WorldBuilding: Taboos


A taboo is something (i.e. a custom or belief) that’s been stigmatized by society as unacceptable or improper. Some are subtle and others are in-your-face, but our world is littered with them, no matter the culture. They carry weight in politics and define the way we view certain groups of people. These social no-no’s draw us in with their forbidden aura and even when repulsed, we’re fascinated.

My NaNo manuscript, which has become the first book in a series, is based heavily on what many modern, real-world societies consider a taboo today: witchcraft. Readers have talked to me about the story in terms of witchcraft, even though that part of the story is more about a young woman reforming the standard organized religion of her time than any dark, sinister practices. This kind of conversation can be a good thing—it can let you know that you’ve gotten people to think, and that they were aware of the forbidden woven into the larger story. While they are hard to write, taboos are very effective. Here are a few tips:

Relate the taboo to politics or religion as these are two of the most powerful forces in any world. Religious taboos are easy to write as long as you give them a backstory and a real emotional impact on the current populace. Political taboos don’t necessarily have to be real because within this context they have an ulterior motive, so structure them accordingly.

Understand the different ways the non-stigmatized will respond to those who participate or are seen to participate in a taboo. And remember that the response shouldn’t be the same across the board.

Create fear. Fear of damnation, of real or social death, disease, bad luck—anything. Taboos are the way the general public thinks, whether right or wrong, and people as a whole operate on strong emotion rather than reason.

Write a character uniquely aware of said taboo and the associated stigmatism. I’ve been toying with the idea of an other-world tale based on a girl who, like a small number of people, bears the mark of a demon. She was born with it, and so has never been accepted by those around her, and this has given her a flippant attitude toward her peers and the authority figures in her world. She’s feared and damned, and that makes her fearless and reckless.

Understand that there are no taboo topics in fiction. You’re a fiction writer; further, a fantasy writer. It’s in your job description to work with the things that people find unbelievable and uncomfortable, so don’t be afraid to write with an edge or about things that might make your readers squirm. In fact, when done well that squirming can help establish your reputation.

Tackle your own taboo fears first. Take a minute to identify some taboos that make you uncomfortable. Devil-worship, perhaps? What about incest, patricide, or the possible uses of menstrual blood in rites? Identify what concepts still make your skin crawl, and then write a short story around them. You’ve got to open up your mind to new ideas; just because your readers can indulge in their fear and disgust doesn’t mean you can too.

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3 Comments

  1. When I create a villain for a Fantasy story,, I think of some of the worst things evil men have done in history, and try to work it in. It also works great for Horror.

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