I’ve been watching the news lately with a strangely distanced eye. Mostly because I’m so tired of the current debates that I just don’t want to see them anymore and yet there they are so prominent and so full of misinformation on all sides that it’s rather disheartening. But from my writer’s observatory I look out over the issues causing all kinds of consternation today and see parallels with the issues of the past and with issues facing other cultures around our world. I see them reflected in the stories we tell ourselves of other worlds and gods. The patterns are there, even if the issues are different.
One current issue that I see reflected all over the place and throughout time is currently in the form of the Gay Marriage Amendment here in Minnesota (and other laws and amendments in the other states and even around the world). In the interest of full disclosure, I fall firmly in the camp of “let them marry”. I’m not going to get into the specifics of that here, because that isn’t my point. What I do see is that a group that has until recently been hidden and/or ridiculed is standing up and asking to be seen as human just like the rest of us. It’s been a long time coming and it will continue for many years to come. Not unlike the civil rights that African Americans are still fighting for. Or the Irish before them or the Jews back in the days when the Bible was being written.
Throughout history there have been groups of people who were dissatisfied with their outsider status. Eventually, they have made a big enough stink about it to cause cultural turmoil and things change. Sometimes that change didn’t go quite the way that they wanted, other times it did. Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere and get settled quickly – this is almost always an illusion. Take the Arab Spring: from over here in the West it really seemed to just spring up over night and the next thing you know all those governments were toppled. The truth is that the people over there had been stewing about it for years. They’d been whispering to each other that “someone should do something” until one day a whole bunch of someones did something. More than a year later and some of them are still fighting and the rest are struggling to figure out what to do now that they’ve finally got what they asked for. They stood up and said “we want to be treated like we are human too.”
In other cases, like with gay rights, the victories have been small and hard fought for years. To be clear, gay people have existed pretty much as long as people have. Different cultures have treated them differently, but the consensus about 100 years ago was that gay people were abominations. They were expected to hide or just go away. They didn’t. They mumbled and grumbled about it for many years. Then in 1969 they’d had it. Suddenly it was no longer possible for most people to ignore the fact that gay men and lesbians existed. They were there on the news – angry and defiant. In the years since, Pride celebrations have become a mainstay of June in most major cities and many smaller communities as well. Many people have come to just accept that there are homosexuals in the same way that they accept that there are heterosexuals. Others have become even more vocal about their dislike of homosexuality and seem to think that their lives, or at least their way of life, is threatened by the very existence of homosexuality. This dichotomy has touched off the current war being waged in legislatures, courtrooms and ballot boxes across the country today.
No matter what happens this November when I go to the polls and cast my ballot, this war will continue as far into the future as I can see. In the same way that Jews are still fighting for their place in the world since the days of Moses, and women are still struggling to gain the kind of equality they want with men and red headed Irish men and women are still facing jokes about their illegitimacy.
What does all of this have to do with writing? All of this is part and parcel of being human and living in a human culture. While the details will change from era to era and culture to culture, there will always be the groups that don’t get seen as being quite as equal as everyone else. Every culture will have their version of blond jokes. They’ll have some term that most people don’t notice is a racial slur (have you been gypped lately? – think that gypsies appreciate that term?). Every culture has instilled some level of tension between the haves and the have-nots, not always in monetary terms.
When you are developing a culture somewhere else (or borrowing one from Earth) be sure to include the outsiders: who are they, how long have they been the outsiders, how close are they to having had it? Think about how the insiders treat them without even thinking about it. This will add just a touch of tension to your story that can become so much more if you need it to. It all depends on how your main characters relate to it. If your MC is part of the out class, that will add a level of challenge and possibly freedom to their quest. If you MC is part of the insiders, what happens when they must depend on an outsider for a key piece to the puzzle? All of this adds color and depth to your story. You don’t have to make it a major theme or anything, but without it your world will appear flat. By not including this kind of cultural tension you run the risk of your readers assuming that it’s only about the insiders. Some readers can get rather touchy about that. (You don’t have to care, but if you do it’s important to know).
So think about the current cultural tension in your story. It might be only the background, but it’s always there.