Since yesterday was the 2017 presidential inauguration (as of when I am posting this article on 1/21/17), I think this is the perfect time to talk about creating a realistic, political system in a fantasy world. I want to address different complexities of creating a political system that many writers either ignore or do not take enough time developing.
1. Types of Government
The most obvious query in the initial stages of developing any political government is understanding your options. Many fantasy writers seem to pick the most traditional governmental system—a.k.a. an absolute monarchy. That is, where the king/queen has all the power. A typical medieval society. There is, of course, power struggles, but most of the power is centered around one person. However, most writers do not realize that absolute monarchy is only one example of a government. Here are some other options you could think about.
When writers think of this type of government, we usually think of absolute (total power in one person) and hereditary (passed down in one family) monarchies. However, there are other options you should think of. One is Parliamentary Monarchy, where the monarch must follow certain prescribed laws or a type of constitution. While not as powerful, the monarch still holds the main position of power in a society. Similar monarchies include Non-Sovereign Monarchy.
Another interesting government is Diarchy Monarchy. Coming from Greek, diarchy is literally defined as “two” and “I rule.” This means that, instead of one ruler, there are two joint monarchs or heads of state. It is an interesting type of government that I have never seen in a fantasy world. It might be interesting to incorporate. Another similar government is Tetrarchy Monarchy (power is divided between four individuals).
The last kind I will mention is Federal Monarchy—this one is a bit different, as in there are a group of countries ruled by both a king of each and then an overall ruler. An example of this was the German Empire. There were specific kings of each country, but all these were overlooked by the German Emperor. Similar monarchies include Dual Monarchy (where one ruler rules two countries), Universal Monarchy, and Composite Monarchy.
A similar type of government is an oligarchy, where a small amount of people rule—for example, in England you have the nobility. An oligarchy is another common type of government found in fantasy novels.
Democracies (or Republics):
Democracy, originally from Ancient Greece, is simply defined as a government where people with the eligibility to vote delegate representatives to rule or vote for laws themselves. Straight up democracies are common in our modern day, but not all democracies are similar to America’s government.
One example is Totalitarian Democracy which is a pretty much a dictatorship. The government usually has much more power than most democracies, often forcing its citizens to have certain values and economic means.
Another type is Cellular Democracy, which is based more in layers, such as one city being separated into smaller districts or neighborhoods (a bit like federal, state, and local governments in America). A third kind is Consensus Democracy where people vote on many things and the majority wins. This can be problematic, however, since the minority is often ignored.
However, saying that a country is a democracy does not mean it is anything like America. It could be similar to Soviet Russia, which is controlled by a dictator under the guise of president. If you chose a democracy for your world, that does not mean you cannot play with the details of how the government works.
This type of government is incredibly interesting to me, especially since I do not believe it is possible to achieve such government for a long period of time. Anarchism could be defined basically as where there is an absence of governmental authority. In a sense, anarchy controls the people. One might make an argument that during the French Revolution France was in a state of anarchy.
However, as real history has proved over and over again, some power will come in and govern a country that is an Anarchist Government. Saying that, this type of government is employed in many dystopian/apocalyptic books.
This one is a very random one that interests me. The theory is, according to Mao Zedong, it occurs in a communist state where constant revolution is necessary to help the leaders keep in touch with the people. In this, it is saying that those rebelling show the rulers how to adapt their rule.
Socialism and Communism:
I put these two types of governments together because they are similar (though some might disagree with that statement). Communism is a society where the government controls everything and a single group (or party) holds all the power. There is no such thing as private goods.
Similarly, socialism is where a central government controls all goods of the people, redistributing it to be more equitable. At least, that is the theory, though historically all socialist governments have simply become dictatorships eventually. Saying this, these would be two interesting governments that are found a lot in history but rarely in fantasy books.
“Theo” means God. Thusly, this government is based around the principle that God makes rules, often given to an individual or group, and they rule the people by these principles. In a sense, it is the religious leaders that rule the people. It might be a good government, or it might be an evil government. It depends how you wish to portray religion in your world.
While these are a few examples of governments, there are many more that you can explore simply by going on Bing or Google (or a search engine of choice) and querying different kinds of governments.
2. Legitimacy for Power
So, you’ve decided the type of government you want in your fantasy world. Now, you have to give a bit of history to why this government came about and what is the reasoning for its power. For example, the American Democratic government came about because the Founding Fathers wanted to create a government where the people ruled by electing ordinary men. The power, therefore, comes from the people. However, power in history comes from other places.
