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I'm trying to figure out how to write a character that has a radically different worldview from my own while still keeping it logically consistent. I know there are a lot of questions about how to write characters that have different experiences from your own, but I find that pretty easy: I think about how I would react in that situation (assuming analogous traits are flipped and considering their own personal history) and how that would affect me emotionally as well as in my personal life going forward. This is different: this is more about writing a character that just plain has a different set of moral standards or priorities that results in a different train of thought that is still logically coherent (at least from their perspective). Things like "characters with historical standards that nowadays are considered illogical" kind of thing.

Here's an example I ran into from my own writing. The setting I am writing has a caste system in which the supernatural world is run by an aristocratic cabal composed of "men of good breeding" who see everyone else as assistants and footsoldiers to their "noble cause". The system isn't explicitly hereditary and claims to be meritocratic but is heavily nepotistic, in that the people in charge tend to pick people like them both in mindset and background for leadership positions. Most people are marginalized in their own system and there is almost no social mobility.

The protagonist, who is a member of a lower-ranking caste and hates the aristocracy, ends up leading a band of quirky misfits to save the supernatural aristocrats from an assassination plot by their groomed successors (mostly because the would-be usurpers are worse). There's a scene at the end of the story where the protagonist is debriefed about what happened: the leadership admits they treated the protagonist unfairly, misjudged the loyalty of their successors, and that the protagonist had gone above and beyond the call of duty by saving them while upholding all the ideals of the supernatural world despite having no reason to. However it is also revealed that the protagonist's "reward" for doing this is merely "we're going to treat you a little nicer, like a person instead of a thing" and a pat on the back, the protagonist is still seen as a servant/footsoldier with no social standing and no chance for advancement (which sets up later plots).

Here's the problem: when I try to write the scene I keep tripping over the representative of the leadership accidentally realizing they're being a hypocrite via their own argument. Namely that it feels like if I were in the leadership's shoes, the logical thing to do would be to give the stereotypical line of "we will be watching your career with great interest" and look into fast-tracking the protagonist into something akin to an officer rank with a potential future in leadership, especially as this person has just proven themselves loyal and capable in the line of duty and the society has just lost it's groomed heirs. I.e., similar to what ancient Rome or similar societies did when they found hypercompetent commoners who excelled in the line of duty. The protagonist is the wrong gender, ethnicity, type of supernatural being, etc., but the society isn't explicitly bigoted, only implicitly so (i.e., the leadership think that only people of a certain background make good leaders), so it doesn't make sense that the leadership wouldn't bend the rules in the manpower crisis (aside from their egotism, and they have a lot of it).

I know that this was a very common attitude in the past. E.g., it used to be that the officer corps of armies drew from the aristocracy and the rank-and-file from the commoners, and never the two would meet, with common folk only being promoted to non-commissioned officer rank at most. Or that in some cultures the servant, no matter how hypercompetent and loyal, would always be seen as inferior to a traitorous heir. I also understand that people are really good at self-delusion. However, I have been unable to figure out the reasons why a character thinks this way so they can make the argument from their perspective.

However, trying to figure out how an individual with this mindset would think without noticing the hypocrisy of their own worldview just feels completely alien. The plot kind of needs this to happen and the hypocrisy and unfairness of the situation is kind of the point, but it's really hard to justify how the leaders don't learn from the experience and stick to their elitist mindset, given recent events had just proved them wrong and nearly got them assassinated. Specifically, I'm trying to figure out how the leader characters would be able to have a coherent stance on the situation so I can write their dialogue, i.e., how they justify their actions to themselves in a way that holds up to at least some scrutiny given their moral standards differ from the author.

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  • How much of an ally will this patron be to the hero as the story progresses?
    – hszmv
    Oct 13, 2021 at 12:10
  • @hsmv Not much. The story is more focused on the hero's disillusionment with the system despite the fact they are forced to uphold it for the greater good. The aristocratic patrons are keeping the supernatural from running roughshod over the rest of the world and the patrons are more out-of-touch than evil, but their worldview and inhumane system (and the fact they are egotistical and will not listen to change) create most of their own problems. Thus they are almost the greater-scope antagonists. Oct 13, 2021 at 14:32

4 Answers 4

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Just try to be logically consistent

Consider the following premises:

  1. there is almost no social mobility;
  2. protagonist, who is a member of a lower-ranking caste and hates the aristocracy, ends up leading a band of quirky misfits to save the supernatural aristocrats from an assassination plot

And two proposed conclusions:

  1. protagonist's "reward" for doing this is merely "we're going to treat you a little nicer, like a person instead of a thing"

  2. the logical thing to do would be to give the stereotypical line of "we will be watching your career with great interest" and look into fast-tracking the protagonist into something akin to an officer rank

The key word here "almost" in the first premise. If aristocrats sincerely believe that protagonist's heroics are not sufficient to deserve an exception, then the logical conclusion is #1, not #2.

You only need to additionally illustrate this point. Make the commander say something like "You did great, you are such a hero, we really like you! But of course we can't promote you to being an officer, this would have required such and such..."

By the way, did you happen to read The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson? One of the main plotlines there would be very relevant to your story. Many (if not all) characters there are almost ridiculously bigoted in their views on casts and social mobility, and yet it feels logically consistent.

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Because, dear author, the leader is a politician and must play politics. While he may realize society is erroneously backwards, he cannot right the ship of state on his own and he realizes his sudden understanding is very much in the minority opinion among those who can make change. If he were to be more vocal about his stance, than the politicos would end his career. Which gives a conundrum to the protagonist: Is it better to have the patronage of an influential leader if such patronage must be hushed for the sake of preserving influence? Or would you like the patronage of a powerless person who is more vocal about his support?

