Welcome back to our series on worldbuilding! Today’s topic picks up where we left off – only, this time, we’re taking a look at the effects of peacetime on culture rather than war.
So let’s get stuck in.
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Types of Peace
The realm is at peace, life is good, cities are thriving, the people are happy, and all is well. Or is it? First of all, let’s take a step back and determine exactly what ‘peace’ means in the context of your particular world at this particular time. Not all peace is created equal. Here are a few examples of different sorts of ‘peacetimes’:
– Is it a temporary respite, a chance to catch the nation’s breath before marching off to war?
– Is the peace actually false, and a cold war is going on? (this is a perfect breeding ground for spies and espionage, of raising the stakes and building tension. The Renaissance had some brilliant gadgets and combination weapons for example.)
– Are there too many idle minds, idle hands, and questions being raised over the government; is the government corrupt? Are certain officials being favoured too highly? What sort of scandals are there?
– Is there famine, drought? How’s the economy doing? Did the market crash? Did the shipping fail on account of terrible storms? Are there pirates? The nation may not be at war, but that doesn’t mean its borders are secure. How about highwaymen, bandits? The criminal underworld? How’s the level of civil unrest? Rising? Secret societies, organisations that are slowly on the path to a coup, or openly plotting revolution?
– Recovery: is your nation recovering from a long (or short) war? What are the effects of it? Are the cities destroyed, have families lost loved ones? How long ago was it? (In one of my novels, the story is set twenty years after the last war fought on home soil – there have been other wars but not nearly so close to home! – and the protagonist and his generation grow up without having known war. His older siblings, older cousins, parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents – those who weren’t killed in battle – have all lost family members. For our protagonist, war is an abstract concept; for others, it’s very, very real and the scars run deep.)
Perhaps, as a result of war, the economy has been kickstarted (take a look at how radically Japan changed following World War II). Perhaps the old culture has completely shifted.
– Prosperity. Everything is good. Crime is at all time low, the people are well fed, entertained (‘Are you not entertained?’), the social order is well established. Everything is flowing smoothly. What does this do? It draws people in, because who wouldn’t want to be part of that? Especially if your homeland isn’t doing so well. How are newcomers treated? Does this arouse the jealousy of other nations, the eyes of bandits and warlords alike? A prosperous realm is one that is ripe for plundering. And a realm at peace may not have recent martial experience. But maybe the military is well armed, well trained, and there’s a strong navy. Maybe there isn’t a need for one. Perhaps you have a magical barrier in place, or war simply hasn’t happened. Maybe your empire (or other form of government) has unified everything. What about individual buying power?
So those are a few examples of peace. But perhaps, most importantly: which peace do the people believe it is?
How it can go Wrong
Now, all that said, stability lasts only as long as it’s maintained, and a functional realm is like a well-oiled machine with many, many moving parts, and any single one of those could go wrong at any given time. After all, one can never overlook the ‘human factor’. Even if your roads are the best in the world, with drainage and last for centuries, (looking at you, Ancient Rome), your aqueducts bring water from miles away (still looking at you, Ancient Rome), your people can elect officials, there’s food, all it takes is a drought, too many mouths to feed, or even just a highly ambitious individual (whether jealous, greedy/hungry for power, or wanting to change things with genuinely good intentions), can rock the boat. Say your realm’s granaries are overrun by a swarm of bugs – now all the reserves are gone. Or the livestock catch a plague. What if that same plague strikes your civilisation? Crowded people packed together… what exactly is your level of healthcare and the knowledge of disease? Do you have refrigeration? Maybe it’s a sci-fi and these are all things of the past – so what happens if an ancient pathogen is released, perhaps from polar ice caps melting or an archaeological find?
The point of all this, dear reader, is that peace is extremely tentative and must be maintained. Disgruntled persons, whether law enforcement commissioners or even those on the ground, can make a difference to your protagonist, depending on where they are in society. The perfect peace more often than not tends to be an illusion – and when writing a world, that is probably a good thing. Conflict drives the plot.
So here are a few other ideas about disrupting the peace:
– Corporations. Bylaws. New laws. Profit margins. Workers’ conditions.
– Taxes. The treasury – is there really enough to go around? What is prioritised? Infrastructure? Education? Healthcare? Commerce?
– Politics. How is the nation being ruled? What is the outlook? Liberal, conservative; what archaic and/or current traditions and customs are there? How does this affect things? Remember, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in your world will differ from ours, and differ from nation to nation, generation to generation. It might be the most liberal thing ever to have a family of two parents and children – instead of being part of an extended family and clan. It might be more conservative to join the army and take a tour, because that’s what the last eight generations have done. Art might be viewed in many ways, and used to uphold the regime, the grandeur and splendour of the realm, or it might be a way of speaking out against it, or both at the same time.