Mandate of Heaven:
In Chinese mythology, it was believed that power was given to the Chinese rulers by the gods. However, China is not the only country to believe this. Roman emperors and Egyptian kings often believed they were gods. In these types of societies, power was believed to be derived from God or gods and given to the ruler.
This form of belief is most common in monarchies as well as theocracies, where people had to believe that the kings/religious leaders had a right to rule. In this type of legitimacy, power can also be taken away by the gods and kings may lose the right to rule. Such a ruler might make an interesting story.
In this legitimacy, Power to rule comes from the agreement of the ruling body—often elected—as well as from the common good. If a ruler is needed to protect the interests of a nation, for example, they may be put in power.
This is not an exact legitimacy. I define it merely as when the person or people in power seize legitimacy by fear. If anyone denies their legitimacy, they are put in prison or killed—or punished some other way. This might result from a dictatorship and it is a very loose kind of legitimacy—a.k.a., I just made it up based on examples of certain governments I have studied.
Part of any government is about making laws, whether it is a monarchy or a democracy. The only type of government that does not have laws is anarchy, which is literally defined as lawlessness. However, in creating your fantasy government you will have to decide on what laws your world will have—whether fair or not—and if they are the result of a cruel ruler or set in place for hundreds of years. Now, there are four basic types of laws I will discuss that you can think about when creating your government.
What is a crime in your world? Now, when thinking of this question, do not always think too predictably. For example, in America and most democratic countries, crimes like murder, assault, rape, etc. are crimes. However, depending on your government, things that we may consider good might be illegal. Like in Communist China you cannot say certain things. In your world, magic may be illegal (this is something I see in many fantasy novels).
Also, think of punishments for crimes. Imprisonment? Death—if so, how so? Are there some very unique punishments? Like if you steal food your hand you used to steal it with is cut off?
Civil laws are mostly laws dealing with contracts, employment, family, and compensation. These are not criminal and mostly are not as bad of crimes. An example of such law could be that siblings are not allowed to marry legally (incest) or that you might only have one spouse. If these laws are broken, usually the punishments are lesser than criminal laws.
However, sometimes crimes we consider to be civil would be criminal. For example, in ancient Jewish culture, if a woman committed adultery she would be stoned (remember Jesus’s famous line from the Bible where he says that only those without sin can cast the first stone). So think about what might be civil laws. What happens to the custody of children if the parents separate? Are couples allowed to separate? What are the laws for working? Are there unions to keep employers from taking advantages of their employees or the other way around? Or are work conditions horrible?
Personally, I don’t fully understand common law. It pretty much indicates laws derived from custom rather than statutes. For example, when a couple in America live together for seven years, they are considered in a common law marriage even though they never married. These laws are more having to do with a society’s traditions, something that it important in every world.
I find this is actually something ignored in modern fantasy books. As America becomes less religious, so do the books it produces. However, what most writers seem to ignore is the importance of religion is every society and what laws or taboos might be broken.
For example, murder is a criminal law, but it is also a sin in Christian society. However, certain things—like swearing—are not criminally, civilly, or commonly wrong, but may be considered wrong by religions. Think about religions—made up or real—that are incorporated in the world. Do their laws go with the government laws, or against it?
4. Arbitrators and Kings
The final step to creating a fictional government is the people. Here are some questions you might think about. Are there many levels of government? Who upholds the laws? Judges? Soldiers? Who surrounds the rulers, if any? Is there a top tier of power and below is poverty? Or is there a strong middle class?
This gets more into the society of a fantasy world, which I may get more into in another article. However, now I want you to focus merely on who makes up those in governments. In America we have many different tiers. We have the president and two houses, but we also have a hierarchy of court systems all the way up to the Supreme Court. We also have thousands of people who work in the different facilities set up within the government—among tons of branches of governments. Think about all these things. What does the government run? Who works for the government? If it is anarchy, who does the jobs that are usually run by the government (like court systems)?
Honestly, governments are extremely complex systems. I may say that a certain government is a democracy, but most governments cannot be purely defined. They adapt with time. Change. Creating a realistic, good fantasy government is not as simple as figuring out who rules and going from there. It is a complex understanding of how government works. So, look at examples. This article is a starting point to get you thinking, but it is not the end-all to solve your problems.
Let me know if you having any questions about creating a government and what tips you have learned from research/imagination. And, as always…
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,