When I saw “Black Panther,” the first thing I wanted to talk about with anyone who would listen wasn’t the great characters or awesome superhero action.
I wanted to talk about how it was a new masterwork of the Society Genre.
It was all about different groups of people grappling with established power structures. Some characters succeeded in changing them and some failed, and watching it unfold with the bombast of a superhero movie was thrilling.
We love being engrossed in Society Genre stories like “Black Panther.”
We want to know if our protagonists will be successful in breaking apart the society and making permanent change, or if the powers in control will keep the society the way it was.
We can all think of examples where we felt we were required to act one way while we wished we could act in another. We can’t act — or we don’t act — because we don’t know what will happen when we challenge what society asks us to be. We can feel powerless or impotent by what society requires us to do. We can feel trapped.
Society stories allow us to experience rebellion against these forces without the risk. They enable us to feel more powerful.
No matter what era it is, humans are always struggling against changes imposed upon them, changes they want to make in themselves, and changes to combat equality.
So how can we make a society as good as in “Black Panther”?
That’s what I want to talk about in this post. Knowing how to create an interesting society with authentic challenges — a world in which your protagonists are willing to risk their lives to change and an environment so real to readers that they develop empathy for your protagonists — will get your reader hooked into your story and make your stories better.
What Is a Society?
So you’ve read the awesome post about the Society Genre from Certified Story Grid Editor Rachelle Ramirez. Now that you’re wise to the Society Genre’s obligatory scenes, conventions, and subgenres, I hope you’re inspired to write a story where your protagonist’s challenge power in a society.
What does a living, breathing society actually mean to us as storytellers?
Society may feel like the noisy city apartment neighbors whom your protagonists put up with every day, the quiet suburban neighborhood they live in, or the competitive office environment where they work.
These examples used to feel just like settings to me.
But let’s think about them a little bit more.
Storytellers can harness the intricacies and global truths of societies to help define character and drive the story arc in relation to the particular society your protagonists inhabit.
For example, in a city apartment, the protagonists have noisy neighbors and the landlord never fixes anything. How long will they put up with dropping half of their monthly paycheck for the “privilege“ of living in these conditions? Or will they organize with their friends in the building to demand change and fair housing?
Or, on a suburban street, a family of color is shunned by their white neighbors. Will the family of color demand that the neighbors look beyond their biases?
Or, in a workplace, a team has a micromanaging leader, mistrustful and defensive departments, and a fire-happy CEO who looms over every decision. Will the protagonists survive in this toxic environment or find a way to upend the way things are done?
In these examples, the protagonists aren’t just in their own world or in their own heads. They’re the oppressed people within a society that needs change. In order to gain power over the people or forces that oppress them, the protagonists themselves must change or fail spectacularly while trying.
What if we were reading about these situations in the hands of our favorite author? Or watching them play out in a blockbuster movie? How do you think the protagonists would respond to these scenarios? You would hope and pray that the protagonists would break apart the societies, fight back against powers that are keeping them down, and create a new, fair, and more just society.
So how do we learn about societies for our stories?
The Society Genre helps us understand the power structures of our protagonist’s world, the power structures that are fighting against us, and the power structures that we willingly abide by. Through the genre, we can critically look at how we as a society view other people, races, and classes.
To learn about the genre, there is an incredible amount of source material to reference.
Read and examine the masterworks of the genre
You can always study the masterworks, stories that are exemplary of their genre. We can study these as guides for our own stories.
Rachelle introduced you to some that I also love, including The Big Chill, Anna Karenina, Howard’s End, Animal Farm, and Ragtime. Each tell an amazing story, paint a detailed picture of a society at a certain point in time and show how the characters fought to overcome the power structures of that society.
In examining masterworks, you’ll see how human problems and conflicts have universality across time and place that can be applied to your work.
Study the world around us
The dingy apartment, the suburban street, and the toxic office I described earlier are all modern-day examples of societies. So are the countryside of Nebraska, a Navy boat crossing the ocean, and the college house with 10 roommates.
There are many modern-day examples of societies with rules and power structures that you can put your characters to create a compelling story.
What societies are you a part of? What power structures exist within them that you push up against or want to rebel against?
Use these as the inspirations for the societies you make for your characters.
And imagine your characters going to the extreme limits of those societies you exist in that you want to fight against.
How would they fight against the power structures that keep you in check?
Consider creating a world where your characters say and do it for you.
Gain inspiration and knowledge from current events
You can also study a slightly broader scope: the world events of today.
We live in a world in constant flux. Societies are in the process of forming, solidifying, and breaking apart every single day.
Think about how you can turn these societies into compelling societies for your characters.
For example, how could you write an interesting story about the intense political climate of 2018? How can you tell a story about the impact of technology on the lives of society? How is power weaved within these two ideas, and how are — or how could — people fight against that power?
Study the news to see society stories playing out in real time. You’re probably well-versed in the societal power structures in the news today. Think about how your characters can challenge these structures.
Use history as a guide
You can even take a broader scope and look at history for inspiration. It’s an ever-changing Society Genre story.
Consider these worlds: the ancient Romans, the Spartans, the American Revolutionary War, the American civil rights movement.
All of these societies have their stories: how the society got into power, how it stayed in power, how power shifted, and how power was taken away.
Look at notable time periods of the past to see how real societies dealt with real societal conflicts that you may be able to pull from for your stories.
There is an infinite amount of material to study
With so much to pull from, history and the Society Genre are some of the best things to study to understand how massive change can affect many people.
Studying both will give you inspiration and ammunition to make believable changes for your characters in their societies.
How can a society story change the world?
The societies in stories help us reflect on the societies in our own lives. They help us better understand where society encourages us to we exert power — and how it is exerted upon us.
Which brings me back to “Black Panther.”
“Black Panther” showed how even a thriving, just society can have flaws that oppress outsiders. This oppression led the villain to incite a revolution that brought a peaceful society to the brink of war. And when the hero defeated the villain, he reflected on how his society could do better.
**End spoiler warning.**
You, as a storyteller, have a similar responsibility.
Your words don’t only help your readers better understand the world around them by creating a believable society for your protagonists; they plant the seeds that can challenge a foundational institution — a household, a workplace, even a government.
Making a believable society in your story sets the stage for a revolution, creating real-world change that’s critical for the growth of the human race.
So take your responsibility to create an authentic society seriously. It’s not just good for your story.
It’s good for the world.