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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

World Building: Politics and Government

Let’s just start off with one of the most controversial topics known to man, shall we?  Politics!  Yay!

Now then, there is a good chance you already know how you want the governing of your fictional land to be done, assuming you’re not writing about actual governments of actual places.  In the case of science fiction or fantasy, which may take readers to far away lands, you may still already have an idea of how things are going to be run.  If so, you can use the following segment to tweak and critique and maybe add some flavor to your definitely-not-Roman empire.  If you don’t know how you want things to be, feel free to use this as a basis or model for your own newly discovered species from the planet Tabadeen.  Personally, I will be using the Borelians and the Krydik as examples throughout this particular installment, just to highlight a few points.

The whole basis of politics revolves around groups of people and how they interact.  To even get to this point, you have to be able to answer the question of how and why your people form groups, or why they might not.  Do they form groups based on survival needs?  Once those needs are met, how or why do they stay together?  Is it a herd instinct?  Is it for companionship?  Or do they drift apart once resources become more or less plentiful?

In the animal kingdom, whitetail deer will form herds during mating season, but they tend to drift apart once spring arrives.  Then they recongregate when they need to cross the road.  Feral cats will live in monstrous colonies when resources are plentiful, and they’ll happily lounge together.  If those resources dwindle, those same cats will fight, even to the death, for every inch and scrap they can get.

Both the Borelians and the Krydik--and, to an extent, most species, I would be willing to bet--come together for survival reasons.  For the Borelians, Brelix is a rather inhospitable planet with extremely limited resources.  Their Narcissism demands that they help one another and so advance the Borelian race and influence throughout the universe.  Why is that?  Borelian mindset is set on the collective.  It is their default setting, that they always put Brelix and the good of the collective Borelian people above all else.  This doesn’t mean that they don’t have individual ambition, but everything they do is wrapped up in the good of the whole.

The Krydik, meanwhile, are traditionally similar.  Survival is life, though they don’t have the same stick up their butts that the Borelians do.  The Krydik are generally very happy to live in peace with each other and in harmony with their environment, with each person or family contributing to the needs of the clan, each clan contributing to the well-being of the tribe at large.

What is it that brings your people together?  Consider, too, that needs and reasons can change over time.  Maybe your people originally came together for survival reasons, then developed a more interdependent society.  As your groups grow, more questions arise.  When does a group get to be too large?  When does the large group begin to subdivide?  How do they keep the peace?

This logically leads to the question of, how and why do your people choose a leader?  Is it trial by combat?  He who fights or forces his way to the top wins?  Is it a battle of intellect, where a leader must demonstrate good knowledge and wisdom?  How are these leaders chosen and succeeded?  Another combat tournament?  Blood monarchy?  Nomination?  Election?  Military ranking?  Consulting the gods?

Next, what is this leader expected to do?  Is his job protection?  Mediation?  What power does he hold over the people?  Does he have the ability to command armies?  Does he define trade?  Is he supposed to be the beacon of cultural inheritance?  Does he have any religious duties to perform?  What role does he play in the justice system?

Furthermore, could there be multiple leaders?  Could it be a delegation of people with specific responsibilities?  Maybe it’s only supposed to look that way to the peasants, but really it’s just one person controlling everything while the rest lick his boots.

When you get into the deeper layers of politics, you really should have your people, parties, and rules nailed down beforehand, because once the flowchart of betrayal starts, it can be very hard to keep track of, and too many flaws or a disbelief bridge that can’t quite suspend over a gap can really hurt the story.

In Borelian society, you have the Council of Ancrath, which deals with day-to-day politics concerning the well-being of Borelian society: schooling, agriculture, industry, things that don’t really deal with non-Borelians.  Then you have the Great Admirals of the Fleet, in charge of all things military.  Because Borelians typically enslave any and all other species--those they don’t have a military stalemate against anyway--they don’t have much of a need for polite ambassadors and delegations.  Finally, you have the Holy Men of War.  On the one hand, the Holy Men of War are the priests for those who worship Tujor, the god of death.  On the other hand, they also act as a political force, though no one outside of the Borelian government really knows exactly what they do.

Once you’ve determined how and why your people have decided to congregate, and how and why they’ve chosen their leader, you should also lay some ground rules for how the group interacts with other groups, and this applies to internal and external politics.

