Discussion: Class systems in fantasy?

Forums Fiction Themes Discussion: Class systems in fantasy?

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    Mrs. Skywalker

    Hey everyone! I know a lot of Story Embers members write fantasy up here and I know you guys take your world building seriously (as you should!)

    One aspect of fantasy worldbuilding I find interesting is the different social classes and how they interact with each other in their worlds.

    As in, what type of prejudices do they have against each other, and why?

    But what kinds of things do you think makes for a good social system and classes in fantasy societies? The things that separate the people into different classes, higher and lower? And do you feel like things like race, gender, and money for status quo are overdone in fantasy?

    Keeper Of The Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger has made an interesting social class system by making where you are judged based by your ability to preform magic (it’s a little different than magic but basically) and who you marry (which is predetermined for you based on genetic perfection).

    What are YOUR thoughts? I’d love to know. I am interested in writing fantasy, and I could use the help!

    "I never made a deal with Kanjiklub."

    Naiya Dyani

    @padawanpadme Ooh, class systems. . . something I need to work on!

    My current WIP mostly takes place in a rural mountain village where class lines are a lot more lax than they might be elsewhere. However, I am dealing with some social issues in the village that I have to figure out. See, there are two characters that give me an interesting dilemma. One is from a racially different tribe from most of the other characters, and one is deaf. I’m trying to figure out how to portray different views here, because I want my MC to be on their side (like, in an equal rights sense) but since this is fantasy in a time kind of like the 1600s-1700s, I also want things to sound realistic (i.e., not sounding like a 21st century civil rights article, you know?). Because in all honesty, for most of history, life hasn’t been easy for people that don’t fit into the norm in a culture. The problem isn’t quite as huge with Kiet, the racially different character; contention over his association with his tribe (not just from a skin tone standpoint) is already part of the plot. My bigger issue is with Kedori, my deaf character. He’s in the care of his aunt after his mother died, and he wants to go to school, but his aunt doesn’t think it’s practical (since finding a job using those skills would be much harder in that time and place with the deafness factor added in). I’m trying to figure out how to make my main characters take his side while still making them sound like people of their time, you know?

    If anyone has tips on this, by the way, I’m very much open to assistance! 🙂

    Hearts are like matter--they can be beaten down, torn, and burned, but they cannot be destroyed.

    R.M. Archer

    @naiya-dyani What if your MCs’ values are in line with supporting Kiet and Kedori, but the society around them has biased them somewhat against it, so it results in awkwardness and discomfort on the part of the main characters as they want to support Kiet and Kedori but aren’t really sure how, or how to balance their desire to help with what they were always taught/what they’re familiar with?

    Speculative fiction author. Mythology nerd. Worldbuilding enthusiast. Singer. Fan of classic literature.

    Naiya Dyani

    @r-m-archer Hm, that could help! This is the book I’m doing for NaNo, so even though I don’t have a ton of time at the moment to stop and rework stuff, after November (or when I get a moment–oh wait, that doesn’t happen lol) I definitely need to fix that stuff, so it’s great to have plans queued up in advance! Plus, if I can incorporate ideas right now, that means less work for me later. 🙂

    Kiet’s an interesting situation. He lived in a different country for the first thirteen years of his life, then met another character under crazy and dangerous circumstances, after which they both moved to the village the story I’m working on takes place in. At that time, he’s about fifteen or sixteen (still deciding) and has lived there for some time. He’s my INFP character and most people love him as long as they don’t have anything against Sirakani Birkatans (his tribe). The first part of the plot centers around trouble with certain people who do.

    Anyway, since he’s an INFP, I’ve heard (including from people here) that that type typically acts automatically on their values over the general biases of the culture, though they can be influenced by each other. (I can also agree with this generalization since I’m an INFP 😉 ) So far in the story, when Kedori is bullied, Kiet steps up with more passion than you usually see out of him. One of my other characters takes a passive bystander stance to most of the bullying that happens to Kiet and Kedori. The main one I have an issue with is my INTJ(ish?) MC. Gotta figure out how she’ll react!

    But yeah, incorporating your advice could definitely add a valuable layer of realism to all that. Thanks!

    Hearts are like matter--they can be beaten down, torn, and burned, but they cannot be destroyed.


    Great question!

    Someone may have said this already, but a culture’s values often determine class systems. For example, I had an idea for a fictional culture that prizes asymmetry, quirkiness, and oddities  – a value that trickles into its concept of beauty (e.g., women purposefully wear their makeup asymmetrically, etc.). Since this culture values uniqueness (and therefore, may downplay or abhor convention), class systems can arise: unique people are “higher” in society & are given more opportunities, whereas un-unique people are “lower” in society & are in lower positions. As a side note, there’s technically no such thing as an entirely un-unique person, but I digress 🙂

    Try jotting down one or more key things that your world values (e.g., power, knowledge, nature) and things that threaten those values (e.g., weakness, ignorance, etc.) then come up with characters that would, therefore, be considered “high” or “low.” Have fun!


