Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Storyworld Building: Creating the Government

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

This post now part of the book Storyworld First: Creating A Unique Fantasy World For Your Novel by Jill Williamson.

Okay, this post was HARD WORK! I think I hurt my brain. Owzers...

If you’re creating a new world or a mythical one within our world, it would be wise to spend some time thinking about the government of that place. Even if your story doesn’t have much to do with politics, you still need to understand enough about the place in which your characters live to be able to write about their lives.

Let me just say, “Government? Not my favorite subject.” Still, this doesn’t have to be complicated. And I’m going to try and make it as simple as I can. If you choose a rare type of government for your storyworld, I highly recommend you do some research on that government to help you understand it.

On his writing excuses podcast, Brandon Sanderson boiled the whole mess down to a simple question that really helped me, and here it is: Who has the power?

Who controls the food and water? The weapons? If there is a disease, who controls the medicine? Whoever holds these things holds the power over those that don't. These people make the laws, usually to their own political and/or financial advantage.

So, asking yourself "Who has the power?" is a great place to start. And if you’re writing a book that has little to do with the government, maybe you don’t need to go much further than that.  But since I know you all are trying to come up with really unique stories, I’d like you to consider using a different form of government than what's seen in most stories. For example, most medieval fantasy stories have a feudalistic monarchy. And most outer space science fiction stories have an intergalactic federation.

So here is a list that is not at all comprehensive, as I'm no governmental scholar. But I hope that it might inspire some interesting ideas on your current, or future, WIP. (My source for the gist of the following definitions was either www.dictionary.com or my own Websters from my bookshelf, so I give props to them.)

Anarchy – a state of society without government, law, or order.
Aristocracy – a government ruled by the elite, privileged upper class, nobility, or any group considered to be superior through education, ability, wealth, or social prestige.
Authoritarian – a government in which individual freedom is subordinate to the power or authority of the state and is not accountable to the people. Some types of authoritarian government do permit degrees of individual freedom.
Autocracy – a government in which one person (an autocrat) has uncontrolled or unlimited authority, power, or influence. Consider similar governments of despotism, dictatorship, stratocracy, fascism, and tyranny.
Qui -Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi bring Anakin before the Jedi council 
Capitalism – an economic system in which people investment in and own their own businesses and property. Wealth is made and maintained mostly by private individuals or corporations.
Communism – a classless society in which private ownership is abolished and the means of production and provisions for survival belong to the community.
Confederation – an economic and/or political union or alliance of sovereign states in which membership of each state is voluntary. Consider the European Union of today.
Democracy – a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
Empire – a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign, established usually through coercion.
Federation – a union of partially self-governing states or regions united by a federal government.
Feudalism – the political, military, and social system in the Middle Ages, based on the holding of lands in fief or fee and on the resulting relations between lord and vassal. Under feudalism, the land in a kingdom belonged to the king, who gave some (called manors) to lords or nobles that served him. The lord or nobles gave some of their land (called fiefs) to vassals, who served the lords.
Libertarian – a government that advocates the freedom of thought, expression, and free will and protects its people from coercion and violence.
Monarchy – a form of government in which supreme authority is vested in a single and usually hereditary figure, such as a king. There are different types of monarchies to consider: absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, diarchy, elective monarchy, emirate, and a federal monarchy.
Spock argues his case against Kirk at the disciplinary hearing
Oligarchy – a government in which the power is vested in a few persons. These people could be wealthy, powerful, and/or influential, and might share similar interests and/or family. Some other types of oligarchic governments are: ergatocracy, kritarchy, netocracy, plutocracy, stratocracy, and theocracy.
Polyarchy – a form of government in which power is vested in three or more persons. The word polyarchy is Greek for "many leaders." This could also be a triarchy, tetrarchy, or more.
Republic – a government in which the power rests in the body of the citizens who are entitled to vote for representatives to exercise their will—the will of the people. Some other types of republics are: constitutional republic, democratic republic, parliamentary republic, federal republic, and a socialist republic.
Socialism – an economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled by the government rather than by private enterprise. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains influence over the economy. Some socialists insist on abolishing private enterprise. My understanding is that all types of communism are socialist, but not all types of socialism are communist.
Timocracy – There are two definitions for this. One is a form of government in which possession of property is required in order to hold office. The second definition is a form of government in which rulers are motivated by ambition or love of honor. Plato described it as a government in which ambition for power and glory motivates the rulers.
Totalitarian – a government that does not tolerate differing opinion and that regulates nearly every aspect of public and private life.