From a story perspective, this will actually help your sequels because while there is a degree of protection to your hero which allows him to get away with more rule breaks for the sake of the story, it also means he has to deal with the consequences of those breaks. Time and time again, societal changes that have stuck have been ones where those advocating for the changes broke the rules very rarely if at all... and those making the rules punished disproportionately for small offenses. Ghandi and MLK both saw success with non-violent resistance than with riots and violence. I'm sure there were days where both men wanted to unleash frustration... but that would have handed their critics ammo to say that they were rabble rousers who are threats to good people who are just trying to live.

Elsewhere in History, the Declaration of Independence dropped language condemning British rule for introducing slavery to the Americas because the northerners who opposed it felt that if the line was included, they would lose the support of the southern states, putting the colonies at a disadvantage against the British Military. Better to leave the matter unsaid and deal with it once they got through the mess of the Revolutionary War... and even then it was nearly a century before the matter could be dealt with... though there were certainly abolitionists from the beginning of nation.

Just prior to the Civil War, Lincoln was very tepid on the subject. He was a moderate in his party, when the Radicals opposed slavery with a fiery passion and he did not think he had the political capital to move on the issue. But the war quickly brought him to realize how bad the situation had become. He would either have to put an end to slavery in the nation, or slavery would put an end to the nation. And even then, the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough... after all, it only freed slaves that came into Government possession through the spoils of war... slave owners in northern states could keep their slaves just fine. It would be sometime later before this practice was fully ended and, well, things have improved but even then, it took years to help the victims of slavery recover and in many ways that work is not yet done.

Change like you are describing in your book is a slow process of decades if not centuries of undoing. To quote Men In Black: A person is smart. People are dumb.

One person is not much of a danger... but people are quite dangerous. After all, they will always have a numerical advantage over the person... that's how plurals work.

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If you want to write a worldview, it helps to encounter it first-hand

If you've only heard about a historical period, or read second- and third-hand accounts of the attitudes in a period and place, you're unlikely to be able "get into the heads" of people with the attitudes of those times. You may not even, really, understand the attitudes and social dynamics of former times.

Read the original Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs - paying close attention to the author's portrayal that Tarzan was able to become more than a brute animal because of his exceptionally good breeding and ancestry. Remember, Burroughs based that and at least one subsequent Tarzan novel (the one about Tarzan's son) on the notion of Lamarckian inheritance. That is, that the exercise and study and struggle of the previous generations distill into a person's actual physical inheritance, not just their upbringing.

Read Macaria, by Augusta Jane Evans - a romance novel written during the US Civil War by a Southern woman, sympathetic to the South's cause and advocating the goodness of the institutions there, while somehow managing not to address the slavery question for around two-thirds of the book. Pay attention to what the author is painstakingly careful to leave out.

Read Cortes, the Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary - observe the attitudes the conquistadors had to their allies and opponents in their struggles.

Remember it is rare to have a society with no social mobility

While European nobility and the lower classes were separate groups, and it was commonly held that commoners just didn't have as good of breeding, where did the nobles come from? Titles were bestowed on the favorites of the rulers, or on the heroes of a battle, or whatever. Or, occasionally, titles and/or power were seized by the particularly impetuous and successful, regardless of origin.

Yes, a peasant and a duke weren't equal, and there were rarely one-generation rises to nobility from nothing, but few people claim to be the direct lineal descendent of "Og, the chieftan of the tribe that first drove out the Neaderthals and claimed the earth for Cro-Magnon man". Yes, in-group preference is often shown by the rulers of this or that country, and it's a point of pride to trace one's nobility back for centuries. But even in Tsarist Russia, the son of a peasant could grow up to be the chief engineer in charge of the Moscow water supply.

Alexandre Dumas, the famous French author of The Three Musketeers and other works, was the son of an African slave-woman (and, admittedly, a French nobleman, who helped his son get a start). Real life is turbulent and complex, even in societies with values very foreign from our own.


(hszmv is also correct - politicians will not always be able to act on their preferences or perceptions, because of the prevailing attitudes of those they do not have complete control over.)

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    Completely agree with your mobility point with regards to history: the lack of mobility in the society is deliberate to show the society is too rigid to survive. Hence why the plot can't have the nobility change their views, it would avert their eventual downfall. Oct 13, 2021 at 17:29
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Issues like this can arise when you need to put a little more time into fleshing out a character and their motives.

If you're still thinking of your aristocrats as thinly defined stuffed shirts then your handling of them and their motives will come across as such. As people have already suggested, reading some history could really help here - like any group of people, the aristos will have some individual personalities, politics, thoughts and even disparate views on how "the commoners" are best handled.

Which of these particular people does your hero interact with? Is it a single person, or a group of them? (Groups tend to enforce their beliefs via "group think"). How have the aristos managed to rule for so long? Are they good at convincing the commoners that they have their best interests at heart, that they reward good service? Or do they enforce it with an iron fist? You'll usually find that in the real world they'll do some degree of both.

So maybe they pat your hero on the head and send him on his way (if they're really that stupid)...maybe they make promises they have no intention of keeping...perhaps they make promises they do intend to keep, but don't when it comes to the crunch. Maybe they're desperate to promote him, but the rules of their society prevent them from doing so, or would have a ruinous personal cost to their family's reputation. Maybe they're furious that he's managed to solve a problem they could not, or has embarrassed them in front of their peers.

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