    • This reply was modified 2 years, 4 months ago by Michaela.

    "May it be mercy I show for it is mercy I've been shown." - Written to Speak

    Taylor Clogston

    @padawanpadme I feel like if you include an overt caste or class system and you aren’t also doing comprehensive worldbuilding on a Stormlight level, you’re telling your reader “here’s a point I’m making about class in the real world,” because you’re drawing attention to something that’s a hot-button issue in the real world.

    Which isn’t an inherently good or bad thing. It’s just something to keep in mind.

    In the real world, throughout nearly all civilized cultures, your class is determined mostly by your birth. Your family determines who you’re allowed to be around, how likely you are to be educated, and whether you’re even allowed to own land.

    I don’t think race, gender, or money are overdone as class differentials so much as when I see them as those differentials, they’re used in a clumsy and simple manner that tells the reader “hey treat people equitably” and has no nuance to it.

    I think a good caste or class system should have deliberate gradiation in it, at least regarding upward mobility. It’s a lot more common in the real world—and throughout the history of the world—for a person’s class privilege to be stripped from them than it is for them to suddenly gain a ton of class privilege. Like, a noble whose family refuses to pay his ransom will end up a slave at once, but once you’re a slave, it takes multiple generations of ideal circumstances before your descendents are even on the same level as an ordinary citizen. Or, you might end up an outcast because your fortunes capsize and a political rival sues you for all your landholdings, but even if an ordinary person were to gain that same amount of wealth, society would not accept them. This is old money vs new money.

    If a person were to come along with extraordinary gifts, they would most likely be manipulated by the people around them rather than shoved into their own cool kids class. A rich old lady might pay for your education as your patron, or the local noble might pay your parents a lot of money to adopt you and then tell everyone you’re his firstborn child, or if you were a slave by birth or circumstance, your corpulent master might parade you before his party guests to do magic tricks at dessert.

    has a great point about values tying into class. I don’t think it’s realistic that people adhering to values will help their mobility, though. In the real world, we instead see the people in privileged classes convincing everyone that they do adhere to those values more than they actually do, and claiming that they therefore have more value, though they used their inherently greater resources to achieve that.

    Like, all the low-class women wear their makeup asymmetrically, but all the high-class women have the money to get plastic surgery to be even more asymmetric. Also, they go around telling everyone it’s natural, and that the finer breed of women in high society are just so much naturally prettier than low-class women. And I will stop typing now before I go on about how the low class women believe it and are racist against themselves because they believe the high-class women deserve all their power and wealth and have earned it by being naturally superior.

    Going back to Stormlight: I’m pretty bored by the worldbuilding in that series but I like the class system. We get a sense of a realistic hierarchy based on ancient religion, one which has clear roles for men and women without just being “women slaves, society sexist” like you usually see in this situation. We get a picture of modesty which absolutely reflects the diversity of that concept in the real world without just being an excuse to have female characters walk around without a lot of clothes on “because different standards, fantasy world, I write whatever I want, she breathes through her skin it’s totally scientifical guys.” Which is also what you often see in this situation =P And finally, we see a slow method of upward social mobility between the dahns and nahns, which are very difficult to pass between but which fuzz a little where they meet. Not to mention the role of the Ardents. It’s a cool system that feels believable.

    "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

    Sarah Inkdragon

    I find it slightly amusing, to be honest, that in America(the land of social correctness and animal welfare plus… well, politicians trying to be preachers) we find more class that we do not. Let me put it this way – class defines a person’s perceived social or economic category. And America is very much defined socially in the borders of Dem vs. Rep or Pro Life vs. Pro Choice, etc. We’re also economically defined in the areas of poor vs. the 1% or union vs. self employed, govt. job vs. self sustaining. We strive for a world without social, racial, cultural, or economic barriers, but in doing so we trap ourselves behind new walls – walls made of social justice, walls made of the “perfect ideal” and walls made of what we think we are. I’ve found that people are rarely what they say or think they are.

    Moving on to class again – in fantasy class can be both good and bad. I’ve seen it used as a sort of “magic system” in which the challenge of the MC is to rise as high in the system as he can, gaining power as he goes until he’s the ultimate warrior. (Ex – A Knight’s Tale.) Other times, it’s used to merely point out a social or economic issue(or something that neither but is inserted into class anyhow) – like pointing out the peasant’s fate, or pointing out supposed “archaic” women’s roles, or pointing out racism. Typical easy writing that lets you show a supposed moral issue without really pointing out why it’s there, why it is still there, and what it causes. Another thing it can be used for is pointing out what class really is – a divide in social or economic circumstances/beliefs. Slavery was a thing back in pre-Civil War America because it had started long before then as a social issue, then morphed into an economic issue of profit. Having workers you don’t need to pay is terribly profitable, you see.  Class is best used when it is used as class, in my opinion.

