How Crimes Change over Time

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Speaking of how crimes change, what was banned in 1873 and remained illegal in many states until 1965?

If you read “Crime, Punishment, & Worldbuilding,” then you already know my thoughts on how useful it is to think about legal systems when it comes to realistic worldbuilding. I also briefly mentioned that crimes change over time, but in your story, that really only matters in one of three cases: 1. the story is set in a period of unrest (A.K.A. social change), 2. the book series encompasses centuries, or 3. no one remembered to change the stupid law in the official books.

How Crimes Change over Time

What was illegal 100 years ago and what is illegal now in the U.S. has some overlap, but it’s not all the same. There are also plenty of laws that make no sense today – just Google “weird U.S. laws,” and you’ll find plenty of articles on that (for example, “The United States of Crazy Laws“) that include things like whether or not you can let a donkey sleep in the bathtub or knit during fishing season (You think I’m joking.).

As a more serious example, consider the year 1872. At that time, Susan B. Anthony was arrested because she voted. The next year at her trial, the judge

  • refused to let her take the stand
  • declared her guilty of voting illegally before the jury could vote
  • fined her $100

All for voting.

Compare that to today when women vote regularly. That’s a dramatic change for a culture to make in about 144 years, especially considering it’s only been 96 years since women got the right to vote here (not even a century).

While this is a pretty dramatic example of how social norms and what is considered a crime can change, it’s important to remember that the change didn’t happen quickly, and that the length of time between the two situations would’ve included varying degrees of both attitudes.

Setting a Book When the Definition of Crime Is Changing

If you set your book during the period when the definition of a crime is changing, it may not be the happiest book, but, on the bright side, there’ll be plenty of conflict to choose from. After all, whenever there’s a movement for change, there’s generally a movement against change.

Research previous (and existing) movements for social change, and you’ll have plenty of fodder. Progress tends to be very slow at first. Then, there’s a sort of tug-o-war where the balance shifts from one side to the other, and some factions may change their support as time goes one.

Now that I think of it, it’s like the study of war: each side winning different battles, employing different strategies, making use of different technology, and trying to convince others to join or at least stay neutral. Who appears to be winning and how close the conflict is to being resolved depends entirely on when you set the story (A story set at the beginning of WWII would give a very different impression than one set at the very end.).

To be realistic, avoid making social changes quick, clean, or bloodless. The struggle and even the ugliness of it is what makes us believe.

Setting Books Before & After the Crime Changed

When a book series covers an extended period of time (say, centuries), the world has to change. One way to give the new time period a different feeling from the previous books is to include social changes like new laws. You could change who is considered a citizen, what types of behaviors are taboo, or even the amount of regulation (For example, there didn’t use to be speed limits, driver’s licenses, illegal substances, or legal drinking ages…).

Be warned, however: unless the books are a millennium or more apart, there should be hints of change.

In the book that comes first (in the chronology of the world), drop some hints of social unrest. More or less, depending on how close the story is to the actual period of change. For the book that comes after the laws have changed, you can slip in some characters who long for “the good old days,” a movement that’s trying to change it back or living true to the old laws in a separate society, or simply some old books/ads/propaganda.

Really, the options are endless, and you need look no farther than real life to get inspiration.

A Crime in Name Only

So what about when they forgot to ever undo the law? When is that useful? Well, other than the comedic-style unexpected twist, a “crime in name only” is most likely to turn up if

  • There’s a regime change – especially one that puts a scrupulous rule-follower in charge (permanently or temporarily).
  • The society agrees. If everyone thinks the law is silly or dumb, then, there may be little motivation to change it at first (it’s so obvious), and later, the next point might apply.
  • They forgot it’s there. Unless the town/country has a plethora of studious lawyers, this is surprisingly easy. If it doesn’t come up in court, why teach it?
  • Two words: recovered records. This is more common with post-apocalyptic cultures or people who had to flee some danger quickly. Then, some intrepid explorer discovers the old records, revealing the ancient law.

And so on, and so forth. You get the idea. Clearly, it takes the right series of circumstances not only to reveal the law but also to make it relevant to the situation as well as enforced by whatever group is in power.

While there can easily be a good amount of comedy with this kind of technicality, it really depends on how seriously you treat it. If you emphasize the main character’s frustration and rage at being restrained/confined/stopped/whatever by such a ridiculous and antiquated law, then it may hit close enough to home to feel rather realistic (and not funny at all).

Well, there you go. How crimes change over time, and 3 main ways that can apply to your worldbuilding. What laws will your characters break – or make?

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