On this episode of Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds, I’m going to begin my look at governments in fantasy and how creating a new form government vs. using an old Earth-inspired one affects your world-building. There are many different forms of government that developed in our world. Few of them get an in-depth exploration or even usage in fantasy. So it’s totally possible to use a real form of government to great effect in your world-building. You can create a unique and original fantasy world without entirely re-inventing the wheel for every possible aspect of society.
For each episode in each series on creating unique fantasy worlds, I’ll be taking a look at the topic from a different angle, and then in the last episode, I’ll be trying to bring it all together to help you better understand the process of world-building. Although I’m writing this from the perspective of a fantasy author, I do also do world-building for game ideas, whether pen and paper rpgs, boardgames, or video games. And of course these ideas can apply equally to other artistic media such as television shows, movies, etc. You could even make use of them in art or music, although full-scale world-building would probably be a bit over-kill even for a concept album or art show. I will not be delving into the ways in which you can integrate game mechanics with your world-building, as that is not the goal off these posts. But I’m not against doing so at a later date, since it’s a subject that interests me quite a bit.
This post will be functioning as an intro post for the entire Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds(CUFW) super-series, as well as for the CUF Government series. I’ll eventually be creating a page on the site for this super-series with a more formal and structured intro to the concept and purpose, which will be linked to in the Nav bar and include a full index of posts. Once each series has been published, I’ll also be creating a formal introduction post with links to all the posts with brief descriptions of the content and context within the series, and an overview of how everything fits together.
I’ll be discussing the purpose of government in general here, followed by individual posts for each of the major forms of government. Although most of the information presented on government itself is available online and probably on Wikipedia, I’ll be organizing and presenting it for the purposes of world-building, so there’s going to be a slightly different slant to these descriptions than you’d find normally in a more general source.
Government as a concept most broadly refers to the system by which a group of people choose to mediate their affairs. You can have a government on every level of society, from a student council to the Federal Government of the United States of America. The specific purpose of each level of government tends to differ slightly because of the group of individual people or collectives of people over whom it has authority. For example, a town council can ignore aspects of government and human behavior that are crucial to the proper functioning of a US State Government, because such a government must concern itself with the interactions of the sub-units of government it oversees, whereas a town council has no authority over states and so can ignore their interactions with each other.
- The first thing to consider when deciding how to design your fictional government is the collection of people and legal entities(such as corporations) over which it has authority. If you have a village of 300 people, you might be able to institute a direct democracy where such a thing would be difficult to manage efficiently if it were to have authority over a population the size of the United States.
Not only does the size of the population you need your government to rule affect the type of government you can reasonably implement, it affects the functions and services the government will need to manage. These functions and services may include things like judging disputes between subjects, managing services like plumbing or roads, providing for mutual defense or really any possible requirement of the society it may see fit to put under the purview of the government rather than private citizens or groups thereof.
- The second most important thing to consider, and one which divides many forms of government from each other, is who has a voice in the functions executed by the government and how they are executed. In a direct democracy, each person has a theoretically equal voice in decisions. In an dictatorship, a single person might have all the political power and be unable to be removed by legal means. And there are many governments in between.
- The third most important factor to consider is who actually puts these policies into action. Are there elected, appointed, earned, or inherited positions in whom the people invest practical political power? If the people vote to build a road between two towns, who actually goes out and gets it done? Do the subjects organize the project communally? Do they appoint a leader who is given time, money, and a set of limitations for achieving the goal? Is such a leader temporary or permanent? Does his power last for this single project, or does it extend to any similar projects?
- The last major point to consider is how the government, in whatever form, maintains its authority. If you have a direct democracy, whats to stop someone on the losing side of a vote from ignoring the outcome? Are there cultural norms in place? Laws backed up by a military or police force? Do the people come together to enforce the decision, or do they just hope everyone goes along with it and might makes right, either way?
So, the most important things to know when designing a government are who is being governed, who governs them and how are such people chosen, how do they govern, and how they enforce their governance.
After you have an idea of these things, you should work out what actual things they govern. Do they regulate trade, business, diplomacy, human behavior such as sex or religion or violence, adjudication, or perhaps various public services?
And finally, perhaps the most important question of all: how do they pay for all of the things they are required to do? Do they use their personal fortunes? And or levy taxes on the citizens or some form of interaction between citizens? Do they ask for payment for services in kind, such as with labor or the products of labor? Do they delegate to some lesser body of government or a private entity? Funding government is perhaps one of the biggest political headaches in our world, and one of the strongest limits on the options available to the government itself, and it is likely to be the same in your fictional world, as well.
The purpose of these posts is not to provide a checklist or a template from which to construct your fictional government, but rather to make you think about what government really is and how it functions. Not every fantasy story will require you to share or even know the exact details of your government in order to make sense to the reader.
If your story is about a rebellion against a central authority, your world-building might involve mentioning a greedy king and his big army, and your reader won’t care that truthfully he sits between three powerful nations all of whom would like the trophy of his kingdom on their wall to brag about to their enemies and so he’s forced to maintain a huge standing army on the strength of feudal obligations from his selfish and impoverished noblemen and a vast number of mercenaries who may or may not be trusted to hold to their contracts. And he’s having to decide which ruthless political animal to create an alliance with by selling off his favorite daughter to be a concubine for the highest bidder. And by law he can only demand his lords’ service for five months out of the year but his enemies have thousands of troops year-round, and two of his lords are eyeing a big fat paycheck for betraying him and he needs to maintain an atmosphere of frivolity and excess at court in order to distract from his desperate situation. And damn his father for a greedy corrupt bastard and leaving him this shit-show he feels morally obligated to deal with because the next in line for the throne is a whore-monger and abuses his servants, but the king cannot interfere with internal household matters of his nobles. Plus he swore in the name of the Gods to protect this kingdom and he knows that’s a pledge with real consequences in the afterlife even if his father and his asshole nephew don’t. Also, his oh-so-much-more-capable older brother was assassinated by the nobles in a conspiracy with one of their neighbors because he tried to move forward too far, too fast, and the hostage exchange between his kingdoms and its neighbors took his younger sister and her son and left him with eight third and fourth sons by concubines who have surface political value but whom his neighbors just found a convenient way to remove from their succession if he kills them.
I’d hate to even speculate on the politics of a democratic republic or a viciously contested oligarchy in the same position, and you’ve been contracted for a standalone book anyway and you haven’t even mentioned your brilliant magic system that would make Brandon Sanderson weep in shame. Knowing the right things about world-building can not only help you do it better, but it can teach you when skimming a particular aspect or just dipping your toes in the pond across the board will result in an easier writing experience and less frustrated readers, while letting you properly focus on the part of the story that really excites you.
In the next post, I’m going to talk about the various answers to the second question above and how to figure out which one best fits the story you’re trying to tell.