Social Status (backstory)

Where your character comes from, the world they’re born into, the caste into which they are cast, will affect their story. How does your character fit into the cutthroat, clawing status game of their society?

Let’s start with the premise that the world ain’t fair. Regardless of the society, genre, or style of your story, there are levels of stature and for better or worse, we’re all sorted into our respective places. If this sounds grim, that ‘s good because it makes for hopeful stories about rising from the murk!

Social Levels General List

Here’s an outline of various class or caste hierarchical levels possible in various societies. The way you organize them and the power–or lack thereof–that you assign to each level can have  a tremendous affect on your narrative characters. Pick a couple words that jump out at you as good story devices to start with.

Play around with character “status” within each level as well; sometimes the rich and powerful are incompetent buffoons and will command little respect from those beneath them. Common folk can become impressive heroes that rise in stature despite their humble roots.

Also included are some trigger words related to criminal hierarchies. Within a lawful society even, powerful criminal elements can have great (or grave) influence. We’re sure you’ll find a few words in here to help you establish a societal sorting mechanism for your narrative world. Enjoy!

  • upper class, royalty, nobility, divinity,
  • middle class, merchant class, artisan class,
  • landowner, landlord, seigneur, manager,
  • businessman, businesswoman, businessperson, boss,
  • investor, financier, big wig, money bags,
  • governor, prefect, reeve, mayor, seneschal, high official,
  • worker, working poor, blue collar worker,
  • lower class, peon, plebeian, peasant, habitant, servant, tenant, renter, leaser,
  • chambermaid, squire, knave, handmaiden,
  • black-marketeer, pawnbroker, loan shark, shyster, usurer,
  • religious elite, imam, cardinal, pope, bishop, priest, prelate,
  • scholar, academic, professor, researcher, teacher,
  • missionary, traveling priest, cleric, monk,
  • drug lord, cartel leader, ring leader,
  • right-hand man, sidekick,
  • folk hero, superhero, martyr, saviour, idol, champion,
  • prophet, demigod, descendant of gods,
  • don, mafia boss,
  • citizen, burgher, commoner,
  • homeless, street person, prostitute,
  • slave, serf, indentured servant, churl,
  • beggar, leper, heretic, imp, bastard,
  • the insane, afflicted, addlepates, dimwits, idiots, institutionalized folk,
  • criminals, the excommunicated, banished, shunned, disowned, estranged,
  • military rank (see military characters for ideas)


Society can also be organized by way of clans. Different clans play different roles in the community or take on various elements of societal leadership. Because clan names may bear vivid symbolism, they can be quite powerful as narrative devices to shape character backstory and adventure purpose.

  • bear, bee, crane, turtle, elk, wolf, jaguar,
  • water, wind, fire, earth, tree, animal,
  • east, west, south, north,
  • stars, moon, sun, constellations, planets, zodiac,
  • spring, summer, autumn, winter, 12 moons, equinox, solstice,
  • oak, willow, ash, maple, pine,
  • first family, second clan, thirdkin, the fourth people,
  • clan names related to jobs: smith, fuller, groom, cooper, constable,

Story Developments

  • A character finds out that they are really royalty (or of a higher caste in some way). Others may try to stop them from taking their rightful place. Some may try to use them as a pawn for their own gains. Maybe they don’t even want it? Who knows? Hopefully you write it and we find out.
  • A character finds out that they are not actually royalty. Maybe others find it out and now that character needs to flee, escape, fight back, destroy the system, or succumb to the misery of it all
  • a good ruler is usurped by a bad ruler (usually a sibling or relative with some claim to the power)
  • a poor character and rich character fall in love and must fight for their right to be together… but lots gets in the way: arranged marriage, political ties, family honour, war, religion, ideology, the law of the land, corruption, money, other love interests,
  • with the assassination of the ruler of the land, chaos ensues… which side will your characters take and why?
  • a lower class character spurned by a higher class secret lover vows revenge. You could go with the vice versa as well.
  • a curse is put on a powerful character by a low level character
  • Revolution! The lower class rises up against tyrranny! How will that work out? Will the world get any better? Who will sabotage the revolution?
  • A high ranking character and a low ranking character switch places. This could be on purpose, accidentally, magically, on a dare, by command, through divine intervention, as a curse (or blessing), by the actions of their parents, or whatever. This is a device that’s been done before and it works beautifully as a way to explore class assumptions and subconscious bias.
  • In a moment of desperation, a high ranking character gives something significant (deed, map, key, ring, amulet, briefcase of money) to a plebian/commoner with some terse instructions… just before being killed/eliminated/imprisoned. What will the lower level character do with this item?

Notes and Ideas

  • Lots of great story comes from the social shift a character goes through. Does your character rise in social status through a relationship or action? Do they fall in social status because of something they said or did or because of someone they offended or besmirched? Social shifts can propel your story into higher orbit!
  • The lust for power is one of the great tragic story lines. It twists hearts and minds and even when the path is taken with the best intentions, human frailty opens the floodgates to corruption, deceit, pride, and violence. Isn’t that great… for your story, I mean.
  • Sometimes characters of great nobility must prove their worth or they must suffer a tragic downfall, and possibly rise again–unless they’re in a Shakespearean tragedy where they are doomed to die and take their whole family down with them. The fall of nobility makes the lower class types very happy indeed in a reality-TV kinda fashion. Feuding rich folk are fun to watch as they rip, gouge, bite, yell, scrap, and destroy each other.
  • Sometimes lowborn folk manage to save the world and gain heroic status through their commitment and actions. Some lower class characters will fight their own families as their parents buck the attempted class mobility of their ungrateful offspring. Sometimes a poor dude falls in love with the rich girl and no one knows how to handle it all. Great stuff!
  • And then there’s everyone in between and all around, living their lives, each with a story all their own derived from their day-to-day existence, full of successes and failures, trials and triumphs. And each one would make a splendid narrative. Each deals with taxes, bureaucracy, corruption, politics, economic fluctuation, honour, happiness, food on the table, entertainment, and so on.  No matter the character’s social status, you can tell their story.