Worldbuilding: Politics

Discussion in 'Tips and Tricks' started by Lauriam, May 16, 2018.


Which Worldbuilding Topic would you like me to write about next?

Poll closed May 30, 2018.
  1. Environment

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  2. Magic-System

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  3. Races

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  4. Religion and Mythology

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  5. Language and Names

  6. Diversity

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  7. Economy, Export, and Trade

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  8. Science, Technology, and Medicine

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  9. History

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  1. Lauriam I hope I didn't keep you waiting...

    Jun 4, 2009
    Nonbinary she/he/it?
    So there were three categories with tying votes on the last guide, so I just picked which one of the three I felt most like writing, lol. XD And that was, Politics!

    Whereas some of the other categories are more important to shaping the world itself (environment, races, magic-systems) politics is one of the more important categories to the people inhabiting your world, and more importantly, to the plot of your story itself. While throwing bad weather or cool monsters at your MC might make for an interesting obstacle, the politics of the world are ultimately what makes for an interesting story, and as such, it must be approached with mindfulness and understanding.

    Now, before we get started, I just want to clarify; by 'politics' I don't just mean governments, empires, and dictatorships, although they're a big part, but rather, the social establishments that affect how one person treats another, the beliefs (and conflicting beliefs) that turn your characters into individuals, the structure and the status quo that can cause conflict within the protagonist, the antagonist, the party, the kingdom, the world, the reader.

    In addition to 'governmental' politics and these 'worldview' politics, we're also going to discuss 'interpersonal' politics; the plots, schemes, and plans of the chessmasters among your characters (most likely the villains, lol) and how you can use them to craft an interesting story beyond the realm of action.

    The first thing you should ask yourself when plotting the politics of the world is what themes you are trying to explore with your story. Themes can vary, from the simple but treasured 'love conquers all' to the complex expression of social issues to the difficult questions regarding the self, or any other theme or combination of themes. Stories with several themes become multifaceted and deep, and the themes of the story are oftentimes more important even than the plot, so it's crucial to understand from the start what it is you're trying to say. And oftentimes, by establishing the correct social systems into your world, the politics become the single best way to showcase your themes.

    Soul Eater is surprisingly full of politics, especially in the manga. In the world of Soul Eater, Lord Death and the DWMA serve as the lawmakers, the judges, and the enforcers, with the Witch Order being the rebellious minority living in hiding, the sworn enemy of the DWMA. Through infiltration, observation, and skilled manipulation, one witch incites a war, playing both sides against each other to serve her own purposes, and the entire story from start to end is a thrilling read full of twists, intrigue, suspicion, betrayal, and suspense. The themes explored cover a wide spectrum as well, dealing with complex issues like challenging the established concepts of good and evil, giving into a deprived state of madness, dealing with severe physical and emotional abuse, overcoming your personal demons (for some, quite literally, lol) even simple-but-deeply-personal problems like overcoming social anxiety, dealing with strained familial relationships, or trying to find true love. And interwoven with all of it, the overarcing theme of hope, of the belief that even in the darkest hour, even when all seems lost, fighting for a better tomorrow is worth risking your all today. And that only covers half the themes found in Soul Eater, an excellent example of using politics to drive the themes of the story.

    So, how do you build a political setting that will adequately showcase your themes?

    We'll start with the government, the most visible and easily defined form that politics can take. Putting greater focus on the governments in your world can be especially beneficial to dystopian genre writers, as the government is often the antagonist in such a setup. The government must first be classified: Is it a democracy? A monarchy? A dictatorship? How does this government determine its' leaders? Second, you must determine the personality of the leader themselves. Are they cold and calculated? Hot-headed and temperamental? Rash and impetuous? Now that you've chosen your leader, surround them with officials and counselors who either compliment their weakness to bring combined strength to the system, or like-minded followers who increase the problems found in the leader and create terror on the hapless civilians your MC is working to liberate. It all depends on the story.

    Now expand out into the world and do the same for the other nations in the world, choosing their form of government, leader, and high-ranking officials. Remember that not every country in a world has to have the same type of government: although medieval stories favor monarchies, it does not have to be the case, and you can have a monarchy, democracy, dictatorship, and any other social structure all in the same world, struggling for power against each other.

    Once you've got the systems in place, give some thought to the kinds of laws and establishments these countries would enforce. This is where the 'Worldview' politics come into play, so think once again on your themes. If you are trying to present your ideals as the better option, try contrasting it by giving the government the opposing ideals and thus, giving your MC something substantial to fight in the name of their beliefs. Alternatively, you could give the government your ideals and provide contrast by placing them in a war either with a neighboring country with separate ideals or with an uprising or rebellion from among your people. Remember that a rebellion does not always have to be on the side of the right and a government does not always have to be on the side of the wrong. Play around with the themes of your story and decide which tropes work better for the plot. The rebel underdog resonates strongly with some themes, but in others, such as in The Lord of the Rings, it can be okay to have a hero be a king.

