World Building 101: Institutions

Okay, so after everything you’ve already considered, it’s time to start looking into the major institutions in your primary society and any in secondary societies you’re planning to have your characters interact with. The biggies are government, social classes, and individual institutions. If you’ve managed to stay awake through most of your high school history classes, you’ll already have a fairly good idea of most of the major forms of government and variations you can make on them so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that. Social classes will generally tend to flow from both your form of government so I’m going to let those pass for now as well. However, individual institutions are where you can have the most fun.

The family unit is the primary individual institution. What is marriage like in your world? Is it a religious thing? A cultural thing? A contractual arrangement? Do you have two-party marriage only? Polygamy? Do you allow for multiple wives and multiple husbands? Can you have both in a multi-party marriage? Are they all married to everyone else involved or is it strictly only to those they wanted to marry with? How are children reared in a family? Is divorce or separation allowed? In what cases?

After the family comes the guild or tribe/clan structure. Do you have guilds for different professions? All or particular ones? Is membership required or optional? How are small towns or villages governed? Larger towns or small cities? Is there a religion? More than one? How intertwined is it with the government? What is the priest class like?

Then there’s the individual economic sphere to consider. Are there shops? Are they large or small? Single-product or multi? Is there an open air market? Is it daily, weekly, monthly? Are prices set or is haggling allowed? What about medical treatments? Are there hospitals or do priests handle the healing? Does your world have plagues and outbreaks that force quarantine?

How are crimes handled? Is there a professional police force? Trial by judge or jury or both? How is evidence given or collected? What’s allowed as evidence? Are there formal rules or is it informal? Are there jails? Are convicts sold into slavery? Executed? Branded? Some other punishment?

Finally, are individuals allowed to travel across national boundaries without needing any kind of permission or is travel pretty much free and open? What about settling abroad? Can someone born in nation A become a citizen or subject in nation B? What are the requirements?

You actually will find yourself having to deal with almost all of these as you write. Even if you’re not planning on doing a lot of world building, these kinds of things will show up in your story. Since almost every story is about individuals, you are going to see more individual institutions in play through a narrative than you will major institutions (though you do still need to keep tabs on those).

Next week we’ll step away from world building a bit to look at how others have done it and what they’ve done well and what aspects could use some work.

— G.K.

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