Worldcrafting Means People Too

Quite often, we writers forget that people and social situations for our characters are a large and very serious part of the world we are creating. Here in the USA the social structure is different than it is in other parts of the world. Not only do we generally not think we have one, but it is so misunderstood that many people in their own lives suffer tremendously because of it—all without having a clue about what has clipped their wings or allowed them to soar. Actual money in the bank is way down on the scale for how high a person’s perceived social level is.

Let’s start with this common situation. Clerks at quick stores quite often do not curl or fix their hair, attend to basic grooming, or wear enhancing but subtle makeup to the degree an office person does. They don’t iron their clothing and make sure it is crisp and well fitting with colors and cuts that flatter. They do not look like office personnel. Many display tattoos and piercings. Their speech patterns indicate they are concerned about people, not current events. They do not usually wear perfume or cologne and for some deodorant is a foreign concept. Good grammar and complicated word recognition is not usually widely used.

Their customers, however, are often business people, landowners, and travelers. Customers often have different value systems working than the clerks. These two sets of very nice and intelligent people quite often find themselves at odds over the simplest of things. Customers tend to not see beyond the surface and have no notion how complicated the job of a convenience store clerk actually is. It isn’t for the weak of back or mind. Customers regularly treat clerks with disdain whether it is quietly or not. Often clerks think customers are spoiled brats.

There are layers in our society. These are two. There are many more and are not difficult to find when you start looking. Each has its own dress code, speech, and position for where they go for entertainment, jobs, and living space. Public school mixes all of these groups together. However, public school will also divide itself into social groups. People can jump across lines going up or down by adjusting their physical behavior, dress, and speech faster than they can by which family they’re born into. Ever heard the phrase ‘dress like the job you want, not the job you have’? That refers to the fact that those in management heavily weigh outside clues to determine who gets new positions. They can’t help it, that’s how humans are built. Those who are passed over time after time even though very qualified, might want to consider whether they are displaying the right signals. Jumping into a different social strata is easiest when the expected requirements for both outside dressing and inside thinking are matched. That’s when we have secretaries marrying bosses.

This is a fairly controversial subject and I believe that no one set of people are more valuable than another, but I wish that there was more awareness of the ins and outs of our society—I’d like to see less heartache and heartburn over the seeming injustices that can be served up.

Our paper world can be whatever we dream it up to be with a social structure however we wish it.


Elaine Morrison said...
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Elaine Morrison said...

Oh wow, Nina, did you ever touch the tip of the iceberg. Your grasp of societial structure is great and very well expressed. This must enhance your writing a lot. But don't you think that the closer that we keep to the truth of social norms and mores, the more believable our stories are? Unless we're writing about paranormal worlds. (Which are fun because the social "laws" can be changed, different from what we know and makes for added interest to the story.) I was reading about characterization. Part of the advice was to keep personalities true to themselves for believalbe charachters - understanding of psychology helping this along. Wouldn't this be true of social situations in our stories also?

Roxann Delaney said...

I've found the clerks at QuikTrip to be one step up from a lot of the customers in the closest store here. In fact, most of the QT clerks seem not only nice, but they're intelligent and look sharp, too. Could that be regional, even within our state?

Reese Mobley said...

I never thought about people for worldcrafting. What an interesting take on our topic. Thanks for turning on the light bulb for me!!

Starla Kaye said...

This is absolutely part of world building, knowing the social structure of the time period. It doesn't matter whether you're using contemporary times, an historical time, or a made-up time period. Part of what makes up characterization is understanding how a character is influenced by the day-to-day world around him.

Becky A said...

Thanks Miss Nina!
Having been on both ends of the work spectrum, I can definitely identify with your blog. It is amazing how people will treat others they deem inferior. Someone I know worked as a government employee at Boeing for years. She took early retirement thinking she could get another job easily. Didn't happen. She ended up taking a job at Target. (For pocket money. Ha!) She had always looked down her nose at me for working retail. Boy was she in for some culture shock. She ranted and raved about having to follow their rules. I tried to warn her, but she didn't believe me. I think it did her some good to see how much of the world lives. You never know until you walk in someone else's shoes for awhile just what their life is really like. Going from twenty bucks an hour to seven at part time, is a big change. It would make an interesting story, don't you think? You read a lot about going from the bottom up, not much about from the top down. Thanks for another eye opening blog.

Nina Sipes said...

Thanks. I don't know if it enhances my work or not, but our social structure in the USA does exist in layers but the layers are thinner. All we have to do is watch for the clues to find them. Characters have their own character as people do. However, when you say truth of our social norms and mores, a person's truth is his own. You get any group of people together and then question them later about what happened while they were together and you'll end up with many different truths. Each person's truth will be about what was important to him/her. This starts with their backgrounds and upbringing. For example my sister and I have kind of the same background and upbringing, however, she needs a very nice vehicle, well cared for and newish so that it will never give her trouble. Nothing is out of place in it. Mine is a ride. I don't care particularly what it looks like or what is in it--even a radio, but it must run well and not stink. The trunk must not be dusty. The interior can be, but not the trunk. No junk in the trunk. But, the interior may at any time have two or three coats, the thingamagig I have to return, three books, and a roll of paper towels.
Notice the commonality--must run well. She equates that with newer. I equate that with maintenance. She has two pillows in the back seat, I have one in the trunk. The vehicles we grew up with may or may not leave us walking. They always had dusty trunks. The seals were shot. It isn't a hard fix, but when you ignore the fix and run dirt roads you end up with enough dirt in a trunk to grow a patch of potatoes if yo don't keep them fixed!
My and her characters are different-our backgrounds very similar--our reactions different but same. Personalities can be very individual, but the social strata for them can also be a factor in how they react to their world. We, my sister and I grew up without money, but with every need taken care of and knowing there was nothing out of our reach. We did not grow up with 'poor' attitude. Our family was one of the leading families of the homesteading era. Leading means different things to different people. To some it means money, to others it means organization, to others it means help and assistance. So, the main point I'm trying and probably very unsuccessfully to make is that the truth of social norms and mores are very different in their realities.
Now to answer your question.
Social situations in your stories must be kept pure to the story just like characters must stay true to themselves. I don't know if understanding psychology would be of assistance or a hindrance. I've never taken a course in any of those and therefore have no knowledge to base it on. However, if you are going to dream up a story, then you already know most of what you need. You can't get something out of your head that wasn't put in it by experience or observation. Run free. Write the story.

Nina Sipes said...

If the clerks at the Quick Trip are clean, orderly, welcoming, and nicely groomed, then the management, whether of that one store or all of them are imposing standards on their employees that will greatly enhance their working hours. Some employees will need no instruction, others will require a lot. I'm glad someone is looking out for their people and making sure that social issues aren't part of the problem, if they have a problem with a customer. Life is so much easier that way.

Nina Sipes said...

You said a mouthful when you said 'it is amazing how people treat those whom they deem their inferiors.' That, I'm sure, includes me too. Lucky for us, we're all a little blind to the way we treat others. I'm know there are people with the best of intentions that unknowingly cause heartache. I worry over being one and hope that any harm I cause won't be permanent.

Joan Vincent said...

Nina, no wonder your writing is so good. You've such keen observation and stylish writing skill!

Penny Rader said...

Oh no! I'm supposed to iron my clothes?!? ;D

I must confess that it's easier to wear a little more makeup for the office job I have now than when I was a bookstore clerk. Working in a bookstore gets to be pretty physical and sweaty with all the unpacking, shelving, creating displays, pulling them back off the shelves, repacking, not to mention running all over the store to find stuff for customers. Makes me tired just remembering all that. ;D