List of societal changes and threats

by | Jan 13, 2020 | Writing Advice | 2 comments

I’ve written previously about how important change is to a setting. In a great setting there are often forces outside of the protagonist’s control that are roiling the calm and shifting the dynamics within a society.

To aid your brainstorming process, especially if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, here’s a list of societal changes and challenges that your protagonist’s world could be facing:

  • Anarchy/chaos
  • Civil rights movement
  • Civil war
  • Climate change/environmental catastrophe
  • Complacency/decadence
  • Corruption
  • Disease
  • Economic collapse
  • Extreme inequality
  • Famine
  • Genocide
  • Paranoia/mass hysteria/xenophobia
  • Pestilence
  • Religious awakening
  • Resource discovery or depletion
  • Revolution/political power shift
  • Scientific discovery
  • Technological disruption/innovation
  • War (invasion or elective war)

When changes ripple through a society, it results in changing norms and incentive structures. The qualities and values that society used to reward may no longer apply, and there’s a chaotic vacuum that is often filled by both the protagonist and the villain in different ways.

For instance, valor and bravery might be ascendant because the world has gotten more dangerous, but there might also be an opening for greed and evil.

As you craft a setting, don’t just think about the physical description. Think about what is happening in the broader world that could present opportunity and danger for your characters.

See any changes I missed? Add them in the comments!

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Art: The Burning of the Houses of Parliament by Anonymous


  1. Wendy

    Wow, Nathan. My heart sings. This is fabulous teaching. I mean how societal changes could affect the story and characters. This information could really help to up my writing game. It means something important. Levels affecting other levels to one degree of another, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. And how, perhaps, what might be perceived as a disadvantage initially might be an advantage, depending how the characters understand it. This kind of thing could be lightly inferred or suggested as a fantastic analogy in a story for younger readers, such as the themes in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of The Rings. Actually, was LOTR about changes in values on a wide scale or more of a journey, physical and spiritual, that a character makes?
    I’m not sure what I’m taking about now. But I love this idea, creating this depth of story that affects people, powerfully, on so many levels and perhaps increases their awareness making for better lives. Kind of like Oliver Twist. But maybe this story, itself, brought about the changes in society, giving people a deeper perspective on the suffering of children in workhouses. I’m all about reducing people’s suffering. The irony is that we are often tempted to think that it’s just us suffering so much while other people are swanning through life. But the truth is, everyone is doing it tough, often much tougher than us. And we all need to be aware and try to overlook any momentary irritations and do what we can to reduce this suffering around us.

    There is so much potential power in the pen to increase awareness so more people have better lives.

    But I digress, I think.

    I don’t know. I just got very excited by this information to show life more powerfully so there is more meaning in what we write and people can draw more from it to profit them in some way. And, of course, such a powerful approach would be more entertaining and realistic and moving.

    Err, Nathan, please don’t quote this–if you know what I mean.


    See any changes you missed? Of course! The Great Tumbleweed Invasion, like I already said!

    But seriously, Nathan, a great list. And the forces being outside the protagonist’s control still leaves him or her with something very vital to control, that is his or her reactions.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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