Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 18: World Building Governments

Let’s get back to world-building, and dig into a tough one: government. In this case we’re talking about government as part of the backdrop, rather than political intrigue as part of the plot. Are you going to create a monarchy, a democracy, or perhaps some crazy, experimental sort of rigidly constitutional representative republic? City-states? Confederations? Empires? What’s it going to be, and (more importantly) why?

Oh, and how do you do it right?

Writing Prompt:  Create a government by starting with “Colon Cleansers,” and then taking two steps back to create something unique.


34 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 18: World Building Governments”

  1. Create a government by starting with “Colon Cleansers,” then taking two steps back to create something unique.

    “My bowels are filled with compassion– nope, wait… empty now.”

  2. I am reminded of the scene in Ian M. Banks’ /Consider Phelebas/, in which our protagonist starts the book chained up in a cesspit, to be executed by the gerontocrats who are busy having a feast to celebrate his demise at the other end of the pipes.

    Zing! Literary reference, reference to government, and reference to your gut-wrenching toilet humour all in one!

    In discussing politics, I feel the need to point out what’s hopefully already obvious; rule by terror does not work. Unless you have a Bureau of Scrying observing everyone with trained imps and crystal balls (or face-recognition algorithms and CCTV), then fear is not a motivating factor beyond the walls of the God-Emperor’s palace. At the other end of the empire, Joe and Jill Farmer have different concerns; the Imperial Church may tell them that slavish obedience to the Emperor’s will is the only way to avoid aeons of torment, but it doesn’t comfort the grieving, or the dying, or the people who want to believe that things will be better in the future; in fact the Emperor is one of the elements making things /not/ be better in the future. So your God-Emperor will find that the Lords of Light are eroding his worship and authority everywhere outside of eyesight from the palace walls.

    Similarly, Joe and Jill don’t fear the God-Emperor’s temporal authority, because they are far too unimportant ever to see him; they may fear his tax-man, but his tax-man doesn’t fear him either, and will skim as much as they can off the top, and send the remainder to the local baron, who will /repeat the process/. Eventually you get a palace full of courtiers telling the God-Emperor whatever he wants to hear, funded by a small oligarchy of Imperial Dukes who run the government to /their/ liking, and accumulate the great majority of the taxes – until eventually they get tired of putting down yet another religious uprising, decide that worshipping the Lords of Light would better ensure the security of their rule, and find some farmboy with a magic sword to chop off the God-Emperor’s head, absorb his death curse, and be the puppet King.

    You can be Dread Master Of All You Survey for a day. But you can be (Moderately) Benevolent Lord Of All Lands for a lifetime.

    This is a major flaw in Holly Lisle’s otherwise excellent novels of Korre; the Feegash have a culture built on unfettered moral relativism, cunning diplomacy, and the systematized rape of women and children. But unless you’re a Feegash Diplomat, there is /no reason/ to support Feegash civilization; /everyone/ below the ruling class has terrible lives, and very little to lose in rising up in rebellion … and yet, for some reason, they /don’t/. It’s the same lesson the Romanovs learned; give your citizens enough freedom that they’ve got something to lose if they revolt, and they will stick with you because the alternative is worse. Make sure that supporting you is always better than the alternative, and not only will you remain in power, the people will actively work to *keep* you in power, and you’ll hardly have to threaten them at all.

  3. Thank you guys so much. As a film student, I find your actual writing podcasts to be extremely helpful; and it just so happens that I have a proposal due tomorrow night for a political intrigue movie. I had intended to do the standard fantasy monarchy, but now I think I’ll go for a much more nuanced totalitarian democracy. Thank you for giving me the starting steps in this process.

  4. Perfect timing guys, you caught me in world building mode. I’m looking forward to listening to this one.

  5. YES!

    Exactly what I’ve been having trouble with! All the spiffy details that RPG’ers (which I’m not one) get so hung up on! Whoever said: “Don’t sweat the small stuff” never tried writing speculative fiction!

    Thank you guys!

    Brandon: Are you sure I shouldn’t know more than I do or have more ready when I go to Dave (Farland)’s workshop? Do you guys have any suggestions on what to do with a small writing group (3 people) two of who have known eachother a long time and have been in a writing group before. (This is my first actual writing group).
    What do you do if two of the three people don’t hold themselves to the same “group rules” as you do?

    Example: If the other people don’t want to write before the group meets or flake on group meetings, it’s okay for the two of them, but they get mad if I don’t show or haven’t written anything.

    Do you bail on the group or just buck-up & take it?

    Thanks guys!


  6. That’s great, Howard…though now I feel the need to go buy some hip boots or something as equally protective!

    That was a very helpful podcast. I needed to hear more prospective on goverment. In the story arc I have now, there is a monarchy and I was concerned about it being “overdone.” I laughed though when demi-god was mentioned because that was the placeholder title I was using for the figure in power currently. I have a detailed backstory that comes into play as the story arc progresses.

