Worldbuilding: Political Systems

Every country needs a political system. Let’s have a think about how you can develop the right system for your country.

Who’s in charge?

Firstly, you need to ask who is in charge of your country? One person, a few people, or a large group of people?

A country with one person in charge could fall under a few different categories.

Monarchy

The most common category, especially for fantasy works, is a monarchy. This means you have one family in charge of the country, and the position of leader, King or Queen, is determined by birth. The eldest child of the current monarch will become the next monarch. Sometimes the line of succession passes through the children in order of age, sometimes it will pass through the boys in order of age, followed by the girls.

Many fantasies are set in a traditional medieval world and the monarchy is a common setup. The monarch remains in power until either they die, or abdicate (voluntarily give up the throne). In the case of abdication, the next heir to throne normally takes over as king.

The monarchy is only replaced by force. If a war occurs, the leader of the winning country will become king of that country, either killing or exiting the royal family they replace.

There are two types of monarchy. The first is absolute monarchy. This means the King is in charge of all decisions and no one can overthrow them.

The second kind of monarchy is the constitutional monarchy. This is where the monarch has their power limited by the constitution or the law. If the power of the monarch is severely limited, the monarch becomes merely a figurehead, and true leadership is held by a parliament of advisers. This is similar to the current situation in the UK where the monarchy has little power in its own right and the Prime Minister is the position in which law-making power resides.

Dictatorship

If a country is ruled by one person and subject to any laws they make, and this person has seized control rather than being elected or inheriting the position, this is a dictatorship.

The word generally has a negative connotation but dictatorships can be benign as well as evil.

Dictatorship is another common fantasy rulership, often where the evil antagonist has taken over a country for their own purpose. Typically, a dictator comes into power through the use of force.

Oligarchy

An oligarchy is where a group of a few people rule the country. Often it’s a group of the most powerful or wealthy citizens, or citizens with specific knowledge of some kind.

This grouping pops up in dystopian works a lot, where control and power is in the hands of a privileged few. Often they are scientists or government officials. And they keep the general population either in ignorance, or under strict control, or both. This comes with a lot of rules, sanctions, and consequences for attempting to change the status quo.

Democracy

A democracy occurs when the country can be controlled by its population, or elected members of its population. There are two types of democracy.

Direct democracy

Direct democracy means that every qualifying citizen (and it would be up to you to define the qualifications) has an equal right to a say in government.

I’ve seen this in fantasy books in small town settings, where all members of the population are entitled to attend and vote in council meetings. Sometimes, qualifying members are those of a certain age or sex. For example, men over the age of thirty.

Representative democracy

Representative democracy is where the citizens elect representatives who make the law.

Again, this is similar to the UK situation. Various political parties exist, and citizens vote for the party they prefer. The party that gains the majority vote will rule for a set period of time – normally a few years. Although if you have been in the UK for the last couple of elections you will know it is not always that straightforward!

In the case of representative democracy, the elected party then makes the law and the citizens rarely have any say in the law-making process.

Occasionally, the party will hold a referendum, which is where they get every citizen to vote on a matter. This happened in the UK not too long ago when Scotland held a referendum for independence (which, incidentally, failed).

If you have a representative democracy, you also need to consider what the criteria are for those people who are eligible to stand for office. For example, lack of criminal convictions, certain age limits, etc.

Republic

A republic is a form of democracy. In a republic, a constitution protects certain rights of the population that cannot be taken away by the government. In a pure democracy, the majority party is not restrained in this way.

The USA is an example of a modern day republic, with their elected president at the head.

Political Attitudes

What is the attitude of your leader(s) towards control of the population’s resources, behaviour and freedoms?

Different political parties have different views on the best way to run a country. The ideology of the political party in charge can have a significant effect on the population.

Typically in today’s world this is denoted as being left or right wing, although you don’t tend to see these terms in fantasy books.

Right wing politics involves the following:

A capitalist economy – everyone works to create wealth and to own their own property.
Entrepreneurship is encouraged and regulation is light.
Opportunity abounds and freedom to succeed is valued over equality.
But the population at the bottom of the pile often suffer as wealth and power reside at the top.

This economy at its extreme is often seen in fantasy situations.

Left wing politics involves the following:

A move toward socialism where sharing of goods and taxes on the rich provide for the poor.
This can be fairer, especially if the alternative is a society with no safety net for the old or infirm, with the introduction of free health care, and money given to those who cannot work.
Equally it can mean that everyone ends up with nothing except those in power when taken to extremes.
It can also suppress economic growth if the government takes a large tax on profits.

I can’t think of a socialist model in a fantasy book off the top of my head.

Other types of government:

Theocracy or Ecclesiastical government

These are governments where God is the ruler and His laws are interpreted by the church and the Church leaders.

In terms of books, this reminds me of The Pillars of the Earth, which is set in medieval England. Cities were ruled by the cathedrals, and the cathedrals were ruled by the Bishops. The townsfolk are split into guilds but cannot overrule the clergy. Law is upheld by the cathedral monks.

This is also another common scenario is medieval fantasy books.

Finally, we should mention the absence of government. The word for that is anarchy.

A country in anarchy will generally descend into chaos with no one to create laws around possession of property or sacredness of life.

So, have a think about which ideology and set up will suit your world best. But don’t forget, in politics, it’s not necessarily the ideologies which stand out, it’s the characters. Create memorable rulers or politicians and bring your dry political situations to life. Everyone remembers, for example, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Not only for their policies but for their strength of mind and reactions under pressure. And of course, a juicy scandal always makes a politician more memorable!

Have you considered politics in your fantasy world?

6 Comments

  1. The fantasy world in my epic fantasy (currently on hiatus) has at least 4 different government systems in place. My world consists of 4 countries, 3 of which at its core is theocratic. Yet one is more an oligarchy than the rest and a second is more democratic. Either way their laws are mostly set and influenced by the god ruling that particular country. The 4th country does not have a ruling god but their government is a direct democracy and has an elected president/chief to ensure the rights of the people.

  2. Great post detailing the different kinds of political systems! I write fantasy and science fiction stories, so the systems I use vary (although, yes, monarchies are common, in the fantasies at least.)

    The Astrals has a variety of countries with different systems for government, although the most prominent country in the story is a monarchy. The astrals themselves have a Council who handles law-making, trials, and such, with astrals being appointed by the Council members themselves (except in rare occasions.)

    Augment (and its sequel, Upgrade) is set in the future, where the world is divided into districts, similar to towns/cities, governed locally, with everyone reporting to the overall Government. I never go far into politics in either book, but I would consider it a dictatorship, in that people don’t elect the top leaders (although local government is often done by election. Which is usually rigged behind the scenes.)

    And my Demons trilogy… Again, fantasy, so mostly monarchies (in style if not in name), but a few other systems as well, depending on where you travel.

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