A Primer on Politics for Writers: the Board (Pt 2)

Last time: we talked about the game, and about the systems and social structures that underlie your country’s politics.

This time! We’ll look at diplomacy and trade, war, and the murky world at the borders of your country.

Life on the borders

In history-times, the borders of a country or empire were a really, really long way from the capital. This meant it took a long time for information to be exchanged or resources/troops to be sent, and by extension meant that the control of the central government over the borders was necessarily weak, and the margins between one kingdom and another somewhat… malleable.

Whereas in this modern day of communications, speedy travel and cartography, borders are more set, and control exerted by central (or devolved – e.g. provincial) governments is almost as strong at the edges of the country as the middle.

Obviously if you have a space empire or fantasy kingdom, you may be dealing with the issue of how and to what extend the centre imposes its will on the borders. So, how does the experience of living on the border differ from the centre?

  • Who is in control? Control of local players (e.g. marcher lords, margraves, governors,chieftains) is likely to be much stronger on the borders, where influence of central government is weaker and less able to respond to sudden events, than closer to the centre.
  • Is it a contested border, and could folk find yourself belonging to different kingdoms from one week to the next?
  • How strongly defended are the borders? Is the demarcation between two states strict (e.g. marked by a river with a row of fortresses) or is it malleable depending on who is occupying the ground from week to week?
  • What resources does the centre send to the borders – e.g. military personnel, food?
  • What resources does the border contribute to the centre (or services does the border provide) – e.g. defence, forestry, minerals?

If you set bits of your story in the borders (or have border folk in the story), here are some qualitative observations for you to consider:

  • Border areas tend to develop a distinct identity and culture, that is often based on a perception that the border is either a) ignored by and has nothing in common with the rest of the kingdom, or b) contributing more to the centre in terms of defence, moral character and hardiness of residents, or other resource contributions, than it is receiving in return.
  • People responsible for defending the border (particularly if it is contested) are going to have very different priorities and concerns from powers whose interests are mostly domestic or trade-related, which may cause conflict in resource allocation.
  • Folk on the border may have more in common culturally, socially and ethnically with the people on the other side of the border than with the rest of the kingdom – particularly if there has been ongoing conflict over the drawing of boundaries between the two states.

If anyone would like me to write more about this, I am happy to – just ask in the comments. 🙂

Diplomacy and trade

(This is going to be a bit light touch because I’m more of a domestic politics gal – but I’ll try and point you in the direction of other resources to help.)

Diplomacy, n. is the art of letting somebody else have your way. – David Frost

Diplomatic relations

So, personal opinion time, I think a lot of fantasy novels do diplomatic relations really poorly. So here is my tip: most of the sources of power we talked about in the first post can be aggregated up to help you think about your country and its place in its region. Countries seek sources of comparative advantage (for example, apparently a certain country these days is really, really good at technology spying), so in the region you may have a couple of countries with very powerful armies, a network of allegiances sealed by treaties and royal marriages, one country with a seriously effective spy network, one that is rolling in cash because it sits on top of a key trade route, and another that has established credibility as a peacemaker and mediator and whose verdict on international matters usually sways others’ behaviour.

So, think about how your country sits within those in the region. How does your country see its role within the international community?

Who are its traditional allies? This is usually based on a shared history, religion and culture, often strengthened with intermarriage among elites, and treaties. But remember, treaties really only work while it suits both parties to adhere to them. Even in this age of international law and conventions, the ability of a third party arbitrator to enforce states’ adherence to agreements they’ve signed is pretty limited.

For more: Limyaael’s rant on foreign relations


No nation was ever ruined by trade. – Benjamin Franklin

As part of broader worldbuilding, you should consider what your country’s source of comparative advantage is. E.g.:

  • Sitting on a trade route (e.g. deep harbour, pass through the mountains, shortest route from A to B)
  • Resources – timber, metals/minerals, spices and seasonings, dyes, medicines
  • Artisan trades – shipbuilding, metalwork, clothmaking, pottery
  • Knowledge – new techniques and methods, universities
  • Networks – banking, insurance, mercenaries for hire

Obviously some of these advantages (e.g. trade routes and insurance) are likely to develop together. So, how does your country’s position affect other countries around it? Is your country making a lot of money off tariffs for merchants landing goods in the safe harbour? Does your country have trade agreements with nearby countries to secure the supply of dyes to make the cloth that it’s famous for?

Trade brings with it people and ideas from foreign countries. How well do they mingle with the dominant population? Do these new ideas suit or challenge the dominant ideology of your country?

War and expansionism

All war represents a failure of diplomacy. – Tony Benn

In what circumstances would your country go to war? Is there a piece of disputed land that they have been warring over for the last century? Would they go to war to support allies – or would they suddenly lose the treaty that said they had to? Is your country part of an established bloc of interests (e.g. the Catholic monarchies of 1600s Europe)? Or does it see itself as the balancer of power (England in the same period)?

Is your country actively expansionist? If so, why? Is it landlocked and seeking a sea border? Does the country next door have some really nice mineral deposits? Is expansionism an element of doctrine (religious, cultural)? Put differently, in what terms would the political leader or ruling class explain the decision to go to war to expand its territory if it were issuing propaganda pamphlets etc?

Is your country primarily defensive? Does it have that coveted coastline or mineral deposit, and have relations with the country to the west been strained as a result? How has your country adapted? Lots of big forts along the border? Mutual aid treaties sealed with royal weddings with the surrounding powers?

When one country goes to war with another, all others in the region sit up and take notice. How do the others in your region (based on the diplomatic relations you’ve considered as per the above) feel about a war in your country? Are they happy to let two major powers duke it out? Do they feel obliged to send some troops over to help? Do they think it’s really bad for trade? Do they have a shared cultural heritage with one group that makes them sympathise more with that side? Are they waiting for you to be weakened to they can pounce on that bit of disputed land on the border?

Does your country have colonies? Why? What is its relationship (governance, cultural, political, trade/economic) with its colonies? How much do the colonies like being part of the Empire? During the age of empires, European countries quite often acquired colonies as part of a the spoils or war, or a wedding dowry.

Re: colonies, again, Limyaael covered this one in her rant on Empires.

That’s all from me on this one! On to the players: who is wielding power, what have these power systems looked like in the past, and what does this mean for your story??

As always, I’m open for questions & comments. Hope this was useful~.

3 Replies to “A Primer on Politics for Writers: the Board (Pt 2)”

  1. […] 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, […]

  2. […] 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, […]

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