Friday, February 4, 2011

Social Labels: YA and beyond!

Latchkey kids. Jocks. Nerds. Stoners. Fuzzies. Techies. Geeks. Divas.

Not all of these terms may be ones you've used, but you've probably heard most of them. They're labels for social groups. According to Wikipedia, "Latchkey kid" originated as a term in 1944 because of an NBC documentary. Jocks, nerds and stoners were commonly used terms around my high school. Fuzzies and Techies were labels at Stanford university for students in humanities vs. math/science. Geeks is a term I'm still coming to terms with as it is used for sf/f fans. Divas is a more modern term applied to girls of a certain stripe.

One of the things I've noticed and rather admired about YA books is their sensitivity to labels like this. Labels are big with teens, so for example when I see Scott Westerfeld titles - Uglies, Pretties, Specials, just to name a few - they speak "real" to me.

I think social labels deserve attention even outside of YA. SF has a few, but could always use more; even epic fantasy wouldn't suffer from some attention to these fine social distinctions and how they are marked.

The term "latchkey kid" came up in a discussion I had with the marvelous Deborah J. Ross yesterday. I was writing along in For Love, For Power and realized that two of my characters had something in common: both were children growing up in the care of their household servants rather than in care of their parents, because of laws that require them to stay in the capital for their own health and safety while their parents had been appointed to positions running other cities. While I was thinking about what that meant to them, it hit me that this wasn't an uncommon condition in Varin. It would have a label.

Deborah Ross and I tossed some things around, including the real-world-grounded terms "latchkey kid" and "rugrat" etc. to get some ideas. These terms need a certain ring to them, and can't be too complex. Also, I realized that there would be at least two terms for the same group: one that would be a relatively value-neutral term, and one that could be used insultingly. In the end I chose these:

leadership orphan - This is the relatively value-neutral term. It's very self-explanatory, which is important, because I can't use a bunch of words explaining it. But it's only relatively value-neutral, because "orphan" evokes sympathy for the kids in this condition.

Household brat - This is the insulting term (no surprise). I chose brat over rat because the animals in Varin aren't entirely congruent with ours. Brat is insulting by nature, but it's also insulting to juxtapose it with Household, because it implies that a noble child is being "run" by his own servants.

I've said before that there's value in considering the social subgroups within larger "types" of people. In "Cold Words," the Aurrel were divided into heavy-furred and Lowland groups, and this had consequences for the usage of the words "cold" and "warm" throughout the language. In "At Cross Purposes," the Cochee-coco were divided into groups by their chosen Purpose, and this influenced their work and thinking processes. Varin is my mega-world, and it has groups (castes), and subgroups (Great Families of the nobility), and sub- subgroups (leadership orphans/Household brats)! But why not? We have far more ways to label people, both to good and to notably ill effect.

How do the people in your world label each other socially? Are there general categories of people? How do those people get subdivided and labeled? Who gets scorn? Who gets the prestige?

It's something worth thinking about.


  1. Oh I have. It's a huge issue for one of my characters.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Misha! I'm glad you relate to this issue.

  3. Ah, that's a good point to remember. When there's a distinct type or class of people, there'll usually be slang words to to demarkate opinions. Adding this to my list of things to consider while editing!

  4. Thanks for the comment, Heidi! I'm glad it's helpful to you.

  5. Great post. Very helpful too, Juliette. Those are the kinds of details that add the flavour of realism to a SF story.

  6. Labels can go on and on. It's interesting though how you came up with yours. Thinking out of the box. Great post.

  7. Thanks for the comments, Elaine and E. Arroyo!

  8. Excellent!!--I like your labels you're come up with, and the concept of using diff terms for diff social or class levels. I don't think I have a novel that I've used this in yet, but it's definitely something I'll keep in mind. Thanks!

  9. Why, thank you, Carol! I'm glad I could pique your thinking.

  10. Wow. I really like taking the concept of a "latchkey kid" for a fantasy world. And what you've said is true...people do come up with terms for one another all the time...but particularly children.

