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.
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
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.
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
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.