Social Classes - The Art of World Building
Apr 302020
 
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A social class can mean different things depending on the society, but it is a way of defining not only income levels but lifestyle generalizations and expectations. People of each class will think, dress, and act differently than those of other classes in the same society. They will also have different needs and therefore values. Everything from spoken expressions and body language to rituals will depend upon one’s class, and it is typically quite difficult, even impossible, for one to switch between classes, which people are sometimes born into. We can do this with our invented classes.

In the United States and similar countries, there are five, each largely focusing on income. This economic indicator doesn’t need development as we can leverage real world examples. These classes, with examples, are:

  1. Upper Class (Elite): landowners, heads of companies and universities, “old money.”
  2. Upper Middle: professors, engineers, managers and directors, accountants, lawyers.
  3. Lower Middle: clerical and support staff for the classes above.
  4. Working: craft and factory workers, food and health service staff, repair shop staff.
  5. Poor: the homeless or those on public assistance (welfare, food stamps, etc.), or earning just enough to rise above this, with full-time wages but still below the poverty line

Some suggest a sixth class, that of “new money”—when someone from a lower class becomes wealthy due to an invention, winning a lottery, or otherwise vastly improving their financial situation. If class is based on wealth, they have technically changed class, and yet they may act quite differently from those who’ve been in that class far longer. They may even be rejected as equals because their behavior doesn’t morph overnight as their finances did.

In feudal Japan, people were born into one of three main classes, each with internal divisions. The highest was the royal class, which included the emperor and royal family only; the emperor was head of state, with little real power. Next came the noble (military) class, those who ran the country, which included shoguns (political and military leaders), daimyos (feudal warlords), samurais, and ronin (samurai with no daimyo). Roughly 90% of Japan was the lowest class: peasants (farmers and fishermen), merchants, artisans (entertainers, artists), and criminals. In a society dominated by a single group, such as the military or wizards, we might leverage Japan’s model.

When inventing our own class system, we define a hierarchy and who belongs to each. We can see that in the U.S. model, the highest class includes those who are in charge, but in the Japan model, the highest class is partly figureheads while those in charge are at the top of the second class. As is often the case, there may be no getting it “right” in world building but getting it plausible; we’re the one inventing the society.

Generally, the elite class members are rich, powerful, or of royal blood (or an equivalent), or some combination of these. They have the most prestige and power, unless someone like the feudal Japanese emperor is merely a ceremonial head of state, rather than the head of government; as covered in Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2), you may recall that the latter is the one with the real power. The elite class is very influential, often holding the purse strings within a society. They may only be symbolically in charge but could be those who are running the country, or the industries and institutions that drive it. These are the leaders who define policy, laws, and how life functions for themselves and the lower classes. In a constitutional monarchy, these would be members of parliament. In a military junta, they’ll be warriors at the upper ranks, like generals. If corporations dominate as is often true in SF, then CEOs and other leaders of industry will be here. If wizards are widely accepted instead of feared, this could include the most powerful.

The second highest class will be the most important professions in the society. Those who produce food, such as farmers and fishermen, can be in this class in a fantasy setting, if they are revered instead of taken for granted; in SF, machines have likely taken over, and in some instances on Earth, these professionals are only peasants, the lowest class. In SF, scientists, engineers, and higher officers would be here, including many who build or command ships (regardless of what we call the rank). In fantasy with wooden ships from the Age of Sail, commanders might be here. In a fantasy setting, knights and other important warriors could be included, like the Jedi of Star Wars.

These first two classes will likely exist because the most elite will want to distinguish themselves from those just below them and upon whom they rely to run the country, even though those people are subservient to them. We can assume that roughly 10% of the population falls into the top two classes, which leaves us to decide on how to divide the remaining population. We can decide that it’s multiple classes like the U.S. model, which is arguably more likely when industrialization causes additional groups of skilled laborers, who may need support staff (another class). Or we can leave it as one large class containing most of the population, which may be more likely in less technologically developed settings. The next table breaks down social classes in both fantasy and SF. What we see in fantasy is the three lower classes being merged into a single one.

 

ClassRolesSFFantasy
EliteFigureheads who direct next classCEOs, presidentsRoyalty
Upper MiddleHighly skilled/valuable/powerful professionals, those running countryCaptains, engineers, doctors, lawyersNobility
Lower MiddleSupporting upper middle classAdmin staffSerfs
WorkingEntertainers, service industry, factory staffSee roles
LowUnskilled labor, poor, homelessSee roles

Social Class Roles

It might seem like more work to define subclasses within these, but subdividing the groups can make sense. For example, an admiral or general has more prestige than a lieutenant, so while they’re in the same overall class, each might have different expectations thrust upon them. On my Llurien setting, there are at least four distinct, named warrior types, and while they’d all be in the second class, there would be a hierarchy/subclasses among them due to their rank and what roles they serve. Before I decided on a class system, I already knew who was considered more valuable and the resentments this caused in others, and by understanding classes, I knew how to define and use this more effectively.

Once we define our classes and who is in each, we can invent culture for them (this is our cultural scope). We would decide on the morals, values, and beliefs of each group, and a cultural vision based on the hierarchy. It’s safe to say that the elite class expects deference, though even in our modern society, they are often mocked (out of sight) by lower classes. The most rigid and elegant depictions of culture will be here. A trickle-down effect is in play, where lower classes are increasingly flexible and less formal, with their casual lifestyles an object of scorn from those above, who can be seen as elitist snobs. We should decide on these classes before inventing culture for any because the culture of each is partly in response to the culture of the others. Each class wants to distinguish itself, its members believing their way superior for one reason or another (because it supports their values, morals, and beliefs better than another class culture).

To determine a class cultural vision, look at the roles each fills in society and how important its members are, what problems plague them, and what traits allow them to overcome this. While the working class supports many people, individuals may be considered easily replaced as compared to an upper middle class admiral; there are only so many of the latter and yet anyone could probably become the former, like a waiter (no offense to waiters). A working class person is more likely to suffer certain kinds of abuse on the job than an engineer, but even the latter has problems, just of a different nature. A waiter must deal with poor tips, unexpected shift changes, and difficult customers. An engineer must deal with sloppy work by peers, shifting priorities, and clueless or obnoxious clients and managers. The waiter may value generosity, consistency, and kindness. The engineer may value diligence, planning, and patience. We don’t need to work out every scenario, but if we have one that needs clarification, this is one way to achieve it among social classes. Try not to go too far down the rabbit hole on this.

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