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?