What’s life like in your SFF world? What sort of housing, jobs, accommodation, work and family life do people have? What are your civilisations’ attitudes to birth, death, marriage, gender and sexual diversity? And how may aspects of life vary depending on the social, political and economic status of your characters? In this post, I’ll provide prompts to help you unpack and answer these questions for your cast, focusing on world building life. I’ll also prompt you to consider whether specific aspects of social, economic and material differences between characters cause family/ societal/ international tensions.

Class/ Wealth Differences

I’m assuming your world mirrors most eras of human history in having vast wealth -if not also social and political- inequity. To help you think about how varying levels of wealth impacts character’s choice of and access to clothing, food and housing, their work prospects and hobbies, I’ve divided the sections bellow based on 3 classes/ levels.

Fashion

Ruling Class/ CEOs

In considering how characters at the top of the ladder dress, I’d think about which materials are rarest in each part of your world. Which materials/ dyes/ accessories are imported and or take the most manual labour to produce?

Silk tunics?

Fur cloaks?

Elaborately decorated hats/ turbans?

Gold, & precious stone jewellery?

Ivory/ bone/ enamel decorated ornamentation?
(This could be jewellery, but also weapons your character carries.)

Artisans/ Middle Class

For the middle class, I’d consider specialist clothing crafts people may need, such as:

Leather aprons

Boots/ sandals

But I’d also consider whether the ruling class places restrictions on middle class clothing, so it doesn’t ‘mimic the status of their betters’.

Even if the middle class can afford gold, are they only allowed to wear bronze or silver jewellery?

Can they wear expensive materials?
Or is the clothing of a wealthy merchant or shop keeper more finely woven or embroidered than that of a labourer?

Does the middle class have access to tailors (like the ruling class), or do they buy pre-made or make their own clothes?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

When I say farmers, I’m not thinking ones who own lots of land and are commercially successful (I assume they’d dress like the middle class). I’m thinking of peasants with barely enough land to produce food for their family from one season to the next. I assume they, labourers and slaves wear practical, homemade, simple clothes and own few pairs, such as:

Coarse linen/ homespun wool

Carved wooden or copper and glass jewellery

Sandals/ barefoot/ boots

Food

In considering visible differences like clothing and food, which of your characters accepts wealth inequity? Do they do so because of religious beliefs like divine kingship, or nationalism, ideology or other loyalty? Or has a ruler actively served their people in living memory, for example re-distributing taxes to alleviate famine? Do different characters varying levels of acceptance, rejection or active resistance of inequity cause tension between your characters/ families, or create circumstances ripe for sparking social and or political revolution? Could another single meal-of-the-day be a catalyst for a rift between a teenager fed up with being oppressed and parents just trying to help their family survive an oppressive system?

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Again, I’m assuming those at the top have access to rare, imported and expensive food products. These could be:

Regular consumption of meat & vegetables.

Anything fancier than bread and or rice/ potatoes.

Spices/ rich sauces

A selection of seasonal fruits

A, deserts and B ones including things like honey, or if it has been invented, sugar, or chocolate.

The rarest and best quality seafoods (if they live near enough to the coast).

Wine/ opioids/ whisky

Artisans/ Middle Class

Can a successful middle class person afford meat or vegetables once or even a few times a week?

How about the odd fillet of fish? (if they live near rivers or the coast).

Do they have access to urban food-stalls -street meats- or even public dinning rooms?
(I’m thinking ancient Rome here).

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Bread and beer/ ale? (The first two typical of soldiers and labourers whose meals were provided as part of their pay in ancient Egypt).

Rice and a little veg (self produced)?

Gruel

Can their food be subsidised by hunting or do the rulers lay claim to the forest?

Can they fish, or do rulers/ traders claim rights to the catch of the sea?

Do they have enough food, live under threat of or are they already starving?

Accomodation

Here, you may like to consider whether property is mostly inherited, or if anyone has the wealth or time and resources to build their own housing, and whether extended family or communal groups assist each other with construction. Also, can property be given away, for example like Caesar granting farmland to veteran soldiers? If land is given away, is it obtained via politically motivated confiscation or colonisation? And how does land ownership or land and housing shortages influence social tensions and conflict in your story?

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Most likely have palaces.

May also have multi story town houses and or countryside/ beachside villas.

May live in gated communities.

Artisans/ Middle Class

Generous sized home & workshop/ sales floor.

Possibly a country house, if they’re doing very well.

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Do slaves/ servants/ labourers/ farmers families live in communal bedrooms/ dorms?

In a cottage/ hut/ log house?
Do slaves have their own/ paired/ communal quarters in their masters house? Or in out-buildings?

Character Diversity

You may be thinking, my civilisation is based on the Iron Age. People had no idea what ADHD was back then or cerebral palsy, so how do I include neurodiverse characters, or characters with disabilities or mental health woes? -without perpetuating harmful and or historic stereotypes?

I suggest: pick a particular type of neurodiversity, disability or mental illness. Read up on how it presents externally.
For example, does it impact a character’s mobility? How? What physical supports could that character have in the time period/ society you’re creating?
How does that character respond to loud noises or too much visual information? How does their neurodiversity or mental illness impact that character’s behaviour when they’re alone or in social situations?
What understandings can society develop based on observing these things? (Assuming you don’t have modern science). What names would your societies give different forms of diversity, based on culture, values, beliefs, etc?

