Worldbuilding is a big process but when you break it down into smaller sections, it gets a lot easier. That's why we've been working piece-by-piece in April's worldbuilding series here at Writing It Wells. Already we've workshopped Natural and Societal elements, today we're breaking down the Governing Forces in our new worlds. Break out your pen and join us as we jump straight into today's worldbuilding topic!
Every world has a great and powerful force that maintains order, control, function, and structure within its societies. It can serve both mythical and practical functions, and the options are numerous when it comes to creating exactly what it looks like. You can also choose more than one force to govern your world, as long as you figure out how these forces combine together and/or oppose each other. In each society there is some form of government. Even in the most primitive gatherings there is always someone or something that holds dominion over the rest of the people in attendance, if only for the sake of guaranteeing everyone's survival.
What topics fall into the Governing Forces category?
Type of Governing Force
Before you can dive into the details, you first must identify what governing forces exist within your realm. When you think of governments, you probably picture the modern versions you see today- democracies, dictatorships, socialism, and monarchies. These are viable options, but there are many more possible. Consider whether a natural, paranormal, or divine power source exists. If so, is this power harnessed by worshipers or a shaman/sorcerer figure in some way? Perhaps the power lies in monetary gain. Are there trade issues at work? Rather still, perhaps there are underlying notes of classism, racism, or a clash in values or beliefs that swings the balance of power in the favor of one group of people over another. Explore every avenue and find what fits best for your story.
Forms of Government
Going back to the traditional definition of government, there are several types to consider: monarchy, democracy, oligarchy, authoritarianism/fascism, republic, and theocracy. Below is a quick break-down of each so you can choose what you're most interested in.
Monarchy: The most common form of government until the 19th century. Monarchy is a form of government in which a single family rules from generation to generation. One person (king or queen) signifies power over dominion. There are two types: Absolute and Constitutional. Absolute monarchy exists when the monarch has no or few legal limitations in political matters. Constitutional monarchies exist when the monarch retains a distinctive legal and ceremonial role but exercises limited or no political power.
Democracy: A form of government in which power belongs to the people. There are two forms of democracy. Direct democracy is when all eligible citizens have direct participation in the decision making of the government. The second type, representative democracy is when citizens exercise their power through elected representatives. The elected representatives propose, develop, and create laws for the citizens to abide by.
Oligarchy: A government where all power resides within a dominant group or class. This group is characterized by royalty, wealth, education, or military control. They may also be heretical, passing power down through generations of family members.
Authoritarianism/Fascism: A government favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom. Think dictatorships, socialism, and communism.
Republic: A government where people choose representatives to make choices for them, such as elected leaders within a senate. Think the Roman Empire.
Theocracy: A government where the laws are made by god, but interpreted by a religious figure.
Social climate refers to the perception of a society by its members. It is the state of mood and opinions within a society, which is ever-changing and volatile. I've included this under governing forces because public opinion matters. Does your general public approve or disapprove of your governing force? Why? Does this opinion change throughout the course of your story? What events result from this change? These questions are particularly useful if you're writing a dystopian novel or historical fiction where tumultuous events (such as the toppling of a government) take place.
Classism & Racism
Prejudices within a society, especially those encouraged by a governing force is definitely something that should be considered when you're creating your government. Perhaps you're working on a fantasy story where the different races of mythical creatures are not considered equal. In The Lord of the Rings, Elves and Dwarves do not like each other nor do they consider themselves on an equal playing field. While they are able to overcome this rivalry and work together, it's also possible that differences can not be resolved, such as that between the Humans and the Na'vi in the movie Avatar. Other notable examples are in the stories of Anastasia, Crazy Rich Asians, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Social Power & Hierarchy
This refers to the type of power found in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Gone With The Wind, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, and The Help. Social power and the influence of a social hierarchy bears quite strongly upon a society. Those who hold power within their society are typically members of the upper class, wealth-holders, trend-setters, people of business and trade, etc. But this can change depending on the set-up of your story. Take Divergent for example. Here there are factions in which Abnegation becomes the ruling class due to their dedication to selflessness, yet is overthrown by the ambitious Erudite (the social power). In The Hunger Games, we see that the residents of the Capital reap the benefits of the realm, again because they are the social power within the novel, favored by President Snow (the leader).
Positive & Negative Reinforcement
We discussed this in the last post, but I'm reiterating it's importance here. How your governing force reinforces their claim to power says a lot about what sort of world your protagonist lives in. Keeping in mind the type of government you've chosen, this approach will change depending on who is in power. Consider the other aspects as well. If your power is a natural one or a deity of some kind, then perhaps an unexplained natural disaster or some other form of a perceived "sign" is interpreted as the will of the higher power. If your ruling power is a sorcerer, then their magic may be used to frighten or awe the citizens into submission. Perhaps a priest is able to control the masses through their belief in a higher power. Better still, fear, intimidation, misinformation, and manipulation can be used as well as love, charity, and charm. Governments often use the first set of tactics while social powers tend to be more subtle and suggestive.
Money talks everywhere, including in your fantasy world. Utilizing currencies can help bring a level of realism into your universe because it allows for interesting moral conundrums to occur. Not only is it one of those universal details that transcends the language barrier, but it's also something that evokes strong emotional responses. Your protagonist either has too much or yearns for more. Either way there is bound to be some sticky situations that happen during their pursuit of or spending of said currency. They can also buy their way out of trouble, purchase things they need, and any number of other scenarios. The most important reason for using currency within your story is to further emphasize the divide between classes and to distinguish the difference between regions.
