Tag Archives: creating political systems

World Building – creating political structures #amwriting

Every society, fantasy, sci-fi, or real-world, must have an overarching political structure—a government of some sort. Humans are tribal – like all primates we are comfortable when we have a hierarchy of decision-makers to guide the tribe.

A simple society might consist of an elder and several trusted advisors.

A more complex society might have a monarch leading a society composed of multiple layers:

Monarch/Royalty

→Nobility

→→Lesser Nobility

→→→Upper Middle Class

→→→→Middle Class

→→→→→Lower Middle Class

→→→→→→Lower Class

→→→→→→→Poorest Class

Every human society, large or small, is divided into layers and classes, whether we want to admit it or not. Change the word “Monarch” to “Mayor,” Governor,” “President,” “Pope,” or “Prime Minister,” and the society they lead falls into the same layers.

This is because someone is always more important, richer, has more power, makes the rules.

The politics of a society are an invisible construct that affects every aspect of a story, even if it isn’t directly addressed. Our characters have a place within that structure. When you know what that place is, you write their story accordingly. If you know your characters’ social caste, you know if they are rich or poor; hungry or well-fed. This will shape them throughout the story:

  • Hunger drives conflict
  • Well-fed could mean a complacent society

Every society has laws, inviolable rules. Breaking these laws has consequences.

Some small tribal societies have unwritten codes of ethics, but they are as firmly enforced as any written laws. When a character goes against the commonly accepted rules, they must face the consequences.

That flouting of civil laws is an opportunity for conflict.

Sometimes I run short of words on a new project but I can’t set it aside. At that point I go deep into the backstory and examine the hidden underpinnings of their society. Little, if any, of this backstory will enter into the finished product. But I have found that when my characters are sure of what their station in society is, I can write their journey with confidence and authority.

I need to know who they are, how they see themselves and their future, and how they fit organically into their world.

One aspect that is a hidden support structure of every fantasy society is the government.  Even if it doesn’t come into the story, take a few moments to examine the political power structure of your world. It’s a good idea to write down a page or so of information detailing the political and monetary structure of the world your characters inhabit.

As I create the political power-structure, I find that the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity, I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

However, in order to convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work. Does the government/legal system affect your characters? If not, this exercise is a waste of time, sorry.

  • Who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • Monarchy, Elected officials, Warlords, Shamans, or what?
  • How do they get that power? Hereditary, elected, military coup?
  • What laws affect your characters or hinder them?
  • How are the governing people perceived? Foolish or wise? Honest or Corrupt?
  • What place does religion have in this society? We examined religion last week in the post Creating Power Structures and Religions.
  • What passes for morality? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

One critical aspect of society that governments have control of is money. If you have a fantasy society, design a simple monetary system. Keep it simple, so you don’t contradict yourself over the course of the story.

I use the same system in all three of my fantasy worlds. A Gold is comprised of 10 Silvers. A Silver is comprised of 10 Coppers.

In a sci-fi world, you can get away with using a blanket term like credits. These are easy concepts for a reader to imagine without your having to go into detail. Examples might be:

  • Innkeeper: “A mug of ale is three coppers. No coppers, no ale.”
  • Spaceport pawnbroker: “It’s unregistered. A weapon like this is worth five hundred credits, don’t you agree?”

If you’re writing in a speculative fiction world and you absolutely must use created names for money and positions, make those words simple to read and pronounce, and once you have established them, don’t deviate from them.

Good world building takes the familiar and shapes it into unfamiliar ways. It’s only my opinion, but I suggest you keep to familiar terms for leaders. King/queen, president, mayor, admiral, captain—these are terms that convey an image with no effort on your part. Anything the reader doesn’t have to research is good. If you are too enthusiastic in creating an entire language in order to convey a sense of foreignness, you have gone to a great deal of trouble only to lose the majority of readers.

When you are building a world that only exists on paper, you must be sparing with the space you devote to conveying the social, religious, and political climate of your story.  This is atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have, but the reader does not.

There is no need to have an introductory chapter describing the laws and moral codes of the religious order of St Anthony, or the political climate of East Berlin in 1962. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

You show this in small ways, with casual mentions in conversation ONLY when it becomes pertinent, and not through info dumps.

Familiar words convey familiar images. Use them wisely in showing an entire fantasy world. Consider the politics in a medieval setting:

Setting:

  1. the village of Imaginary Junction, in the Barony of Blackthorn.

General atmosphere:

  1. the weather is unseasonably cold

Introduce the protagonist and show him in his situation:

  1. In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding.

Introduce the antagonist(s):

  1. Soldiers of Baron Blackthorn, whom Sebastian has inadvisably humiliated in a song are searching for him.

Introduce the way politics and power affect the protagonist:

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry baron and
  3. thrown into prisonsentenced to hang at dawn.

