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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 18: World Building Governments

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 18: World Building Governments


Key points: Monarchies put a face on the government, and may simplify the plot, since it is easier to vilify one person or relate to them. Science fiction often uses loosely tied states because travel delays make it likely. When you are world building, why do you want political intrigue in your book? Exaggerate. Where are the conflicts in the government? Where does the power come from? The more the reader knows about how things work, the more the protagonist can use those rules to solve problems. What can common citizens do, or not do? Take two steps away.

15 minutes long because you're in a hurry
and we're not that smart.
I'm Brandon
I'm Dan
[cough] And I'm Howard... a little hoarse. Excuse me.

[Brandon] We are going to talk about government. Now we are going to separate out writing politics and political intrigue. We'll talk about that in another podcast. I want to talk about specifically world building when it comes to government. Let's open it up. What types of government do we see a lot used in fantasy and science fiction? Pretty easy.
[Dan] Monarchy.
[Howard] Fantasy. Yeah, you got the monarchy...
[Brandon] Monarchy. Let's talk about the monarchy. Is it overused?
[Howard] It's only overused if what you're doing is predictable.
[Dan] It might be oversimplified in a lot of cases. I don't know if it is overused.
[Brandon] I would agree that I think it's oversimplified but... each book... I've said this before, each time you write a novel, you can't focus on everything. Sometimes you gotta focus on religion in your book, that's what's important to the conflict of your characters, sometimes you work on the government. I would say that I don't think that the monarchy is overused because one of the reasons people read fantasy is for that kind of harkening back to a simpler day when a single individual can rule a kingdom...
[Howard] It's escapism and it is wish fulfillment and in many stories, fantasy stories and science fiction stories alike, where there is a monarchy featured, the characters find themselves important to the king -- or find themselves princes or become the king or against the king...
[Brandon] You can have a single identified... it's harder in a culture with a... say, like what we've got, a democracy, to vilify one person. It does happen quite a bit, but... In this, you can have a monarchy -- evil king or this good king -- these sorts of things. It can boil your plot down, make it a little bit easier.
[Howard] Well, and even in a... even if you've world built a democracy or a republic, in order to vilify the government, you have to give it a face, and that means picking somebody --
[Brandon] Caesar.
[Howard] the Caesar or whatever.
[Dan] I think as common as the monarchy is, it is becoming much more common, I think, right now, the trend is toward a more complex kind of monarchy. It is not a sole ruler ruling absolutely. There's a lot of parliament, there's a lot of councils, and I think that's just a reflection maybe or maybe just an advancement of how we think about politics in our culture.
[Howard] I think it's also a recognition on the part of the authors that government is interesting and is useful. In building your setting, you want to have the characters interact with the setting and if the government is boring and there's no way you can interact with it, well...
[Dan] If the government is one guy, you can't have the same kind of conflicts as a government of 10 guys.
[Brandon] You can't get also as deep into it. When the government is one guy, number one, that's not usually realistic, and where it is realistic, you generally have the ruthless dictator who gets vilified into the one-sided ruthless dictator antagonist...
[Howard] The government is not one guy, the government is one demigod.
[Dan] Well, and then also, I think, that ceases to be really a government system, it's just a personal conflict.

[Brandon] So science fiction. What do we see in science fiction, quite often, in the governments?
[Howard] We see monarchies, we also see federations...
[Brandon] We see a look back to the monarchy a lot of times, which is very interesting. It's particularly true in kind of the softer side of military science fiction or the harder side of space opera, that little in-between realm where the Lois Bujold's are writing and things like that.
[Howard] Lois McMaster Bujold, David Weber, John Ringo -- you see monarchies appear there. You also see... I mentioned federations -- federations, confederacies, loosely tied states is a popular government setting because when you are world building science fiction, one of the first decisions you have to make is, is there FTL travel and is there FTL communications? And if there are delays in one or the other, the sort of governments that we see now on planet Earth just aren't possible because of delays.

