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Setting in Stone 6: Demographics

Demographics are details about the people of a place. Population size, ethnic makeup, what jobs people have, poverty and literacy levels, all that. I find them fascinating, revealing, and important. I also find them shockingly absent from books, especially fantasy books. In this installment of Setting in Stone, the topic is, surprisingly enough, demographics, why they matter in stories, and how to write them.


It would be quite awkward if, on the second or third page of a book, the character said something like this “I live in this country, which has population under ten million people, and in this town, of only forty thousand people. The belief systems, in order of number of adherents, are Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and animism. The life expectancy is fifty seven years for men and sixty two for women, and this is because of the dragons. About half of all people can read and write because our government doesn’t belive in universal education. Most people are involved in primary industry and labour.”

And so on. That’s boring. You’re reading a novel, not a textbook.

How then, should demographics be part of a fantasy land? One idea I’ve had is the maps, which many fantasy books have. Maps could include legends with, for instance, simple dot size to correspond to population in urban centres, a very common strategy used in political maps. Some authors also have bonus ‘introduction to the world’ content which demographics could be part of. I’m sure this is already the case in *some* maps.

But readers don’t spend that much time on maps, so a better strategy could be just to make it part of story; offhand comments like ‘there are several million people in this city, and I’m the only one who can use magic’; ‘My grandmother, the first dragon tamer, lived until she was 91, four decades older than the average’; or even ‘my best friend worked at the water office. If we were going to poison the priests, who made up 0.5 per cent of the population, we would need his help.’

Demographics are seriously powerful forces. The thing is, fantasy books are usually simplified: 10 or less countries, instead of almost 200; four or fewer languages, instead of at least 6000; one major city, instead of many; only a few people groups; only drastic differences in wealth and education, and not a spectrum. (This is obviously a generlisation, but mostly true, and I don’t blame authors for it. The story is more important than the setting, but the setting is part of the story.) But even such basic details have impact people’s lives. (One fantasy book with fairly good demographic/geographic forces in general, if I remember right, is Sara Raasch’s Snow Like Ashes series)

Demographics matter to me, though, they interest me…and I think they interest most people, because they have such an effect on the stories of our lives. As such, I really want them to be a meaningful part of stories, even in fictional worlds, though I get that it’s a find balance.

In books set in the real world, demographics are also not usually obvious. They’re sort of taken for granted—you know, hopefully, the population of the US and so on. In some, ethnic make up and income are a part of the story, for example in The Hate U Give and Hate is Such a Strong Word. For those banal small towns which I’m rather against—well, mention of demographics could help.

You might think that the numbers and statistics of demographics are boring. And sure, when they’re in textbooks, they are. But demographics are about people, numerical ways of assessing what people are doing, where they are, where they’re going, and what they care about. That’s basically the ingredients for a story. Demographics are important, because they’re one of the main (but not only) way that characters directly interact with and are influenced by the environment around them. It’s another example of how details can make a plot more believable (e.g., sudden influx of people from Binff in your fantasy city of Ermanihih can kickstart the plot (Binffians culture is heavy in water use and Ermanihih is in the desert, hence, resentment) and be easily explained with demographics (Binffians are excellent metal workers and your government has a labour shortage in that area, which is a problem because they’re trying to build resoivoirs in metal containers behind the town where hey! a murder also happened) and voila plot weds demographics in a grand ceremony and everyone is happy. (or at least me)) Demographics are wehre something in the background (the general population) meets something with personal plot relevance (specific people, what they care about and why).

Demographics are important, but they’re rarely mentioned. So, I encourage you, oh Virtually Readers: look up demographics for the places you’re reading and writing about. Show how people are relevant. Demographics are a big thing, but they matter.

Setting in Stone is going on hiatus for November, but I’ll be back in December #justyouwait. If you’ve enjoyed this series and would like to participate in a challenge/project related to it, please let me know, ideally through Twitter DM’s, or else through our contact form.

Okay, did my demographic obsessed side show? (don’t answer that…I already know). Do you think demographics are important to stories? How can they be better incorporated?

8 thoughts on “Setting in Stone 6: Demographics

  1. The Chtorr series (apocalyptic science fiction) incorporated global demographics well because the world’s entire population was decreasing, and the main character was occasionally involved in important meetings with representatives all over the world. So he’d be at the meeting, looking at who was there, thinking about what power they held relative to how their regions were handling the catastrophe. Or he would have a meeting with a government representative where they would discuss “the state of the world.” Those factors made it easy for demographics to be clear throughout.

    Usually I think it would be tough though. Like the Mountain Goat says above, you have to show the perspective of the characters in your book, and let the reader discern what they can discern from that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really really important, especially for fantasy world building! I mean you can get away with not mentioning a lot of this in contemporaries because like we KNOW a lot of things about our world (like average ages, how many countries there are, the poor vs rich etc etc) but fantasy often skimps on it?! And that’s why I find fantasy books so weak sometimes.😭But this is what really fleshes out a book and world and makes it REAL so I wish more books focused on it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Shanti,
    I am totally into your idea of demographics as wider information critical to the context of any story, and enriching the story as it unfolds. However In novels, I think the idea of maps and rich legend giving information does not work. The map has to be consistent with the setting, including the time. Most novels using maps are in a time when such information was not available. A medieval fantasy novel with a 21st century GIS map and deep demographic data? Nah! Anyway, the novelist wants to give us the world through their character’s eyes. A 21’st century novel with the main character a slum girl from Niger and a 21st century map of the quality and information content of the Royal Geographic society of London? Nah. If the main character was a cartographer from the UN centre of population statistics- sure. But otherwise?

    SO the only way is to have characters -even minor characters (that might be their role) reveal the demographic and geographic information throughout the story, and we pick it up experientially- bitwise- as the story goes. And, to be honest, that is actually how we have picked up, are picking up demographic information about our own context our own world, the setting of our own life stories. Bitwise. As the story unfolds.



  4. SHOOOT. I never really thought about this. Sure, I’ve never written a Fantasy novel before but I still think that this would be somewhat necessary in contemporary? I mean, I guess we miss out on quite a lot of the details.

    And thanks for the book recommendation (though my TBR is not thankful in return)


  5. This was such an interesting post! I definitely agree with you here that demographics can add so much to a story and help you to better understand a setting (especially fantasy places). The problem for me here though would be that it can be quite difficult to include them in a way that feels natural, and isn’t just thrown in there in an info-dumpy way.
    I love seeing maps in books, there such a nice way to help the reader comprehend the world, and like you said, can also be used to add extra information about the world/place. I’d love to know more about the challenge/project you mentioned!


  6. Ohh this is such an interesting topic. I actually never thought about demographics too much, but you’re right, they would give more sense to the worlds, especially used in fantasy books….and when there are tons of different places. I’m very fond of maps when it comes to these kind of books, and you’re so right, incorporating more demographics would help us making more sense of the world we are dealing with here, for sure 🙂
    Ohh I’m sorry this feature is going on a break, I’ll miss it – I’m curious about the challenge you’re referring to? 😛


  7. Wow.. I never really thought about Demographics in this way 🤔 It definitely becomes messy if there are multiple places mentioned. But I too think that the fantasy books do it best and maps are the best thing to incorporate demographics 😊


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