Politics are a big part of fantasy. Often times there are rulers fighting for it, and our heroes often get involved because they’re the heroes. So how do our characters relate to politics? How do we use politics in writing? A lot of it depends on you as the writer, but it’s worth talking about anyway.
Make sure you have a very firm grasp on the political entities you are writing. What type of governments you’re creating, how they interact with each other, histories of who has beef with whom, factions involved, etc.
You don’t have to explain ALL OF THAT to the reader, at least not in one shot, but it needs to be clear to use as the writer in order to write it the best you can write it. I’ve seen it happen where fantasy writers kind of dumb down the politics or it was otherwise kind of obvious that the writer didn’t have a handle on how politics in their world worked.
If you like, make notes in separate documents. Whatever works for you.
- What role does the church/religions play in politics in this world?
- What about academic factions? Scholars? Advisors?
- What system of government are these?
- What is the political relationship with merchants/trade?
- How do these governments handle foreign policy, domestics, immigration, economics, and so on?
- How are laws made, passed, and put into place? What does the justice system look like?
- How is power delegates? Lords/ladies, earls, governors, etc.
- How does the political entity get funding? Is it only taxes or do they borrow as well?
Political Philosophy and the State
I’m not going to give you a lecture on political philosophy because there is no point with how murky those waters are. However, you should think about the respective players in your story and what their political philosophies are on a general level.
The state’s number one concern, for the most part, is sovereignty. The ability of a state to remain independent from other states and have control over itself without influence from another state. How does a state make the decisions that keep themselves independent?
Again, this entirely depends on you. Some might say it’s wise to work with other states, creating interdependency that avoids war by way of trade relations and the like. Others say the state should be fully self sufficient.
Does a state in your world act solely on its own self interest or for the interest of the world at large? How does that impact their view on other nations around them? How willing/unwilling are they to work with one another? How does their respective histories influence this?
Again, this will depend on you, the writer, but it is worth asking yourself about.
Power Isn’t Always Bad
A common fantasy theme is that “power is bad”. That’s a generalization, but hopefully the point still stands.
Power allows the state to protect itself and its people. It’s not always bad to want to seek, keep, and hold power. If anything, it can be seen as a responsibility of the state to ensure prosperity for itself.
The different states fighting with each other over power should have different reasons that aren’t “I wanna take over everything”. Now, if that works for your story, use it, but keep in mind there are plenty of other reasons political entities could fight with each other and seek power and control.
Power begets stability. While it may be complex, remember that one of the biggest thing power does is make life stable for all that live there.
Fantasy royals are often portrayed as living lives of luxury. Doing nothing but feasting and spending money. If you do have a useless royal, there should be other people that stepped in to do the work for them. Any vacuum of power is going to create chaos unless someone/something moves in place to fill that space.
If you don’t want to use that, then your leaders need to be functional. They need to do things other than feast and drink. They need to work on foreign relationships, peace agreements, tax policies, domestic policy, keeping their lords/ladies happy so they don’t rebel, etc. It’s actually a very stressful job.
War: What is it Good For?
History is full of wars begin waged over any seemingly minor thing, it’s hard not to imagine countries that just fight with each other all the time.
The biggest deterrent to war is money. Wars are expensive. It is expensive to build necessary equipment (weapons, siege weapons, armor, fortifications, etc.) to sustain (feeding soldiers, medical care, traveling the army around, etc.), and much more. As a result, it’s actually pretty uncommon, even historically, that war was waged over every gripe.
So why go to war at all? There are different kinds of war and there are tons of reasons states go to war. The key is to make them good reasons. Just because a king has petty beef with another king isn’t (generally) a good reason. All his people are going to oppose that. There should be more to it: Fighting over resources, control, rebellion, long sustained tensions, etc.
War also cannot be infinitely sustained. People die, whole towns and cities are destroyed. If the commons are fighting in the war, then a lot of the labor force and tax source is going to die. Going to war is not an easy choice.
But if starting a war is important to your story, what started it? A lot of war comes from the very “boring” aspects of politics. “Our nation’s iron supply is depleting so we need to build a road through your country to get to it.” The other nation disagrees, the first nation can’t have that because they need the iron mines or risk economic disaster. They try diplomacy or to share the mines. Goes south. Then war.
