Taboos and world creation

I’ve been talking about world-building in the last several issues of this e-zine. World-building is a big topic, and I’ve now discussed social networks,  people groups, and the economy of your story world.

This month, I’ll talk about taboos.

In a sense, taboos are the opposite of values. I define values by the following template statement:

“Nothing is more important than ________.”

When defining the values for your characters, ask each of them to fill in the blank in the sentence above. Most characters have more than one value. Keep asking them until they insist they’ve now told you all the things they value most.

Different people value different things—money, honor, fame, self-respect, fun, faith, love, power, and many more. Knowing your character’s values helps you create conflict in your novel.

Cultures have values too, and that can be interesting, but today we’re interested in the inverse of values. We’re interested in taboos—things that must not be allowed in our society. You can generate taboos by filling in the blank in this template statement:

“Decent people don’t ________________.”

The reason we’re interested in taboos is that there’s bound to be trouble when a character’s value is in conflict with a society’s taboo.

Notice one essential difference between values and taboos. A value is personal—it’s about a single character. A taboo is cultural—it’s about a whole society of people.

Values are useful because they guide you in creating self-conflict for a character.

Taboos are useful because they guide you in creating conflict between an individual and the society he or she lives in.

Let’s be clear here that we’re not talking about outright evil. There are certain terrible things that  virtually all societies outlaw because they’re just wrong—murder, rape, assault, theft, kidnapping, torture, etc. These are crimes, not taboos.

A crime committed makes you demand justice. A taboo violated merely makes you think less of the other person.

Crimes in one society are explicable to people in another society. Taboos in one society are often inexplicable to people in another society.

For our purposes, we’re interested in things that one society condemns and another one doesn’t. A few examples:

Eating a forbidden kind of animal
Entering a forbidden sacred space
Engaging in ordinary activities during a sacred time
Saying certain words that are “not proper”
Holding political opinions that “decent people don’t hold”
Holding forbidden religious beliefs that are “heretical”
Having forbidden interactions with the opposite sex
Having forbidden interactions with the same sex
Having forbidden interactions with a different societal class
Having forbidden interactions with a different ethnic group
Dressing in an “indecent” way
Performing “indecent” bodily functions in public
Making a gesture that society considers “rude”

For each of these, you can easily think of religious, political, or ethnic groups that have very different opinions on what is “decent” or “allowable” and what isn’t. If you’ve traveled much, you’ve probably seen and heard things that violate your own taboos. And you may have discovered that certain perfectly normal things you do or say are violating the taboos of the group you’re visiting.

Almost everyone believes that their own taboos are actually smart, sensible, and just common decency. Almost everyone sees that the taboos of others are silly, dumb, and completely nonsensical.

Let’s be clear—taboos are normal. It would be hard to set up a society that has no taboos. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a society establishing taboos. But the problem is that there’s nothing particularly right about establishing them either. All societies draw lines that are essentially arbitrary. Crossing those lines is not wrong—but it’s taboo, and “decent people” don’t do it.

That’s where conflict can arise. And conflict is good for a novelist. Conflict is what you live for as a novelist. Conflict is as good as cash for a novelist.

There are a couple of common ways that taboos can generate conflict:

An individual within a society intentionally violates a taboo of his own people.
An individual (intentionally or unintentionally) violates a taboo of some society other than his own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *