Thursday, March 25, 2010

Using the (Social) Tools You Have

I wonder if you've ever had this experience: you're reading a story set in a far-away world, either far future or far past or far distant in species or dimension, and despite this incredible distance and differences in every detail of their environment, protagonists in this environment seem to be motivated by modern world values. As you can probably guess, the most common version of this that I've run into is the female protagonist who protests the fact that she has no control over her life - easily imagining all the amazing things she could do if only every member of her family and her society and every institution around her weren't there to prevent it.

Call it a pet peeve, but this drives me crazy.

Let me be clear. I am not trying to say that people always accept their lot in life. Any time you have an imbalance of freedoms between one group and another, the group with fewer freedoms will most likely notice the difference, and certain members of that group will feel the need to protest or do something about it. Whether that protestation is quiet, or gets quashed, or turns into revolution depends on social and historical context.

What you'll find, though, is that that same social and historical context - the worldbuilding that so many of you work so hard to achieve - will have deep implications for how the downtrodden think about objecting to their status. Often enough, they won't object at all.

The powerless often have power in certain circumscribed areas. Noble women in the year 1000 AD in Japan led very closeted lives and were entirely protected and directed by their men - but. They learned how to protect themselves by finding powerful protectors among those men. This meant they knew which men to approach, which to allow close, and how to handle them. They knew how to use family alliances on both maternal and paternal sides in order to achieve security or advancement. They also knew how to use their skills with writing to gain prestige, or how to use their skills in memorization of classic poems to get attention. Classic poems may not seem like a big tool for social advancement, but you might be surprised how important they were in the Heian era Imperial court.

People learn to use the social skills they have. They see what works and what doesn't, and they pursue those areas where they can win small victories. Or big ones, as the case may be. Jacqueline Carey's Phèdre (Kushiel's Dart) uses all of her personal skills as a courtesan and a spy to get things done that you might not expect.

In fact, if you think about it, accidentally giving a culturally situated character modern expectations and sensibilities will not help but hurt them. Suddenly they'll appear to believe that they have absolutely no useful skills, and no avenues to escape the oppression they endure - which is not in fact the case. At the same time they'll be able to imagine possibilities that are both implausible and impractical for a person in their situation. So the chances that they'll be able to accomplish anything go down, and since their vision is too unrestrained, they'll be more frustrated than ever. In those circumstances the author may feel tempted to use modern means to give them opportunities for action, but that will only draw the story further away from the world and cultural/social situation that the author intended.

So I encourage you to think through how your characters use the social tools they have to get things accomplished. See if you can find a situated way for your character to work toward his or her own ends. If they can use gossip or information control, use that. If they can stealthily organize masses of people, use that. A character can take the social walls that limit them, turn them into shields and use them for protection.

If you let your characters use the social tools they have, they'll fit far better into their own worlds, and you'd be surprised how much they can accomplish.


  1. Fantastic post. I wish more people kept in mind that our way isn't the only way of doing things. This reminds me of a post I did awhile ago about keeping cultural expectations in mind. It was more in terms of character motivation, and keeping a character from seeming like they only existed for this one story than finding tools with which they could achieve their goals, but there were quite a few parallels to what you're saying here.

  2. Authors of historical fiction fall into this trap equally often. Much of it comes from lack of exposure to any other context than their own.

  3. Great post! Inserting a modern mindset into fantasy or historicals drives me crazy, too. Especially in historicals! It ruins the story for me.

  4. Thanks for the comments, atsiko, Athena and Deb. Yes, this happens a lot. One of the things I hope I made clear is that keeping your character culturally situated will actually give the writer better tools to help the character handle the oppressive situation. From a modern point of view it's easy to think of these characters as helpless, but it's more interesting to probe into what kind of influence they actually were able to exert on their own lives.

  5. I greatly enjoyed Carey's Phèdre trilogy (I haven't read the one of Imriel) and felt that the people in it acted according to their cultural imperatives.

    One book by a Westerner that (in my opinion) manages to capture a particular Japanese era is Susan Blomberg Schaeffer's The Snow Fox. It takes places just after the sunset of the Heian period, at the onset of the civil wars between the various daimyo.