Humans are pack animals. We instinctively converge for safety and because we enjoy the company of others. However conflicts, both large and small, are also an inevitable part of any group’s dynamic. As a society grows the group establishes both formal and informal rules to help self-manage the problems they face. After all, the need for order and justice is as fundamentally human as the need for companionship.
Ultimately, any legal system is dependent on the compliance of its citizens. If the rules are just and practical, a subsegment of the population will comply from from a sense of order, honor, or morality. However, inevitably others will need to be motivated into compliance by the fear of consequences. If the authority in charge of upholding the law is too weak to enforce compliance however, the society itself may collapse.
Though it is essential to have a set of common laws for a society to function, there will often be a discrepancy between individual morality and the letter of the law. In the case of groups who choose to hold themselves to a higher standard, this isn’t a problem. However, when a subsegment of the society chooses to ignore or defy the laws of the land, a criminal subsociety is formed.
Though criminal organizations are often described as “lawless” this often isn’t actually the case. It’s simply that their sense of order doesn’t align the established law. In fact, these groups often have a brutal code in place to maintain internal order and to keep their own population focused externally so they pray on the greater society instead of each other. Need an example? Look to the world of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
When world building legal systems, I look for whoever holds the power to both act with impunity and limit the behaviors of others to suit their own sense of justice. Though this often means political, economic, or military authority, the worlds of science fiction and fantasy are a special case. In those worlds, a significant technological or magical advantage can also be a potent source of authority. Once identified, I think on how the powerful will twist the laws to their advantage and protection. Additionally, I consider how the general populace will react to the individuals with power. Large groups acting in concert have and will often close the power gaps and take the rule of law into their own hands if sufficiently provoked.
Ultimately, a ruler or government trades in control. They allow their subjects to believe in the stability of the society as a whole and a brighter future to come. Without the assurance that an individual will be able to keep the fruits of their labor, no one would ever work and the society would collapse. As writers, we ultimately control our worlds, but we also need to consider the balances of power and the rule of law in the societies we create.Tags: Sequence 06: Making Milieu