So, last time on this metaphor Winston Churchill would disapprove deeply of, we talked about the stakes in the game of politics: the getting and keeping of political power.

Politics is the art of the possible. – Otto von Bismarck

So, how is the board set out? What structures and systems will your characters be navigating? What existing tensions will there be, just waiting to simmer over?

This section is going to be a combination of some light political theory (light because, really, Wikipedia has your back on this one), some questions you might like to ask while writing your story, and in some cases some practical approaches to capturing these considerations.

Political System

The political system is the complete set of institutions, interest groups (such as political parties, trade unions, lobby groups), the relationships between those institutions and the political norms and rules that govern their functions (constitution, election law).  Without going into the nitty-gritty of the different ways a political system can be structured, here are some things to consider when designing your political system–or looking at how your story will play out in an existing one.

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time. – Winston Churchill

How would a textbook describe the political system?

This is the bit of your political system that most (good) worldbuilding guides will cover. What does your government actually look like? Monarchy? Dictatorship? Oligarchy? Democracy?

Resources I like (because here it the wheel and here is me not reinventing it):

In the real world, political systems are the incredibly complex product of the long history of power struggles between the elites of the country and its neighbours. In fiction-land, people don’t really have the time of interest to work through the Byzantine routes to power of an (unfamiliar) American-style democracy or similarly complex social hierarchy of an (unfamiliar) system of Celtic-like chieftainships.

There are certain ‘coded’ political systems (single head of state, democratic legislature, clan chiefs, evil dictator, etc) that most people are pretty familiar with – I would suggest take one of these as your model, and then make a few careful customisations and deviations to keep things interesting. If you make the systems any more complex than that, you risk (a) spending all your time explaining it, or (b) confusing readers over something that doesn’t drive the plot anyway. Trust me, I know this from personal experience. 🙂

Good to have those government systems in your mind as we go through the rest of this (and the next) post on the board: once you have an idea of what the scaffolding of your political system is, the rest of this section will (hopefully) help you think about how characters will navigate the system, and also what deviations or additions might serve to make things more interesting for your story.

What systems are in place for the getting of positional power?

Quick vocabulary lesson:

Head of state:  the official who holds the highest ranked position in a sovereign state and has the vested or implied powers to act as the chief public representative of a state.

Head of government: the official who is in charge of the day-to-day running of the executive arm of the government.

The head of state and head of government may be the same person (the American Presidency) or two separate people (the Queen and the British Prime Minister).

Aside from the head(s) of state and government, you also have to consider the way in which second-tier positions (such as representative positions) are assigned. The system of the gaining of higher office tends to make the holder of that office very focused on whoever is responsible for getting them that position. So if the system is by inheritance, then the holder will be focused on preserving the system and who will inherit after them; if by election, then the holder will be very focused on constituency with the right to vote; and if by appointment, then they will be focused on the person or people who appointed them – particularly if that appointment can be withdrawn.

Inheritance

There are a number of variants on inheritance:

  • absolute primogeniture (oldest surviving child regardless of gender),
  • agnatic primogeniture (males only through the male line),
  • matrilineal primogeniture (females only through the  female line),
  • Salic law (sons only, but through the male and female lines),
  • male-preference cognatic primogeniture (females can succeed if there are no surviving brothers or descendents of brothers),
  • uterine primogeniture (where a king would usually be succeeded by his eldest sister’s eldest son –under the principle that the king can be more confident he is related to his sister’s son than his own…)

Are there other rules that limit the eligibility of characters to inherit? E.g. rules about their religion, or who they are married to, or who their (non-royal) parent is?

If you love a good succession crisis as much as I do, then you’ll know that that in systems with a powerful dynastic head of state, the systems of inheritance can be a real game changer. But I think another thing to note here is that just because the rules of inheritance say that one character is the rightful monarch, doesn’t mean that everyone is going to fall over themselves trying to help that person toward the throne. An inheritance is only as secure as the people who support it – which comes back to power: military might, money, allies, credibility. You can be the heir presumptive to the reigning monarch, have a long history in public life and a son to follow in your footsteps, and you may still get booted out of you are Catholic and really bad at politics.

Membership of some upper houses (e.g. the House of Lords) is also by inheritance. People occupying positions gained by inheritance are more likely to lean towards the conservative end of the political spectrum (most likely because the current system is serving them pretty well, if they get to be born into power).