    Mike, I personally would find a new group that had the same ethics as myself. I can understand life getting involved and not being prepared once in a while, but it for the tolerance to be one-sided wouldn’t sit well with me at all.

    That said, my own writing progress has been slow-going, but I am always willing to be an unofficial editor for anyone who needs it.

  7. Brandon,

    I say “Can of Worms” on Gamer-speak! For those of us scratching our heads out here in podcast land, what is an “M L M”?!?



  8. Okay, somebody has to say it — what a poopy writing prompt!

    But I can see it. A world where the republic of jelly-filled donut producers is battling it out with the colon cleansing consortium for control of the world.

  9. I second the “nice timing” sentiment. I really liked what Howard had to say about where to start (personal freedoms). That’s a useful way to think about it. But going back to Howard’s proverbial ‘donkey’ from podcasts past, I would add that when you are looking at government you aren’t just looking at the political system, but also the economy. Especially if you have magic in your world, I think it’s important.

    Howard/Dan/Brandon asked us to imagine in the magic systems podcast how the existence of a spell that could create light would affect the candle-makers. Taking that one step, how would government evolve in this context? Can we tax it? Can we license who can create it? Should there be a layer of civil servants that deal with this issue? Are there laws governing it? Etc.

    Also, some forms of government have assumed economic systems, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Why do monarchies always have to be feudal, for instance?

    OMG, I loved this topic. (I work in government…)

  10. I also agree that is a perfect timing podcast. This fits right in with what I need help on. But for some reason the podcast did not download for me on Itunes. I also noticed the sound problems.

  11. Eliyanna–I think the monarchies are feudal if they’re also agrarian economies. With minor variations, it seems to be what humans do. Someone’s got to own the land (which, as Brandon pointed out, is the key factor in food production), and if you are the big cheese (or the big sheep, if you’ve been playing Settlers of Catan), you have to own all the land to maintain power–but you need people contracted to you to work the land, or else you still don’t get any food. So agrarian monarchy = feudalism. In some form or other.

    In my world setting, I played a big game of what-if, starting with the Holy Roman Empire and fast-forwarding to the Industrial Revolution. With no classic Greek or pre-empire Roman texts to teach the intelligentsia about strange things like democracy or republicanism. (LOL for the crazy, experimental constitutional representative republic, btw). I’m having fun with it–especially in deriving the names for the titles, ’cause in the end, I’m still just a dorky linguist. But it was really fascinating doing the research and finding that in some systems, high noble vs low noble was more important than distictions within each level, and that in others, there were no ranks–just the king and a bunch of nobles. It gave me a lot of ideas.

  12. I have to mention the sound, as well. I primarily listen to podcasts in the car whilst commuting, and to hear all three of you, I had to turn the sound up to 23, and I was still struggling to catch everything all three of you were saying. (I wish I hadn’t in at least some cases, but I digress.)

    Then, the podcast ended, and the next one started…and nearly caused me to run off the road. I had to crank it down to 12 to prevent pain.

    Maybe you could each get a microphone? Sit at a table with the microphone in the middle? Do your podcast over Skype with each other and edit the parts together?

  13. More thoughts on government: I’m going to go ahead and name this Eliyanna’s first law (because, apparently we can do that!) and say “Don’t forget the sewers.”

    One thing I notice a lot is that there will major capital investments or programs in cities or (and this is especially important) rural areas. These will be things like roads, the aforementioned sewage system (complete with extensive and hard to dig tunnels), fortified dykes, grand ports, well-paved/stoned streets, etc. but the government described will not be positioned to fund these projects (either through hired or forced labor), pay for or acquire the materials, and (most egregiously) MAINTAIN them.

    I can understand that it’s often sufficient (depending on the story elements) to just refer to there being taxes. But there is something unrealistic about not seeing people employed in public works where major public works exist and planning occur with economists and input from some government structure throughout the kingdom or domain the government rules.

    Also, the existence of public works imply the availability certain materials (like stone from quarries or metal from mining and forging). One would expect there to be a significant industry developed to respond to these needs. Improvements in rural areas in particular imply a huge government infrastructure.

    @Jen on the subject of feudal systems. I agree that you usually see agrarian societies exhibit feudal systems because of our own planet’s history. My point is that this is unoriginal and it doesn’t *have* to be this way. Why not a theocracy? Or something else? It seems to be a simple fallback. And on some level it can seem unrealistic to have a set of characters (and we see this a lot in fantasy) that refuse to accept one form of injustice but accept a feudal government system that will be more ethical because one of their own will be reigning.

  14. About the public works you do not directly describe that. In writing fantasy you rarely will describe every little detail of the government. I mean I drop hints when I write or it is explained when a war is coming up and you see plans from the enemies point of view. My point is that you will almost never describe every little detail of a government, public works and more. If you wrote like a companion book or a guide of some sort then that is different.

