Stories take place within distinct worlds that have specific characteristics. This can involve a social or cultural way of doing things, a hierarchy or stratification of power—a mindset. In popular culture it’s referred to as ‘the system’, and protagonists often try to beat it to get justice, and to become themselves.
In the Ancient Greek world—the system—had been created by and was maintained by the gods. The mortal world was in many ways a mirror image of Mount Olympus where the gods fought one another and had political squabbles. A hero’s fate could be decided by divine intervention at any point along their journey. The mortal world was part of a game played as entertainment between the gods. A hero could alter his fortune by winning the assistance of a sympathetic god. This usually meant being given special information, a special power or a magical weapon. In the story of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea (granddaughter of the sun god Helios) casts a spell on the otherwise all-powerful Talos.
Jumping forward, the system in the Medieval European world was a God-given hierarchical order; God at the top, the monarchy ruling by ‘divine right’ below, then the aristocracy, next the landed gentry, and finally the peasants. There was an absolute distinction between good and evil. To defy the hierarchical social order was to act against Gods order, which meant imprisonment, death or torture. The Christian faith was used to enforce the established power structure which itself had been formed through brute force, arranged marriages, political alliances, and appropriated power (imprisonment, murder, and the strategic confiscation of property).
The slavery based system in the pre-Civil War American South enshrined in law that citizens could own other people (slaves) as property. The slaves did not have the same rights as ordinary citizens. They couldn’t vote, own property, and so on. This system used the Medieval concept of a divine order, but twisted into a racist notion of an ethnicity-based superiority. Working to subvert slavery effectively meant subverting the law and interfering with salve owners’ right to own slaves. Fighting the system as a slave was extremely dangerous, because salves had almost no rights. In 12 Years a Slave and Amistad the central characters are swept up by circumstance into the horror and injustice of slavery.
In socialist based systems the workers have supposedly taken control over their destiny through revolutionary or democratic means. Divine right and slavery are abolished. Excessive self-enrichment at the cost of others is punished. But, in order to maintain and protect the system, information is used as propaganda to manipulate citizens and the police are used to physically control any dissent. Counter-revolutionaries are imprisoned or ‘re-educated’ to become compliant to the system. In 1984 Winston attempts to keep his mind free from the repressive state power which is based on Stalin’s USSR.
In the global capitalist system corporations are able to operate freely with less and less ‘red tape’ and regulation. The laws of free market capitalism allows them to evade tax and other responsibilities. The free flow of money, technology, jobs and production allows them to pick and choose how and where they operate. The end goal is shareholder profit and the concentration of power into the hands of an influential elite. The price of not being part of the system is losing out on future prosperity and employment—having resources diverted elsewhere. In Wall Street Bud Fox is seduced by Gordon Gekko into a world of affluence and power, only to realise the unethical consequences of his actions when his father and the business he works for is asset-stripped and the workers made redundant.
The Fascistic system (mostly associated with the 20th Century) combines aspects of the slave based system with the mass propaganda of revolutionary socialism. It empowers the ruling elite under the guise of nationalistic ends. It’s a form of extreme capitalism.
The dystopian society of the future takes place in a fascistic urban nightmare. The wealthy elite (the new gods) control the masses (the new slaves) and almost all society is kept-down as a slave class (kept passive by state propaganda, brainwashing, police repression, a quagmire of technocracy, or by technology itself). The wealthy elite have taken capitalism to an extreme, controlling technology, wealth and power for their own advantage. In Total Recall, Metropolis, Soylent Green, The Hunger Games, THX 1138, I, Robot, Logan’s Run, and Zardoz repressive elites—sometimes directed by errant AI—repressively and manipulatively control society. Over time, functional and fit-for-purpose societies have been corrupted by greed, profit, authoritarian power, ideology, or an over-rationalised process.
There are other systems: theocratic systems, scientific (knowledge based) systems, military systems, and cultural systems. And permutations of different types of systems.
The system in storytelling represents the status quo, and the concentration of power—in the hands of the gods, the monarchy, the property owning class, revolutionaries (the party), or the political elite. The protagonist strives for an end to repression, seeking ‘freedom’ of some kind (emotional or intellectual) and a desire to live in a more natural and harmonious life.
The struggle for freedom may involve unmasking the truth, some dark secret at the core of the system (The Matrix, Soylent Green for example) or establishing a right to ones’ own identity (as in THX 1138), being allowed to be yourself (Moonlight), surviving in a violent culture centred around family-based rivalries (The Godfather), a working-class character beating the system (Trading Places, Wolf of Wall Street), incompetence in a military system (Attack, Paths of Glory, Catch 22) or a counterculture character asserting his or her identity within a stuffy middle-class culture (The Graduate).
The individualism of the protagonist or their desire for freedom and justice compels them to evade or escape the system, but the system inevitably chases them (fearful of an existential threat to its power). There comes a point when the protagonist must eventually assert their beliefs, and fight the system.