A Primer on Politics for Writers: the Players (Part 1)

Previously: the Game, the Board (domestic), the Board (international).

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. – Epicetus

So, you know that politics is all about the getting and keeping of power, and that the pursuit of said power will be influenced by a whole lot of existing structures and systems. So, who are the players in this game?

The Players

I’m going to assume you’re not complete idiots, and that I don’t need to go into detail about the kinds of people who populate your world. The more interesting question is how they navigate through it. So, take a deep breath, because we’re about to go through the world’s quickest summary of groups who may seek and exercise (political) power.

Following which, we will talk about how these people navigate the various power structures.

The Government

The Head of State
  • The Monarch, Father of the Nation, hereditary ruler, anointed by God, etc etc. Aka the Emperor/Empress, King/Queen, Prince/Princess (of a Principality), Doge (of Venice), Pharaoh, Oracle or High Priest (of a Theocracy), President, etc. Woo.
  • Ranges all the way from Alexander the Great to the Queen of Canada in terms of ability and willingness to exercise power.
  • If more than one person is holding the heavy burden of highest office, you may have a duarchy or oligarchy.
The Head of Government
  • Historically, usually the same person as the head of state.
  • May be the supreme executor of the Monarch’s will (the Grand Vizier, Prime Minister).
  • The extent to which the “monarch’s will” is a symbolic rather than actual thing varies. E.g. the Prime Minister of the UK is notionally enacting the Queen’s will… but… well…
  • May be appointed by the monarch, by the representative body, or by the people.

Historically speaking, a weak monarch usually means a strong right hand… person, however that is constituted. Might be the monarch’s “favourite” who influences politics through the monarch (Hugh Davenant, Alvaro de Luna), might be the monarch’s spouse or parent, or a particularly wealthy noble. But there’s generally a lot of power lying around the head of state/government, and if they’re not using it, someone else will.

A lot of plots can be constituted around a) a Vizier who wants to be Sultan (Jafar. I’m talking about Jafar.) or b) other nobles who envy the power of the favourite over the monarch.

The governing council
  • A recognition that one person cannot keep track of everything occurring in an administrative region.
  • May either be a group that broadly advises the leader and can be tasked to whatever the leader is interested in at the time, or be more structured into portfolios, ministries, or whatever else you like to call them; e.g. defence, economic development, revenue/finance, education, health, transport, public safety, foreign affairs.
  • The focus of the council will depend on what the government does, which, in turn, will depend on the interests of the people from whom the government draws its ultimate power. So Henry VIII’s privy council would have looked very different to the current UK government’s Cabinet – because Henry VIII was basically interested in a male heir, war and money and the Council had to keep him happy, whereas the voters of Britain have a much wider range of wants and needs that the Cabinet needs to cater to if it wants to stay in power.
  • May have an advising role (with the leader having ultimate say) or the ability to make decisions within their sphere of responsibility.
  • May be appointed by e.g. the Head of State (e.g a Privy Council), the Head of Government (Cabinet), or in theory the people, although players appointed directly by the people may arguably be more in the next category.

All of the above would fall into what is commonly called the executive arm of government. Under the doctrine of the separation of powers, it would be held that the executive should be at least notionally separate from the other two arms, but in practice… eh, it varies. And separation of powers is a new thing in political thought, so don’t think you have to hold to it if you don’t want to.

The representative body

Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself. – Mark Twain

… heh.

These guys may or may not exist. And they may or may not be representative. The prevailing thought in medieval Europe at least was that it was the nobles’ job to represent the interests of their peasantry. Because there’s not a conflict of interest there at all.

At some point on the journey to “political enlightenment”, countries decide that they hold certain truths to be self-evident, and then that the best way to self-evidence those truths is to create a representative body like a parliament or a congress to get in the way of any actual decision-making on the part of the executive.

All other things being equal, being an individual legislator is not a particularly powerful position. You’re sat in a big room shouting at a whole lot of other people who are shouting back at you. How influential individual legislators are depends (broadly speaking) on two things:

  1. Are they pivotal? With a strong two-party system, there is very rarely a pivotal legislator, because party discipline means that the outcome of votes in the legislature is a foregone conclusion — members of Party A vote for A; members of Party B vote for B, and then everyone heads off to the bar for a whole lot of taxpayer-funded booze. With weaker party discipline, or a multiparty system, if you’re a legislator or sits roughly in between two blocs of interests, then you can be quite powerful because both sides are going to need to buy you over to them to secure a majority.
  2. Do they have other resources that they can use to amplify their voice above the general roar? See Part 1.

If you have a legislative body, it is worth thinking about what their relationship to the monarch (head of state) is. Whether it is good or bad probably depends on how much power the members of the legislature can draw on (are they landowners, feudal lords, wealthy merchants, etc?). There is only so much political power to go around, so if you have a powerful legislature and a powerful monarch, you’ve also got trouble.


Who’s looking after stuff on a day-to-day basis? How broad is their remit? To whom do they report?

Bureaucracies in the form we know and loathe today (I was a bureaucrat so I’m allowed to say that) are a relatively recent invention. The distinguishing feature of a bureaucracy is that they are (in theory) rule-based and apolitical, and provide continuity as governments come and go.  I get tired of people ragging on bureaucrats, so I’m going to stick a quote here about what’s so great about bureaucracy when it works–it’s a rule-based meritocracy:

Weber’s ideal-typical bureaucracy is characterized by hierarchical organization, delineated lines of authority in a fixed area of activity, action taken on the basis of and recorded in written rules, bureaucratic officials need expert training, rules are implemented by neutral officials, career advancement depends on technical qualifications judged by organization, not individuals. [x]

So, most early (and some still) bureaucracies had entrance exams: if you were smart enough, you were in, no matter who your parents were (although rich parents obviously helped with studying etc). However, many governments still reserve the right to appoint (and get rid of) the top bureaucrats (Secretaries of State, Private Secretaries, Directors-General, whatever they’re called).

Before that, and still in some parts of the world, the administrative structure was basically used as a way for the people at the top to distribute benefits to favoured people–i.e. patronage. So (in general, broad-brush terms) if you were the King’s favourite, and he made you first lord of the Treasury, you basically had free rein to appoint people you liked.  So you might appoint a new Tax Collector General, Northern Region, who was your sister’s nephew-in-law. And then he would likewise get to appoint all his friends and relations to positions, and so on. What does this mean?

  1. The best way to get an administrative job was to be liked by someone who had such a job in his or her gift, so it was basically just one big round of Jobs For The Lads;
  2. There was no particular relationship between position and competence–people might be good at their job, but if so it was probably mostly by chance;
  3. Administrators basically ran their remit like a fiefdom, with minimal interference or monitoring.

What the administrators are administrating should line up roughly with what the government is governmenting and the monarch is monarching. And keep in mind what functions the government isn’t fulfilling (e.g. looking after the poor, health care). If the government isn’t interested, they’re not going to be forking out money to fund administrators, and that job either isn’t going to get done, or someone else (civil society — the local noble, the clergy, a benevolent society) will fill the gap left by the indifference of the government.

Well, uh, that is enough for now. Part 2 — coming soon!

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