World Building: 5 Types of Societies for Your Novel
Deconstructing Bestselling Novels, One Doodle at a Time.
I recently received an e-mail from a Better Novel Project reader asking about world building. This is my response. 🙂
Before creating magic, fantasy, and hi-tech elements of the world, it’s important to create an underlying societal structure. To learn more about how our characters can organize themselves, let’s step away from the fiction for a minute…
Real World Inspiration from Reinventing Organizations
I learned about different organizational structures from Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. (Buffer, a company I admire, listed it as one of its favorite books).
Reinventing Organizations is technically a book about business. Laloux researched a new type of organizational structure that involves self-management and engaging your “whole self” to create more fulfilling work.
To support his theories, the author explains the historical progression of different types of organizations.
These descriptions are a fiction writer’s dream– perfect to apply to our own fictional groups and to add a dash of reality to a fantasy world.
Let’s look at the five types of social groups.
1. Red / Impulsive Groups like the “Deatheaters”
Reinventing Organizations describes the Red/Impulsive group as an ego-centric organization like the mafia or a wolf pack. You need to be physically strong enough to overpower others for what you want. There is a chief or boss, who operates through tantrums and violence. The leader needs extreme loyalty, so he surrounds himself with family members or childhood friends. Because the leader needs to buy allegiance from everyone else, Red/Impulsive groups cannot control large numbers of people, though they may attempt to through slavery.
- What They’re Good for: Red/Impulsive groups can mobilize quickly, so they are good for war zones or underprivileged areas that lack a more central authority.
- The Downside: To stay in power, the leader has to continually scare his people into obedience through showings of violence, or else someone else will steal control.
- Literary Examples: In Harry Potter, Voldemort and the Deatheaters are a Red group. Voldemort surrounds himself with his most loyal Deatheaters, and he isn’t afraid to execute anyone who displeases him. Voldemort is eventually betrayed by members of his inner circle, like Mrs. Malfoy and Prof. Snape.
2. Amber / Conformist Groups like “Panem”
Next, Reinventing Organizations discusses the Amber/ Conformist group, which it describes as very structured society with an ethnocentric viewpoint, like an organized religion, a military, or a government agency/ministry. In an Amber society, each citizen needs approval from the group, and often thinks in terms of the collective “we.” The morals are very black and white– there is no room for interpretation or innovation. Citizens in this society are likely to wear a uniform or other outward showing of their social position.
- What They’re Good for: Amber groups value self-control and are good for long-term projects (like building the pyramids). Compared to the chaos of the Red society, this group is very stable.
- The Downside: If someone doesn’t fit into the structured system, he is cast out of the group or punished. People are generally considered interchangeable because individuality and creativity are not of high-value. The citizens who don’t fit in may feel stifled and guilty.
- Literary Examples: In Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Tris starts out as a member of the selfless group “Abnegation,” which is a text book example of this kind of society. In Hugh Howey’s Wool, the silo is set up like an Amber society, and the citizens are not supposed to question what is outside. In The Hunger Games, Panem as a whole is set up as an Amber society– the district you are born into determines your entire way of life.
3. Orange / Achievement Groups like “The Sixers”
According to Reinventing Organizations, the Orange / Achievement groups is commonly seen in capitalistic corporations today. These groups have a world-centric perspective, and operate like many parts of a machine working together. The black and white morals of the Amber society are replaced by a belief in effectiveness– whatever works the best is the right answer! Orange societies question authority and above all, have a desire to get ahead. They have systems in place to provide incentives for meeting goals and performance appraisals.
- What They’re Good for: Orange groups are great for innovation and helping members feel accountable for outcomes. Members can succeed based on their merit alone.
- The Downside: Orange groups can be overly materialistic, and end up feeling souless when there is too much focus on the bottom line. They can also get caught up with corrupt practices to make those results happen.
