Fantasy often centers around a character doing something out of the ordinary. Something fantastical. But they have to start somewhere, as do the characters around them, and that starting point will often involve work of some kind. For that reason, if for no other, you ought to give at least passing thought to the work in your culture. But work can also reflect a lot about what a culture values, it adds to the backdrop of your world and creates easier openings for your characters to interact with the world around them, and it can simply be of value to show and appreciate ordinary work.
What is Work in Your Culture?
The first question to ask yourself when developing fantasy vocations is what your culture defines as work. Does only paying work qualify? Does only work that makes a full living qualify? Is work considered anything that keeps you busy? Is it anything that provides for your family? Is it anything that fulfills the perceived purpose of mankind? The values of your culture will influence your answer to this question. A culture that values self-sufficiency will likely require a job to fully provide for you and your family in order to count as work. A culture that struggles with crime rates and just wants to keep its citizens out of trouble will likely count anything that keeps citizens from being idle. A religious culture is likely to count anything that fulfills the purpose of their god(s).
Or perhaps only certain kinds of work qualify. Maybe manual labor is praised, but intellectual work is considered too intangible to qualify. Or maybe relational jobs aren’t considered worthwhile investments of time, but creative work is what everyone is encouraged to pursue.
Is work flexible? Can you shift your hours as needed? Can you choose to focus on a different type of work or a different project for a time before returning to the one you were working on? Or are timelines strict?
Answering this question will enable you to determine how jobs work and what your character(s) might do on a daily basis.
Where Does Work Take Place?
For much of history, work was centered in the home. People worked crafts from their homes, had shops attached to their houses, tended their own fields and gardens, etc. When the Industrial Revolution hit, jobs were moved out of the home and into factories. Now we have factories, offices, schools, hospitals, and any number of other public businesses; but we’re also seeing some people move back toward working from home as entrepreneurs, craftsmen, artists, etc. The question is, where does work occur in your world? Is it home-based? Are there guilds that people attend to work? Are there factories or schools filled with workers? How does this reflect what your culture believes about family, community, and efficiency?
Who Participates in Work?
Who is eligible to work in your world? Do families work as a unit, so children are involved in the family business? Do you get a job when you come of age? Do you ever get too old to be considered for work? Are there limits on those with disabilities, or are accommodations made? How does this differ depending on what kind of work your culture values? Are there low-scale jobs that people considered “ineligible” to work can still do? Is it considered acceptable for those not yet of age to get work, or is that a forbidden practice?
Do people who work together form a community? Or do they often keep their distance? How is this influenced by the work environment and by your culture’s overall values? How willing are people to make concessions for those they work with (tying back to the question of work flexibility)?
What is the Reward for Work?
Characters need money (or bartering items) to survive, so something they do must provide an income. But does all of their work provide monetary gain? Does some of their work produce food or needed items for themselves or others? Is some of it just for the satisfaction? Does their work further a cause? What do they do for money and what do they do for other reasons, and how does this work overlap or not? Is there a standard pay rate for work, or does it differ depending on quality of work, the funds of the person paying, or time spent working?
There you have it: some questions to consider when developing the work of your world. Once you have these basics laid out, you can develop specific vocations and use them to color your world. Now you’ll know where your character needs to go to get a sword or to refresh their foodstores on their epic quest. Most importantly, have fun!
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