There are certain parts of culture baked in so deeply that we may not realize they’re a part of our worldbuilding, because we don’t even realize they’re part of our world.
One of the places I see this most clearly is when it comes to the idea of individualism. By this I don’t mean the shallow sense of being quirky and unique, the sort of person who always wears unusual clothing or behaves in eccentric ways; I mean the ideology that promotes the self above all, in contrast with philosophies that emphasize the importance of the community and collective interests.
Because I’ve lived my entire life in a country that enshrines individualism possibly higher than any society in history has ever done, it’s easy for me to sing the praises of that ideology. Honesty! Self-reliance! Meritocracy! We hear its triumphant song whenever a woman refuses to “stay in her place” (below the less qualified men around her), whenever a queer person stops living a lie of heterosexuality or cisgender identity, whenever an abused person leaves their abuser despite the protests of their community. When each person has full freedom to live up to their potential, great things can result.
There’s another side to the story, isn’t there? It’s the side where people insist that mask mandates are an unacceptable infringement of their individual liberty, because their personal freedom to court a lethal disease is more important than helping to protect their neighbors during a pandemic. Where anyone who can’t hack it on their own gets left behind, because charity encourages and rewards weakness, and nevermind the structural inequalities dragging part of the population down. Where “I’m just speaking my mind” is offered up as justification for all manner of verbal cruelty.
The other side of the spectrum has its own equivalents, of course. Collectivism and communalism are great when they operate as a safety net, making sure nobody’s abandoned on the side of the road as the rest of society marches on. When they offer a sense of belonging, the assurance that it’s not up to you to find all the answers on your own. We’re social creatures, not solitary predators — no matter what fantasies the more rabid preppers like to indulge in. We need a community to survive.
Again, though: but. Collectivism also tells us, the tall weed gets cut down. The price of having a place in the world is that you’re supposed to stay in it. If you don’t fit, then it’s your responsibility to cram yourself in somehow, even if that means cutting bits of yourself off in the process. Better that than to burden everybody else with your demands for special treatment. Cultural norms and social pressure have all too often been used to privilege one subset of the population at the expense of another, passing that imbalance off as “the greater good.”
Neither approach is purely right, of course. Both individualism and collectivism can be done well, and they can be done badly. But the reason I bring it up here is that I suspect many writers rarely put much thought at all into this topic — and don’t realize just how profoundly it shapes their stories.
Anglophone fiction is soaked in the ideology of individualism, because that is the ideology that dominates the modern West in general, the English-speaking part of it in particular, and the American part of it above all. How many times have you read a novel, watched a TV show or film, or played a game where the plot hinges on the actions of a single protagonist, or at most a small group of special heroes? How often is the protagonist an iconoclast, refusing to accept their allotted place in life? How often have you heard characters exhorted to follow their dreams, and how often have those people found happy endings by rebelling against the restrictions society wants to place on them? The fact that their actions might bring unhappiness to their families, bosses, and other community members is merely an obstacle for them to overcome on their way to the triumphant finale. It’s so normalized, I suspect many people think that’s just what a story should look like.
Not all fiction is like this, of course, even in the English language. Tao Wong’s Thousand Li series, which explores the Chinese “cultivation fantasy” genre (where mystical martial artists grow their power in a bid to become immortal), pays attention to this continuum: by dint of leaving their families behind to pursue individual immortality, the characters are already breaking from the communal norm of mundane society. But within their sects, there is still pressure to defer to elders . . . and is there equal pressure on the elders to do right by those below them? In the fifth novel, Wong comments directly on this tension, when the protagonist’s master goes out of his way to help his student at a moment of great need:
Yet because they [unlike blood bonds] were chosen, so many relations between teacher and student, between those who trained, were strained, weak. All too often, the loyalty, the obligation only flowed one way. From student to teacher, where obligation transcended any weighting and grew, ever onward. All too often, what was given in return were but simple lessons — if that much — and chains of piety. […] To find a true family, individuals who would honor the unspoken demands of a proper teacher and student relationship, was rare.
What makes sense for a fictional culture is going to depend heavily on what that culture looks like. If you’re drawing from a particular real-world inspiration, paying attention to this aspect will help keep your characters from feeling like modern Americans in fancy dress. (But don’t go too far: emphasizing communal interests too heavily, especially when writing something that clearly draws on Asian models, very rapidly turns into fetishization.) If your setting is more broadly invented, what makes sense with the society in question? A rural community with deep roots and not a lot of opportunity or exchange with the outside world is not the place for a bunch of rabid individualists, and even a character destined to leave for greater things might well feel some qualms about losing the close-knit fabric of their family and neighbors. Meanwhile, an industrialized society with a very heterogenous population — like the modern U.S. — is going to have a harder time bonding into such a fabric, because what do we have in common besides mere spatial proximity?
Even when it makes worldbuilding sense to lean more into the communal side of things, though, that’s easier said than done, because your readers may find it dissatisfying. How often do we see our stories’ central characters step back from the pursuit of their own interests — and see that presented as a good resolution to a conflict? More often, I suspect, when those stories are written by people outside the central current of individualistic society; this is one of the reasons we benefit from a more diverse range of storytellers. But even then, it’s tempting to have one’s cake and eat it to, as in the film Crazy Rich Asians, where the heroine gets exactly what she wants by first giving it up. Individual desires are surrendered for the sake of others, while those who benefit most from the so-called “greater good” relax their own grip to make someone else happy.
Forget magic. Some days, it feels like that’s the real fantasy.