Savvy Saturday – Dividing and Conquering

Sociology theory gives us as writers some fantastic ideas for new worlds we can play with. Every human culture in existence has distinguished between certain groups of individuals, and has chosen obvious identifiers of those groups to help members distinguish themselves from others. Differences may be biological, or they may be purely social (e.g. tattoos), but they exist. “We” are different from “them,” people say, because “we” look like this, or “we” speak this language, or “we” wear these clothes.

Strangely, many of these dividing differences seem like they could have been chosen by chance. The human race has innumerable tiny biological differences among its members, and only a few of them are actually used by society as meaningful differences. Eye color, for instance, is a non-judged characteristic (except for heterochromia, but even that does not carry social stereotypes). Another example would be the shape of one’s face. These characteristics, while they are often associated with a particular cultural group (e.g. blue-eyed, blond-haired Germans, or the round-faced Inuit), are not seen as a primary signal of one’s inheritance. Other factors – the color of one’s skin or hair, the shape of one’s eyes, and so forth, are used instead. These factors are not as definite or easily dividable into groups as society might make us think. Individuals who are half-black and half-white can have skin that looks very dark, very light, or somewhere in the middle. Adding to the confusion, traits or characteristics are sometimes recessive – a grandchild can look very similar to a distinctive grandparent, but not as similar to their parents, as in the case when a child has red hair but neither of their parents do. As the world continues to globalize and grow more diverse, then, the children of the future will look more and more different, even if they come from the same families.

What would happen if a world had not fewer skin colors, but far more? What would happen if it became impossible to tell from someone’s skin color their actual cultural origin? You could make up a fantasy world where this was the case – fairly easily, actually. Perhaps you might make up a world where skin tone was variable the way that height is in our culture, but that height is actually a cultural discriminator. “Mountain-folk” might stare down at others in the world from their bulky six or seven foot tall stature, for instance, refuse to let their children marry anyone who didn’t “measure up,” and maintain traditions and rituals celebrating their height and strength. In contrast, “Flower-folk” might be delicate and small, tending toward grace rather than strength, and might in their culture celebrate the agility, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail that their taller rivals tended to lack. You might similarly choose a different feature – eye color, ear size, nose shape – and make that a key distinguisher of cultural background. You could imagine that horror that might result if an Emerald Eyed daughter ran off with a Sapphire Eyed son – how would the parents choose to raise their children? Would they celebrate the festivals of the earth or of the sky? Would they dance to drums or to flutes? And how could people who are clearly so different from each other have fallen in love anyway?

Fantasy lets us explore real issues of cultural and worldview clash without drawing on real cultures that would give rise to claims of appropriation, inaccurate or unflattering portrayal, or unintended offense. Moreover, it allows us to explore real issues that reflect and speak to current and historical conflicts without bringing automatic political or cultural baggage into the mix. If our protagonists are a cultural group that has been oppressed for centuries and are fighting for their freedom, if we make them one race and their oppressors a different race that is recognizable to readers, we immediately risk alienating our audience or making them assume that we are pushing a political agenda. Instead, if we use sociological theory to make the same point but with different cultural identifiers, we can speak more gently and therefore more powerfully to the same issues.

Think about what types of cultural identifiers you might want to give your societies in the next world you build. Should they be biological or purely social, such as clothes, piercings, tattoos, and other bodily modifications? If biological, how will these differences manifest in how people of different cultures see each other, how they see themselves, and in the cultural practices of their peoples? Instead of trying to get tanned skin or lighter skin, might they want to try to make themselves taller or shorter? Might they try to stretch their ears or noses or make their feet small? What else might they do? Try playing with the ideas! You might come up with something fascinating and perfect for your next story.

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One thought on “Savvy Saturday – Dividing and Conquering

  1. I had a really weird idea related to this recently. I was playing around with the idea for a magic system where everyone had a magical blessing keyed to their eye color. So brown-eyed people were stronger and tougher than pure biology would indicate, blue-eyed people could master new skills more quickly and easily, silvereyes had enhanced senses, etc.
    But then I realized something. This magic is completely passive: you don’t have to do or know anything to activate it, it just works. It’s also omnipresent, and tied to a visible characteristic. Put together, what this would let you do is write a story in which this magic exists, and has shaped society, without ever telling the reader about it.

    In other words, what you could do is write something that is not obviously a fantasy story. Say it’s (on the surface) a romance or a non-magical medieval AU, or even an urban fiction or modern-day action novel. But all the time, there are these little hints.

    Everyone in this society knows that browneyes are strong and tough, but not as smart or skilled as blue-eyes, or that all yellow-eyes are good with animals. But because everyone knows this, nobody really comments on it. Maybe they don’t even know why this is the case, just that it is. And in the same way, the narration never comes out and explicitly explains that there’s a magical effect that gives people different boons based on eye color, but it’s always just sort of tangentially mentioning strong browneyes, skilled blueyes, perceptive silvereyes, and so on.

    In effect, you’ve written a work where making assumptions about people based on an apparently unrelated characteristic is actually justified, but the justification is so well hidden that most people won’t notice it. Should allow a really interesting look at racism and prejudice.

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