1) Consider –lineal, -local, and whether or not they actually translate to political power. Patrilineal cultures are those in which items (or blood) are inherited through the male line, and patrilocal cultures those in which a newly married couple will reside in the husband’s home. Matrilineal and matrilocal mean, surprise surprise, inheritance through the female line and residence with the bride’s parents. I’ve seen examples of both in fantasy. One reason I wish people would think them through more often is that many authors seem to have a simple equation in mind: inheritance= power. Therefore, if a woman inherits items through her mother, women must have either equal or superior standing in the culture.
Not true. While real examples of matrilineal and matrilocal cultures exist, matriarchies (actual “rule by the mothers”) still have sketchy evidence, and a lot of people argue about whether women have ever had true political, economic, and governmental power, whether or not they could claim some items as their own. If you have SpunkyGirl Generic inheriting her mother’s sword “because only a woman can touch it,” that doesn’t mean there aren’t equal or even better inheritances that pass only from father to son. Women were expected to have men to provide for them, one way or another. Very few women in the pre-modern era lived by the fruits of their labor alone. The women best off were often unmarried daughters of rich men, or widows who had inherited the property of a deceased husband.
Can you change this in a fantasy culture? Sure you can. But think about the general tenor and tone of your culture. If it’s generic medieval, and your main character is shown rebelling against strictures that bind other women who aren’t as “spirited” (ugh), then that means women most likely don’t have equal standing with men. This should show up in the inheritance patterns.
2) Dowries. Where are they? Dowries are gifts given in some cultures to a husband’s family along with the bride—sometimes as gifts outright, sometimes as support for the woman who couldn’t contribute as much to the family, sometimes as inheritance to be passed along to the children, and sometimes for other purposes. They’re actually rare on the ground in fantasy, which puzzles me. Much of the dread in noble families that comes along with having a girl is dowry-based, but authors don’t represent it that way; they represent is as the father being a sexist pig, or wanting a son to fight with him, or the girl not being strong enough. For an impoverished noble family, providing a daughter’s dowry would take a huge toll on their funds, but if she didn’t get married, she might not be able to do much to help earn the family money either, depending on the culture. That doesn’t mean it’s fair, but it’s an aspect not often considered.
Do you have to include dowries? Once again, no. But because they are something that appear in many of the cultures fantasists like to draw from, I think it would be interesting to include them. Some suggestions for ways to vary them and use them in plots:
-The families give each other dowries with both sons and daughters, as wedding gifts, and compete. Noble families might well bankrupt themselves trying to outdo each other.
-A family with three daughters has them all get married at once. In scrambling to find the money for their dowries, the father pokes around in the attic/basement/drafty castle dungeon and finds something that starts off a quest.
-The dowry consists of just one item, but a very rare and magical item. Cue quest to find it. Perhaps the daughter has to go and get it herself, providing an excuse for both a special class of warrior/adventurer women even if most women aren’t free and a journey around the countryside.
-The dowry can provide an issue for a very serious, non-silly argument between a couple about to get married.
-The dowry is given by someone outside the immediate family, sort of like the fairies giving Sleeping Beauty gifts at her christening. The person who has to give it doesn’t approve of the bride or husband, and starts screwing around with them (and thus, the plot), providing a solid backbone for a romantic fantasy.
There are thousands of variations that could be played on this, and sometimes a fantasy culture really does need it, or a noble father’s attitudes towards having a daughter don’t make a lot of sense. Consider whether, when putting your culture together, you’ve accidentally left a dowry-shaped hole in the middle of it.
3) If something is inviolable, why? So certain items can only be passed to a woman, or a man, or the half-elven son conceived on a full moon night while the couple was standing on their heads.