    Whatever the establishment, be sure to give both sides clear strengths and weaknesses. Make the plucky rebellion have to work hard for their cause by creating a strong and heavily-favored dictatorship above them - but give them a flaw that can be exploited and feasibly used against them, rather than giving your heroes an impossible task and then having to Deus Ex Machina your way out at the end. Some ways you can establish strengths and weakness are A. building a harsh environment or hitting a capital with a natural disaster, disadvantaging them in comparison to other world powers at play, B. Determining the size, strength, and organization of a military, C. creating a strategically placed spy or 'Wormtongue' to poison the mind of a leader, and many more.

    Touching more briefly on military involvement, there are many ways you can handle this. Some nations in your world could have highly-trained and efficient militia and police force, especially good for urban or dystopian works, while others could have more localized or sporadic forms of militia, such as in medieval works when the militant presence was individualized and groups of knights and soldiers were more loyal to a specific lord than they were to the nation as a whole. In other nations, you might establish a more mob-like source of militia, where instead of calling on an army or police force, the people gather their pitchforks and torches and deliver their 'justice' swiftly and without deliberation, or you could go for a 'Peacekeeping' approach, where the military are organized, but have a smaller role, more for a guard rather than an enforcer.

    Delving into the Worldview politics, you'll want to focus on things such as Religion and Mythology, Diversity, Races, Economy and Export, and History, so until you build those, this step is going to be only half-formed. This deals with the way people interact with each other, so you'll want to focus on things like prejudice, wealth, separation of class, inequality, etc. You'll be building the way a king treats his subjects, or the way your minority-character treats and is treated by a majority-character, or the way an elf treats a dwarf, so again, you must think on your themes and create a worldview or establishment that best exemplifies the theme you're trying to show in each plotline. This is the form of politics you'll be focusing on most if you're writing a genre outside the realm of action, such as in Pride and Prejudice, where the political focus is on the decline of the aristocracy and the divergent idea that marriage could be for love and not for money, that a woman didn't have to settle for one or the other, that a woman could refuse an offer of marriage, and that bloodlines, family, and connections could be forsaken and circles of privilege breached.

    And finally, we have what I'm calling Interpersonal Politics, which can be the most fun thing to write and plan if, like me, you love a good intrigue. XD This is where your characters will directly exploit and manipulate both the governmental politics (laws, leaders, world powers) and the worldview politics (beliefs, social structures, prejudices) to bring about a situation or outcome integral to their goals and desires. Although clearly tailor-made for any villain of worth, these kinds of politics don't have to be reserved for your favorite baddies. Heroes can take advantage of interpersonal politics to get out of tight situations or get into even tighter ones in search of a goal. For example, consider Elizabeth Swann invoking Parley to the pirates, or King Peter challenging King Miraz to a duel at Aslan's How, or Harry, Ron and Hermione posing as a Death Eater and sympathizer to break into the bank of Gringotts.

    Interpersonal politics can be a clever way to keep the reader in suspense and further the plot of your story without relying on action to keep everything moving. If every step on your hero's journey is a battle or chase scene, the audience is far more likely to get bored and become dissatisfied. This is one of my biggest complaints (I say one of because there are several) with the third installment of the Hobbit movies. It truly felt like I was watching a two hour action sequence, and that's boring. Yeah, there are some genres where this is mostly alright (like a gore film, for example) where the point is to cram as much violence and bloodshed as you can into as short an amount of time as possible, but even in the most actiony of action movies, there are quiet moments, there are plans and schemes, there are interpersonal politics.

    The greatest example I can think of for this is the Bourne Trilogy. Yes, you get lots of stabbings and shootings and car chases, but you also have trickery and misdirection and manipulation of circumstances to get Jason Bourne where he needs to go. Some of the most iconic moments in the series revolve around the surprising twist that Bourne was holding not a gun, but a recording device, or that he was looking directly at an opposing force and that he didn't pull the trigger. You'll be focusing more heavily on this form of politics if you're writing a mystery novel or crime drama, when the plot of the story will be about the finding of something rather than what it necessarily means.

    This last step... doesn't really belong in worldbuilding as much as it belongs in plot building and character building, lol, so just... consider it a bonus topic. XD

    And there you have it! My take on politics in worldbuilding and beyond. XD If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below and I'll respond when I can, and if you'd like to follow me on Twitter for more writerly thoughts or tips as I have them, look me up, the name's PlushChrome. XD The poll for the next topic in Worldbuilding is up, so if you're interested in one of the aspects mentioned here, cast your vote and I might cover it next! And if you'd like to see more about Worldbuilding and haven't already, be sure to check out my topic on Architecture, Music, and Art!

    Happy writing!