Father from Equilibrium 
I’m not a government teacher. And you are authors. Use your imagination! You can combine these and/or tweak them in regard to the storyworld, cultures, and magic you’ve already created. And you can add negative attributes too, like having your politics influenced by entities that are not part of the formal government, like corporations, banks, the mafia, thieves, mob mentality, terrorism, magical groups, crazy beasties, you name it.  Fun stuff.

credit Marie-Lan Nguyen 2009
In The Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato discusses the five stages of government in descending order of moral goodness. They are: aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Plato suggested that each regime would progressively degenerate until reaching tyranny, which when overthrown, would return to aristocracy. I think that’s a pretty fascinating concept. If you’ve got some sort of rebellion or anarchy in your storyworld, you might consider his argument as to what might happen next. After all, the people in a medieval-type of world who've overthrown the evil king might not come up with something like a democracy. You can read Plato's ideas in The Republic (book VIII), which you can download for free by clicking here.

So, I've issued a challenge, all you spec fiction writers. Tweak the government in your storyworld in some way. You can do it! I've read that there are a virtually no countries today that rule solely on one system of government. Most combine two or more. (Click on this cool Wikipedia map that shows current types of government in our world.) 

So play around with this. Mix and match and see what you come up with. Also keep in mind that these definitions that I cobbled together with the help of dictionaries online and at home are very brief. I strongly recommend that you do your own research to learn more about whatever types of governments you plan to use in your book. 


  1. Cool post! I thoguut I had thought up everything I needed fornmy story world, obviously I hadnt. You had some really neat ideas :) and I hope your brain doesn't hurt too bad!!! ;) I think I'm going to use your tweaking idea! :D it sounds like fun (and that's what books are all about, right?)

    1. You bet, TW. I hope you have fun tweaking your idea. :-)

  2. This is really cool! :D I have several different governments in my various projects. One elected-for-life monarch with two houses (House of Elements and the Guardian Council), one Elder Council that makes laws and rules, sometimes with the persuasions of the Talespinner, and a continent of various countries ruled by kings and queens who all answer to the High King and Queen of the continent (but the regular kings/queens still have relative freedom to rule their countries and keep their cultures--there are just blanket laws and rules like one unified language and you can't marry out of class and stuff that applies to the entire continent). It's sort of like state vs federal government...but with monarchs. Does that make sense?

  3. Man, thanks a lot Jill. I was hoping I'd get a break from Government class, but no..... :)

    Even if I hate Government, I still think these are great ideas for novels. Thanks!

    1. LOL Yeah, I'm going to print out my list and take it to church on Sunday. The local HS govt teacher volunteers with our youth group, and I'm going to see how well I did. :-)

  4. My fantasy world combines a monarchy with anarchy. I think. I'm very bad at the governmental sides, but I have a tyrannical king and basically a world falling apart because no one's taking care of it. (Woah, that sounds cliche, but I promise it's not that bad!) This is definitely a thing I need to work on! Stories feel more real if the world actually works.
    Poor Jill's Brain, though. I hope you rewarded it.

    1. I fed it by spending all yesterday reading a book just for me. It was fab. ;-)

  5. I tend to combine too. My current story world has anarchacle feudalism with no actual laws. The man who doesn't have enough mercenaries gets squashed

  6. Oh and I wanted to add that from a readers perspective I'm much more likely to read a book if I know it has a cool government their are some us who look at a well thought out government like some of you look at a well thought out magic system. And I meant there up there but it won't let me change it.

    1. I think that's awesome, Anne. We all have different strengths and interests, and those come out when we create stories and those differences are part of our distinction as authors. It's pretty cool.

