This setting' world is populated by witch covens that function as both royal houses and political entities. They are matriarchial, with witches had the head of families who directly control their houses and have indirect control over smaller branch clans. The concept of marriage works very differently from our world. Instead of marrying individuals, it is the practice of many houses for males marry into an entire clan. In other countries, exogamy is the norm, where individuals are chosen to concieve a child together while remaining in their birth clan. A mother's brother is considered the true fathers of their children, and spend more time raising them than a biological dad.

In our world, the concept of the nuclear household is the most stable form of family. Extramarital affairs and multiple partners are looked down on, and having multiple father's to your children is shameful. However, this world sees things in a different light. Having multiple kids by different men are encouraged because it adds more genes to the pool and builds relationships with other houses in the form of alliances, trade deals, etc.

This is a radical departure from most cultures but is a big part of the setting. How do you make it completely normal and a positive thing when the reader most likely has a different experience?

  • 6
    check out some Ursula K Le Guin stories
    – Anentropic
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 17:02
  • 18
    This is not as radical in SFF settings as you seem to think - the differently-tabooed society is practically a trope on its own. Just do it. If you feel the need for an explanation vehicle you can have an older member of the society lecturing younger ones on the correct behaviour.
    – pjc50
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 19:03
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    The nuclear family appeared fairly late in human history, and is an inefficient way of raising children. Its only function is to (try to) connect paternity to resources spent on or inherited by children, so a matriarchal society that still has nuclear families would make no sense. Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 20:05
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    Examples: line marriages in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; assigned mating pairs with weak connections to kids in The Just City. Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 21:51
  • 1
    To be clear, in your world you have two family structures that are not common in our world. 1. In the witch country, you have the whole clan marriage. (I assume this means that once married into a clan, the guy could father children with anyone in the clan?) 2. Elsewhere there is no marriage, or if there is it is not a defining feature of a family. Instead people have children with whomever they deem appropriate. In both cases the children belong to the household of the mother's clan and are raised by that clan with male role models not being their biological father but all males of the clan.
    – Mr.Mindor
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 13:44

6 Answers 6


The reader doesn't have to agree with the setting of your story: he just has to understand it.

I'll basically answer with a longer version of "show, don't tell". Our society may look down on extramarital affairs and multiple partners, but the reader has to understand that this is not our society.

Since the covens-clans are a big part of your setting, you should give yourself time to describe them, exploring every nook and cranny of their culture before moving on with the actual plot. Better still, show this through the actions and thoughts of your characters.

Your characters were born in your society: for them, this matriarchal structure is the norm. It will become normal for the reader too, since the reader "perceives" the story through the eyes of the characters (or through your external narrator, if you're using that).

Of course, it will be strange at first: things will happen that the reader won't understand outright. You may open the very first chapter with the fifth marriage of a powerful witch, with the four previous husbands attending the event like it's completely normal.

A mother's brother is considered the true fathers of their children, and spend more time raising them than a biological dad.

So, uncles are the real fatherly figure of your world. You may show how children seek this figure and tend to suffer when it's not there. The term "uncle" doesn't indicate a strong emotional bond and "mother's brother" is a clunky definition, so you could create another term relevant to your society and make characters use it:

Alice: You seem really close with Charlie.

Bob: He's my insert-term-here. Of course I am.

Alice: Ah, I didn't know. I grown up without one and it was a harsh.

Decide a set of core values for your society and keep in mind that they will influence every aspect of day-to-day life. Think your characters accordingly.

Back to the reader: if you do this well, in due time the reader will understand what the basic rules in your story are. He may still think that our society has better cultural norms, of course: but remember that you don't need to convince him.

You just need to explain how things work in your world, be coherent, and he will roll with them. Being coherent means, for example, that men will more attached to the sons of their sisters rather than their own.

After all what you're trying to do it's not different, let's say, that authors writing about magic, high-tech sci-fi, paranormal events, incredible creatures and so on.

When you meet dragons in a fantasy book you don't jump to the conclusion "Hey, dragons ain't real, they don't exist in this world, how can they be in this story". You just acknowledge they are a thing and go on.

So it's a matter of suspension of disbelief: it will work if you can keep it.

On a side note, I wouldn't struggle to make this alternate society of yours seem like a positive thing. Like most cultural norms, it has upsides and downsides. If you show both equally, you're creating a more believable world, and the reader will be more enthralled by it.

