The Importance of the Family Structure in Worldbuilding

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Alright (yes, I know,  I really need to come up with a new way to start my blog posts considering 4 out of the last 5 have started with the word “Alright”), well now that we have looked at some of the larger parts of society in world building, it is time to get down to a much more granular level, the family. What do family’s look and act like in your worldbuilding? What is the importance of the family structure in world building? That is the question that we are going to answer today.  

Size – number of parents 

First, how large is your immediate family? Although the first thing that most people will think of when this question comes up is the number of children in a family, it is not the only thing to consider. One must also consider the number of parents in a family. The most common example today obviously is to have two parents, but there are also plenty of examples of a single parent raising a family. Historically though there are many more examples of having three or more parents in a single family. These would be considered polygamy in general, but they could also be either polygyny, one male to multiple females, or polyandry, one female to multiple males.

Another possible example of having multiples parents in a family structure would be many amphibians. Although they may not be the most involved parents, when amphibians reproduce, the females will lay a large clump of communal eggs, which a number of males will then fertilize. In this case it is impossible to determine which adults are the parents of any particular offspring. If this is the case perhaps your children are raised by the tribe or village instead of individual parents. 

Size – number of offspring 

Normally, if the technology level is low, or the mortality rate high, then most families will tend to have more offspring to ensure that there is a stable or growing population. Once the mortality rates drop and the technology level increases to a point where lifespans are being extended, the birth rate tends to drop, to prevent overpopulation.  

Again though, that is the normal way of things. Perhaps your society has difficulty’s reproducing for one reason or another and their race is slowly dying out. An example of this is the Krogan from Mass Effect. Due to a biological weapon released on their planet, the majority of their females are infertile. One interesting effect that this had on their society, is that any female who bore a child practically became a hero and was promoted to the level of matron in their society.  

Or perhaps your society doesn’t have a family structure at all, as they do not reproduce sexually but instead are an asexual society. A common example of this is Orc’s in many different pieces of literature. They are often either created from the ground and imbued with life from some evil source, or the reproduce via spores that they release into the ground, which then grow into “pods” with a full-grown orc inside of them ready to spring out once it reaches maturity. In these cases, there is no family structure, only individuals who band together into tribes or warbands. 

 Size – number of generations 

Another factor that impacts the size of the family is the question of how many generations make up a family unit in your society. In western culture today, it is common to only have two generations living together. In some case’s there will be three generations, but generally in these cases there is not a full second and third generation. For some societies however, it is much more common for an entire extended family to still live “together”, if not in one structure then in one town. In these cases, the family structure not only includes parents/siblings, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. 

But maybe your race has a different structure. Maybe the grandparents raise the grandchildren while the parents are busy with careers or fighting wars or any other task only suitable for able bodied adults. Perhaps your race for some reason always dies in childbirth, or after laying a nest of eggs, so the siblings are the only family structure. 

Leadership 

After you have determined the size of the typical family in your society, one of the next things to decide is who is the official or unofficial leader of your family. Is it the oldest male? The oldest female? Perhaps the strongest male? Or female? If your society values intelligence over brute strength, then maybe it is the member with the highest IQ. Maybe it is the member of the family that can bring in the highest income or provide the greatest value to the family. Perhaps it is the one with the biggest foot, which could give a new meaning to “putting your foot down.” 

Roles 

Traditionally, the males in our society have had the role of the “breadwinner,” while females have had the nurturing role in the family. Is this the same for your society, or are they reversed? Maybe both genders are truly neutral and roles are interchangeable in your society. And what of the children? Are they expected to remain under the parent’s authority for their entire lives? Just until they reach adulthood themselves? Until they have their own children? Are they expected to care for their parents when they become older and infirm? 

Rites of passage and celebrations 

Does your society have any rites of passages or celebrations related to families? Is there a large celebration when someone takes their first spouse? A second spouse? What about after spending 25 years with the same spouse? Has their first child? Their tenth child? Are there any rites or rituals that someone must go through in order to be considered an adult? A test or trial of manhood? Or is it as soon as they reach their 18th birthday? Or maybe their 21st winter solstice?

What about the death of a family member? How is that handled? Is it different if the member was an elder and the death was expected than if it was a child? There are any number of different celebrations or rites of passage that you can create for your family structures. Just remember to consider your larger society as a whole and have your family reflect that. If your society is cold and brutal as a whole, it is highly unlikely that your family’s will have large parties every time someone in the family turns a year older for example. 

Any other thoughts on the importance of the family structure in worldbuilding? feel free to share them in the comments below!

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