This chapter covers other systems that will exist in our world, including educational, health, legal, commerce, and information systems.
Educational systems aren’t the most glamorous subject but should be given a thought because every character has either gone through one (to one degree of success or another), skipped it, or one didn’t exist during their coming of age. Unless every character had the same experience, the differences between them will impact interactions, opportunities, and more. Developing character backstory is incomplete without this.
A system can be easier to devise if we omit explaining it. Few of us know why the system that raised us exists as is, which is one reason we’ll accept a different one if presented authoritatively. This is also a subject few are curious about, including audiences. Unless we intend to set a story in a school, we can skimp on inventing details.
Systems are often public, meaning that the government pays for them, likely through taxes, but a church can be the provider as well (paid for with donations?). This means students do not have to pay to attend, but they may need to purchase supplies, including textbooks, and we can change such a detail. The schools that require students to pay are known as private schools that, in theory, provide a superior experience. It is likely that if a public education exists, some private instruction might, too. We can decide when we want a character to have attended one, at which point we need a name, specialties, and reputation for the school and students.
Systems can be broken down into basic and special.
Basics are the subjects that most of us take for granted: reading, writing, and arithmetic. History, sports, music, art, culture, and more are typically included in earlier years and more specialized extensions are taught to teenagers. That would also mean biology, chemistry, different versions of math (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.), and increasingly advanced uses of language, including foreign ones. The latter is especially important in fantasy and SF that includes multiple species, each with their own verbal and possibly written language. In a world like ours or a more advanced one (SF), we and our audience can assume these subjects exist and characters can learn them. This allows us to largely skip inventing details if desired.
But in a less developed world, less of this will be taught formally if at all. This impacts fantasy authors with a setting like a medieval one. Education may not have gone beyond the equivalent of fifth or sixth grade if it was required at all. One reason is that children must often work in the family business because earning money or performing labor is more important than book learning. The invention of machines to automate or improve the speed of tasks, or increase the yield of something like farming, helps create more resources and “free time” that becomes available for education. Consider whether basic needs are being met in the society without great physical labor. If they’re not, it’s likely that education is a lower priority.
When this is the case, only a few people will achieve more advanced education, meaning what we might learn in our teenage years (in middle, junior, or high school, or whatever we call them). We can consider this a kind of second tier of basic education, rather than specialized education, which we’ll examine next. There will be a criterion for those who are chosen for this extra instruction, such as being wealthy or unusually smart, and special permission may be required. Certainly, nobles are not assigned mundane tasks and therefore have the time for this. It’s one way they can easily distinguish themselves from peasants.
Decide how education works based on the story needs for characters who know more than others. Given that basic education may not be forced, this creates ample room for ignorant characters, who only know what they hear and may get by with streets smarts and people skills far more than learning. This seems likely in fantasy settings. Larger settlements provide for people with more specialized skills and this also suggests training for them and better education. It is believable to decide bigger settlements means better (or simply more) education opportunities and therefore that our most educated characters come from cities rather than rural areas.
Our setting might include magic or advanced technology, and if their prevalence is high, basic instruction in them may also be provided. This won’t turn someone into a wizard or engineer, but just as grade school teaches students high-level concepts about music or art, the population might know basics about magic or warp drive, for example. Those who become engineers need subsequent advanced education (i.e., college or technical school). Here’s what we might write in a society’s file for basic education:
For SF: “At age 6, students are legally required to enroll at a public Kierdyn School (named for the famous scientist, Kier), which they attend until age 16. After this, each student must enroll in a technical school for 2 years, learning space sciences. Advanced education beyond this is available in three-year stints, each resulting in a degree.”
For fantasy: “At age 6, students may enroll in a private Kierdyn School (named for the god of knowledge, Kier) if their parents can spare the child’s work hours and afford the modest price; students may work at the school in lieu of paying in gold. Enrollment is not required. School ends at age 12, though students can leave prior to this. Advanced schooling beyond this is only for nobility or those considered unique or special, and who must pay with not less than ten years of service in their profession after graduation (refusal results in lifelong servitude).”