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Worldbuilding 101: Writing Unequal Societies

Worldbuilding: Writing Unequal SocietiesWhere are the chamberpot-technician? The dragon-brushers? The stepping stools-carriers? Nowhere, that’s why.

Fact is, that most works of fiction, whether SF, Fantasy, Horror, you name it, operate from the basic assumptions of an equal society. And that means that we’re missing whole segments of world building, encounters and stories that are never told because they can’t be conceived of.

But way, you say, here’s the poor pig herder who became prince. There’s the general that grew up in the slums. Aladdin – the diamond in the rough.

Nope, still operating from basic assumptions of equality. Let’s take a look.

What is inequality?

Inequality is the basic assumption that some people are worth more than others. Taken to its extreme, inequality means that some people are cheap.

It doesn’t mean that what they do is worth less, looking at it objectively. Removing garbage prevents disease, yet garbage collectors have a very low value in most societies, and only low-value people work as garbage collectors.

So, some people are cheap. Usually, very many people are cheap. There’s a glut of cheap labor. Which means that there’s also fierce competition for work amongst that cheap labor. Which means that the society is likely to remain unequal due to supply and demand[note]As a side note: revolutions aimed at creating equality didn’t occur before there grew a group of people who were valued highly enough to give them enough leisure to think about inequality.[/note].

Service: A Characteristic of Unequal Societies

With people being cheap there is room for servants: people who do nothing but perform simple actions for more highly valued people.

Note the simple in the above statement: in an unequal society you will have functions such as doormen, whose job it is to open the door for the rich, or cloak men, whose job it is to take and hang a rich person’s outer garments. There will also be a lot of barbers, to shave the rich, cleaners, to sweep their floors, etc. There will, quite simply, be a lot of people doing the dirty jobs.

[bctt tweet=”#Writing an unequal society, consider what functions could be removed from a person.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

Thus, when writing an unequal society, you need to consider what functions could be removed from a person. Then you need to consider how much of those functions to remove – the more private functions you remove, the more unequal society.

For example, if your society is slightly unequal, you will have specialized service work that is distant from the personal sphere. So you’d have coach drivers (an action that isn’t very much into the personal sphere), but not bathers (unless bathing is somehow special in your world, like the Turkish hammams).

On the other hand, if your society is unequal, you will have servants in the most personal spheres of life: bathers, dressers, nursemaids, and similar.


Here’s the interesting part. If a society is unequal then some things that we take for granted will be missing. For example: wastebaskets.

Wastebaskets are a sign of an equal society, a society where most people need to throw away their own garbage. There is no lower valued person there to take the garbage from them and carry it to the big, communal dump site. Its just like at a fancy restaurant: you won’t find wastebaskets there[note]An interesting thing is communal wastebaskets: you will find them everywhere in, for example, Sweden or the USA, but they are very rare in Thailand[/note]. You will at a McDonald’s.

That’s because at a fancy restaurant your position as a guest is valued more highly than at McDonald’s. In Chez Fancypants you are to be served. In McDonald’s you are to be given food.

[bctt tweet=” In Chez Fancypants you are to be served. In McDonald’s you are to be given food.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

In an unequal society there will not be any automatic doors, or buttons in the elevator (if there are you can be sure that there’s a person there to push them).

Worldbuilding inequality you need to go through your society and look for things that can be removed. For example: if the rich are riding in palanquins there is no need for boardwalks – the poor wallow in mud. But if you have a sizable middle class, creating a step between the haves and the have-nots, then you’ll need boardwalks: the middle class will be too uppity to trudge through mud up to their knees, but too poor to afford palanquins.

Operating from an Assumption of Inequality

Writing an unequal society, you need to consider what they won’t have. What their assumptions about how things are supposed to work will hinder them from using or doing.

The Roman Empire was rife with inequality. And, as the Roman nobility, which controlled[note]Duh![/note] the Roman Empire, worked from an assumption of inequality, there were no watermills.

[bctt tweet=”The Romans knew about watermills, but used slaves instead – the ultimate unequal people.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

The Romans knew about watermills. They had the technology. And yet they didn’t use them. That’s because they had people to grind their grain by hand. Slaves. The ultimate unequal people.

Because the Romans operated from an assumption of inequality, that some people were simply there to grind the grain, they felt no need to replace that manual labor with automation. They (the powerful Romans) couldn’t conceive of a world that did not rely on slave labor, and thus not conceive of the benefits of minimizing cheap, manual labor.

Psychological Changes to your Characters

There’s an amazing experiment showing done by Prof. Paul Piff at Berkeley. Piff rigged a two-player game of Monopoly: one, randomly determined, player got a lot of extra cash to begin with, got double the cash when passing “Go”, extra payouts from the bank, and wasn’t penalized for the penal spots or negative cards.

You’d think that player would consider that they had an unfair advantage. Not so.

After playing the game, the “advantaged” player was likely to view the outcome (not surprisingly, they won) as a result of their own superior skills. They were also much more likely to look down on and belittle their opponent, and highlight examples of their own superiority. Also, they ate all the pretzels (true, the researchers measured pretzel consumption from a communal bowl).

[bctt tweet=”The culture of entitlement: If you have, you see yourself as entitled to what you have.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

This is the culture of entitlement. If you have, you perceive yourself as being entitled to what you have. You are, by virtue of just being you, in the right to have all you have. You are valuable.

And everyone else is not.

Writing Entitled People

This is where most writing fails. We are so used to equality in the West that we have a hard time to properly depict inequality.

We see a guard that pushes away a beggar away from his prince as brutal, or evil. But that’s because we see value in the beggar. In a truly unequal society pushing a beggar away from a master is the proper thing to do. Not only that, lacking any feeling of entitlement, the beggar doesn’t object[note]Just like the students in Paul Piff’s experiment didn’t object to the pretzels being eaten.[/note]. He’s just happy he wasn’t killed. He may even be unable to experience jealousy at the prince (but might, perhaps, be jealous of the guard who has whole clothes and food every day).

When writing the guard it’s easy to give him attributes that we consider evil. After all, he’s being violent against the helpless beggar. But if we write it from the guards perspective, he’s doing what is right: he’s protecting a highly valued person from the unpleasantness of a low-value person. Imagine a bodyguard taking a bullet for their employer – we would not consider the bodyguard to be evil because they stopped the bullet from doing what bullets “want” to do.

Same with the prince. To the prince, looking down from such a high station, beggars might be entirely invisible, or indistinguishable from the filth they live in. If someone swept away a pile of mud from your carpet, would you feel sorry for the mud? Or would you just assume that the correct status of the world (your clean carpet) had been achieved?

The prince doesn’t have to be evil to act as they do. They’re acting from a position of extreme entitlement. They are like Professor Pitt’s Monopoly players taken to the extreme. They not only eat all the pretzels but are upset that the pretzels aren’t refilled – after all, they’re entitled to them.

You might want to consider something that you are entitled to: for example just treatment. If a police officer stops you when you’re not speeding, and then slams you with a huge speeding ticket, you’re likely to be upset. Not because you can’t afford the ticket, but because you feel that you are entitled to being treated in a just fashion. For the prince to be forced to see the beggar is similar: they feel that they’re entitled to pleasant surroundings and the beggar is taking away something that they are entitled to.

Entitlement is a dangerous feeling in the real world. It is very gratifying to work with in writing.

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover

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