– How are military endeavours regarded during peace? Are the war heroes celebrated on national feast days? Or is it quietly pushed under the table until the populace needs to be reminded of the sacrifice, bravery and cost of their recent and less recent ancestors? (Which may or may not be directing attention away from other issues).
– What social issues are there? Is the drinking water clean? Are there sewers? In a fantasy or sci-fi world, all kinds of nasties could grow in the sewers. What about laboratories? What sort of experiments are going on there, and do they break loose? It could be a simple matter of everything is peaceful and good to post-apocalyptic in a matter of weeks, or even days, depending on what horrors are unleashed. It could be a mutating virus, it could be an ancient rite enacted, a portal to another world.
There is so much that could happen. What about ‘alien’ visitors? Strange ships off the coast, strange ships coming down from the sky? The merfolk have climbed up onto the shores and are heading inland – perhaps fleeing something? And then there’s that other pesky thing: what’s happening beyond the borders, in other nations? Is there a warlord, perhaps on horseback, leading a great host that is sweeping across the continent and heading straight for you, an unstoppable storm? Is there literally an unstoppable storm (perhaps a dust storm) coming for you?
Culture During Peacetime
Admittedly, all of these are ways to disrupt the peace. So let’s consider something else. Culture during peacetime. What sort of cultural pursuits are being followed by your people? Are the arts flourishing? Theatre, literature, satire? What activities are there to keep your people entertained? Spelunking? White-water rafting? How’s the marketplace? Stocked with all sorts of exotic and local goods? How patriotic are your people feeling? How do they display this? Is your sovereign (whatever title he or she, or they, actually hold) beloved, well regarded? If everything is all as it should be, then perhaps your protagonist as no social reason to want to change anything, but the conflict is personal. For example, love during wartime can have its own share of hardships, such as being away from each other, the threat of being parted, restricted communication; in peacetime, they may have other issues to contend with – perhaps as simple as paying the bills or wondering if they should make a move because that same urgency isn’t there.
Generally speaking, if your people are happy, well-fed, and feel well-governed, things aren’t bad enough to rebel yet. In the which case, perhaps your characters are able to relax and live in safety, allowing you, the author, to work on other problems for them. But remember: there is always the news, and just because your characters are safe, it doesn’t mean that everywhere in the nation has to be. Industrial accidents, for example. A flood, a burst dam, what-have-you. Just sprinkling things in, even in Ye Olde Medieval Fantasy, can help make the world feel more alive.
Also: literacy. How literate are your people, and what access does the government permit them to book? What levels of censorship are there? What is deemed ‘vice’; are there obscenity laws? How is the legal structure organised? For example, are there driving licenses? Is there a legal drinking age? How is a person’s coming of age celebrated, if at all? What celebratory days are there? What do people celebrate and why? How rowdy does it get?
How about sports? What is the national pastime? How many different sports are popular, and how civilised or ugly is the behaviour of the fans?
Are there national parks, places of natural wonder and beauty for the populace to enjoy?
An Example from my Works
Okay, granted, this post has a lot of questions posed in it, very few examples, and revolves mostly around losing the peace, so here’s an example of one of my own works “Salt” – an extract of which you can find underneath ‘excerpts’.
In Salt, life is good. In fact, life is so good it’s downright tedious. The ‘call to adventure*’ comes not from any external factor, but simply a dissatisfaction and wanderlust. Our heroine more or less pushes her best friend into taking a trip – he’s travelled before, so he’s (mostly) happy to go along with it. She simply wants to see what’s out there and uses a dream she has to justify it. Along the way, the pair encounter various things, but the world is not against them – that doesn’t mean they don’t get into trouble, but most of the time, that trouble is a direct result of our heroine causing it.
*The classic ‘hero’s journey’.
Peace can be a wonderful thing to explore. Consider taking aspects of contemporary life and transferring it into a fantasy/sci-fi setting while throwing in other plotlines. For example, a murder or a romance. Peace doesn’t need to be restrictive, or boring; there are always things for your characters to do, even if they just decide to up sticks and leave, taking a vacation from the daily grind. Who knows what they’ll see along the way – perhaps something they’re not supposed to? And remember: peace doesn’t need to last, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. There are always elections.
For me, personally, in most of my writing, it is the cost of peace – the upkeep and what it costs to maintain it – that is important on a national/global scale. Is it through war, through diplomacy, commerce, (which may or may not be linked), a technology arms race/supremacy, and how does this affect the day to day life of my characters? In some cases, not at all; in others, it matters. Where does civic duty end and personal liberty begin? That’s down to you, dear reader, but bear in mind, it need not be static.
So there you have it: a brief dip into some of the effects peace can have on a culture. Next time, we’re going to be exploring ‘The Basics’ – and a look at different types of world (whimsical, cynical), conveying the tone of that world, more on my own experiences, and a brief look at how to set up world (peoples, fantasy races, aliens, etc). Stay tuned!
Let me know what you think in the comments. I’d love to hear what you need help on. As always, if you liked it, you’re welcome to leave a tip.