So I finished The Scar, and that made me think about the justice system and legal consequences in fantasy worlds.
1. What is a crime in your world?
This could be an entire post – or even a chapter in a book. A fantasy world should not be identical to our own, and so the laws should be different in some ways – which is part of the fun of worldbuilding. For instance, in a world where everyone is empathic, anger or lust (to name just a couple of the seven deadly sins) could well be against the law. In a world where people become stronger or more beautiful after they die for the first time – like caterpillars turning into butterflies – would murder be as much of a crime as it is in our world?
2. Why is this a crime?
I’ve read a few stories where witches are persecuted, and these weren’t set on past-Earth or alternate-Earth. The good witches were simply hunted down by fanatical puritan types because that’s the established pattern, that’s the way it’s always been done.
Well, you know what? Let’s either break the pattern or show why there’s merit to it. The magicians in The Mark of Vurth, a fantasy of mine, spread magic like a highly contagious disease to normal people, turning them into magicians as well. No freedom of choice about it. And using too much magic too fast, which is what a lot of newly made magicians do, is a sure way to have that power turn against you. You end up not just a magician - which is different enough from the norm - but physically or mentally twisted.
As a result, the authorities have a good reason to want magic removed from their world. In the long run, they believe it causes more harm than good, and they have more than enough reason to think so. So their draconian penalties make sense.
3. Who enforces the law?
“No, I can see that you don’t know who I am,” said Caesar, still in a conversational voice. “Therefore, daughter, it behooves me to tell you. I am the paterfamilias, the absolute head of this household. My very word is law. My actions are not actionable. Whatever I choose to do and say within the bounds of this household, I can do and I can say. No law of the Senate and People of Rome stands between me and my absolute authority over my household and my family. For Rome has structured her laws to ensure that the Roman family is above the law of all save the paterfamilias. If my wife commits adultery, Julilla, I can kill her, or have her killed.”
Colleen McCullough, The First Man in Rome
On the opposite end of that spectrum is the Riding Women’s society in Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines. In this unstructured, nomadic, all-female community, there are few real laws. And when the camp congregates to discuss issues, more attention is paid to women of the Conor bloodline, because they have a long-standing reputation for speaking good sense.
A society doesn’t always need judges or juries – or executioners, for that matter. Punishments can be meted out by the victim or the victim’s family, by a god or by what’s believed to be a god’s avatar, such as a giant snake or a flock of ravenous crows. For a cruel little twist, how about the criminal’s family being forced to pull the lever?
4. What is the punishment?
Here’s where writers can have a lot of fun. China Mieville certainly does; in New Crobuzon, criminals are often sentenced to be Remade. They have the body parts of other people or animals – or even machine parts like caterpillar treads – grafted on to their bodies, sometimes replacing their own limbs. Needless to say, this instantly marks them as criminals. It sets them apart. On the other hand, sometimes it can be useful to have tentacles, or a giant mantis claw.
If your society wants to segregate the guilty, that can be done either physically – exile or incarceration – or in other ways. For instance, criminals could be subjected to spells that leave them visible but incorporeal. They can wander through the world like ghosts for the term of their sentence, but can’t physically interact with anyone.
In any place where space and resources are limited, it makes sense to spend as little as possible on criminals. So for instance, on a sailing ship, they could be put into suspended animation or shrunk to a small enough size that they survive on crumbs and can be imprisoned in a bottle. Of course, if they escaped, they’d be nearly impossible to catch, and might well pose a threat to the ship (story potential!).
What if petty criminals were assigned familiars which accompanied them everywhere, like Philip Pullman’s daemons but with another purpose entirely? The familiars would act as consciences at best and constant witnesses at worst. The criminals might hate their loss of privacy – but to the authorities, this might be quite a merciful sentence.
Readers tend to be jaded by the usual whips and gibbets and chains, so something more is needed to horrify them. I like psychological tactics in this capacity. A punishment which leaves bruises on the victim may be effective – but one which leaves the victim convinced that he deserves those bruises will be shocking. Especially if there's any chance it's being inflicted on an innocent person.
Gaslighting can make the target believe he's slipping into insanity. Permanent personality alterations can change a victim from a courageous resistance leader to a cowed and obedient puppet. A great example of Efrafan discipline in Watership Down is the scene where Blackavar is forced to repeat, to anyone who approaches him, a litany of why he was punished. And he knows that once he's given this coerced confession to the whole warren, he will be killed.
If rabbits can be that inventive, people should be even more so.