Election

There are also a few ways heads of state and heads of government (be they the same or different people) can be elected:

  • directly (the American President, albeit through some Byzantine counting process), or
  • as the head of the party that forms government in the parliament (many parliamentary democracies).

The method of counting is also fairly important here – I won’t go into detail, but if you’re writing about electoral politics, it really pays to understand how the counting goes down and what this means for the way politics plays out.

  • Plurality and its discontents variants – first-past-the post/run-off/etc – this plays out in the USA, UK, Australia – to win, parties need a majority, which means the instinct is towards two (or three) major parties, who occupy positions near the centre of the political spectrum.
  • Proportional representation – plays out in most of Europe – more parties, more polarised, more coalition governments.

The majority of representative positions (in democracies, at least) are also gained by election.

Appointment

Heads of State can also be appointed (some Presidencies, the Governors-General in Commonwealth countries, transition to citizen rule following a military coup). Some parliamentary systems have appointed upper house to serve impartial (read: unsullied by the muddy waters of electoral politics) scrutiny on the decisions of the lower house (e.g. Canada).

Who appoints people to posts in the government – is it the monarch, the head of government, parliament? Are there restrictions on who is able to fill certain posts (based on their birth, their passing a qualification exam, citizenship)? As I mentioned above, characters in appointed posts are likely to be very focused on pleasing the people responsible for their appointment.

Important pieces of paper

Are there any documents that set out the way the political system should operate, or the rules of the getting of power, or that serve as the ultimate source of authority and legitimacy for the head of state?

  • Constitution – a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. Generally act as a check on the absolute power of a monarch or other political leader/group, and lay out any institutional structures of the state. Often immensely important practically, and even more important symbolically. Can cause problems where the drafters did not foresee the way the rules would evolve, or how they would be used in practice. Immensely vulnerable to ‘gaming’, like any legal document.
  • Bill of Rights – a list of all the most important rights enjoyed by the citizens (or a subset thereof) of a state. Few countries actually have a codified Bill of Rights, and its effectiveness depends on the willingness and ability of courts (or Barons) to enforce the rights therein contained.
  • Religious texts – did the resident deity give your monarch/political structure the stamp of approval? Terrific! Or has the monarch/political structure found some way to fold itself into the religious orthodoxy? Wonderful! Political leaders are usually (sincerely or opportunistically) religious, as there is nothing quite like a call to a higher power to give yourself legitimacy. And don’t forget that a monarch’s/political leader’s relationship with religion is inherently political.
  • Texts written by founders of the state – can function as substitutes for any of the above documents if your society is mostly secular and not quite at the stage of developing a bill of rights.

Don’t forget to think about your political leader’s attitude towards any important documents. Does s/he really like reminding everyone that the founder of the state was hir great great great grandfather? Does s/he quote religious texts to justify political decisions – and if so, is it out of sincere conviction or pragmatism?

Is there a bill of rights that King Evil Guy, First Of His Name, has thrown out the window in favour of establishing a kleptocracy and re-establishing droit du seigneur throughout the kingdom? If so, sounds like you could have a rebellion brewing (because King Evil Guy, First Of His Name, sounds like a dick), and those rebels may find it convenient to wave around a few salvaged copies of the bill of rights to justify their actions…

On a day to day basis, how is the political system run?

Is there a Prime Minister or equivalent? Are there Ministers? Or a privy council? Who carries out the wishes of the Head of State and Head of Government? How does the government intrude on the everyday lives of citizens? This may sound banal, but it is really useful situating detail and can provide a useful vehicle for conflict between political elites, and/or the consideration of the monarch et al’s objectives.

Is system structured? Is there an elite professional bureaucratic or service class? Or are these roles more subject to patronage?

What services does the government provide, to whom, and how? Public safety? Health care? Schools? Orphanages? Work houses? Shelters? Or are these the purview of religion? Or of private individuals? There are good reasons why governments got involved in many of these things, but in some parts of the world this was a relatively recent occurrence. Until quite recently, the government apparatus was focused on serving the monarch (from whom its power derived), rather than the citizenry (from whom, in democracy, its power now notionally derives).

What are the institutions in place and how do they spread power among the players?