The bolded words above offer a reader powerful images of both the physical and political world Sebastian lives in. These words are familiar to every reader of fantasy. They convey emotions and a feudal atmosphere without you having to resort to an info dump of the history of Imaginary Junction.

Show the coldness of the alley, show the irate nobleman’s anger, show the wretchedness of the protagonist in prison, show the arrogance of the soldiers. Use familiar terms to convey entire packets of images wherever possible, and they will be unobtrusive, allowing the reader to live the story, to fear the coming dawn as much as Sebastian does.


Image Credits and Attributions:

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540 / Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Enrique VIII de Inglaterra, por Hans Holbein el Joven.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Enrique_VIII_de_Inglaterra,_por_Hans_Holbein_el_Joven.jpg&oldid=344005488 (accessed June 2, 2019

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 2, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Ernst Meyer – A Roman Alley – KMS2097 – Statens Museum for Kunst.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Ernst_Meyer_-_A_Roman_Alley_-_KMS2097_-_Statens_Museum_for_Kunst.jpg&oldid=330745323 (accessed June 2, 2019).

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#amwriting: World building: Society, and Magic

Today we will examine society and magic, two disparate concepts with one thing in common: both require a solid framework to imagine the story around. In other words, you have to understand them well.

Luca Giordano, Frescoes in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence, Scene - Justizia ca 1584

Luca Giordano, Frescoes in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

First let’s discuss religion and society: Who are the movers and shakers?

In all societies, there is a hierarchy of power. Someone is at the top and someone else is at the bottom.

As I create the political power-structure, I find that the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

When you are building a world that only exists on paper, you have a microcosm of space in which you can convey the social, religious, and political climate of your story.  You show this in small ways, with casual mentions in conversation when it becomes pertinent, and not through info dumps.

However, in order to convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work.

  • Who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • Who wants power, and what lengths are they willing to go to gain it?
  • What place does religion have in this society? Is it central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder and how is it viewed? Remember, you only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws what are the consequences?

This creates atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have but the reader does not. There is no need to have an introductory chapter describing the laws and moral codes of the religious order of Grok, or the political climate of West Berlin in 1961. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

Consider this story: a woman is separated from her husband by the Berlin Wall.  Every day, on her way to her job, she rides her bicycle past the wall, knowing that on the other side, less than a block away, is her husband. Yet the couple is divided by an impassable barrier. How the wall affects her is shown in her everyday life. In this story, the history of how the wall came into existence isn’t as important as how its presence destroys her family. The wall represents the ideology of those who rule in her divided city, so the reader comes to know the politics of both East and West Berlin by her experiences in trying to cross that barrier.

And now for the magic:

If magic is central to your story, it is critical that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works. If you make your characters too clever, readers won’t be able to relate to their story. 

Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverWhen magic is part and parcel of a story, rules and limitations create the tension that moves the plot forward. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this. No one character has all the power. The two most powerful wizards, Dumbledore and Voldemort, are evenly matched, but neither one is all-powerful. Both wizards want something from Harry. Harry has to work hard to gain his the full use of his abilities.

Harry’s struggle is the story.

  • Who has the magic, and what social power does this give them?
  • What are the limitations of his/her powers?

Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Conflict is what drives the plot.

What challenge does your character have to overcome in regard to his magic?

  • Is he unable to fully use his own abilities?
  • If that is so, why is he hampered in that way?
  • How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it?
  • Are they hampered in anyway themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize his abilities?

Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for the hero to struggle, and no story to tell.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

I have three worlds with three radically different systems of magic. My serial, Bleakbourne on Heath, is set in a parallel earth that is one shadow away from this one. Bleakbourne, situated on the Heath River, is where the fey and the mortal worlds meet. Leryn, my main character, has many adventures with people who have certain parallels with our history and who are drawn from Arthurian legend, but who are given my own particular twist.

I had to sit down and write out the rules for Merlin’s magic. In Bleakbourne’s world, wizards are born with the latent ability to wield magic, but it is considered a science, and craftsmanship is valued above all else. Skill is what gives a sorcerer power. Certain rituals must be observed.

  • Spells work two ways, and the second way always reverses the first way—this is called symmetry.
  • The words used in spells are of the old, dead, Romani language. Unwords are syllables that have a null meaning and are often inserted for symmetry.
  • All the Romani words with more than one meaning must be chosen carefully because they can be either too short or too long for symmetry. Too long a word will not work at all as you can lengthen, but not shorten them. The sorcerer must choose a shorter word, which requires him/her to insert an extra, closing unword, or the two spells wouldn’t be symmetrical. There are four unwords to choose from, but only three chances to get the spell right

In the Bleakbourne series, the use (and abuse) of magic is the underlying theme.

In creating both social and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within your magic system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there has to be a damned good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when these institutions affect the characters and their actions. Dole this information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

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