As humans, we are primed to need to be in a group. Groups provide us with security, support, resources, relationships, and comfort. The first group most people come to know is the Family (immediate circle of parents or guardians and siblings), then the Clan (wider network of relatives). As the person grows, they find their Tribe, the individuals not related to them which make up their social support network and the majority of their social interactions.
In old times, this Tribe may have been a small village. Today, it could be the people at your place of work, the people in your church, or even the group of people on your favorite gaming site. A Tribe is whatever group that person most identifies with, feels most secure around, and can most relate to. In the case of adventuring parties, the group will most likely become their Tribe.
Today we will be talking about how the concept of the Tribe can impact your stories, and how to use it effectively.
The formation of the Tribe
Characters of any race, class, background, obligation, or duty can come together in order to achieve an objective and survive while doing so. We authors usually keep the day to day activities off-screen, but these things are important for recognizing the formation of the Tribe. Eating every meal together, sitting around the campfire while the meal cooks, learning everyone’s relaxation preferences, listening to others snore, hearing others whimper or call out in their sleep, learning about everyone’s bathroom habits and routines, bathing together, hunting together, walking together for hours upon days upon weeks upon months… Characters come to know each other intimately. Even characters who disagree on every topic know each other quite well.
An important point to make here is that the Tribe can be formed by either instant chemistry or routine familiarity. In fact, of the two, familiarity is far more important. You don’t have to like someone to be part of a Tribe together. In fact, you may hate the other person and they may be your rival in everything that you do. But you still share a Tribe.
And all those months spent fighting together count for something. Your paladin character can disagree with the pirate character on how to handle prisoners, but the paladin will still catch the pirate’s hand and haul him up the cliff edge, and the pirate still stands firmly between the wounded paladin and the charging dragon. Remember that a Tribe is about survival first, and comfort second.
The bonds of Tribe
Once the Tribe is formed, there is a bond. It may be one of friendship, romance, or rivalry, but the bond is there. And authors need to account for this when making story decisions.
The paladin and the pirate may disagree. They may argue loudly. They may choose to spend time apart. But if one of them leaves, they are losing their Tribe. If one of them murders the other, they are killing a fellow Tribe member with whom they have shared every meal and watched over them while they’ve slept. The character isn’t just eliminating an inconvenience, they are permanently ending a fixture of their life and a member of their Tribe. Remember that before you have one character slit the other’s throat.
The other side, of course, is that members of a Tribe often enjoy helping each other. “What is important to you is important to me,” as the saying goes. And yes, rivals may get a kick out of putting the other in their debt just to watch them squirm.
Even more importantly, remember that the two people are not the only members of that Tribe. The overall Tribe takes on a life of its own, with each member striving for harmony and group cohesion the best they know how. No one wants to live in constant strife. In fact, in times of danger, we need those bonds to be stronger than ever. That’s why this Tribe formed in the first place, in order to survive together. If one person threatens that, the rest of the Tribe is likely to step in. “You’ve made it our business,” they might say. This Tribe isn’t just a convenience, this is each member’s survival on the line. If the pirate and paladin need to be beaten into unconsciousness and then tied together at the leg until they learn their lesson, so be it.
The Tribe will set overall expectations for behavior and will expect members to adhere to them. The Tribe also typically has a leader, someone around whom the other characters will naturally gravitate. This leader often sets many of the expectations by enforcing certain codes and rewarding compliant individuals with more trust, responsibility, and social power. And all people crave social power as a mechanism for increasing security within the Tribe. You don’t want to be the bottom one on the food chain who gets sacrificed to the tigers for the survival of the group.
Okay, but how do I use this?
As an author, keep in mind what is happening between your main character and the rest of the party. These people have guarded the character while he’s slept, fed her when she was hungry, tended to his wounds, stitched up her clothes, bathed beside him, slept beside her, fought beside him, bled for her, watched his back and her front, placed themselves in danger to protect him, trusted her, and lived beside him. The character has watched their Tribe suffer and heard them cry out from their nightmares. Even the character’s rivals have done small kindnesses for him out of the natural bonds of the Tribe. Keep this in mind when making story decisions.
One thing I have done to keep this in mind is to write a brief adventure log. As the story goes on, the log entries begin to mention party members more and more, and often in a future sense. My main character may look ahead to the future, and see those people still beside him. She may try to set up family marriages with the party members: “You know, my cousin really liked you when we stopped off in my hometown last week.” He may make sacrifices for them, making a final stand to give them a few extra seconds to make it out. She may just sit around the camp fire and show an interest in what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. He will definitely ask them about their past, in order to find out who they are now. And she will come to trust them, and open up about herself.
As an author, you can gently inform your readers about the Tribe. Include scenes that show these bonds growing. Something as simple as a camp scene without any combat can help your characters get to know each other better. One nice thing is that forming a Tribe is a completely natural process to us, our first nature in fact. We NEED to do this, we crave it. Give your readers the chance to see it, and it should resonate for them. And the bond between the Tribe and the reader may hold your works together much more intensely when the plot gets hairy down the line.
A note on those without Tribe
I have read many authors who perpetually create the lone wolf character type. These characters are either traumatized and refuse to trust anyone, serve some dark purpose and want nothing to do with anyone outside of it, or otherwise are designed to have as little closeness with other characters as possible. Be aware that you are quite possibly writing a sociopath, and that the character’s very existence is a threat to the Tribe. He will likely find himself on the outside looking in as other characters will have a difficult time engaging with him, and may feel slighted when he brushes them off entirely. You as an author may, as a natural reaction, give the character fewer personal scenes, because if he won’t allow other people to engage with him and you doesn’t want himself known, the reader likely won’t be able to engage with the character either.
This isn’t so much a problem with characters who just start out cold and warm up later. The issue is with characters who refuse to ever warm up. Authors, be aware that this is purposely creating a wall against the Tribe effect, and may strain the reader’s engagement. If this is the sort of story you’re comfortable telling, then don’t let me scare you off. But be aware of the natural flow toward the Tribe, and keep in mind that you’re purposely writing a sociopath who is incapable of truly functioning as part of a close group. If you’re going to take this path, let readers know early on how it’s gonna be, so they aren’t badly surprised in Act 3 when the character casually lets party members fall off a cliff to save himself from slight inconvenience.
Remember that your character is now without the security, support, resources, relationships, and comfort that characterizes the Tribe, while watching everyone else inside the Tribe’s circle enjoy those benefits.
None of this is meant to say that people cannot or should never write these types of characters. But the potential problems are definitely something to keep in mind, as they affect not only your own writing of that character but also the writing of those other characters in the group who now will be actively excluding him from the circle. If you enjoy entire stories with this feel, then go for it. Make sure you’re closely reading beta reader and editor feedback so your story isn’t impossible to engage with.
What about evil characters?
Evil characters still form bonds. They still form a Tribe. They may be rivals, and their bonds may be strained or more loose, but they are still there. Familiarity goes a long way toward creating good will and sentimentality, which can infect even the most evil of hearts. The character group may all be initially the sociopaths described above, but chances are very good that they will still form bonds and be willing to help each other. They just do a much harsher cost-benefit analysis each time they’re asked for help.
An important thing to remember is that even evil characters are naturally going to long for this Tribe connection. Dark characters and light characters can still come together as Tribe and look out for each other. Just because they disagree, sometimes even violently, doesn’t mean that they don’t care about each other. Even dark characters have people they care about.
When building your cast of characters, keep in mind that bonds will form. These can be excellent additions to story arcs and add a tremendous amount of depth to the series. And when your characters decide what to do in life and death situations, remember the bonds to their Tribe