Having a powerful player who cannot exercise power through the political system is a really good way to cause the French Revolution.

  • Who has the power to make laws and raise taxation? In the Stuart period in England a great deal of strife occurred as a result of the transfer of legislative and taxation powers to the Parliament, which then got into conflict (and, ultimately, war) with the monarch over the reach of its right to decide how those powers were used.
  • How are the bourgeoisie and proletariat represented? (If at all – see above re: French Revolution)
  • Is the head of government able to do what they like? If not, whom do they need to negotiate with and about what? (e.g. do they have to negotiate with Parliament over raising taxes? Do they have to negotiate with minor parties to pass their legislative agenda? Do they have to negotiate with other governments such as neighbours or provinces to align policies? Are the nobles powerful enough that the monarch has to consult them?)
  • I’ll look at nobility in the next post, but do the noble classes have a hereditary role in the government? Are they able to raise their own taxes and maintain their own armies, or are these the prerogative of the state?
  • What about the press? Again, I’ll look at this in more detail in another post, but is there a free press? This is a relatively recent innovation in the west; historically, there were laws against criticising the government, which could range from sedition to treason.

Social structures

The following are some particular considerations will inform the backdrop of your political system. Obviously consideration should be given to the broader culture of the society you’re writing about, but in my view these are particularly likely to spill over into the political sphere.

Stratification

Power distance is a term referring to the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally – low power distance is more consultative and democratic, while high power distance is more autocratic and paternalistic. In the same vein, this refers to the extent to which upper tiers of society control the lives of lower tiers – all the way from economic power to caste systems, serfdom or slavery.

Some forms of stratification that have made an appearance in history (and note that many of these have at some point been codified in law):

  • Class (c.f. sumptuary laws, the franchise, or differential laws relating to Roman citizens vs. the rest)
  • Race (e.g. differential treatment of Jewish people in Europe) or culture (the Troubles that led to the secession of Ireland from the United Kingdom)
  • Religion (see below)
  • Gender (e.g. suffragettes! law or religious doctrine proscribing or prescribing certain activities for women).

It is worth thinking about the extent to which your society is divided and as a consequence a particular group feels disenfranchised by the political system, and has the power to try and change that situation. For example, the advent of gunpowder was a contributing factor in the end of the feudal era because it democratised access to violence, and suddenly serfs could stand up to knights.

Social stratification is unlikely to spill over into the political sphere (as revolution, unrest or peaceful change) until the economic power is out of step with the political power. Groups that are able to exercise social and economic power will eventually demand to have this reflected in the political system. However, if you still have an extremely powerful monarch and noble corps who control the economy and the military, then a peasant’s revolt is unlikely to gain legs. It might happen, but it will be swiftly done away with, because those peasants will not have access to enough and diverse enough sources of power to force a change in the system.

Religion

(Note: I am focusing on this solely as the way in which religion makes it into the political sphere; obviously there are a lot of other elements of religion – including whether the deities in question actually exist – that you need to figure out as part of your worldbuilding! – Also, see this comment to the previous post for a bit about the power sources of religion and the clergy.)

Role of religion in people’s lives and the extent to which the church is separated from the state can have a big impact on your political sphere, with separation levels ranging from Not At All (Henry VIII making himself head of the Church of England and personally persecuting Catholics and dissenters), through Not Really But We Pretend (the USA), right through to Yes Absolutely and Scarily So (modern France).

Bonus points for if the deity of choice has some role in appointing, anointing or approving of the monarch – see above re: important pieces of paper, but note that this can also be customary/cultural and not codified.

Generally, if the church (or equivalent) wades into politics, it comes with a ready supply of credibility power among adherents. Which makes it a powerful force where that faith is widely followed in the citizenry, and potentially a destabilising force where it is not so widely followed.

Religious persecution has been a feature of most social systems over the ages – ranging from exclusion from economic/political participation, to forced conversion, exile or death. Sometimes the state has an active role, sometimes it turns a blind eye, and sometimes it is trying to prevent or minimise persecution.


Again, I hope this was useful! Comments, criticisms, questions, etc, welcomed.

Continue to A Primer on Politics for Writers: the Board (Part 2), covering life on and outside the borders of your kingdom, including diplomacy and trade, protection of the borders, and expansion.