    In one of my WIPs, I have dragons. They're human, more or less, with hereditary wetware that lets them do dragon-y things, and lifespans of centuries. However, they're all male, to prevent them from becoming their own self-sustaining race, and the hereditary wetware makes them infertile with women unless the female was exposed to a dragon for extended periods of time in childhood or early/middle adolescence. So I weave in the "dragons like virgins" trope with all that hand-waving, and, more interestingly, have a setup that lets me explore all the different moral and social situations that would arise from the things dragons need to do just to breed the next generation of their kind. Polite arranged marriages, marriages of convenience where one or both take lovers once the baby is made and born, kidnap courtships, slavery, pairings that end up being amiable May/December relationships...they run the gamut of tolerable to disgusting depending on the individual dragon's upbringing, morality, and desire (or lack of desire) for children. (And of course the girl's own life circumstances, personality, and relationship with the dragon courting her. But she's typically the one without power in these relationships, unfortunately.)

    As an offshoot of this, and in line with this blog, different camps of dragons have terms for different types of wives/thralls/courtships. A "wildflower" is a girl a dragon met and found suitable for courtship and thralling without any extensive pre-arrangements made with the girl's family. A "rose" is a particularly pretty "wildflower" thrall; given that dragons often court so young, when women are still in the middle of a lot of physical changes, a pretty 12 year old might not grow up to be so pretty at 20, or a plain 12 year old might be ravishing once she's matured and filled out. So dragons make snide and sometimes coarse remarks about each other's wives and courting habits. There's also snide terms going the other way; some dragons have longstanding arrangements with families where a particular girl is tithed to the dragons in return for money or political power, and she grows up expecting to be married off to an old crusty dragon much like any other political marriage. So dragons that prefer "wildflowers" will sneer about "crops" and "gardening", and the ones that think the most moral way to go about it is to arrange it nicely with a willing family will make comments about bringing home "weeds" at best, and make outright accusations of kidnapping and cradle-robbing at the worst.

    I've had a blast playing with the social structure and possibilities here, and coming up with reasonable words to refer to them. In this case it's internal dragon-slang, but your post made me realize I could probably deepen my world a whole lot by exploring the other socio-economic groups in my world in addition to the main focus of dragons and giving them terms as well.

  11. Hi, Domini! Thanks for writing in and telling me about your project. The part I find most interesting about it is the social part. You say that the part about the "wetware" is hand-waving, and it feels that way - I wonder if you really need it at all. Social rules and traditions a few thousand years old would probably be enough to establish the pattern among the dragons. I'm glad you found my post inspiring. Have you considered submitting something to the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop? I'd be curious to see it.

  12. I was a bit flippant in dismissing the wetware, mostly out of an attempt at brevity, since I did want to get on track about the topic of making up labels for people. My post above is huge regardless, so I think I failed at brevity! :-/

    I suppose it would sum it up to say my story has more going on than the dragon social practices I created...but fitting that into the post above would have taken my response wildly off-track. The wetware started as an explanation for the use of the "dragons like virgins" trope, but ultimately provides a basis for some other in-story thoughts and plots based on the maxim "form follows function". I couldn't take it out now without gutting a bunch of other arcs that are unrelated to the dragon courtship practices, or the snide terms they call each other behind their backs!

    I actually came across your blog via the daily recap at, so I didn't know you had a Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop. I'm not (or, wasn't...may be now)a regular reader. But, I just looked at the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop entries, and I left a question on the rules post. I have something that I'd like to see reactions to, I just don't know if it's suitable. :)

  13. Domini, don't worry. I'm not trying to change your story; I just have a pet peeve about things that are attributed to biology when they could as easily be products of culture. It doesn't mean you're doing the wrong thing! I did reply over on the WWW post, so you might want to look and see.

  14. Thanks for your replies! :) Also, no worries here. I can see why my giant post gave the wrong impression about the wetware.

    The "nature vs. nurture" debate as a story theme is something I'm very interested in. I don't think it's as clear cut as being all culture or all biology. More of a balance, that can tip one way or another depending on the individual in question. :)