    Gender is…. an interesting subject. I don’t think it really fits in the area of class, however, for one reason – it cannot be changed. Gender is one of those things that is absolute, no matter what people would like to say, and unlike that class flows on change. Economic uprising and downfall feed the masses, my darling. Systems like the caste system in India, which appears not to change, still deals with change. It merely prohibits it. You cannot have a class that’s based on something that never has and never will change really, because then you’re just creating a stereotype or social construct – but not really a class. We could say all women are below men in this one fantasy world, but what about within women? Is the governor’s wife any better than the peasant’s daughter, or all they all at the bottom of the barrel together? There’s no fluctuation or prohibition of fluctuation like we see in a good class system. Let’s take Harry Potter’s class system, just because it’s easy to remember and understand – “purebloods” are above “muggleborn” because they believe their magic is… well, better. A right rather than a privilege. They are the VIP’s, and no one is changing their mind. However, within the purebloods there is fluctuations in power, status, money, and standing. It’s not just pureblood = upper class and muggleborn = lower class. Things change. 

    Maybe you could build a class solely based off gender, but I’ve really yet to see an interesting or thought-provoking attempt.

    Classes based off power are interesting(check out old England, back when they married off their babies for land and money), because they’re also easily changed. Fate is a fickle creature, I believe some would say. (Chaucer, probably. He’d like that line.) Constantly shifting alliances, powers, and control makes a class system based on power interesting because it’s never absolute. People can fall, people can rise. Makes my day a little more entertaining as a whole. The man who values money will likely rise higher than the man who values family, until he threatens the man who values family and promptly gets erased from history. A value may get you somewhere, but it won’t get you everywhere.

    I also love the idea of adding in different worldviews and politics when thinking of class – for example, when speaking of economics – would a rich man or a poor man favor trickle down economics? The upper and the lower classes often have wildly varying worldveiws, so if you place that in a fantasy setting where Good King George wants to have a ball but his coffers are sadly empty, so he decides to tax the people, who promptly get upset and start the next peasant revolution – think about it. Good King George has lived in the lap of luxury his whole life, and likely never seen(or smelled) the conditions his peasants work in. He’s also likely being fed whatever lies his nobleman think will benefit them most over the state of the land(e.g. – it’s prospering so well, we need to tax it more to store up in case of bad years, my lord.), so he really honestly doesn’t know any better. His nobleman will likely tell him the people are trying to overthrow him because they’ve become powerful and rowdy in their prosperity – and the king, knowing he’s brought such wonderful prosperity to the land will not hesitate to crush them beneath his boot heel for their ungrateful impudence at him having one silly little ball. It’s rather fascinating, what you can do with a few economic principles and some greed.

    "A hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head."

    - C. S. Lewis

    Taylor Clogston

    @sarah-inkdragon I don’t think you’ll find many social theorists who agree that social class can be described as a difference in belief systems. If someone talks about class, you can assume they are talking about vertical stratification in social standing, not about what elements separate my moral and political views from yours.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your second paragraph, though, especially in the closing line, and that’s great advice in your final paragraph.

    "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

    Sarah Inkdragon


    It was a 1AM thought, but I think I meant it more in the area that… our moral/political/ethical beliefs are often a part of class separation, more often than not. They might not really define it, but they’re a part of what make us one or the other beyond just monetary/social status. Part of being blue collar or being a “rich old white man” (*cough* really general demographics, but you get the point) is being Dem vs. Rep in the eyes of statistics. Part of being middle class is being on a more middle ground many times. It’s just an interesting general correlation, I think. Definitely doesn’t always hold up –  but I find it amusing that we try so much in America to be a unified nation by defeating stereotypes and class standards, only to separate each other further. Perhaps not on a power/monetary standard, but in a social or psychological standard? I’d bet there’s more separation between real-ness in people than there ever has been before.  And maybe you can’t exactly call that “class” – but it’s something. *shrug*

    "A hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head."

    - C. S. Lewis

    Daeus Lamb

    You could base the cast system on intersectionality where the sins of the fathers damn their sons to the lower casts and you’re guilty until proven innocent. 😏

    👖 🐢🐢🐢🐢🐢

    Taylor Clogston

    @daeus-lamb Nice b8 Daeus =P In all seriousness a caste system like that could be cool to represent the sin state if someone felt the need to write a Christianity allegory that used a different setting than “Pilgrim’s Progress 2000.”

    "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

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