Industry & Trade
Tying into currency, industry and trade must exist in your universe as well. In stories taking place on the sea, they can even be the highlight of the story. Think about the flow of resources in and out of your world. Depending on what is available to your society, think about how these resources are grown, hunted, or mined. How are they harvested? Are they then sold at market or given freely away? Does trade with other territories occur or is it a free-for-all? Also consider the wealth of the realm you're working with. Is it rich and plentiful or barren? Think also the type of people that trade brings into your world. Pirates, merchants, tourists all come because of these resources and the riches they bring. Relate it back to the governing force. Do they control the resources? How? Do they require a sacrifice or "cut" so to speak? Figuring out the balance between your governing force and trade will then help you understand how your governing source is funded and thus how powerful they are.
Religion vs. Science
Consider the age old debate of religion vs. science. Typically these forces duel for control over the minds of the masses. Depending on the education level, spiritual beliefs, and time period that your story takes place in, this can be an interesting concept to play around with. You can tangibly manifest them (churches vs. universities) or you can leave them to be debated metaphorically. You can also use them on a smaller scale, think a priest and a scientist, or a nun and inventor. They accumulate power through those who choose to pledge their loyalties, beliefs, and resources to them. They can also juxtapose the leader and vie for power against them (think church vs. state).
Magic vs. Technology
Similar to the aforementioned, there is a complex balance that exists between these two forces. Both are reliant on strength and development. How much time, effort, and resources a society has put into them determines the amount of power they have. Because they are sources of power that can be generated and utilized for the greater good or evil, the ruling class tends to fight to retain or restrain their sources. Depending on how advance your magical society is, magic and technology may even combine (think Steampunk and sci-fi). Here is a chance to be creative about how magic and technology exists in both appearance and advancements. Think about the implications of giving your protagonist the ability to use or control this type of power. Are they the exception to the law of this power in some way? Are they a threat to the governing force because of it? What is the outcome of their struggle?
Natural, Paranormal, and Divine Forces
Consider the other powers that be within your world. These forces can pose interesting challenges to your protagonist throughout their story. Nature is a force that will influence your landscape and the people settled there, be it bounty or hardships like famine, storms, or plague. Paranormal elements such as unwanted spirits, the undead, and strange supernatural phenomena may also occur. Divine entities may have a role within your story, be it physical or through guiding your would-be hero. Whatever the case may be, how these powers appear and what reaction they receive (whether it's fear, worship, love, etc.) will help shape your protagonist's attitudes towards them regardless of whether they are a direct force within their lives or not.
Survival vs. Growth
Think about where your society falls on the scale of development. If it is a primitive, underdeveloped, or newly formed settlement then the main focus of it's citizens should be on survival. However, if your society is futuristic, well-off, and already well-established then their focus should be on discovery, technological advancement, and the growth of their nation. This makes it easy to assess what your governing force's motives are and what course of action they should take while ruling. If it is a primitive society, then the governing force's concern is on providing for their society and gaining popularity abroad, while protecting it from any threats. If their society is a developed one, perhaps they are focused on expansion and conquering other lands to gain access to better resources. Regardless of which it is, there comes challenges and benefits to both types. It could be that in the pursuit of new advancements the leader fails to safe-prove the process and innocent people die. This could then become the main reason your protagonist opposes them, especially when you make their brother one of the deceased. On the flip side, if your leader fails to prevent the spread of a disease that wipes out half the new population within the settlement, they may be forced to resign to someone who has a more effective method for handling the situation.
Perhaps your governing forces' choices have led to unfavorable consequences for their people. Sometimes when this happens the masses decide it would be better to overthrow the leader rather than suffer any longer. When things reach a fever pitch rioting, uprising, civil wars, and assassinations usually follow. Then when all is said and done, a new form of leadership is established- for better or worse is left up for interpretation. Other forms of social reform include protests, policy changes, and marches. These tumultuous events can provide excellent story fodder. Like Katniss Everdeen, Triss Prior, Elle Woods, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan heroes who stand for social reforms are some of the most interesting characters in literature today. What you need to do is decide here in the planning stages whether social reforms exist in your world, what issues they are based around, and how those issues are being handled by those protesting and by your governing force in turn.
Societal Collapse & Rebirth
Another theme to consider is societal collapse and rebirth. You see this especially in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian literature where societies completely fall apart and characters must struggle to eke out a living from what is left, but we also see it on the small-scale. Sometimes societal collapse and rebirth happens to a protagonist on the inside. Like Edna from Kate Chopin's The Awakening, some protagonists struggle internally with feelings of disillusionment, loneliness, and unhappiness when they feel trapped within a society that does not understand or suit them. In these types of stories the challenge is deciding which is more effective- an external or internal display of the collapse. While a physical collapse is visually stunning, sometimes a person's inner turmoil is more profound than a war-torn backdrop.
By now you should have a world that is quickly taking shape. You should have a good understanding of the geographical layout, the resources it possesses, how your society has come to be, it's history, how it operates, and now what governing forces operate within your world. Next up in our writing series is Part 4: Advanced Worldbuilding Topics. We'll be exploring how to build a magical system and a unique language for your world as the "icing on top of the cake" element.