt to being part of a league where they have a voice of their own? There are lots of good stories to explore in fantasy that don’t revolve around kings and crowns.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Two-Question Worldbuilding

There are lots of different ways to imagine new secondary worlds and the cultures within them. You can start from the ground up—literally—by drawing a map and thinking about how the landscape shapes the cultures within it. You can start with a big concept and work your way down into the details from that, or go the other way and start with a single detail that serves your narrative, then build the rest of the world around it.

But sometimes you don’t want to mess with all that. Sometimes you’re writing a story or mapping out a game and you need your characters to have a little bit of interaction with a far-off foreign land, but not enough to make it worth developing in every detail.

Here are two quick questions you can ask to lay the basis for simple worldbuilding for side cultures in pre-industrial worlds that still gives them some substance:

  • How many people have control over their own source of food?
  • How much do those people have to compete with others for food sources?

We’re not talking actual numbers or anything quantifiable here, just a general sense: a little bit, a fair amount, or a lot?

(Food sources come in many forms. We most often think of farms and herds of animals, but consider also fishing and hunting, trading with food-producing regions abroad, or raiding richer neighbors.)

The first question tells you about social structure: food is crucial to life, so access to it is one of the most powerful ways people can assert control over others or claim their own independence.

Where only a few people control the available food sources and most other people are in some way dependent on them, there is strong social stratification. It could take many forms: tenant farming, slave plantations, highly-regulated trade markets, or organized piracy of trade routes. Whatever the case, the society will have a small elite marked out by their wealth, way of life, or social privileges.

When most people control their own food sources, you have a much less stratified society. It could be small farms, independent merchant families, or bands of friends who hunt and fish together. The society need not be perfectly egalitarian—some farmers or trading partnerships may be wealthier than others—but when most people are self-sufficient, the rich have less leverage to get the poor to go along with any claims they make to special privileges. Societies where people aren’t dependent on others for survival can also have trouble organizing any kind of large-scale collective action, whether it’s setting up an organized legal system or sending an army on campaign.

In between, you get a range of possibilities: some people manage by fishing and keeping market gardens, others labor on the estates of the rich, while bands of young warriors form up now and then when things get tough to go plunder richer lands, then come home and return to their homesteads. In a society where people live at many different levels of subsistence, social stratification can be complicated, but also fluid. A tenant farmer may be able to save enough over time to buy a plot of their own and join the ranks of independent farmers, while an aristocrat who suffers a run of bad harvests may have to sell their tenanted estates and buy a smaller patch they can farm themselves, but that doesn’t make them social equals.

The second question goes to internal conflict: the more people who have to compete over resources, the more turmoil you are likely to see within a society.

When there is little competition over resources—either because they are abundant enough for everyone or because those who control them have a grip too tight to be challenged—societies are likely to be stable. Some may be inward-looking and peaceful, others may simply export their conflicts abroad: a state full of rich farmers might support a large army to invade and colonize other lands, or a society with no resources available at home might drive the poor and desperate to raid their neighbors or move away as laborers or mercenaries.

By contrast, in a culture where there’s not enough to go around or where those who have resources can’t effectively defend them, expect a high level of internal conflict. This conflict might take violent forms, from ongoing petty raiding between neighbors to civil wars, or it might be channeled into cutthroat negotiations between rival trading houses or a frantic scramble for royal patronage among the highborn families.

In between the extremes, at a moderate level of competition, you are likely to see a society that goes through cycles of stability and fractiousness, where the winners know that they can’t hold onto their gains forever, but the losers can afford to lick their wounds, build new alliances, and hope to come out on top next time.

Below is a rough chart of what a society with a particular combination of resource distribution and competition may look like. Remember that these are patterns and tendencies, not absolute rules. Our own world’s history will furnish plenty of examples of societies that don’t fit these patterns, and you can certainly imagine worlds that don’t. But if you find yourself in need of some quick-and-dirty worldbuilding, this is a good place to start.

Chart by Erik Jensen

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Matrilineality

Most traditional societies around the world have been patrilineal: power and property are passed down the male line of succession, usually from father to son, sometimes from grandfather to grandson, only on rare occasions to other relatives such as nephews, brothers, or cousins who share a common male ancestor. Some societies, however, have been matrilineal, where lines of succession are defined by descent from a common female ancestor. In these societies, power and property typically pass from brother to brother or uncle to nephew, only rarely from father to son.

Matrilineality should not be mistaken for matriarchy. Matrilineal cultures are often just as patriarchal as patrilineal ones are. Matrilineality is not a matter of women having power or being more important in society than men; it’s just a different way of determining which man is important and powerful.

Matrilineal succession can seem confusing and hard to follow for those of us who are used to the rules of patrilineality, but the principle is straightforward: to identify the next in line, find the nearest male relative who can trace their descent through their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. to a common female ancestor with the current holder of the property or position in question. The nearest would be a brother by the same mother. Next nearest would be a nephew whose mother was the current person’s sister by the same mother.

Here’s an example. Consider this extended family.

In a patrilineal society, here’s how property and power would pass down from the eldest son of the original couple to his son and grandson.

In a matrilineal society, the line of succession from the same eldest son would go first to his brother, then to a nephew, then another nephew, then his brother.

Matrilineal succession has advantages for certain kinds of societies under certain circumstances. For one thing, it spreads power and property out among the family lines of a clan or extended kin group, rather than letting one line have a monopoly. It can also create incentives for skilled and ambitious men to marry into the family—if we image the example above tracing the lines of succession for a kingdom, the men who marry into the family will never be king themselves, but their sons and grandsons might be. Another advantage to matrilineality is it multiplies the number of legitimate heirs within any given generation, which can be helpful in times of crisis when a man might die leaving no sons of age to take over his position.

For these reasons, matrilineal patterns of succession often appear in societies that need to encourage cohesion and cooperation among different families in the face of a dangerous world.

Thoughts for writers

Lots of good stories involve questions of succession, whether its the return of a lost heir to claim their rightful inheritance, a struggle for power among rival families, or the mysterious death of a rich old miser. If you’re in the mood to write that kind of story, it’s worth thinking about the rules of succession in your world and what consequences they might have for your characters. Even if a matrilineal society isn’t in the cards, it’s good to remember that not everything has to go from father to eldest son.

Charts by Erik Jensen

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

History for Writers Compendium: 2020

History for Writers explores history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s what we’ve been talking about in 2020:

Thinking historically

Thinking mythically

Imagining other places

Living other lives

Writing other worlds

People in the past

Join us in 2021 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.