War is so high risk and that means that the players need to have damn good reasons to justify it, even if it’s only to themselves.
War is a powerful, but complicated tool. Use it well.
Chaos can be created in a number of ways that don’t involve tyrant rulers. Economic downturns, power vacuums, rebellions, etc. all create chaos.
Anytime something happens that creates chaos, there’s going to be a pushback. People are going to try and stabilize their lives by any means at their disposal. There’s going to be pushback, and often violence.
But chaos can also be taken advantage of by people with better resources than others. Wealthy people can generate their own power, collective action can happen, other players can sit in the sidelines manipulating the situation from afar for their own benefit. Even other nations can come in and fight with each other by proxy.
Chaos is also a really powerful tool, and I’d like to see more of it in fantasy.
Diplomacy has been around for hundreds of years, and is cheaper than war. It doesn’t always work in fiction, but it’s an interesting thing to explore.
It’s also a good way to world build, exploring new areas and new cultures.
Now remember tension is often pretty high in diplomatic matters. One false move, one unintentional insult could ruin everything. It’s a high stress, high stakes situation.
I want to see more diplomacy in fantasy. It’s underutilized, I feel, but it created so much tension and conflict.
But the Hero Isn’t a Leader
Again, another common thing. A hero, or one of the big characters, is from the commons. They aren’t a royal, they don’t have any bearing on political decisions by nature of their position.
In that event, it’s unlikely that he/she is a secret political genius. No one would take this kid seriously. Now there are ways around this. Maybe he/she joins the war effort, works their way up, talks to generals/military leaders, and gains more influence. But an otherwise uneducated peasant character isn’t going to have a huge handle on political matters.
If you can find a compelling way around this problem, go for it! However, this is also an opportunity to employ multiple POV characters. The hero from the commons shows the other side of the conflict, how it has an impact on the common people. Another character that does have influence shows it from the more methodological side.
Two Sides to Every Policy
Think of how much political opinions differ in your own country/world. The truth of the matter is that both sides have decent points for the most part. Both sides are rooted in some kind of sound logic. No political policy or action is 100% good or 100% bad.
There are gonna be two or more sides. If a king raises taxes to fund building roads, that’s going to provide necessary infrastructure for prosperity further down the line. However, that means the common people are going to have to sacrifice more of their income for a road that is going to be used primarily by merchants. Maybe they’ll benefit in the long run, but maybe they won’t.
Try to keep your political policies like this if you can. Don’t throw one super bad policy in there for the sake of showing how bad the king is. Policy is most of the time much more subtle than this.
Magic and Politics
Magic is often a big part of the story, but not much in politics of the story. I ask why.
Science plays a pretty big role in our modern politics, so why not magic? I’m not saying magic only used to build weapons, and it will depend on the magic in your world and what role it needs to play in general. But why not have mind control abilities? Or mind reading abilities? Seeing the future somehow? Turning lead into gold for the nation’s economy? Etc.
Think of other ways magic can be used in your world and its importance to political matters.
Depending on how big your world is, how sophisticated in regards to military strength, diplomacy, and general communication with other nations is, your world might have political alliances.
How do these alliances work? Why were they created? How long do they last/how are they sustained? What are the different dynamics involved based on structure and culture?
One of the easiest ways to create alliances is through common enemies. That is: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Both entities have a common goal or enemy, why not work together to achieve it.
There are other good reasons. Interdependency for one: “We have a strong military, you have strong agriculture. We supply military power, and you feed that power.” Also, similar cultures: Maybe they all speak the same language, have similar cultural identities/moralities, etc. They’re similarly sophisticated technologically, etc.
Why are alliances cool to have in a story if they fit? Because just because two states have an alliance, doesn’t mean they’re best friends. An alliance can be wracked with tension and conflict. Maybe one state is much richer and more powerful than the other, and the smaller state stays in the alliances out of fear more than anything. Maybe they’re economies depend on each other, which sort of violates sovereignty, in one of the states’ view. Maybe they have a long history of fighting with each other, but need this alliance to survive against a greater threat.
I’d like to see more complex alliances in fantasy. I think they’r really interesting to look at, and they can lead to all kinds of awesome plot stuff.
If your story is about politics and war, make sure to consider those things well. It’s a lot more compelling to create rich and complex structures than to oversimplify them. You don’t need to be a political scientist to do it either. Happy writing!