[Brandon] Let's stop being descriptive then about what's happening and let's start saying, "Okay, how do you do this right?" Whether you're writing science fiction or fantasy, when you're sitting down and saying I'm going to world build my government -- I want government to be an important part of my book, how do you do it right? Dan?
[Dan] Well, I think, first you need to look at, why do you want politics to be an important part of your book? What elements of your plot are related to the politics, and how can you tie that into the setting? If it's a near future thing, if you're going for cyberpunk, one of my favorites is the privatized government and does that work? Does it work for your story? Can you make it work? What ideas can you pull out of that and build conflicts on?
[Brandon] So point number one -- tie it in. Make sure it's tied in. Let me also separate out... I once went up to pitch one of my books and I said it's really a political book, and the person stopped me and said, "Political intrigue. Those are two different things. When you come in and say political intrigue, that's probably what you mean, right?" And I said, "Yeah, that's what I mean. There's a lot of political intrigue." When we say if you want politics to be important to your book, what we're meaning is political intrigue -- machinations between different factions in the government, this kind of thing. How do you do it right? Howard. You've done a whole plot line based on this.
[Howard] Wow. I have. When world building governments, my founding... my guiding principle is, I am writing satire. And so I am allowed to take governments which I see in effect today and exaggerate their negative attributes and minimize their positive attributes and...
[Brandon] Make it funny?
[Howard] Mock them. Yeah, and make it funny. If you're not writing satire, you may still be writing something that is thematically making a statement about government and so one of your starting points may be, what is my political position? What do I want readers to get out of this? Am I really trying, because some authors are, am I really trying to bring people around to my way of thinking?
[Brandon] Well, see, but that gets into stuff that I often say stay away from doing...
[Howard] And I agree. But if you are thinking that way, please know that you are thinking that way from the outset, so that when you take this to be critiqued, and people call you on it, you know you've done it.
[Brandon] Heinlein did it. Heinlein it so well and it's so interesting to read, so it's kind of hard to point fingers and say don't do what Heinlein did.
[Dan] Unless you're as good as Heinlein.
[Brandon] If you're as good as Heinlein, but you know what, [garble -- for a lot of that?]
[Howard] Well, you said don't do what Tolkien did.
[Dan] Oh, burn.
[Brandon] Oh, man.

[Dan] Now one thing that we come back to every podcast it seems is conflict. And so, look for the points of conflict in your government. And I think a fabulous example of this is the new Battle Star Galactica which takes the conflict between a military and the civilian government and has them constantly at odds with each other and that feeds the plot, it drives the show, and...
[Brandon] I think Howard also said something really useful, even though he didn't think that it would be useful to a lot of writers, which is to exaggerate. I think you can exaggerate without trying to poke fun.
[Howard] without satirizing
[Brandon] and without satirizing, and it can be interesting -- one of the reasons we write science fiction and fantasy. Case in point. Elantris. The starting point for the government in Elantris was what if someone set up an MLM [multilevel marketing, a.k.a. network sales] where you get different ranks in the monarchy based on how much you earn. This was the basic idea. I took a slightly different direction and I simplified it a little bit, but that's really what it was. The king is running an MLM and everyone gets ranked in the monarchy based on this stuff. I thought that was really interesting.
[Uncertain] I was wondering why they were selling cosmetics.
[Brandon] Yeah. Here, let me invite you to my party, where... anyway. You can exaggerate, you can take themes like this and concepts. I guess where I'm trying to take this now is by saying just because everyone does the monarchy, doesn't mean you have to do the monarchy. Or you can take it in a different direction. One of the great things about science fiction and fantasy is that you can say, "Hey, I'm going to have a government run by blank." Okay, who runs the government?
[Howard] Colon cleansers. I'm sorry. You mentioned MLM and I was thinking of all those horrible colon cleansing ads.
[Brandon] I was thinking more like schizophrenics or something like that...
[Dan] Or religions or...
[Brandon] Theocracy is done quite a bit, gerontocracy is done quite a bit, and they can be really fascinating.

[Howard] Another thing to consider is where does political power come from. Here on Planet Earth and the real world, political power... it has been said that it flows from the barrel of a gun. But political power is something that is based in... it ultimately comes down to how much power and wealth you have amassed and it scales very arithmetically, it does not scale as a logarithm. But in a world where there's magic, or in a world where there's sci-fi devices and a huge discrepancy in tech, you might have a power curve that's just off the map, and you could have, as we mentioned earlier in the podcast, you could have a single ruler who effectively rules everything, and is a demigod because of magic or high-tech.
[Brandon] But something you said there... I do think it's true... the person who controls the violence in society... a friend of mine often says this, he who controls the violence, controls the society. I take it a step further and say he who can most properly use violence to control the food is really who is going to control...
[Howard] Larry Niven said that civilization is never more than three meals away from collapse.
[Brandon] If you can control the food... so who controls the food? I guess what I'm saying here is you can do all sorts of things. Approach it from different directions to try and come up with some new and interesting concepts -- besides colon cleansers -- who are running the government.
[Howard] They are an MLM.
[Dan] I do believe we have a writing prompt, though.
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Brandon] Something else that Dan said earlier...
[Howard] Look what my careless lips have wrought.
[Dan] I don't want to hear that in the context of colon cleansers.
[Howard] All right. Quickly, quickly, Brandon, say something else.

