Writing a novel

World-building 101: Class/Social Structure

Even Sparta, a civilisation renowned for its equality among warriors (Of course, any citizen who a fighter didn’t last very long), had varying classes. Warriors sat at the top and the helots, or serfs, were the lowest class.

LE Medlock: Worldbuilding 101
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by by canong2fan

The rest of the world has a class structure – for good or bad. Readers expect the same in novels, whether they’re based on an offworld space station or a small town in Kentucky.

Class is defined by locale, education, industry and gender. The first two we’ve covered, so:

LE Medlock: Worldbuilding 101
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by ChrisM70
  1. IndustryThe film Metropolis is a great example of class division by industry, reflected in the layers of the city. On the ground level and in the buildings above live the aristocrats. This world is a kind of utopia, the citizens have everything they need – food, water, power – and don’t need to work. However, in the levels underneath the city you can see why: hundreds of workers man the machines that power the upper levels. The two classes don’t mix, and the workers carry a kind of stigma. Mechanical, hands-on work has often been regarded as somehow inferior to more “intellectual” roles. How does industry define class?

    LE Medlock: Worldbuilding 101
    Image from Flickr Creative Commons by Leonard Bentley
  2. Gender
    Men and women are fundamentally different, physically and emotionally. This division can and has created differences in how each gender is treated. Is it a patriarchal society? Or, conversely, a matriarchal one? Each system might put emphasis on different things, and each gender has its own strengths and weaknesses. Is industry affected or influenced by gender?

Some things to consider when defining social structure:

  • How do they relate/intermingle?
  • Is it difficult to rise from one social class to another?
  • How hard is it to fall?
  • Who has a title, and how important are those titles?
  • Is class division reflected in fashion?
  • One class may be more highly regarded than others – are traits of this class considered most beautiful?
  • Which class is most likely to face prejudice – and why?
  • Does everyone feel the same way about the other classes?
  • Or their own?

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