  7. Government has kinda a big part in my story since it's got a bit of dystopian in it. For now I think it mainly falls under Authoritarian, but this is good because I do need to work on some of the details. :) Can I just say this series of yours has been very helpful?! This is my first time with spec fic and I had about ZERO ideas of how to go about worldbuilding. :)

    1. Yeah, most dystopians are some sort of authoritarian govt.
      I'm very glad it's been helpful, Amanda.

  8. Ooh, this reminded me of Panem! And Tsarist Russia. I think I'm going down a variation of the Autocratic government for my fantasy, but I'm not really brainstorming it yet as such, just writing ideas as they come, so that might change. This will be great for future reference. Thanks Jill! P.S., I bought Captives on my kindle while it was on sale and I can't wait to read it! :)

    1. I know how that feels, Hannah, to have that idea folder get fatter and fatter. I've got one started now, and I'm just dying to start all my brainstorming and such.

      Thanks for buying Captives! Hope you like it. :-)

  9. In my dystopian vs utopian book, the government is based off of control and equality. It's a future America story set thirty years after the second civil war. The north separated to create an ideal government. It's led by one individual. Everything is standardized and the leader controls with the military. The twist comes in when the people love it. They get everything they need, and are all treated the same. The military is 'friendly.' As far as the people know, the leader did everything he promised so they have no problem with him leading. But there are lies and flaws in the system and my main characters use that to their advantage.

  10. Uh oh!! I'm trying to plan a "stand alone medieval fantasy series " It does deal with politics more than an average fantasy, but still isn't "political". The problem is that the series takes place in the same lands, but at different times. So there needs to resemblance to the first novel, but slowly slopes down and the land becomes divided into three different kingdoms to be restored to one.
    Ugh, my mind is a "Koo Koo Clock" when it comes to writing.

    Anyways, does anyone know of any websites on outlining (or planning) a stand alone series?

    Just realized, I'm writing a science fiction dystopian too soon. More politics!!!!

    1. Don't panic. You don't have to have any politics in your book. I just wanted you to think about it.
      Also, I don't understand what you mean by stand-alone series. Usually a book is a stand-alone or it's part of a series.

    2. I'm sorry I may not be calling it by the right name. It's a series where there is a a completely different protagonist, but is connected by some sort of element and characters. Like the Gates of Heaven Series. They are all different stories, but are connected by the Gates of Heaven and there are usually characters that relate to other characters in the previous (or future) books.

      The stories are almost their own story, but are connected to a bigger one. That's why they are stand alone series.

      I hope I cleared that up for you.


    3. Rosanna M. White posted on series once on your blog, she may have explained it better than I did.



    4. I think you mean a non-consecutive series.

  11. Thanks for this post! Very helpful, as my fantasy novel is heavily politics-based.

  12. This was great! Your hard work paid off big time :) Thanks!

  13. Hmm I think I told you about the fantasy stories that are stalking me. I kind of have monarchies and constitutional monarchies with varying degrees of liberality, so kind of typical. And some are probably too optimistic...

    But the five stages thing is so cool! I've never thought about it like that but you can see it super clearly in, like, the French Revolution for example. But it's a bit worrying because I can see that the US has sort of gone through the first four stages... did Plato say anything about how long each stage lasts? :D

  14. I use a feudalistic monarchy/republic sort of thing. They elect a ruler who rules for life. But everyone is seperated into classes and the rules are all very strict for them. It's also a Timocracy because the election process is decided by a series of fights.

  15. I use a feudalistic monarchy/republic sort of thing. They elect a ruler who rules for life. But everyone is seperated into classes and the rules are all very strict for them. It's also a Timocracy because the election process is decided by a series of fights.

  16. Wicked post, makes me think a lot about my own government in my W.I.P.

  17. From Amo Libros:
    EEEEEE!!!!! The Pevensies, Obi-Wan and Spock all on one post? EEEEEE!!!!
    Seriously, though, this was a really great post. Government can be fascinating - but I actually enjoyed my government and history classes. I think a well developed government system can add a lot to the believability of a novel - but I haven't thought much about any of mine. I shall have to do that!

  18. I'm just getting started with writing at the moment, and my first WIP idea is set on the planet humans escape to after wrecking earth. It's sort of a dystopian (I think) because the government is controlling (a sort of totalitarian empire). They need efficiency to survive on this new planet, so the strict rulers are forced to stay strict so that people work hard. What do you guys think?