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    Your last paragraph covers my answer, so I won't bother…: don't invent a Utopia and then justify it with an unorthodox system (sounds like preaching), instead start with the system diverging from "normal" and try to follow the logical possibilities (who resists the system? who benefits?) into subsequent generations where it becomes more and more normal, and the old system become more foreign.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 12:50
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    I mostly agree with what you write, but don't delay the plot to worldbuild -- readers will easily get bored with it. Yes, establish it well before it becomes relevant, but do so in the process of moving the plot forward, not before launching the plot. Also, making up nonce terms should be done sparingly. You'll need a lot of effort to make svar'thlax meaningful to readers -- probably more than it would actually take to make "uncle" have the same relevance. (Though the show-don't-tell you suggest is a good way to point out it has deeper meaning than the real-world term would suggest.)
    – R.M.
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 3:04
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    @R.M.: Nonce terms can be a good thing or a bad thing, see for example Anathem (which both camps will happily hold up as supporting their viewpoint!).
    – Kevin
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 6:00
  • There's a lot to be said on the use of nonces (and on the balance between worldbuilding and plot), enough to fill whole other questions - and I certainly am not expert! I'm glad my answer was mostly a good one, tho.
    – Liquid
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 8:11

How do you normalize a taboo custom in a setting that most readers would not agree with?


Extramarital affairs and multiple partners are looked down on, and having multiple father's to your children is shameful.

That's it? Not mother-son incest, ripping the beating hearts from your own babies, consuming them with fava beans and a nice chianti??

How do you make it completely normal and a positive thing when the reader most likely has a different experience?

While I agree with @Liquid's basic premise "the reader has to understand that this is not our society", I disagree with his method.

Ignore pre-plot explanations and just dive right in. Your readers should know that they aren't reading a novelization of Leave It To Beaver, and that Things Are Different when there is magic, covens, etc.

Treat matriarchal polyandry as normal, and -- unless you've done something obviously impossible or stupid to break Suspension Of Disbelief (and matriarchal polyandry isn't in and of itself obviously impossible or stupid in this context) -- your readers will, while being a bit puzzled, will plow ahead.

Importantly: drop bits of explanation along the way, as needed.

  • 1
    Seeing that I agree with your answer, I must have written poorly mine. I'm totally against pre-plot suggestions and info dumps. Anyway, +1
    – Liquid
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 21:12
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    When you think about it, betting your whole life on one person just because of accidental infatuation is probably the most stupid idea ever conceived. Also, monogamy benefits weak males, matriarchal society would have little use for it.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 13:31
  • What Agent_L says. Instead of a challenge, I see here an opportunity to challenge and question what we consider normal. I love books where something we consider normal is introduced to the characters in the book and they go "eek, that is gross. Don't people realize that it leads to ... ?"
    – Tom
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 13:38
  • @Agent_L the problem is that widespread polyandry leaves many women without a man just like polygamy leaves many men without a woman.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 13:38
  • @Tom but "we" have tried poly societies, and just about every society decided a pretty long time ago that monogamy -- while obviously imperfect -- leads to a more stable society than does poly.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 13:41

In reference to the Ursula K. Le Guin comment, the protagonist in The Left Hand of Darkness originates from a familiar societal context to observe an unfamiliar one. The fact that you're "on the journey" with someone from a familar setting and encountering new things along with them could help with assimilation of unfamiliar customs. To varying degrees, nearly every Star Trek episode also put its characters in such a position, so you could (re)watch those for some ideas.

  • Ambisexual society of Gethen is different than ours at biological level, so there is no analogy here.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 13:32

It's possible you'll find some assistance in communities that DO have non-traditional relationship structures. On reddit, you should find helpful commentary in r/nonmonogamy and r/polyamory.


To bring readers closer to a concept unfamiliar to them, connect it to something that is familiar.

That is how you explain tech to non-techies: "So it is basically like the postal service, just digital."

For example, that people in your setting like to have multiple fathers for their children for political reasons (alliances, etc.) is quite similar to the way noble families in Earth history married off their children (especially daughters) for the very same reasons. Instead of collecting marriage connections, your people collect parentship connections.

Clan marriage certainly has something roughly similar as well. Maybe the way trade guilds supported widows of their members. They didn't exactly marry them all, but marrying a craftsman did mean joining the trade guild with all its advantages.

It also very much depends on how you introduce these facts. Very often, there is a naive character in stories whose purpose it is to be dumb on proxy for the reader, and have a regular member of the fantasy society explain things to them.


Depends on how disturbing this custom will be seen by an average reader.

In your case, I don't think this custom of a fictitious society will turn away any readers. Just make sure that your protagonist(s) is not advocating it.

But in other cases, a custom may be much more disturbing (ex. cannibalism or marrying off underage girls). There, you need to step carefully, avoiding graphic details (this may depend on your genre, though), and maybe making your protagonist(s) an opponent of this practice.

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