All fantasy aside, it’s impossible to ignore the circus of a world we live in today. Politics are everywhere, coloring everything that surrounds us. Sad state of affairs though it might be, sometimes it reminds me of one of the old truths about writing: fiction reflects reality (Though sometimes I wonder if the opposite is more accurate. How’s that for a chicken-vs-egg lead in?)
They say the only inevitables are death and taxes, and the same holds true in a fictional world. No matter how high fantasy your story is, if you involve more than one person, politics are inevitable.
But that doesn’t mean they have to be boring.
Maybe your world is filled with Westeros-esque betrayal and intrigue, or maybe you’ve gone the more Orwellian route of indominable societal subversion. Either way, chances are good that someone is in charge and is running things a certain way. Or not (Also politics, by the way).
So whatever your personal feelings about the grandstanding, if you’re building a fantasy world, better get comfortable with its politics.
Have a clear vision
Building a society—fantasy or not—without a political framework robs it of its realism. It leaves constant unanswered questions in your reader’s head.
So even if it plays little importance in your story, at least have a solid understanding of what makes your world tick. That understanding will shape your world without you needing to say a word.
Is a tyrannical king leaving the countryside in devastation? That’ll come out clearly as you write, even if your story is about something on the sidelines. Has anarchy overrun the wilds? Well, that will have its own feel as well.
Once you know what direction you’re going, you can add as little politicking as you want (or as much…), and your world will still feel that much more defined.
Use only what you need
Most fantasy readers aren’t looking for a political thriller. (Unless they’re GoT fans, then, well, off with everyone’s head after shoving poison down their throats.) Sometimes the mention of the king in the hillside castle is enough to establish your setting and serve your story.
Only include the detail you need. If your story is more heavily influenced by its politics, this can need a little more definition. Is there a council of shared rulers planning to oust the king? Better tell us who they are and how they’re doing it. Is your country at war with its neighbor? What was the magic bullet that started the fray?
Here you need to use your judgement. But, bear in mind that an extended dinner party discussing trade details might be pretty boring if it isn’t vital to the story. Don’t include political details because you think you have to: Only ever include what you NEED. I love Dune, by Frank Herbert, like a lot. But I’m not gonna lie, on my first read through, I struggled to get through that bloody dinner.
Do your research
What is a monarchy? An oligarchy? What is a true anarchy? If you’re using it, you better know the answer to that question. Beyond that, you need to know the advantages and disadvantages of that system, and how it might interact with the politics surrounding it in the world. Even not interacting is a valid interaction, but it needs to be deliberate and not feel like an oversight.
Once you know how your political system works, you can tweak it better to work for your world. And once you know its advantages and disadvantages, its surrounding story all but writes itself.
This is especially true for a series. Don’t introduce the whole map at once. Not only is it too much to take in, but it leaves you with no more world to discover. If you’re starting in a city, bring that city to life before you expand to the wider borders around it. Countries and boundaries are there to be explored, so give yourself the time to do it.
This is true for all world building, but especially true for politics. Your reader wants to know what’s happening around your characters before they care what’s happening to the king across the sea.
Personally, I love writing politics. They feature heavily in both my novels. I like the way they play with my themes and the ambient challenge they offer my characters. I like the way they bring my worlds to life and make them feel so much more real.
Politics are important in world building, but they don’t need to look like old guys in suits sitting around a senate, or even a king in a castle on the hill. Be creative and mindful and have a plan, and you’ll be rocking with Machiavelli in no time.