[Brandon] Save us. Okay, you are going to be setting up the political intrigue for your book when you are setting up your government. This is what you are working toward. You're setting the groundwork for it. Do you need to spend a lot of time coming up with an interesting government to have this work? Yes or no?
[Dan] Well, I think this is the same principle as the magic podcast that we have done. The reason for using a government in your plot is because the decision-making process that governs... that rules that is important. And so you need to know enough about the government to make the flow of that decision sensible to your reader.
[Howard] A rewording of Sanderson's First Law would be appropriate, and that is that the more the reader knows about the political rules -- the political processes in your world -- the more able the protagonist is to use it to solve problems. That's a great point. Thanks for making that, Brandon.
[Brandon] Thanks for making it for me, Howard. Don't take it for granted...
[Dan] I brought it up.
[Brandon] Don't take it for granted that your government...
[Howard] Oh, wait, that was Dan's idea, wasn't it?
[Dan] I don't need your pity.
[Brandon] Just because you're writing fantasy, you don't have to have a monarchy. Just because you're writing science fiction doesn't mean you have to have the Galactic Federation. Have you guys read good governments in fantasy or in science fiction that were different, that you really enjoyed?
[Dan] I already mentioned the privatized government. But something like Snowcrash? I loved the government in that.
[Howard] Maybe lack of government [inaudible] when the President of the United States introduces himself, and... who are you? Why are you here? I'm the President of the United States. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, well, we're all walking this way.
[Brandon] Anything else?

[Brandon] Where do you start? You are going to world build your government, your sitting down, you have got a blank page, where do you leap off? Where do our readers start?
[Howard] I would start with personal freedoms, and the way they are afforded or not afforded, because that's where... you gotta figure out what is my main character going to be able to do, what are they going to be restricted from doing. And once you... and if you decide you've got a very restrictive society, that suddenly starts leading you to think... well, maybe it's...
[Brandon] Does the main character -- can they get as much food as they want? Do they have to work? What are the gender roles that force them to do this or that? Can they move? Can they move from city to city? That's a very big thing to ask yourself. Can a common citizen have a weapon? If so, can they carry it around with them? These sorts of things really define what type of government you have.
[Dan] And if you are going to be using the actual machinations of government and law making, I think you need to define how those decisions are made and who makes them. Is it one person? Are there several people who vote?
[Howard] Another fun way to approach it -- and I've done this -- is to try to come up with names for government offices that you know you've never seen before. So president is out, prime minister is out, king, emperor, whatever, those are all out. Come up with something new. And then when you've got that word, like well gosh... and maybe the word ties into biology. I named a sergeant in the [testrata?] I think I named that title, instead of being sergeant, was foretooth because it's the frontmost tooth in the jaw. That sort of thing can lend itself well to creating a system of government from scratch.

[Brandon] Take a couple of steps. I often say this, but say I've got a monarchy, but let's take two steps away and say how it's going to be different. Mistborn. I'm going to have a theocracy. One step away, how's it going to work? Well, I'm going to run my theocracy more like a bureaucracy where the priests are really the only people who can make binding contracts.
[Howard] A feudal bureaucracy...
[Brandon] Run by a God-Emperor. It's one step away, and I like what you say. I did it. I named them obligators instead of priests. It's one step away, and say...
[Howard] Oh, yeah. Obligator is a great name because it describes their job -- we sum up the obligations. Awesome.

[Brandon] All right. You have your Writing Prompt. Unfortunately, you need to write a government run by colon cleansers.
[Dan] That is correct. Let's change it for more creativity. Start with the colon cleansers concept, and then remove it two steps away.
[Howard] Oh, there's poo everywhere.
[Brandon] I didn't do this. This wasn't my fault. This is been Writing Excuses. I'm sorry.
Tags: federation, freedoms, governments, intrigue, monarchy, politics, world building, writing excuses
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