Even if your civilisation doesn’t have a label for different types of diversity, how can you show them in ways a modern audience will recognise? Eg. does a character struggle to navigate the marketplace because it contains too much sensory information to process and overwhelms them? Must their morning routine always be in the exact same order? Are they forever leaping from one activity to the next, without necessarily finishing anything?

If you’d like some resources to begin research on including diverse characters, including LGBTQ+ and POC, I highly recommend Writing the Other’s Resource Page and Writing With Colour.

Work

Before deciding which job your characters have, I suggest considering how cultural values, attitudes to gender, magical abilities or their absence, LGBTQ+, neurodiversity, disability, religious, immigration or other discrimination may impact which jobs your characters are permitted to undertake.
Also, who has access to education? Is it possible to obtain an apprenticeship or education to qualify characters for a range of jobs, or are most people learning from their parents, with their only career option being to do what their parents did? And how do obligations and or duties to family impact characters’ work choices and family tensions?

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Whether the rulers are a royal family, and or palace of government officials, they may actively participate in forming policy, arbitrating in noble disputes, declaring war etc.

A land owning class/ provincial governors may play a similar role at a local/ duchy level.

Artisans/ Middle Class

May be full time crafting/ running a shop.

Managing servants/ labourers.

For merchants, purchasing, organising transportation and sale of goods.

For scribes/ palace officials/ scholars: record keeping/ writing treatises.

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Sowing seeds. Tending livestock.

Mending own tools. Mending own clothes. House repairs. Gardening.

Cooking. Cleaning.

Grooming animals & masters.

Passtimes

Before considering what characters do in their spare time, let’s work out when they have spare time. Is there a Sabbath or weekly day of rest? How long is the working week? (It was 10 days for Egypt’s pyramid builders, with two days off.) How many hours a day do people work? Does every social class have recreation time daily? Are there religious or secular festivals which are public holidays -for everyone or just for free people (excluding slaves/ indentured servants)?
Are the ruling classes largely people of leisure (like British aristocracy), or do they have regular duties and set leisure times? Do differences in leisure time and choice of leisure activities generate resentment, tension or conflict between characters?

Below are some ideas to get you thinking about what your characters may be doing when they interact in down time scenes.

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Attending/ leading religious festivals/ parties/ feasts/ balls

Private musical/ theatrical performances/ poetry recitals

Exotic pets/ private zoos? Circuses

Shakespearean plays -box seats
Gladiatorial contests -box seats, meals & alcohol served

Gladiatorial/ other Games -participate to show off their prowess?

Chariot/ other races? -participate to show off/ for fun?
Dice/ board/ card games/ gambling
Wooden/ ivory toys, Pets

Artisans/ Middle Class

Attending religious festivals

Standing room at Shakespearean plays?

Watching gladiatorial contests. Can they choose to fight?

Attend circuses.

Chariot/ other races. Can they sponsor a chariot if they’re rich enough?

Olympic/ sports athletic games? -can everyone attend? (It was only men in Greece).

Dice/ board/ card games/ gambling

Wooden/ bone toys, Pets

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Attending religious festivals

Standing room at Shakespearean plays? Or not allowed time off work?

Standing room at gladiatorial contests? -are slaves forced to fight?

Watching circuses/ chariot races/ athletic games or no time off?

Dice/ board/ card games

Stuffed toys, Pets

Social Mobility

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Can royalty/ upper classes marry ‘below’ their status if they want?
Can poverty (as a result of gambling, financial mismanagement/ poverty) or falling out of favour with the rulers reduce someone of high class to Middle Class? Or do they retain high legal standing, but have to live within lower class means and cling to friends to borrow money or gift them what they can’t afford, to keep up appearances?

Artisans/ Middle Class

Can a labourer undertake an apprenticeship to become a craftsmen? Must the labourer/ their family pay and be able to afford the apprenticeship?

If an artisan/ shop owner/ merchant does very well, or their are banks and a banker gets very rich, can they marry into the upper class? Can they attain legal standing and privileges that way, or purchase them, or take up a position within the government and so become part of the upper class?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

If a farmer produces enough of a surplus, can he purchase more land, expand his farm and become wealthier? Will this give him higher legal and or political standing?

Can slaves be freed?
Are they serving a sentence of slave labour to pay off debt and be freed when their time is up? Is there a mandatory period after which slaves captured by conquest must be freed? Can a master free slaves when/ if they wish? Or does a slave earn money or have other chances to obtain their freedom?

Legal Status

If the law enters into the conflict of your story, its worth considering: who was it written to protect? The rulers and landowners? Priests and temples (out of fear of divine retribution)? The community (at the expense of the individual?). Or corporate powers (at the expense of everyone else)? Its also worth considering whether corporal punishment exists. If you have a social hierarchy, its likely your characters will face difference sentences for committing the same crime, so I’ve suggested how those may vary.

