In a few weeks I’ll be sitting on a panel with other writers at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York discussing world-building, and of course I’m worried that I’ll fall asleep on stage, or stand up to make a dramatic point as my pants fall down with a comical whistle sound, or make the mistake of choosing to discuss an author whose name I cannot properly pronounce. Among many, many other anxieties.
One aspect of world-building that doesn’t get mentioned much is actually one I consider to be crucial, and one of the first things you should ask yourself: Is the world you’re building self-policing or not?
The Self Police, They Live Inside of My Head
A self-policing society is one where the citizens handle much of the enforcement of norms, of laws, of traditions. The country we live is, by and large, self-policing; if I suddenly assaulted some old lady on the street and stole her handbag, chances are multiple people would do one of three things:
- call the police
- quietly submit my name to some sort of Star Chamber for future vigilante justice
That’s self-policing. We have real police, of course, but not that many of them. We rely on each other much more than we rely on cops to keep order, and we rely on each other 100% to ensure traditions and such are upheld. That’s why I actually wear pants in the first place, the heavy weight of society’s disapproval.
Totalitarian states are not self-policing, either because the population has stopped self-policing (either in protest or out of apathy) or because policing has been forcibly taken from citizens by the state. A self-policing society is more or less stable. One that doesn’t self-police can be a lot of fun, like living in Westworld, but it’s inherently unstable because if no one’s gonna force me to wear pants, I’m not gonna.
So, deciding whether your world will be self-policing or not is a pretty important aspect of your world-building, kids. It informs just about every other aspect of the universe, seeping into the spaces between your characters, driving actions big and small. Let’s call step one the Pants Question: If one of your characters casually took off their pants in the middle of the street in the middle of the day, would anyone do anything about it? That’s your answer.