Welcome back to the fantasy corner! Today we’re tackling worldbuilding, including the backbone of any society and everyone’s least favorite topic: politics.
Still, there will be a point in your worldbuilding process where you’ll have to decide who rules, why they’re allowed to rule – and, given how most fantasy politics work, who’s trying to kick that person out.
Considering how tortuous politics can be in real life, this part of the worldbuilding process can be bewildering for a new author. If you don’t know where to start, try answering these four questions.
What Role Do Politics Play in Your Fantasy Story?
For many speculative fiction stories, such as A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, or Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh, politics are the story. If you’re writing fantasy with a lot of politics and intrigue in it, write a protagonist to match. Give us someone with a close-up view of politics in the story.
This could be anyone from the king to the servant who overhears the secret meetings. We’ll need a sympathetic character to follow through our fantasy story. Getting to know the people involved will make the difference between intriguing intrigue and a fictional history lesson.
However, if a story about backstabbing courts sounds like an awful time to you, you don’t actually have to write any political intrigue into your story – even if it’s happening.
After all, most people don’t concern themselves with politics too much. We vote when we have to and argue with our relatives, but otherwise we live our own lives.
If you’d rather write about anything but politics, don’t make your protagonist a royal. Make them an ordinary citizen or an outlaw, and get them as far away from the throne as possible. There are plenty of stories to be told in fantasy that *don’t* involve the royals.
Who’s Supposed to Have Power in the Story, and Who Actually Has It?
Empty heads of state aren’t uncommon in real-life politics or in fantasy. Whether it’s a president beleaguered by the politics of the senate or a king in the pocket of his advisor, the power in politics isn’t always with the people who are supposed to have it.
If you’re worldbuilding for an intrigue-heavy story, you’ll have to figure out where the power is supposed to lie in the story’s politics, and also where the power actually lies.
Maybe the king’s mistress has him wrapped around her little finger, or the boy king does everything his regent says. Maybe everyone at court has a different agenda and different ways of achieving those agendas. In stories like this, nobody is what they appear to be.
What Makes Someone A Ruler in Speculative Fiction?
In a lot of fantasy stories, there’s no explanation for why or how somebody gets to be the king of fantasy land. The royals have been there pretty much as long as people can remember, and nobody questions this.
If politics doesn’t play a big role in the worldbuilding of your story, this won’t be a problem. If your fantasy story has a lot of politics in it, though, the matter of why one family gets to rule a country is something that should be brought up, explained, and probably contested a lot throughout the story.
If you’re at a loss for how to write this part, try looking up a real-life analogue to your setting’s government (if you’re going the typical high fantasy route, this will probably be medieval Europe) and find out how it happened in real life.
Or, if you’re going heavy on the fantasy elements, look up myths from a culture similar to the one you’re worldbuilding for. There are lots of myths about fictional rulers who founded cities or were crowned by gods, and this will be a lot easier to believe in a fantasy story.
What Changes in the Story and Who Wants Change?
In any story that involves politics and intrigue, people are going to be unhappy. Heck, when people talk politics in real life, they’re usually unhappy – mostly because politics aren’t interesting when everything is going fine.
This is why your fantasy story will need disagreement. When you work on worldbuilding for your fantasy story, you’ll have to consider the people who want change for your fantasy setting.
Whether it’s the king’s cousin who knows he could be a better ruler, or the deposed royals who want back in, or the peasants who are sick and tired of being peasants, the people who try to implement change will move your story forward.
Another question you’ll have to answer in your worldbuilding is whose side we should take. The traditions of high fantasy politics say we should side with the royals… but, let’s be honest, most real rulers who were deposed had it coming at least a little bit. Maybe neither side is really heroic; in real life and in fantasy, politics are messy and unpleasant.
Politics is an important part of worldbuilding for any fantasy story, but it can be confusing or tedious for some writers. Try to answer these questions to start worldbuilding for your fantasy story.