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Do they just face fines for breaking the law? (Unless its high treason, in which case they’re humanely executed or forced to take their own life?)

Artisans/ Middle Class

Do they have an option of being fined, or spending time in prison if they can’t pay? -but not beaten, because their work is valued by society and beating them will impair it?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Beaten, and or executed more readily, as example aimed to deter others of the same rank from disobedience, and because they and their work are not actively valued?

Gender

Your fantasy world may be based on or inspired by a particular historical era, but the rights, roles and responsibilities of any particular gender may be completely divorced from that era. For example, my first trilogy is loosely based on the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages of ancient Egypt and surrounds, yet my MC is nonbinary and their people have a name for and understanding of that identity (middlun, meaning ‘between female and male’). In considering the impact of gender on your character’s lives, I’d also consider the extent to which you want your world building to mirror reality, past or present, or to imagine a world with greater gender equality than ours. To pin down what either world may look like, I’d consider:

Is the society a matriarchy, patriarchy, transitioning out of either, or can people of any gender attain positions at any level of power unrestricted by gender bias or discrimination?

Are there notions of “women’s work,” “men’s work” or “gender neutral work”, or can any gender take on any job with no eyebrows raised, no jokes made and no questions asked? Or does this vary from place to place/ culture to culture in your world?

Are clothing, hairstyles and accessories designed for binary females, binary males and or dead-centre gender neutral people? Or is clothing organised in a spectrum ranging from hyper-feminine, through gender neutral to hyper-masculine, with people presenting as either biological gender dressing wherever on that spectrum they feel comfortable?

What level of gender awareness does your society have? Does it acknowledge the existence of and have its own name for nonbinary characters? Does it recognise a range of specific genders, such as gender fluid or a-gender?
Is it aware of transgender people? Is it possible for trans people to medically transition? If not, can they dress and live in accordance with their gender identity, without facing discrimination or harassment?

Do people stare, wonder and comment when they see trans or nonbinary people? Or does your world normalise the existence of these characters and their genders by the way other characters respond to them?

Sexuality and Romantic Relationships

What is your society’s attitude to relationships?
Are flings a thing? Is dating a bit of fun, or a serious quest to find a life partner? Are all adults expected to marry? What do the moralities of religion and or secular culture have to say about romantic partners and the role of relationships in society?

Is marriage primarily a financial arrangement (with a financially dependent spouse keeping house), or about love and or producing an heir? Is their gay marriage? Can queer couples adopt children and raise families?

What about asexual people with no interest in romance or marriage?

Is polygamy a thing? Is it a religious belief or a freely made choice?

How aware of the existence of diverse sexualities/ queerness is your civilisation? Do people of diverse sexualities use real world or fantasy labels to describe their sexuality? Or is awareness and knowledge of sexual diversity so widespread, and equal rights so well established that no one needs labels to understand their own identity, to promote public awareness of their identity, or as banners under which to fight for their rights? (Disclaimer, as an asexual, nonbinary person who hates labels, I’d love to read about such a society).

Marriage

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Do some get married off as children/ teens to secure political alliances?

As the above implies, are marriages determined by parents for the sake of the family or kingdom or do characters have a say in who they marry and why?

Artisans/ Middle Class

Can they be married off young to secure trade/ production or political alliances?

Do characters have a say in who they marry or do families choose for them?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Do slaves need their masters permission to marry?
If they marry and have children, are the children born free, or as the masters property?

Do servants need permission to marry?

Do farmers kids choose who they marry, or do their parents?

Divorce

Ruling Class/ CEOs

If you have a marriage that’s the result of an alliance, do the characters stay together for the sake of the alliance or under family pressure? What tensions/ conflict does this cause?

Artisans/ Middle Class

Does religion allow divorce?

Are both partners allowed to seek a divorce? On what grounds?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

If a slave/ servant is living with their spouse in their masters house, can they live in separate rooms if they divorce? Do they still bump into each other? What tension does this cause?

Family Life

Who can attend a birth? Are doctors available? Mid wives? Is there a high mortality rate for women in childbirth and for new borns? And if so -is pregnancy and birth an occasion of joy, or of great uncertainty for the pregnant woman and her family?

What is considered a family unit? A nuclear, extended or other family?

Who lives with who? Nuclear families together? Elders alone, or with one of their children?

In any building, are sleeping quarters divided by gender? Just single people, or couples too -aside from conjugal visits?

Is there a ‘head’ of the family? Are there gender roles?

How does the age of different family members alter what behaviour and or duty is expected of them?

What is expected of family members generally? -does everyone contribute to housework? Must everyone practice the same religion? Is their ancestor worship/ household gods/ spirits?

Is their prejudice, jealousy or other tension within the family?

Does the family have its own particular take on ethics or its own philosophy?
Eg. do they run their own business and have strong notions of being hard working or self sacrificing? Are they traders, always on the road, who see the rest of the world as their backyard?

Can anyone choose any career they want, or must they work within family owned business/ within family and friendship connections?

Total Page Visits: 1557

Further Reading

World Building: Food and Fashion

World Building: Geography

Writing Diverse Character Resources:
Writing the Other’s Resource Page and Writing With Colour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.