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It's All Relative: Kinship in Developing Science Fiction and Fantasy Cultures

March 30, 2017


“Introduce me to your family!” your main character asks his new friend from another world. They thought it'd be a simple and friendly invitation. Five hours later, their new friend is still introducing them to people around the village.


Now that we've covered the basic types of Anthropology and how they might be useful to writing science fiction and fantasy, I'd like to delve into individual topics that might inspire or prompt thought when creating new people. I'll try to add questions that might prompt thought for brainstorming. This time around, we're talking about kinship.


Kinship is the web of relationships your characters have. Different cultures will see and categorize family differently. This can affect a person's place not just in society but within even their direct relationships.


What is Family?

At first glance, this question seems easy. It's someone you're related to, right? Family, on closer inspection, can be more complex than that. It includes people related by blood, marriage, or sometimes co-residence/shared consumption groups. Basically, for this purpose, it's who rears children.


In the United States, kids are usually the responsibility of parents, adopted or birth, sometimes extended family like aunts, uncles, and grandparents. But that's not always the case in some cultures. Sometimes the whole village helps raises the children. In some cultures, aunts, uncles, and what we consider extended family play much larger roles.


Family is also an economic unit when not even considering children. There are rules about what is too closely related for marriage. Europeans were horrified to find that Mongol men, who married multiple women, if the husband died, one of his sons would almost always marry his father's wives.


This gets further complicated when you ask, what is considered a brother? In some kin relations, a brother isn't just a boy from the same parents. It can be any of your first cousins, too. It's possible a made-up society may go further, requiring extensive pedigrees to ensure that they are distantly related enough.



Decent determines in what way people trace their linage and often how inheritance happens in a society. There are three types of decent: Unilateral, bilateral, and ambilinial.


In unilateral kinship societies, people trace their family line and inheritance is traced through one side of the family. For example, a patrilinial society means we take the last name of and trace our family primarily through our fathers. Some are matrilinial, however, where the mother's line is more important.


Bilateral kinship, I'll bet you can guess, is where decent is traced through both sides. Neither one or the other is more important or dominant.


In an ambilinial society, the children choose which side they want to trace their linage through, either the mother or the father.


As you can see, the question of decent can change quite a bit in a society. And since things are never black and white, it might even be possible that your society might be unilinial on some matters but ambilinial or bilateral in others. It could be situational.


Who inherits is often the more powerful in a group. So while we often conjure the idea of the firstborn son inheriting the throne, maybe the son isn't a consideration at all. Maybe it has to be a daughter from her mother, the king a handsome placeholder and helper to the true sovereign, similar to the Anoni people in my Chronicles of Everen series.


In Conclusion, family can be complicated. It can alter how people interact and categorize one another in a society. Without considering this very important element in a story, all of your societies will look very much the same and you're missing out on an exciting part of building a unique world in your scifi and fantasy stories.


Questions for Consideration:

Who is responsible for raising, teaching, and providing for children?

What is considered immediate family?

What is considered extended family?

What is considered incest in your society?

Fill in the blank for your character in another society: “I am the son/daughter of ________.” (If it's unilateral, it will say mom OR dad's name. If it's bilateral society, there should be an 'and' in there.)

The sovereign has died. Who inherits? Son or daughter or whoever they pick?

Swap the dominant gender of a unilateral society! How does this change things?

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