So I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy novels lately and beefing about the lack of nuance in the way that characters navigate the political systems of the world, and the way that politics and power are used in the plot.

Then I thought to myself: self, you are a political scientist by training, a public policy wonk by trade, and an amateur historian and writer of political fantasy. Of course you are going to beef about that stuff; but more importantly, maybe you could produce something that would be of use to other writers dipping their toes into these muddy waters.

So, in the hope of providing something useful, and to service my obsession, let’s talk about ~*politics*~.

Man is by nature a political animal. – Aristotle

What is politics? Politics is a game of the getting and keeping of political power, played out in different ways, on different boards, by different players, over the long centuries of human existence.

Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business. – Winston Churchill

Your dissenting opinion is noted, Mr Churchill. Let’s get on with the metaphor. In this post I am going to talk about the game, which is to get and keep political power. In particular, I’m going to look at the sources of political power, and how these may manifest in your story. Subsequent posts will deal with the board (i.e. the political structures, diplomacy and what not) and the players.

I am going to travel quite widely across my experience of contemporary politics, history and fantasy world-building in the hope of producing something that is useful across a range of genres, but also because the basics of this game really don’t change regardless of the setting.

The Game

To be clear: the objective of the game of politics is power.

What is power? It is…

  • The ability to influence the behaviour of others
  • The ability to give rewards and enforce punishments

The winner succeeds in getting power; the loser faces social, political and/or actual execution.

So, what are the sources of power?

  • Legitimate power
  • Coercion
  • Money and resources
  • Allies
  • Credibility
  • Information

So, the game of power is about getting as much power from these sources as possible. But they are not mutually exclusive: a strong power base consists of most, of not all, of these sources of power, and a character whose power is based on only one source is like a house with only one structural wall: they are both going to fall over.

Which is why I always wonder when I see really horrendous rulers in fantasy fiction. I mean, if they are just ruling by fear and incompetence, there are going to be a lot of other players in the game with the incentive and ability to get rid of them. And not just farm boy secret heirs either.

The other thing I would note here is that the perception of power is as important as the reality of it, which I think is a fact that drives an awful lot of the political behaviour we see in history and today. The perception that someone has ‘lost control’ of their power base is disastrous.

Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. – Margaret Thatcher

(Note: I am endorsing the sentiment of this quote only; and not the form. Screw you Maggie T; I’m a lady if I say I am)

So, let’s look a bit more at the sources of power.

Legitimate power

Also called “Positional power,” it is the power of an individual because of the relative position and duties they hold within the state. This is the most obvious and also the most important kind of power.

Who in your story has legitimate power? They’re usually the ones at the top of the totem pole. They’re monarchs, nobles, elected representatives.

Show it by: the symbols, rituals and trappings of power, such as titles (nobility or positions), jewellery and dress, property and possessions and forms of address (e.g. Your Majesty).

Coercion

The state is that entity which upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order. – Max Weber

Coercive power is the ability to set and carry out punishments, including withholding other rewards. Threats and punishment are common tools of coercion: these may be anything from the denial of economic benefits, honours and positions, through to exile or execution. Coercive power rests on the ability to make credible threats (that people believe will be carried out). The desire for valued rewards or the fear of punishment ensures the obedience of those under power.

If an individual’s power is based solely on coercive power, it is likely to be unstable and risky as it builds resentment and resistance from the people who experience it, unless balanced with other sources of power that cause people to acknowledge the legitimacy of the use of coercion.

Who in your story has coercive power? Who controls (and has the loyalty of) the military, militia or law enforcement? Who has the power to set crimes and penalties, and enforce punishments, be they formal and legal, or informal and personal (such as denied rewards)?

Show it by: the ability to wage war, and the setting and enforcement of economic, social and legal penalties such as demotion, exile or execution.

Money and resources

This refers specifically to personal access to money and resources. This may manifest as the power to produce and to trade what one has produced, the power to levy taxes and control how they are spent, or the holding of property or investments that generate income.

Who in your story controls money and resources? What are the sources of revenue for the state? Who benefits most from these? Who has the power to raise money on behalf of the state? Who is wealthy?

Show it by: showing a character’s ability to spend money as they wish, demonstrating their connection to sources of income, and showing their ability to support or fund others.

Allies

This power source refers to power held by the people who are willing to support you. This may manifest as voting blocs, family networks or formal agreements such as treaties. Usually people will develop allegiances based on shared interests – when one person benefits, there will be others who also benefits, either because their interests are aligned naturally (e.g. merchants seeking lower taxation) or because the ‘leader’ allows rewards to flow on to allies (e.g. a Prime Minister appointing his or her executive)?

Who in your story has allies? What are the identifiable shared interests? Who is related to or close to whom? Who leads opinion?

Show it by: showing that character’s influence over others as a result of aligned interests or formal agreements.

Credibility

Credibility is the believability of a communicator, as perceived by the recipient of the message. The two elements most commonly identified elements of credibility are perceived expertise, and trustworthiness. Expert power is an individual’s power deriving from the skills or expertise of the person (which may be moral or technical) and others’ needs for those skills and expertise which leads them to trust that person and defer to their judgement. Power comes from credibility when a person has the ability to speak on an issue and sway others to their opinion solely as a result of their perceived trustworthiness and expertise.

Who in your story has credibility? They may be gifted speakers, and will often make appeals to their personal character or expertise.

Show it by: showing a character who is effective at swaying others to their cause or ideas. Characters will see them as always doing the correct thing (either based on values or expertise), and will seek and defer to their advice.

Information

Informational power is based on access to and ability to use information. Providing rational arguments, using information to persuade others, using facts and manipulating information can create a power base. How information is used – sharing it with others, limiting it to key people, keeping it secret from key people, organizing it, increasing it, or even falsifying it – can create a shift in power within a group.

Who in your story has information? Who has a spy network? Who has access to effective communication and transmission of information (especially key in historical/fantasy settings).

Show it by: showing which characters receive information first (and are able to act on it to secure their objectives), and who is trying to catch up; showing communication networks; showing characters who are trusted with sensitive information.


I welcome any thoughts, questions, criticisms or requests. I am open for business if you have any specific queries you would like my advice or thoughts on.

Continue to A Primer on Politics for Writers: the Board (Part 1)