There has been an undercurrent of classism in the news lately. Here in America with the Fiscal Cliff looming over us, we are arguing about who should pay for the budget deficit. There is a great divide between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots”. Current slang has them as the 1% and the 99% – At least according to the people who call themselves “the 99%”. The thing is that this sort of divide has been around since before we kept records of such things. It is a part of every culture in all the nations that we know about (I would guess that it’s even in the cultures we don’t know about yet, but who can tell with aliens). Despite the fact that it is an omni-present facet of our existence, politicians and social reformers all over the globe have tried to eliminate it.
Communism was meant to make all people equal, exactly equal by any outside measure. In that it has failed. In every communist country the leaders live a better quality of life than most of the population. The American democratic system declares that we are all have equal opportunity and any difference in life is the result of our choices. Again, that isn’t how it has played out, successful people give their resources to make sure that their children are successful too. Money begets money and money attracts money. Even in places like England where they don’t try to cover up the fact that there are some who have more than others, the people at the bottom aren’t too happy about it. In India they used to have their classes frozen into casts that were almost unbreakable, but they promised their people that if they lived good lives within their casts this time around they would be reborn into a higher cast. They abolished that system on paper a couple of generations ago, but even people born after that the cast system is still very apparent.
I’m not here to tell you what the solution to all of this is. I haven’t got a clue. It’s an intractable problem, but one that provides a very big window into the inner workings of human culture. When it is apparent even in the most primitive, isolated cultures there must be something basic about it.
The way I look at it, class is a way for us to organize our world. Humans need to have an organized world otherwise we would be so bogged down in the details that we’d never get anything done. Class is just one of many ways that we do that. Class tells us who are the leaders, the successful ones, the people to aspire to be. Never mind that it’s an imperfect system that often rewards or punishes people for the accident of birth. It’s still a system, and one that is apparently encoded in our genes.
What class any person belongs to and how they feel about that is a function of family and ambition. To put it bluntly, the better the class of your family, the less ambition you need to get to the top. Those born at the top are usually quite satisfied with the system as it stands – why shouldn’t they be, they get all the benefits. Those born lower tend not to like the system, but that depends on how skilled they are at working their way up the ladder. Once the born at the bottom types make it to the top, they are even more fervent in their defense of the system. Why? Because they managed to get what they wanted so why would they want it changed to benefit people who couldn’t have risen on their own.
Not every person, or character, likes this system. Some of them manage to go sideways and sneak out a life that isn’t based on the class system of the society around them. Others rage against the system (some effectively and some not). These are the interesting stories to tell. Those who fight the system, sneak away from it or in some other way just don’t go along with it live in conflict. Conflict is the lifeblood of story. I’m not saying that a story needs to be about class, just that if you pick a character in contention with the class system, you pick a character who will always have a conflict, even at the slow points in the plot. It will also give you a hook to hang class related themes on without bopping your readers over the head. Even if you choose a character who accepts or even enjoys the class system in which they live, there will be others who contend with them simply because if their class. A prince and a peasant will have a bit of a conflict to get over before they can become friends.
Aside from the conflict aspect, everyone is part of a class (whether they like it, recognize it or not). Who they are is a product of where they stand in life. That prince and peasant from earlier, may become friends but they will always have different perspectives on everything. The prince will just expect that comfort is part of life and be rather cranky when he can’t get it. The peasant however will expect to work hard for everything he has and hold onto it with dear life. Excesses will astound him at the least and might piss him off if he thinks that it was his labor that allowed it.
In other words, look around at the world today and see how class is part of everything. Take all of that and infuse your stories with it; infuse your characters with it. Doing so will save you from flat characters and worlds.