If there are magical protections on it that will blow off the hands of anyone who touches it and isn’t the right person, this could be a good reason. But who put the protections on in the first place? And why? What is the big deal about only an elf being able to use that particular sword? (Ha, silly Limyaael. In a moment you’ll be asking why the protagonist is the only one to inherit a certain kind of magic in a hundred years…waitaminute…)
If the item relies on something anatomically present in the character, like breasts or pointed ears, why? Is it an actual case where the item won’t work otherwise, like (snicker) a breastplate? Or does it just sense what’s there? What happens if a man really has to use that sword, and there are no related women left around to wield it for him? Could he get away with it if he cross-dressed?
If the item can only be used at a certain time, make sure that there’s some way of the characters being able to tell that. See, here is the Sword of Galendros. Nobody knows anything about where it came from or who forged it or what it does, ‘cause it’s all Mysterious and stuff. But they do know that it can only be used on the full moon of midsummer. Um, how? Does it come with written instructions? “Insert Blade A into Hilt B. DO NOT insert Hilt C into Blade A, or there will be Problems. Use only on the first full moon night of summer. Money non-refundable.”
(Not to mention that, if they have no idea at all what it does, they’d be pretty stupid to pick up the sword and start swinging it around on the first full moon of summer, desperate need or not).
4) Remember that not all cultures might have the same respect for a written will. I’ve complained before that authors turn all too often to modern legal procedures when they have to try a criminal in a fantasy novel. There’s the trial by jury, and the judge, and the lawyers or their analogues. Where are the trials by ordeal? Where are the retrocognitive mages who could make things a whole lot easier by just waving a hand and showing people what really happened? Where are the interesting and exciting customs that would logically develop from the very different culture that the author is portraying?
This goes for the mechanics of inheritance, too. If you have a culture where not many people write, every old peasant woman having a written will copied in triplicate is going to seem a mite suspicious. If you have a culture where the great majority of people die with just a few possessions, then wills may be completely unnecessary. Same thing for cultures where inheritance is strictly decided by gender and race and birth order and so on. There, no matter how much the old woman wanted her firstborn daughter to have the brass candlesticks, her son is probably going to get them instead if customs declare that the candlesticks go to the sons.
Consider this, please. Is a verbal promise enough? In what circumstances might it not be? Are there judges who decide difficult cases, and how they can be trusted or chosen? Are inheritance mechanisms different by class, by race (a lot of authors like showing a race such as the elves being more egalitarian with their possessions than humans are), by region, by age of the inheritors? Are there circumstances where the people involved are going to be more concerned with dividing up possessions among those there than going afield to hunt for an heir who’s been missing for seventeen years?
5) Can members of all groups really own property and inherit equally? This is most often addressed in terms of gender. It doesn’t have to be. In a society with a great number of half-breeds, can human parents leave things to their half-elven children free and clear, or are there Problems? What about elves leaving things to half-elves, or to live-in human lovers for that matter? Bastard children, step-siblings, half-siblings, and mistresses have tended to get screwed over in our own world pretty hard, never mind in a fantasy culture which might be stricter.
Modifying inheritance and property laws is an interesting and subtle way of showing discrimination in a society. If there’s a group of magic-users who are being targeted by [insert big oppressive fantasy institution here], they’re probably not going to be able to possess property or inherit it with as much as ease as others. Yes, there might also be stonings and burnings at the stake, but those too often are painted as the only consequences of being part of such a group. Yet would someone who throws stones at a witch all day long really want to sell her his house so that she could (as he believes) paint the walls with blood and summon demons? Sometimes, it seems that yes, he would; she just better not come near him while he has any stones to hand, by goshdarn!
Taking property away from members of the oppressed group who have it is also a way for the people of [insert oppressive fantasy institution] to make some quick cash. In the witch hunts in Europe, the women targeted were often widows who had some property that, by law, would benefit the person who turned her in for being a witch. This has triple positive effects in a fantasy setting: it’s a way of showing discrimination without doing something that’s been done 600 million times before; it can show the hypocrisy, greed, and cynicism of the organization involved, especially if they start accusing people who aren’t actually part of the oppressed Speshul group; and it can win the oppressed Speshul group some allies.