  15. I think the public works thing can be a perfect detail if it feeds into the conflict. For example, one of my POV characters’ father is a high noble in a frontier territory (government boundaries established 50 years prior). Part of his political machinations, then, include irrigation canals and sewage diversion. This wouldn’t be the case if the marq weren’t so new. And the laansed fields didn’t feed his factories with biodiesel. Qui bono? If it benefits a bad guy, it’s interesting enough to mention.

  16. Colon Cleansers Gov’t: A Clean Body or Fertilizer (in example: the death sentence for failing a lab report)
    Government of the Healthy, By the Healthy, For the Healthy: Elected based on Lab results (Only people with good cholesterol numbers can hold office)
    Democracy: Newsflash- Senators dying of heartfailure at over 30% this year, something must be done

    I suppose I will always step back to democracy as the foundation of oddball government because its what I grew up with and so its what I know. FDR was a good example of what can happen when congress panics.

  17. Random comments after browsing the thread:

    Poor or non-existent public works = disease (a potential conflict or plot point)

    In support of Eliyanna’s comment to Jen about Feudal systems. Brandon’s character Rashek in Mistborn briefly outlines many different religions, each refreshingly different. I can imagine that one can make agrarian societies and feudal systems feel fresh and new by twisting and hooking things together in interesting, new ways.

  18. Goverment is a pretty easy in world building, being that there are tons of texts on the subject. In setting up conflict tied in is another thing entirely. (ne of the main things i would suggest is looking at pre-existing goverments of past and present, and look at tying in conflicts that an actual goverment has had due to its philosophy. You have to make it believable, and if you have a conflict that would never arise out of your goverments philosophy, its not going to be. example: if you have a king, whos word is law, you cant very well have a judge giving compassion in any direction other than the kings. you could also say “why is the judge even there” being that kings gave sentence to criminals many times. when creating a goverment i encourage to finish it, then look at what real govermentr you have created, because if you were smart enough to think of a system, its more than likely been thought of and tried before in the real world somewhere. wiki is a good place to look, the list of goverment systems is far larger than most people would ever think. but they all have flaws, and you can find these flaws written out in books on a specific goverment, so find the goverment that most resembles your own, and find the flaws it has had, because flaws are a great place to start conflict.

  19. one other point one should look at, is how information is controlled by the goverment. Information is key when looking at the views of the common person. It can prevent riots or start them, make a nation laugh at its leader and lose respect for him, or make him more imposing than he really is. Information has only two sides, thuth and lies. Both of these elements are the sole cause of conflict in life, in almost every aspect. Winston Churchill said “the truth is so valuable that it is sometimes protected by a body of lies”. Information is the reason for spies who steal it, Priest who preach it, newspapers who publish it, a lovers argument ect. so how information is controlled or spread in any way, at any level and in any situation, is grounds for setting up conflict

  20. I’m going to name this Sumner’s law, because it amuses me.

    Sumner’s law: any conflict must have it’s root in the flaws of someone involved.

    be it a flaw in thinking, speaking, preperation, choice, ect.

    as Brandons example in a past podcast of a horse throwing a shoe can be a conflict, it can be tied back to who ever’s idea it was to take the horse in the first place, thus blame occurs and hence, more conflict!

    support my ego and support me in Sumner’s law!

  21. Good Podcast.

    I always thought that one of the more disingenuous things about fantasy was the level of ignorance on the part of authors concerning authentic medieval politics. There were rarely “God save the King” monarchies, or at least, those monarchies never mixed with nationalism to the effect of creating the token Fantasy Kingdom. The Catholic Church also had much more of a role in Feudal Europe than religion often does High Fantasy.

    Feudalism was very important to medieval governance in Europe after the 12th century and William the Conqueror. Feudalism means everyone gets a slice of the pie, and that the person you’re most afraid of as a street urchin is the local Lord. See George Martin for an excellent use of feudalism in fantasy. Authentic Feudal England was the goal, and he hit it square.

    As for the abstract, I think governemnt is important because every real person has to live with government influence in some capacity, and so every real character does too. I find what’s most helpful is separating what I call “the powers of government”, and allocating them among as many factions as desired. Also, maybe there’s just going to be one faction, but nothing says he needs every power of government. Feudal Kings never had the power to try cases and controversies, for example. Power to spend, pass new civil and criminal laws, provide for defense, regulate international/interstate traffic, define/establish the state religion, enforcement of laws …. there’s really a wide array of powers that can be allocated among a society in really interesting ways – all to evoke a particular setting with a purpose.

  22. Sumner’s Law? There already is one posited around 1950 by yours truly:

    In competitive situations intended effects tend to cancel each other while side effects
    tend to accumulate so that the ultimate result is what no one intended.

  23. Actually, I’m doing a military style dictatorship that composed of several private military contractors hiding behind a civilian government. The governments are puppets, but its the military that calls the shots.

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