Figuring out the politics of the world you’re creating can be a thorn in your side, but its a hugely useful tool for making your world feel real and lived-in. The best stories don’t feel like they’re happening in a vacuum, they feel like one thread being followed in a tapestry, a handful of people you’re watching closely as a fully-formed world spins on around them.
Your story may have nothing to do with revolutions, deposed princesses, or king-killing assassins, but the world in which the action is happening has politics. Even if you only refer to them obliquely, story politics can hugely impact how real and complex your world feels.
And you should probably have an idea of what they are.
Have A History
You wouldn’t write a character with no backstory—you shouldn’t write a world without one, either. What happened to shape the world into what it is at the time of your story?
No government springs forth fully formed, and you should know how the one present in the world you’re writing came to be. Has the same family/group always been in power? Is the current system of government due to a past revolution? How does the general population feel about the current system, and what historical happenings might be the cause of those feelings? How have cultural values shaped the government?
You don’t have to have every answer, but spend some time thinking about a few. It might feel like this only applies to narratives with a heavy political intrigue focus, but having an idea of the history of the place you’re creating will help with everything from dialogue to characterization.
As you’re figuring out the history of your world, be cautious not to rely on stereotypes, and not to recreate actual historical moments that could co-opt a lived experience and be harmful to readers. The Writing With Color tumblr is an amazing resource for learning about avoiding stereotypes both in characterization and world building, and I highly recommend spending some time there!
Change It Up
Varying your power structures, especially if you have multiple countries making appearances, gives your world more “texture” and helps differentiate things in the reader’s mind. Maybe one government is matriarchal, or maybe a ruler is chosen in trial-by-combat, or maybe the country is run by a council of elected officials rather than a birthright king. There are hundreds of options other than your basic fairytale monarchy.
That being said, sometimes a basic fairytale monarchy is the way to go! But have reasons for why you’re making that decision, and still spend some time fleshing it out.
If you’re writing fantasy, chances are you have a magic system. And you need to know how that magic system integrates with your fantasy world’s government. How is magic regulated? Do the laws favor or criminalize magic users?
Same goes for religion. Are the god(s) present in your story part of the government structure? Does the government have a favorable view of religion, or are they hostile or indifferent? How about the general population?
Having an idea for how your magic systems, religion, and politics all work together can save you a real headache in revisions (definitely speaking from experience here). Spending some time to think about these connections can help circumvent some story logic issues, and might even help untangle plot problems (also speaking from experience)! Watch this space—deep-dive posts into how to shape your world with magic and religious systems are coming soon!
Diagram the political power in your world. Who’s at the top, making the decisions? Who informs those decisions? Who’s at the bottom? If you’re feeling really ambitious, make two diagrams—one for how the government is supposed to work, and one for how it does. For reference, I made spoiler-free diagrams below for The Folk of the Air series by Holly Black. These diagrams can be as messy as you want, as long as you can plot who has the power and where it comes from.
How It’s Supposed to Work:
How It Actually Works:
Hannah F. Whitten has been writing to amuse herself since she could hold a pen, and figured out that what amused her might also amuse others sometime in high school. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, making music, or attempting to bake. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and children in a house ruled by a temperamental cat.