Take Us To Your Leader: On The Governing of Fantasyland

136832_0Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch.–Marvin Simkin

“One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.” — Thomas Paine

2016 has been a wild ride for democracy. But at least we’re not subject to the government of Fantasyland, which is crawling with incompetent bureaucrats, hereditary monarchs with no accountability, and a head-spinning regime turnover rate. As Diana Wynne Jones observed in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, this monarchy seems to take a smattering of culturally aspecific features from medieval Europe governments, plus the (often) unstated assumption that the divine right of monarchs is a real thing, mix in some magic, random local bureaucrats, and a few ‘guards’ or ‘sheriffs’ running around, and call it good enough.

In most cases, it’s probably a good idea to give a lot more thought to how your constructed world is governed. (If you’re writing historical fiction and are simply describing a government as it was, carry on).

First of all, there are many options for government besides a hereditary monarchy. Your fictional society could be a representative democracy, a dictatorship, a bunch of small direct democracies banded together under a constitution, a giant corporation running everything, and so on.  There are a number of ancient and modern societies you can study as examples, for everything from direct democracy in the pre-Contact Americas to 19th-century ‘company towns‘ across the industrialized world to modern micro-theocracy in the Vatican City. There are also hundreds more hypothetical ways a futuristic or fantastical society might organize itself, which you have total freedom to construct.

This system of government should make logical sense within the history and culture of your constructed world. For example, if you’re writing about a nomadic people who travel the taiga in small familial groups, it seems unlikely they’d have created a sprawling federal bureaucracy. If these nomads do live in a society that requires an Infinite Jest-sized ream of paperwork to get anything done, how did that happen? Were they conquered or absorbed by a non-nomadic empire? Are these the remnants of a non-nomadic society, trying to maintain normalcy through tradition? These questions are a golden opportunity for worldbuilding and generating plot threads.

A more subtle form of mismatch between fictional government and fictional society is when the values and social norms of said society seem at odds with their system of government. If there is an explanation– extremists have seized power, Evil Corp is buying elections, aliens have taken over and installed a puppet state– that’s a plot point rather than a problem. However, the reader should not be scratching their heads as to why a particular society would consent to be governed by a system that totally fails to match their cultural norms.

Remember that there’s no rule dictating that you must have a monarchy run Fantasyland, and that you have a lot of interesting potential plots around other systems of government.



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