Royalty and Government in Fantasy

If you’re writing fantasy where nobility and royals exist, you should treat them with care. Even if your work doesn’t have medieval style royals, you should think of the government structure because it will have an impact on the characters living in that world whether they be prince or pauper.

Be warned there will be spoilers here for  A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones

Let’s discuss.

Government Structure

This is my number one thing because I think it’s really overlooked in fantasy. This is also especially important if you’re writing fantasy that relies on a lot of political intrigue. A government should be able to provide a few things:

  • Security for citizens. (Meaning other forces just can’t come in and kill everyone).
  • Law and order. (What are considered “crimes”, how are the laws enforced, etc.)
  • Infrastructure. (Things like roads and routes for transportation of goods.)
  • Regulations for certain things. (Trade and what not.)
  • Defense. (Obvious)

There are more and many of them are very modern ones (Education, utilities like water and electricity) so that’s why they’re not included. In your government structure you should think of what your government actually provides.

As well you should think of how power is localized. Is it feudal where local lords collected taxes and then paid to higher nobles, who paid to higher people, all the way up the monarch? Are there free states/cities within that country/land? Stuff like that. This is important because it will help guide how secure, stable, and financially stable that area is.

You can go as complex or as simple as you want. There are endless possibilities. Your government can be useful, it can be awful. But whatever it is, use it because it can add a wonderful depth to your story.

What a State is. 

I’m using “state” to mean a government, not like United States.

Max Weber, a political scientist, wrote that essentially a state is “A monopoly on violence.” What he means is that the state has control over all violence. Non-state entities that use violence aren’t good. The state is allowed to arrest, sometimes execute, use force if necessary (police and military), but this is something that the average citizen does not have. That’s a really paraphrased version, but hopefully my point makes sense.

Now, full disclosure, this is a modern view on modern states. It doesn’t apply to many historical styles of government, but all the same I’m including it as something to think about.

Either way, the central idea of a state is to organize masses of people under one set of rules or law (arguably), and a monopoly on violence is a way to do that.

Legitimacy.

Legitimacy, in my opinion, is the number one thing that makes a state stable. In order for a government power to remain in power, it has to be viewed as legitimate by the populace and higher ups alike. If it’s not, that’s when it becomes unstable, people rise up, higher ups scheme to get them killed etc.

We see this a lot in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The first example was when Robert’s Rebellion usurped King Aerys. Aerys basically went nuts, started doing bad things, his son pissed others off, and then other nobles decided that they didn’t want him anymore, essentially removing the King’s legitimacy. The King fell as a result.

Then we have the reign of Joffrey “Baratheon”. Because of his disputed bastardy, there were a few kingdoms within the realm that did not consider him their legitimate ruler and as a result rose up and they all fought (The War of the Five Kings).

The third, is Daenerys Targaryen. She dismantles slave based economies in some of the free cities by ending slavery, but cannot seem to maintain rule and order. The biggest reason was that she does not have the backing of many nobles with independent power of their own, she’s a foreign queen, etc. For those reasons, she is not viewed as legitimate and steps are taken to get her out of power.

There are many historical examples I won’t get into (the Wars of the Roses for examples), but hopefully you get my point. Legitimacy is key to maintaining power. That’s why many nobles were anointed by a deity or had religious backing. That’s why having multiple areas of support (nobility, merchants, foreign rulers, average citizens) was so necessary for monarchs to have and it was critical that their backers remained pleased.

How legitimate are the rulers in your fantasy government? Who backs them and why? What must rulers do to keep their backers happy?

Why this Monarch?

Tying this all back to fantasy, you need to put your rulers, monarchs, whatever in cultural context within in your world. How are rulers chosen? Why? There are many ways to do this, but the easiest way is bloodline. But why this bloodline? Is it ordained by deities? Is this bloodline seen as the best, most able bloodline? And so on.

You need to tell me why this ruler is special. Why do people view him/her differently than the average peasant. Is it just the bloodline? Are they “chosen” by “god(s)”, did they just straight up conquer and that’s the lot they have now?

