Unless you’re a lawyer, judge, career criminal, or bdsm enthusiast, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about crime and punishment. And why would you? It’s not something you study in school. It’s more like how we learn social cues – things you pick up over time through stories from family and friends, television and movies, and life experience (although you might try to avoid the last one). Since crime and punishment are integral parts of society’s rules, however, they’re also a key part of worldbuilding – as well as an often-overlooked opportunity.
What is a crime?
I’m not being a smart-aleck (this time). This is a serious question because the answer changes with the culture. Laws are different in different countries and different regions. And all those laws can change over time as the beliefs of the culture change. To really flesh-out your worldbuilding, you’re going to have to answer this question at least to some extent (not to the legalese minutia extent – Heaven forbid!).
Just to show you how the definition of a crime can change and how it can affect the worldbuilding, here are some examples of crimes from stories:
- Not laughing at the King’s jokes in Gagville or breaking glass in Glass City. Here Comes the Grump
- Having/being children. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
- Having toys. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (Sorry for mentioning it so early in the year!)
- Urinating without paying first. Urinetown: The Musical
- Using magic. The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells
- Making a prayer offering to ask for someone’s death. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
- Having/reading books. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
To my knowledge, none of those “crimes” are illegal in the U.S. In fact, laws against them wouldn’t make sense at all in the U.S., and trying to get most of them passed would meet strong opposition. In the context of the stories, however, they make perfect sense.
In addition to the usual worldbuilding ideas, here are some thoughts on how crime and punishment can play a role.
Using Crime & Punishment for Worldbuilding
Emotional Appeal: Make a Culture Likable
For the most part, we like what we know or understand. That goes for laws, too. To make a culture automatically likable, familiar, or even comforting, you can…
- Define major crimes the same. Murder, for example.
- Scatter in similar minor crimes. Traffic tickets and sound complaints can add humor and give the reader something to empathize with.
- Show improvements in laws. I don’t mean crime-less cultures because that’s hard to believe, but there are always unpopular laws and/or punishments. “Fixing” those in your made-up culture wins you automatic points with the people who’re against them (and loses you points with the other side. Just sayin’).
Emotional Unappeal: Make It Dislikable
It works the same in the other direction only this time you can either
- Imitate laws your culture finds offensive. Like some of Nazi Germany’s laws, for example.
- Reverse your own laws.
So… basically reverse everything under “Make It Likable.” Anything that goes against what your culture considers right will make most people feel instant disgust, anger, or at least dislike. And whether that emotion is directed towards the government or the country as a whole is dependent on whether the majority of the people in the country are shown to approve (or not).
Establish Cultural Values
This can be mixed with either of the emotional appeals. You can make a made-up culture feel a bit familiar by using some similar laws and then use other laws to show the differences in how the culture treats things like…
- Gender roles: Is it legal for men and women to vote? Who can own property? How easy/hard is it to change genders? Are there more gender options than the traditional 2? (At least 1 sci fi book I can think of has used hemaphroditic and asexual people in a culture.)
- Race: Are there different races? How are they defined (legally)? (Biology, country, skin color, scale color, birthplace, magic ability, etc.) Are legal rights different for different races?
- Businesses: Do businesses have legal rights of their own? What kind of regulations are in place.
- Arts: Are any of the arts illegal? Are they regulated? Are licenses required?
Etc. Anything really. And part of all of them will be answering the question of how much are the rules enforced by law and how much are they enforced by social norms. As a rule, laws usually reflect ideas that are most important to the society (or to whoever’s ruling it/making the laws).
Punishments are also very revealing of cultural values. If a culture is strongly against violence, then the punishments for severe crimes have to be peaceful. If a culture completely hates the mistreatment of women, then any crime in that category should have a really extreme sentence. The same if a culture despises lying. Or toenail polish.
It doesn’t have to make sense in our world – only in the story. Focus on the purpose of the laws:
- To protect individuals, the society, the culture, etc.
- To benefit a specific person/interest group: This could be fair or unfair, depending on how the laws were slanted beforehand and who’s in power.
- To harm a specific person/interest group
Who makes the laws is important to all of that, too, but that’s a different problem.
Anyway, that’s enough to at least put a bug in your ear on the subject. As usual, I’m hoping my blabbering gives you a brilliant idea that leads to a wonderful story for me to read (I do like reading!). I’d also love to hear about any examples you can add – know any stories where the definition of crime has a big influence on the worldbuilding?