A way with worlds: 25 – Crime and Punishment (and a lot of other stuff) by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

One thing that can get overlooked in worldbuilding is legal systems. It’s easy to assume things are perfect, or corrupt, or “just like us,” or some other simple classification.

It’s not.

In my opinion, writing about crime in a setting is harder than religion – it seems easier to tolerate some religious differences, but crime, often due to politicization, is a much different issue. Ask yourself how many political campaigns or debates you’ve seen where candidates and debates practically brand their opponents as supporting rapists and murderers.

Exactly. It’s not easy.

In fact, I think popular culture and politics makes crime and law very, very difficult to write about – stereotypes, assumptions, easily taken offense, etc. all conspire against the writer. So, I’m going to illustrate a step-by-step way to look at issues of law, crime, and punishment in your setting.

First and foremost, drop your assumptions when writing. Explore. If you’re going to address controversial and/or complex issues, be open to learning and don’t force what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’ll read false.

And now . . .

STEP ONE: Reasons for laws
Why are laws in your setting created? The answer, of course, is almost never one answer – there are multiple reasons, and reasons differ between laws and between lawmakers.

It’s too simple to say “well we created this law to stop crime” – but who created it, why, and why do they think it will work? Was there popular demand, or is the law part of a theocracy or dictatorship? Do the people supporting it have ulterior motives?

Laws may be passed to control/regulate/guide behavior – but the motivations and reasons behind them can vary with your setting and with individual lawmakers.

STEP TWO: Passing laws
How to laws in your setting get implemented? Divine right or a parliament? No debate or endless discussion? Will it get altered in any way or are attempts made to keep laws in “pure” form? How is it communicated outside of the lawmaking body, group, or inner circle?

Laws need to be passed in forms people can understand – or there will be trouble down the road. This may be part of your plot, but if it isn’t, make sure you understand the lawmaking process in your setting.

STEP THREE: Communicating laws
Once a law is made people and law enforcement bodies need to know about it – which is a challenge in itself.

A law has to be explained, communicated, and made clear – which can be a daunting task. What methods of communication are used and who do they reach? Will people understand? Can the law be twisted or misunderstood in the communication process. Will the right people know?

After all if you don’t know about a law, you can’t follow it or enforce it.

STEP FOUR: Enforcing Laws
If the devil is in the details, you should start smelling brimstone right about now.

You’ve got a law, you’ve hopefully communicated it to people. Now, it has to be enforced.

Law enforcement is not an easy thing. It costs money and resources, it requires people or other entities to enforce it. You need to make sure it’s done right, so feedback is required. In short, law enforcement takes work to do right – and even then, you may not get it right.

This is one of the areas of writing I find people mess up the most when dealing with crime and law. Its too easy to have “cops-catch-the-bad-guys” storylines and thrown-off plot elements. However, realistically, it’s not that easy – you need the people to do the catching, the equipment to do the catching, and the opportunity.

Sounds like it’s not as easy as you’d think? Ask people in law enforcement. And, remember, the story of a law doesn’t end with enforcement.

STEP FIVE: Repercussions
Law stops crime.

Really? How do you know? Or which laws? Do some laws stop one crime and encourage others? Do people always like new laws?

Laws and their enforcement have repercussions, and they may not (and in my opinion often ae not) what people would expect. Aggressive law enforcement can spur mistakes and public anger. A badly-phrased law can lead to odd enforcement and sentancing. An ignornat law can produce a backlash, and harsh laws can produce a rebellion.

Do not assume simple, mechanistic law-obeyed-problem-solved behavior in any society. People are a lot more complex than that.

MYTHS TO AVOID:
When writing about law and crime in your setting, be aware of these myths:

Fear produces obedience – Fear produces a lot of things, including psychosis, terror, and punching someone who made you afraid in the nose. Do not assume people will obey laws simply out of fear.
“In the good old days” – This is a classic way to justify portraying law and crime in a historical or historically-based setting – well in these days such-and-such worked, and such-and-such didn’t. Don’t assume. Do your research, there are a lot of myths out there. Also, if you go for the “in this day crime was low” routine, ask yourself just what people of the time you are writing about/basing your work on considered crime – a little hint, see if women and children recieved much legal protection.
“In this country” – See “In the good old days,” and be aware of ethnic stereotypes to boot.
Laws Stand the Test of Time – Laws change and alter, as do the cultures they are in. A good idea at one point may not be down the road, and a law may adapt well to changing times. There’s some basic ideas that always seem to work – don’t murder, don’t steal – but beyond what is needed to punish egergeiously, directly destructive behavior . . .
“Things would be perfect if . . .” – If, when writing a story dealing with crime, you ever find yourself sounding like a politician, pause. I find that can be a sign you’re resorting to stereotypes or shallow thinking.

SUMMARY:
Writing about law and crime is not easy. There’s a lot of elements to how laws are made and enforced. There’s a lot of complexity. Careful planning, thinking over repercussions, and not having an agenda can make sure your writing . . . isn’t a crime.

STEVE’S SITES:
Page of Generators – OK, I’m going to plug my own work for a moment. This is a page that houses Javascript/ECMAScript programs to generate superhero names, random Anime attacks, and even overblown fantasy plots. Not only useful or entertaining, feel free to experiment with the code.

The Future That Never Was – A look at how predictions of the future didn’t quite work out. Excellent for SF writers. Very, very insightful if you write SF or retro/historical.

Future Life: Machines or ET – What kind of alien “life” will we encounter or become? A serious look at what an advanced species may be like – now try imagining nanotech spacecraft the size of grass blades . . .

Medieval Names – Need a realistic medieval set of names? Come here and find out how it was really done.

A Way with Worlds is hosted at fanfiction.net and sffworld.com, and is archived at the Way With Worlds archive.

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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