Worldbuilding: Wills and Ways

Tontine. From Lorenzo Tonti, a late 1600s Italian banker in Paris who invented it; a financial arrangement with a group of participants in which if any one dies, his benefits are distributed to the survivors, last for either a set period of time or until all but one dies.

Huh. And I’d been under the misapprehension for years (saw it in an old mystery) that it was a Viking custom. But it feels like what an Italian banker in Paris would come up with. Or maybe I’ve been reading too many Assassin’s Creed fanfics. You can see how one of these arrangements might lead to hiring an assassin. Or maybe more than one….

Ahem. Inheritances make for an interesting part of your world, culturally and as a story plot. One of the traditional ways to drag a character into a plot against his will is to have him inherit something. Or a friend (or enemy) does, and they’re either roped in as moral support or in a desperate race to stop the dastardly villain before he inherits the long-lost Mystic Powerstone of Shiny Plot Contrivance.

A useful aspect of this kind of involuntary plot involvement is that you can make the inheritance as big, or small, a part of the story as you like. You can just have a Shady Lawyer show up, hiss a few words, drop the Plot Trinket onto the hero’s PI desk, and vanish, never to be seen again. Or you could go so far as to have the hero summoned to the ailing owner’s bedside, and when the guy drops dead an hour later your hero is the first suspect….

Being summoned out to the Spooky Mansion for the reading of the will is a happy medium between these. Especially if your character never met the deceased in his life, and has no idea why he’s named in the will. Possible reasons could range from convenient human sacrifice to activate the Ancient Artifacts, to the deceased knew beforehand that someone was going to try and do him in, wanted retribution from beyond the grave, and picked the Hero to do it.

Even should your character avoid all formal will-readings, he may still be in trouble. At least in the U.S., if a person dies intestate, odds are someone who wants a cut will track down all the potential heirs to try and sort out the legal mess. Put a twist on it, and this could be how your hapless hero finds out he’s one of the few surviving grandchildren of Mild-Mannered Marvin, wealthy philanthropist… and the secret alter-ego of the last known Demon Lord. Oops.

You can even bedevil a character by having them inherit no more than a few dollars from a forgotten trust fund. Because too many people hear “inherit”, and their eyes light up with dollar signs. They’ll never believe it isn’t enough for even a week’s groceries. Never.

(IRL note – if you care about your loved ones, for goodness’ sake, do not die intestate. It leaves an awful mess.

Though honestly I could see that as some Demon Lord’s final revenge….)


15 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Wills and Ways

  1. Who inherits will vary a lot depending on time and place. If it’s a land with some sort of formal nobility system (i.e., most human civilizations throughout history), they’re probably going to want a say in how things are divvied up, no matter the intent of the departed.

    In a more First World Modern setting, maybe everyone wants to avoid lawyers, because if those bloodsuckers get involved then the prize, whatever it is, will vanish to pay for their time. So the conflict takes on overtones of a game of chicken, because no one wants to push the others so hard that they bring in lawyers or attract the attention of the cops.

    I think, should I get to the point that my literary efforts are worth inheriting, that I’ll set them up to fund a trust for a while, then become public domain. But hopefully artificial bones will be pumping out enough blood for widespread bathory treatments soon enough to keep me alive for many decades.


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  2. You could also have the MC being the executor of the will, tracking down heirs and giving them each their piece.

    Imagine a person who inherits a store full of magical items of dubious origin, they get the remainder as long as they hand out a list of specific ones to specific people… who may or may not want them.

    The end result of the entire endeavor is they learn to run the store by handling the tricky bequests.


    I remember one story where someone made a deal with a devil for magic power.
    The power would pass down to their heir, and after 7 generations all 7 would be judged by the overall karmic balance of the group.

    The first few generations were extremely cautious and passed it on with a new positive.
    Then one of the heirs gained it under problematic circumstances and didn’t know the full story.
    Cue several generations of increasingly selfish, backstabbing, ruthless magic use.
    Then the 7th heir gets it unexpectedly and does the research to find the origin of the power.

    They aren’t thrilled.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. There was the Friday the 13th TV series, in which a young woman inherits an Antique shop from her uncle. Nifty, except all the items are cursed- her uncle made a deal with the Devil for worldly wealth, in return for selling the items. Cue tracking down those already sold, so that all of them can be sealed away…

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  4. Yeah, i was just thinking about this, earlier this morning.

    Inheritance after the death of a married couple, and property changing hands on marriage, are a really good way to talk about how customs can differ from culture to culture, and how these differences can inform disputes and resolution of disputes.

    Downside, the audience I was thinking about is through an institution that enforces PC heavily. Opening myself to complaints on grounds of LGBT might not be wise.

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  5. What was that Richard Pryor movie? “Brewster’s Millions”? Where the hapless schmuck inherits X Million $, but the will has a weird clause — if he can *spend* all of it within a certain time limit (EVEYRY PENNY!), he inherits 10x as much. Cue Evil Lawyer shenanigans….

    A tangent on Tontines: there’s a lovely line in one of the Vorkosigan series novels –I think it was “Cetaganda”– where Miles refers to the Cetagandan general who was the last commander of the Barrayaran Occupation before the Cetas gave up and left (and who is generally held by his people as being The Guy Who Blew It) as “inheriting a tontine of blame, as it were.”

    In my line of work, this is usually referred to as “the last person who touched it” rule — whomever touched the machine last gets blamed for everything that goes wrong afterwards, even if the part they touched had no relation to the part that breaks.

    I’d *love* to use “tontine of blame” for this, but if I tried, I’d probably have to stop and explain the joke 99% of the time. 😦

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This can also be an awkward position if you see it coming.

      “You have been recommended for a powerful posting with significant opportunity for personal wealth.”

      “That’s wonderful! Thank you for the honor!”

      “Don’t thank me. You were recommended by your greatest enemy.”


      Liked by 3 people

      1. It’s not necessarily that they aren’t known, it’s that they aren’t known by that name.

        Even I’ve heard of, say, group of bachelor friends who all chip in a certain amount of money to a communal pot, with the agreement that the last one to fulfill a certain condition – like “getting married” – gets the pot.

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  6. You could have fun with the Plot Trinket angle – like the Hero would live to get rid of this inherited pain in their neck but unfortunately for them, the thing is a very clingy MacGuffin that refuses to be given away or stolen. Hero could then spent time trying to figure out how to peel the thing off and re-home it (or destroy it) . . .Or the MacGuffin is Clingy but also no one (sane) is trying to steal it from the Hero because said MacGuffin is all kinds of Bad News but is always reappears when you try to get rid it . . . . dealer’s choice on weather to play it straight (MacGuffin is cursed and Hero needs to destroy it if they don’t want to die, a task that the many previous owners have tried and failed to accomplish) or add a twist (like there is something related to the MacGuffin, not the MacGuffin itself, that is causing all of the problems – get rid of that and everything will be fine – OR there is a curse but it might be possible to break the curse of bad luck or whatever plaguing the MacGuffin and it’s unfortunate owners . . .)

    Or the MacGuffin isn’t dangerous or anything like that but still causes the Hero trouble – like it can talk and has absolutely no filter so doesn’t know when it shouldn’t repeat something or the like – or it is incredibly ugly or something equally under the category of “annoying but harmless” or “mostly harmless”.


    1. Oh, there’s a short story by Mercedes Lackey about this – “Friendly Fire”. (because ‘friendly’ fire isn’t!) The heroines accidentally pick up a literal bad penny, and part of the curse is that it can’t be given or traded away. They have to set themselves up for bandits and let it get stolen – along with all their remaining money.

      Liked by 2 people

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