- Literary Examples: In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the Sixers who work for IOI (Innovative Online Industries) are an Orange group– they will stop at nothing to find the digital “Easter Egg” for their company. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the I.F. “International Fleet” uses its Battle School to develop leaders that will bring down the Buggers, no matter the moral consequences. How about the quidditch teams in Harry Potter? Gryffindor recruits Harry Potter based on his merit as a seeker, even though he is just a first-year. Later, as team captain, Harry makes everyone try-out for the team, even his friends. Quidditch teams like Slyterthin employ other means-to-an-end practices, like faking a Dementor attack during a game.
4. Green / Pluralistic Groups like the “Amity Faction”
Green/Pluralistic groups are all about harmony and equality– they don’t believe in social classes. They function like a family, and decisions are made based on everyone’s input and feelings. Think of the communes of the 1960s, or other giving-oriented groups like non-profits and social workers.
- What They’re Good for: They focus on respecting people and the environment, all while doing community outreach. The leaders trust workers to make decisions on their own without getting approval.
- The Downside: Green groups are uncomfortable with power and hierarchy, so there may be a lot of stalemates when it comes to decision-making. Also, others may abuse its tolerance. It’s hard to enforce the rules or get anything done when no one is really in charge.
- Literary Examples: In Divergent, the Amity faction (aka “The Peaceful”) is a Green group. Perhaps the Eloi from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine would fall into this category, too.
5. Teal / Wholeness Groups like the “Cullen Coven”
The real focus of Reinventing Organizations is the Teal/Wholeness group. Laloux describes this group as a self-managing organization where members are less concerned about the need to fit in, and instead develop the “capacity to trust the abundance of life.” They consider both feelings and data when making decisions, and members focus on their own calling as well as service to the world. A leader provides advice, but members are not required to follow it.
- What They’re Good for: Teal groups pursue a full life, which is not necessarily equal to wealth. The members are not required to wear a “mask” when they go to work, and instead present their “whole self” in everything they do.
- The Downside: Self-managing organizations are new, so it’s easy for members or leaders to slip back into the old urge to control others. Also, it may be a rocky road to transition to a society where a well-lived life is of higher value than actual money. (For example, what will happen to currency?)
- Literary Examples: In Twilight, the Cullen Family coven seems like a Teal group to me, because each member is free to leave at any time, and the leader Carlisle acts more like a sounding board than a decision maker. Because they’ve risen above the typical vampire goal of hunting human blood, they have time to study music, medicine, and develop relationships. A more clear example of a Teal group is The Federation from Star Trek, a society that has moved past currency and is focused on bettering themselves and the galaxy.
Why it Works
Even with the most imaginative fantasy elements, a fictional world cannot shine if the characters that populate it are flat. By organizing characters into these five societies, they come pre-loaded with some motivation and struggles.
Some of these ideas overlap with our study of theme. We previously identified a common theme of “racial” tension between groups– in Harry Potter there are muggles vs. wizards; in Twilight there are vampires vs.werewolves.
We also saw conflict between different socio-economic groups– in The Hunger Games, there is tension between residents of the Seam, District 12, and the Capitol.
Finally, we looked at the blurred lines between groups of good and evil characters.
By combining themes of racial or socioeconomic tension and moral doubt on top of these five organizational structures, your characters will jump off the page and readers will be motivated to explore the world you created.
I think at least two more world-building posts are in order before adding an index card to the master outline. Let’s follow up with an analysis of which of these types of organizations appear in Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. Then we can move on to the juicy stuff– establishing rules of “physics” that will apply to the magic and fantasy elements.
What do you think of these five types of societies? Are there others? How would you categorize the different groups in The Lord of the Rings? Game of Thrones?
More novels on Betternovelptoject
Collins, Suzanne (2009-09-01). The Hunger Games. Scholastic Inc. Kindle Edition. (“HG”).
Meyer, Stephenie (2007-07-18). Twilight (The Twilight Saga). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Kindle Edition. (“TW”).
Rowling, J.K. (2012-03-27). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1). Pottermore Limited. Kindle Edition. (“HP”).
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