Among the Krydik, each clan is basically self-governing, ruled primarily by the necessity for survival, and it’s not unusual for clans to get into disputes for a variety of reasons.  The elders of the disputing clans, therefore, meet to discuss treaties and reparations and anything else that might see them through.  If a peaceful resolution cannot be met, then the head warriors of each clan may devise some other way, likely a trial by combat, to settle the matter.

Now, if a clan has a problem without an outside group, or if the entire tribe is threatened, there is a code of honor that says the clan and/or the tribe must be preserved first, and go back to the petty disputes later.  The Borelians operate in a similar fashion because they, too, are of a collective mindset.

Another species which I have written about, the Burid, has no such inclination.  The Burid, while proud of their monarchies and extensive family trees, will not hesitate to dispose of political rivals, even if that means wiping out an entire city or destroying a whole family such that the monarchy crumbles.

And there is also another layer of complexity if you have multiple species living in the same area.  I won’t go into too much detail, but in TKC, the Psiaco and Urid are an excellent example.  The Psiaco came from another world and used the primitive lifestyle of the Urid to, essentially, enslave them.  Then the Urid got smart and tried to fight back, but the Psiaco are thousands of years more advanced.

Understanding the mindset of your species will help to craft your characters.  Selfish, selfless.  Collectivist, individualist.  Or something else entirely.

Another thing to consider is the overall goal of your species.  It sounds huge, but you have only to observe human history to get an idea of this concept.  War and conquest was the name of the game for thousands of years, and in many places, it still is.  The desire for power, for control, to gain an edge. Imperialism was a ruling mantra for centuries. You have the Arms Race, the Space Race, all of these things involving the whole species.  Maybe it’s because the people or the leaders believe in some form of Manifest Destiny.  Maybe it’s because they are afraid of what will happen if “the enemy” accomplishes something before they do.

The Borelians believe themselves superior, called by Tujor to spread death across the universe.  Even those who don’t believe in Tujor are more than happy to use the excuse to advance the Borelian cause.  Because Brelix isn’t overly hospitable, the Borelians have to colonize other worlds.  Since they believe themselves superior, they enslave thousands upon thousands to work their fields.  Conquest is their goal.

On the other hand, you have the Krydik.  Their goal is survival, harmony, and being patient, biding their time until they can return to Earth and reclaim their home, as is the duty of Wolf Clan.  Until then, they call their new world home.

Then there’s the people of Irig, whose name changes with each change of dynasty.  So if the house of Nemys is in power, the people are called the Nemys.  If the house of Korin is in power, they are called the Korin.  A war dynasty comes with one set of rules and goals, and a peace dynasty comes with another set.

Considering all of this, then, how do your people deal with those of dissenting opinion, be it political or otherwise?  How does your government interact in everyday life?  Do they welcome new opinions and ideas?  Do they seek to crush any who step outside the red line?  How do they feel about corruption or people trying to game the system?  How do they deal with rumors or realities of insurrection?  How do your government’s actions or reactions affect the common people?

The Hands of Time series gives us a good look into Borelian society via Isthim who is in exile from Brelix.  Her crime was pursuing an idea to ally the Borelians with something they consider dijik, that is, essentially, blasphemous in every sense of the word.  Under normal circumstances, she would be given one day’s head start before Borelian Hunters would pursue and kill.  Problem was, Isthim was well-versed in the methods of these Hunters and knew how to escape their clutches.  Because of her extensive knowledge of Brelix, she was simply labeled an exile and sort of left alone.  Her ingrained mindset that the glory of Brelix must come before all else means she’s not going to spill their secrets.  It’s a bit of a delicate balance.

Next, what is the role of your government in the economy?  On the triangle of anarchy to capitalism to communism, where does your society fall?  How much does the government care about the price of tea in China?  At what point do they tell the monopoly holder to knock it off?  What interests does the government hold in something being available or unavailable to the people?  What power do they hold to curb something in their own favor?

What role does the military play?  Is service voluntary?  Compulsory?  A moral or religious obligation?  What role does the military play in society?  What wars are they fighting and why?  What is public opinion of these wars?  Are the people honored to be in the military?  How are veterans treated?  What benefits do they receive?  What opportunities do they have?  Is the military itself honorable, or just a way for power junkies to bully the population?  Are they more concerned with external threats, or keeping control of a restless, oppressed populace?

