I seem to be on a roll with the world-building exercises, so I see no reason to stop now! Perhaps I’m feeling inspired by the various world-building articles I’ve read recently, even though they were both aimed at roleplayers: Case Study in Stealing from History (by my husband) and An Interesting Nexus (by our business partner).
One thing that I think gets left out of many fictional societies is the presence of societal obsessions. Let’s face it—we’ve got ’em in spades. Ask what the modern society of the USA is obsessed with and you’ll get some pretty quick answers from almost anyone: weight (or physical attractiveness); celebrity; wealth. A society might be obsessed with honor, aging, respect, a particular religion, social class, its ruling body, hard work, societal advancement, noble titles, a guild system connected with artisan crafting, particular artisan crafts, physical well-being or fitness, self-defense, etc.
Look at the movie “300” for a good example—the society depicted was obsessed with martial prowess, to the point that calling someone a politician was a sneer, displaying any kind of weakness was practically forbidden, and physical deformity was reason enough to kill babies. This obsession shaped their entire society. Note that this was not a baseless obsession, either. These men were descended from slaves, accustomed to having to be tougher than everyone around them in order to survive and deeply proud of their ability to keep themselves and their families free. There were strong historical reasons for how their society took shape in the manner it did.
When next you work on a fictional society, ask yourself what its obsessions are. How deep do those obsessions run, and how do they shape the lives of ordinary members of that society? What historical developments created these obsessions, and where do you see them potentially going?