I hate politics. If it’s not one thing it’s another: Trump alienates this, May mucks up that, Kim Jong-un launches another missile, and on and on it goes (think Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire” and add a few more decades to the lyrics). And yet despite the daft decisions and actions of our world leaders, what they do keeps us riveted to our TVs and newspapers. They are the news and we are indelibly hooked into what they do due to personal interest, rage, hope, disgust or morbid curiosity. But what we see today isn’t a new phenomena, we simply have access to vastly more information about the world’s political stage than we have ever had before.
In the past what people knew about politics and their politicians was usually fed to them down a very narrow tube (often full of propaganda), but that doesn’t mean people were any less interested in it. We are all at the receiving end of what our political leaders do, be they councillors, ministers, senators, presidents, kings, queens or emperors – and throughout history this has led to life or death situations that impact the population they represent. If your leader has attracted an invading army, you definitely want to know when to get out of its way!
So why am I mentioning this human interest in politics? It’s because this interest extends to the fictional novels we read, whether we as readers realise what we are reading is politics or not. For example, look at Game of Thrones. When I read the first books of that series many years ago I was astounded at the intricate political mechanisations the author had devised using a variety of rulers and various hangers-on. There was backstabbing, lies, intrigue, unions, divisions, corruption, bribery, forced marriages, etc. It was almost like a puzzle I wanted to unravel and fix and it kept me turning the pages (well… for the first few books anyway). Personally I think the success of the series is largely down to the fascinating politics and political characters in the books. People are political creatures and we like the challenge of ‘playing the game’ or believing we might be able to.
When writing fantasy it’s definitely worth creating a political world where your characters are leading or at the mercy of the politics around them. This creates a deeper subtext for your work, giving it an additional dimension. I would recommend understanding different forms of political organisation to begin and then delving into the histories of specific types to get inspiration for your work. The types I mention below tend to relate to a specific nation/country rather than, say, an organisation/company. But I’m mentioning these political forms as a good bit of fantasy writing (particularly historical/epic) tends to centre in on the leaders of a nation, empire or large population, whereas most other genres tend to hone in on politics at a more intimate, personal or local level. These political forms aren’t exhaustive and I only mention democracy in passing as it’s not used all that much in fantasy writing.
- Monarchies – are where you have a dynastic head, usually supported by advisors or an elite class of some form. Today we mainly have constitutional/symbolic monarchs that largely turn up to cut ribbons, but in the past they were normally all-powerful absolute monarchs that commanded pretty much everything for their state and who believed that they were anointed by a God(s) – some even believed they were Gods. These tend to be a very interesting political form because it is so open to corruption with everyone currying favour with the monarch to get what they want. The Tudors are a fantastic spot to start because their history is so well documented and so much happened in their time, but don’t ignore other European monarchs. France, Spain and Russia in particular have had monarchs that make King Henry the VIII look like a teddybear. Also, more ancient monarchies such as the Egyptian pharaohs, Mesopotamian kings/queens and Minoan kings had fascinating political systems that are completely alien to us now but brilliant inspiration for fantasy writing. Ancient and medieval Japan, China and countries in the middle east also had extraordinary monarchies and political systems where there were supreme heads of nations or empires, and often not only an untouchable ruling class, but also a warrior class.
- Oligarchies – where power rests with only a few people for a specific reason, e.g. wealth, religion, family ties. It could be debated that historically the Popes of the past led an oligarchy. There are some that say the USA today is an oligarchy run by a select group of extremely wealthy people within a democracy. So it’s probably one of the more complicated types of political system as people may think they’re in a democracy, but the reality is quite different.
- Aristocracy – where power lies in the hands of a ruling ‘class’ rather than an individual. Although you often find aristocrats supporting monarchies as well, the concept probably first arose in ancient Greek ‘democracies’ that were actually an aristocracy as only a subsection of the population were allowed to vote or rule. The ancient Romans also had a similar concept where only a ruling elite who had the wealth, land, etc. were allowed to hold positions of power.
- Timocracy – is an interesting consideration for writing fiction as only those people who own land can rule. Plato considered a timocracy to be an aristocracy that had basically fallen asunder due to a weak incumbent ruling class being better suited to war than ruling as guardians of their people in peace.
- Stratocracy – is where a form of government is headed up by a military class (or chiefs) and only those who have served in the military can govern or elect someone to govern. Don’t confuse this with a military dictatorship or a tyrnanny, because military rule within a stratocracy is part of their law and traditions. For example, the Spartans had a stratocracy because of the value they placed on their warrior class and their warlike abilities.
- Tyrannies – is usually where someone has usurped the power of someone else and rules outside the constraints of law or the will of other people, and governs cruelly and oppressively. This does tend to be a recurrent type of political system in fantasy writing as they’re the perfect bad guy. Often a tyrant comes into power as part of a popular overthrow, and for a short time might retain his/her popularity, but as times goes on their destructive nature tears their world apart. The people of ancient Rome, for example, considered Julius Caesar to be a tyrant and that his murder was the direct result of the oppression of their freedoms. Of course, there have also been tyrants at the head of monarchies (e.g. Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Leopold II) or those who have risen to power (e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong). If you intend to include a tyrant in your work do a bit of research into the world’s worst tyrants to see what brought them into power and drove them to become so cruel, as this helps to understand their impetus and can provide inspiration that can help deepen your own fictional characters.
Just one final tip. Once you’ve decided on your political system/s take care not to have too many “counsels” sitting around chatting all day in your books or your readers will fall asleep. For anyone who has suffered through some of the more recent Star Wars films, can you honestly say you enjoyed the spots where they had all those counsel meetings or were you actually hoping someone would pick up a light-sabre? Hmmm? I think you know what I mean.