The Krydik know they are a primitive people in a technological universe, so their concern is their safety and sovereignty.  The Borelians have virtually nothing to fear, and so conquer indiscriminately.  However, their entire economy is based almost solely on slavery.  If something were to happen to that market, which is overseen by the Great Admirals of the Fleet leading raids and fighting wars, they will be the ones under the gun for answers.

To that end, they have a pretty tried and true method to keep the economy stable.  When Isthim comes along and wants to take things in a new direction, enlisting the help of a dijik no less, they don’t take very kindly to that.  Even though she has Borelian glory at the heart of her ambition, it’s a little too far out there for her people to consider, so she is expelled from the collective, a crippling fear for any Borelian, especially one who was nearly an Admiral herself.

In that line of thinking, how does the government of one land treat the government or people of other lands?  Are they hostile to everything that moves?  Are they overly permissive and suffering from a sinking lifeboat?  Are they extremely protective of themselves or their culture?  Do they feel the need to impose themselves on countries too weak or corrupt to manage themselves?  Do they endanger their own citizens through intent or ignorance?  Do they endanger others through intent or ignorance?  How does your government and leaders take criticism from other governments and leaders?  What do they project as the image of their land versus what the land is actually like?  Keep in mind that this is all in the political realm; we’ll cover the common social aspects of this in a future installment.

How do the government and religious institutions get along?  Is religion expelled in favor of leader-worship?  Is religion used as a tool for government propaganda?  Are the government leaders extremely pious and do nothing without consulting the gods?  Do they maintain a religious facade in order to woo the people?  Is there any difference between government and religion, or is it a theocracy?  Do the governmental leaders perform any religious rites or ceremonies?  How does the government react when religious leaders call them out for sins or other hypocrisies?

For the Krydik, governing and religion are very closely related.  While the elders and chiefs may not hold religious titles, they will still perform certain rites and ceremonies, and they will consult the priests for spiritual guidance in all things.

Meanwhile, despite the Borelian demographic stating that less than one-fifth of the population truly believes and prays to Tujor, the Holy Men of War hold one-third of the governing power, and maybe even more as they have been known to cow even the Great Admirals of the Fleet.

Another race that I introduce in TKC is the Turitians.  Except for small pockets of religion here and there, many of their religious rites have been scaled back to mere formalities and common etiquette, with very little spiritual significance attached to them.  They place more hope in the hero Ilir from centuries ago than they do to any god.

Next, laws and legislating.  How are laws made?  Does a king merely proclaim something and it’s true?  Does it have to be voted on?  Is it more of a social thing where something must be observed or avoided, lest one be shunned?  How are the rules enforced?  Can the policing force be bribed in some way to stave off punishment?  What happens when the policing force is corrupt?

What happens when someone breaks a law?  How much faith is held in the court system to uphold order and fairness and justice for the victims?  What biases are present in the system, whether explicit or personal on the part of a judge or other official?  Are there any privileges present for those who are rich or famous?  What happens when a judge or official is politically motivated to imprison or exonerate a criminal?  What happens when judges disagree?  What punishments are expected for various crimes?  What if someone is wrongfully accused or convicted?  What rights do they have, if any?

Now, it may be that you don’t need every little tidbit of information, but the deeper you intend to go into politics, the more you have to understand how it works in order to convey the information and elicit the response you want.  Maybe you want someone to be outraged about an unfair imprisonment, but if you don’t provide any context for why it’s unfair and where things went wrong, then it’s just one more inmate whining about Poor Me.

In TKC, Rifun must be able to balance the politics of multiple species as he tries to recruit for the Cult, and it doesn’t always go over well, especially when the Borelians get involved.  These concerns need to be addressed in some way.

So I think that’s a pretty good foundation for you to consider.  Maybe you already know how everything is supposed to work out, and that’s okay.  Maybe you need to reconsider a few elements and do a little reworking.  Maybe you don’t even need every aspect I’ve covered, or in the process of setting up your government, you’ve discovered other areas that need to be addressed.  That’s cool, too.  As I’ve said, only you know how it’s supposed to work out.

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