I met last week with Barbara Webb, Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Janet Harriet to talk about setting up alternate social parameters. Thanks to all of you for a great discussion!
I decided to jump in by mentioning the perils of "as you know, Bob" dialogue. The biggest peril in setting up alternate social norms is being too instructive as an author. If you must have instruction, then try to fit it into natural instructional contexts in the plot. There are a lot of interesting ways to create a realistic instructional context. One of the classic methods is creating a "stranger in a strange land" scenario. You put a character who doesn't know the social rules into a situation where he or she must be instructed in how to behave, and voilà! Another possibility is to use a very direct storytelling narrator, such as the narrator of Jacqueline Carey's novel Kushiel's Dart, who can explain to you, her alien listener, anything she likes without sounding out of place. Still another possibility is to use young people for your instructional purposes, but beware on this one: young people already know a lot about the rules of the society they live in. They're just more open to being instructed on the fine points. Nobody's going to sit a kid from a caste society down and say, "Now, I'm going to tell you what the castes are, and how they are ranked." They've known that since they were old enough to think.
When you can't instruct, the other approach is to demonstrate, i.e. to put characters inside a situation. There are still things to beware of here. If there's a large list of stuff (such as my seven caste levels in Varin) that people really need to know, don't give it to them. Lists will kill you every time. What you want for a demonstration context is some situation where the presence of some smaller number of the phenomena in question changes how people behave in some way. You can show your main point of view character acting in accordance with the rules (which by the way they will probably not make active note of), judging the situation and thinking through the implications of other characters' actions. You can let the implications of that scene stand for the whole, and then take advantage of another scene later for a view of a different part of the whole picture.
Barbara asked, "What do you do when you're dealing with something that isn't important?" What do you do, for example, if you are working in a society where casual sexual relationships are not unusual, but are the norm?
This was a challenging question. The first thing to keep in mind is that if something is normal, then there is no reason for people to notice it or draw attention to its presence in their lives. Thus, you should avoid drawing attention to it. But if it draws reader attention because it's a taboo activity anyway, are you simply up a creek without a paddle? Not necessarily.
A phenomenon like this is best approached from two directions. First is positive direction, where you set up a constellation of related assumptions (Janet's great suggestion was to look at related assumptions like whether marriage relationships are considered exclusive), and make sure that the "normal" activity occurs a lot, in character actions and mentions. Second is the negative direction, where you deliberately break the assumption that already exists. Set up a scene in which it can be deliberately defused. If you have your princess in bed with her boyfriend on the eve of her wedding to another man, and this is okay, then consider having their pillow talk involve the implication that everyone knows - most importantly that the boyfriend and the fiancé both know - and don't really mind.
Of course, I say implication. Don't have them together and have the boyfriend say, "you know, I don't mind that you're getting married tomorrow. I hope he doesn't mind that we're together." That still puts attention on the phenomenon itself that makes it appear marked, i.e. unusual.
What you want instead is to look for secondary implications. If a behavior or condition is normal, then it's deviation from that, or particular unusual details of it, that become important. If everyone around you has dark hair and brown eyes, then there's no point in observing that "this person has dark hair and brown eyes." A person for whom that condition is normal would notice other details, such as "this person's brown eyes were rounder than most," or "that person's dark hair was styled in the XX fashion." You can include the specification "brown" or "dark" for the reader's sake, but keep the attention on the other details the person would notice. Brian pointed out that in China attention is given to facial hair, face shape, cheekbones and mouth shapes. If the princess and her boyfriend from the situation above are talking in a relaxed manner about what their various partners' favorite styles of intimacy are, that's a very different conversation.
Thanks again to Barbara, Brian, Glenda, and Janet for speaking with me! I missed speaking with you all today (and the rest of the internet, oh boy!). I will keep you posted on the topic of next week's discussion (January 25th) as we get closer to it.