Today, I’d like to go back to a type of post I haven’t done in a while: the world blip. Hey, remember these? Where I’d spout off about a part of worldbuilding people probably didn’t care about?
Well, sit back, cause I’m gonna do it again.
Today, I’d like to talk about something that can have a vast impact on the characters in your story. Not just the setting, but the people in it. In fact, your choices regarding this aspect of worldbuilding will hardly affect the setting at all.
Why Education Matters
Can you read?
If you can comprehend that question, then the answer is yes. Obviously.
Here’s a better question: can your characters read?
Ah, and have an interesting twist: if they can, should they be able to? You see, if you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy, the odds of characters being able to read are much lower than if you’re writing sci-fi or contemporary. Schools weren’t widely available in the past, nor might they be in fantasy settings. Or maybe they are.
And that’s why it matters. If your world is built to have few educational systems in place, your characters shouldn’t be able to read. That will directly affect what they can do in their story and how they interact with the world.
Now, education goes far beyond reading. It reaches into math, science, writing, philosophy, religion, and all aspects of life. These things can deeply affect what your characters do, think, and believe. If you look at people today, education is an integral part of their lives. Young people spend most of their days in school, and adults spend their lives working at a job they qualify for based on their education. Education affects the progress of technology and culture.
Characters Interacting with Education
Education is something you can develop very quickly, if you wish. You could also spend days creating complex systems for your world, but the speed is nice for those of us who don’t have days for it.
Answer these questions:
Who is educated?
What sorts of educations do they receive?
What establishments exist?
Answers to the first may include people groups like “nobles” or “nobles and merchants” or “first and second class citizens”, and so forth. The second question is more about the subjects focused on. For instance, most education in a society may be apprenticeship: trade school. Therefore, people may be educated, but not widely knowledgeable. Their experts in their fields and ignorant elsewhere. The last question is very simple: are there universities? High schools? Grade schools? Trade schools?
Once you have decided on these, you’re done. That’s all you need.
The work comes in deciding how your characters fit into this education system and training yourself to write them according to their level of education. First, you have to match them: are they educated? Where? How much? What do they know? What don’t they know?
Then it’s a “simple” task of writing them that way.
I’d like to give you an example before I end: in Agram Awakens and its sequel, my character Deyu is a slave. She has no education. She cannot read or write, and she knows the numbers one, two, three, four, and ten (though she doesn’t understand what ten actually is). She doesn’t know what science is, nor philosophy, and has a hard time understanding how religion works.
She’s also fifteen.
It’s difficult to write her, sometimes, because her education makes her sound like she’s four. In fact, she often acts like she’s four, because she doesn’t know better. No one taught her how to act less like a four year old.
However, it’s also a very interesting character detail that I’ve had several beta readers congratulate me on. They love the details when she refers to things in groups of four, when she gets frustrated at not being able to read a sign, and when she confuses herself with religion and philosophy.
That’s a powerful thing. It makes us empathize with her. Even though most of us can read, we can empathize with ignorance. That’s a powerful tool.