Worldbuilding, Part 2: Government and Society

By | January 31, 2012

In my last post on worldbuilding, I only talked about the basics.  In this post, I’ll go into more detail on a few aspects of worldbuilding, mainly government and social structure.

The most important part of creating realistic societies in a fantasy world is, in my opinion, research.  You can either directly base your societies off of real world societies, or you can take bits and pieces from here and there, or you can create your own society mostly from scratch, as long as you know how a society works.  You won’t have to go into much detail on societies in many stories, but there are plenty of other stories where you will need to, and it can really show if you don’t know what you’re doing.

As far as research goes, you can learn about ancient cultures, look at modern day politics, or read books such as Machiavelli’s The Prince (which I found very helpful for understanding how people can gain and keep power).  You don’t have to do a ton of research, unless you’re writing a novel full of political intrigue or something like that, but just knowing how your society works can go a long way.

There are lots of elements to creating a realistic society, and a lot of things that you need to figure out.  Even for something as simple as a little fishing town, there will still be different classes, different roles that must be filled, and people who are in charge.

What is the class structure like in your society?  Is there a middle class, or is there a small group of elite and lots of poor?  How big is the divide between classes?  These are things that you have to figure out.  Generally, a society with a middle class and less of a divide between classes is a nicer place to live for the average person than one with lots of very poor people and a few very rich, and is considered a more ideal society.  You also need to figure out what roles the people play in a society.  In less wealthy, less advanced, and less ideal societies, a lot of people will have to be farmers.  There usually need to be some craftsmen as well, and of course there are those who are in charge and some sort of law enforcement.  In a more advanced society, there will be less farmers and general labor workers and more people like scientists, artists, and engineers.  If the society has a standing army, there will also be soldiers.

Another thing that you need to think about is how warlike your society is.  Maybe it’s a peaceful little village that’s never had to deal with more than little skirmishes.  Maybe it’s an average nation that neither actively seeks out war and conquest, nor completely avoids it.  Maybe it’s a great warlike nation that crushes its enemies beneath its heels and is feared by all its neighbors.  All of those societies would have a different military and attitude towards war.  Peaceful and pacifist societies would probably have very few, if any, trained soldiers, and may only have a few weapons aside from hunting weapons.  Some societies may ask their lower class to train in combat a bit in their very limited free time and then draft them into an army when war comes.   Very warlike societies may make it mandatory that every able citizen train as much as possible to be a fighter (Sparta would be a good example of this).  A society may or may not have a standing army, depending both on how warlike they are and how wealthy and advanced they are (the less people who have to be farmers, the more people who can be full time soldiers).

Another important thing that you need to figure out if how the government works.  Who’s in charge, and how did they come to power?  How do those who are in charge keep power?  Is it a democracy or a monarchy?  Is the society largely controlled by the people, the nobility, the rich, or the church?  Are the leaders oppressive or fair?

It can be useful to think about how the government was formed and how it was changed over time.  If the government you’re creating is a democracy, why is it that?  Is that the norm of the world?  Is it a unique and new idea?  Was it put into place after a cruel monarchy was overthrown?  If your government is a monarchy, how is the monarch chosen?  Is it the standard hereditary monarchy, or something different?  Does the monarch have absolute power, or are they more of a figurehead?  Maybe it’s neither a monarchy or a democracy, and the nation is completely run by the church or the rich, or maybe it’s something completely different.  You just need to make sure that those in charge could realistically ascend to and keep power.

There are many ways that the government could keep power.  The two main ones, as Machiavelli put it, are fear and love.  There are various ways that either or both of these can be achieved.  Love is more straightforward than fear.  If a government treats its people well, protects them from outside dangers, lets its people have some power (or believe that they have some power), and/or recently replaced a much worse government, it can likely gain at least some love from its people, which will keep them from wanting to overthrow it.  Fear can be used in many different forms.  It can be the fear of external threats in the absence of the government, the fear of the government and military itself, the fear of the change that would be caused if the government were overthrown or the fear that something worse could take its place, or many other things.  A government almost always needs one or more of those elements of either fear or love to stay in power, and if the people grow to hate the government and don’t fear it, or if that fear was suddenly stripped away, chances are they will attempt to overthrow it.

Another very important part of many societies is religion, which I haven’t covered in this post.  The next post is about religion, gods, and mythology, and I’ll cover the role religion plays in society and government in that post.

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