The power of taboo

Worldbuilding is essential to sci-fi and fantasy. Even if your story takes place in modern New York City with some vampires, you still need to build the “world” of those vampires– their culture, their history, their biology, their strengths and weaknesses, their mindsets, and so forth.

One way to add flavor to a new culture is to address their unspoken rules and taboos.

The alien world of the late Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth is full of rules and taboos: one of the biggest is that no one ever removes his or her mask in front of another person, and no other person will ever remove your mask. Things are thrown into chaos when a stranger comes to down and starts stealing people’s identities– but the taboo is so strong that nobody is willing to take off their mask, even in the name of catching a killer.

Apart from being a great read, The Moon Moth also gives us the meaning behind this particular taboo:

Masks are worn at all times, in accordance with the philosophy that a man should not be compelled to use a similitude foisted upon him by factors beyond his control; that he should be at liberty to choose that semblance most consonant with his [position in society]. In the civilized areas of Sirene… a man literally never shows his face; it is his basic secret. 

Though we don’t necessarily need to know the specific story behind every custom and taboo in your world, it’s important that as the writer know the reason, and it needs to make sense within the context of your world.

Going back to the taboo of naked men, we don’t exactly know where it came from, but it could stem from questions of objectification of women, historical representation of beauty in art, and paranoid defense of one’s own sexuality. And more importantly, all of those things interact with each other over the course of history.

A challenge for writers:

Try to come up with some taboos for your story.

Maybe it’s a taboo about food, like not being able to eat with your left hand. Maybe it’s a taboo about who can work with whom, or what you can and can’t do on what days. Maybe it’s a taboo about sex (and for the love of creativity, don’t just make it about which gender can have sex with which– that’s been done to death).

Now write a quick scene in this world where the taboo is relevant.

The trick: don’t ever mention what it is. See how the characters naturally steer around it. There’s no need to explain this thing, because everybody already knows, and nobody would dream of violating it.

And tell us about what you came up with in the comments!

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