Try to keep it more than “He/she is a good ruler”, because often times how good a leader is doesn’t matter. There are endless historical examples of bad rulers who still remained in power for a long time or until they died naturally.

Whatever makes your royals special, define it.

Culture

Are leaders elected? Are they born into a bloodline? Fights to the death? Is it some other weird process? This all depends on the culture of the world you’re writing.

This is important because if you’re writing about multiple cultures or races, they will probably have different methods for choosing leaders. Again, infinitely interesting ways to do this, but keep it different. Make it work within the context of the culture and world. Think about how this government would interact with other ones.

You should also think of what the culture values and what cultural ideals the rulers represent. Some cultures respect strength in war, some respect wisdom, some respect religious integrity, etc.

The monarch needs to represent something in this way.

Power

How much power does the ruler actually have? What/whom do they rule? What are things that they are/are not allowed to do?

Even if your monarch has absolute power, do they? Maybe technically, but not in practice. Monarchs, especially of large territories, don’t work alone. They have advisors, lower nobles (Lords/Ladies, Earls, etc.), religious institutions, advisors, factions, etc. working with or against them.

Think of what conflicts could arise out of the power structure. There’s a lot that can happen: lower nobles can rebel, merchants can get pissed off, foreign powers can disagree and wage war, etc. Don’t think of conflict and then make a power structure to reflect that because then you’ll fall into the tired “Absolute power is good, kings/queens are bad!” stuff that I think, frankly, is overdone in fantasy.

Transfers of Power

Kings and Queens die so someone else needs to take their place. Figure out the laws of how that works and stick to them. Is it the children of the monarch (in order of age or gender, why?), relatives, does the monarch choose an heir before they die, advisors or nobles, other relatives, elections, etc.?

This is important for you to nail down because the people in your world would not treat this lightly. You can have conflict come from it, but at the same time remember that if a peasant kid showed up who may have a small blood claim a million times removed and said “I’m the king/queen now.” he’s going to be laughed out of town. Whether he or she would be a “good” ruler doesn’t matter because the laws in place are more important for a lot of reasons.

The only way to really break the laws is by Right of Conquest in which a new bloodline or ruler is established because they took over and managed to legitimize their rule. The old bloodline no longer has a claim at that point.

So make sure you make rules and stick with them. If you’re going to break them, do it for a reason.

Monarchs are not Automatically Horrible

I am so tired of fantasy going “Monarchs are bad! Peasant ruler good!” It’s so oversimplified and boring.

Are/were bad ones? Yes. Is it that simple? Usually no.

Don’t make your monarch just some power hungry bad person who likes to torture people and murder for fun. If they do want power, tell me why. Give the reader actual reasons for these things. Don’t make your monarchs as easy as “good” and “bad”. Don’t make an uneducated peasant “chosen one” somehow a better ruler than all these other people who presumably could be just as good.

Again, you can do it, you can make it work, but you need to justify and it has to be authentic.

The economy.

Again, so overlooked in fantasy, but such an awesome tool if you have politics and war in your world.

You don’t have to be an economist to be able to use this either.

But don’t neglect its importance. I’ve read tons of fantasy where wars are waged all the time for decades and governments seem to have unlimited money to do this.

Wrong.

Governments, even in feudalism, got money from taxes. The taxes came from producing goods like food, mining precious metals, etc. A country that is constantly at war isn’t going to have a lot of man power left to farm fields, mine stuff, trade with other countries, and so on. They’re going to be straight up flat broke.

And if other entities are funding this, then those entities are going to get tired of throwing money at it.

War is expensive. It is devastating for everyone and takes a while to recover from, win or lose. Keep that in mind.

It’s also a good way to make one land or area stand out from another. What are their imports and exports? What do they trade? What goods can they sell?

Don’t overlook the economic aspects of your government and what conflicts can occur as a result.

Parting Words

Avoid the simple and overdone. Don’t be intimidated by politics or economies. Draw from historical examples. Go big! There is so much you can do here. Make it yours.

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