World-building Without Instinctive Norms In The Way

Want to know the best bit about writing fantasy (or science fantasy)? I get to break my own belief system on a regular basis, because if I don’t I end up writing entire character concepts wrong. I know, I know. If I make all of this stuff up from scratch, how can I write any of it wrong?

Most speculative fiction isn’t built completely from scratch. It’s a Frankenstein work of real life and imagination.

And yes, I’ve gotten entire characters wrong.

I even had to give one a sex change. Had him written as a female.

This is what happens when we let our cultural assumptions and beliefs get in the way of the story and the world. Weird, right?


So just how did this character start as a female and end up a male? The same way I’ve had some fascinating conversations with Shay about Dragon Hoard Books. I let social norms I felt as instinct get in the way.

Instinctive Norms

Remember the beliefs I wrote about Monday? The ones so ingrained they’re practically instinct? That doesn’t just happen with hijacked survival instincts. The first beliefs this happens with are social norms.

We don’t need the “differences between the sexes” spelled out for us, because when we’re children, we observe men and women behaving differently. We internalize those differences through imitation. As a child, I internalized the “wrong” behavior set, and thus the social machine moved to correct me through parents, peers, relatives.

Gender is not the only social norm this happens with, either. Morality and the good vs. evil dichotomy. Political leanings. How we determine those we spend time with.

All these actions can trace back to what I call Instinctive Norms. These norms aren’t instincts. They’re social structures. Yet we believe and embrace them instinctively, because they were never extrinsically taught.

If you grow up in a community full of similar-looking people, it’s not unusual to have a strong curiosity about those who look very different when you leave that community.

If you grow up in a community full of all types of people of varying size, body type, racial disposition, and cultural background, then move to a more homogeneous community, it’s not unusual to feel displaced and out of sync with the people around you.

We humans learn better by watching, experiencing, and doing than virtually any form of rote learning when it comes to social expectations and culture. We pick up these expectations especially fast as children—information sponges that we were back then.

Unfortunately, I can’t stay within the same framework if I want to write the stories in my mind.

Instinctive Norms & Writing

I know it’s two days later, but do you still have that list of five differences between women and men? If not, jot down a new list. Create a heading for each gender, and write five traits under each.

Now cross out the headings and swap them, any assumption not involved in child-bearing. That’s what the culture of Nexeus Elves looks like.

My character’s submissive tendencies and love for fashion made more sense for a Nexeuan man.
And then there are Core Elves. They don’t really HAVE gender roles. At all.

So yeah, building Vermillion has been a wild ride. I’ve had to prevent my own Instinctive Norms from sabotaging the depth and breadth of my world-building.

How about you? Have you ever created something with one intention and realized your own Instinctive Norms got in the way? Or is it something you’ve ever looked at?

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