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Story World Building: Social Contracts

The terms of the social contract in Dick and Jane’s world puts pressure on them to behave in certain ways. The constraints can make whatever they have to do to solve the story problem difficult, if not impossible. If Dick and Jane violate the social contract in their world, they pay a price for it.

It is especially important in Fantasy and Science Fiction when writing about alternative worlds that you consider the demands social contracts impose on the people in them. 

In writing historical novels, it is important to understand what the social contract of the time and place required. Morals and practices changed over time and across geography. Small desert tribes had a different social contract than societies in king-ruled Europe and those of hunter-gatherers in Africa.

Studies have suggested that groups of one-hundred or less are pretty good at self-regulation. There isn’t a need for organized law enforcement in such a small community because the members all know each other and are able to keep tabs on one another. If one of the members commits an act that is detrimental to the group, the other 99 are willing and able to correct or punish them. Even in a small community, there are rules that they follow to keep the peace.

It isn’t in the group’s best interest if they can’t trust one another. If someone is lying, stealing, killing, or lusting after someone else’s mate, conflict will ensue and the transgressor will be booted out. It is hard to survive in the world alone, especially if you suck at hunting or gathering.

In groups larger than one-hundred, it is imperative to have some form of social contract with rules that are enforceable and enforced. The golden rule of most societies can be boiled down into the loose statement: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” This isn’t effective if you’re visiting a community of purple people eaters.

Ancient Egyptians had a long list of “I will not ...” statements in their Husia. Jews and Christians embraced commandments which included admonitions to not worship different gods or idols, to not lie or bear false witness against a neighbor, to not murder, commit adultery, steal, or covet their neighbor’s wife.

Hinduism’s rules of dharma encouraged patience, forgiveness, self control, honesty, sanctity, control of senses, reason, knowledge or learning, truthfulness, and absence of anger.

In your story world, your characters will be subject to the rules of their society's contract. If Dick breaks those rules, there will be consequences. He may fight to change the rules or reveal the dark side to one of his society’s rules.

It is considered a plot hole if you apply modern sensibilities to the people from a historic setting. That doesn’t mean you can’t take some artistic license. However, having Victorian girls behave like the cast from a modern reality TV show does not work for most readers, unless you are portraying an alternate universe in Science Fiction or adding a Fantasy twist. 

Errors of this type will, at the very least, make the reader cringe. At worst, your book will go on the to-be-burned pile.

If you write fantasy or Science Fiction, develop your own ten commandments for your story world. How are they enforced? What are the consequences for breaking them? Are some infringements more serious than others? Are some ignored on a routine basis without consequence?

In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the citizens of District 12 aren’t supposed to hunt outside the fence, yet Gale and Katniss do so regularly. Because they transgress, Katniss is better prepared to survive the Hunger Games. Breaking the social contract benefitted her. Katniss and Peeta break the contract again at the end of their first Hunger Games by refusing to kill each other, which sets up the conflict for the second book in the series.

Think about your story. Have you directly or indirectly explored social contracts in your story world? Have you put it to work for you in terms of complicating your characters’ lives? Have you utilized transgressions and punishments?

For more information on crafting believable obstacles, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

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