Government, politics, and conflict in worldbuilding
There are many different ways of organizing a society, and if cultural anthropology has taught humanity one thing, it is just how varied and susceptible to change all these different ways of organizing society are.
I began with “groupness” because lots of the different, abstractly defined ways of organizing emerge from the potentials present in these different aspects of groupness.
Modern forms of governance are usually grounded in the idea of an organized political community under one government.
Whatever that government’s ideals – say, socialist, communist, liberal, fascist – what all these forms of government have in common is a claim over a neatly defined territory with subjects or citizens within it.
Fantasy authors, take note – this was NOT the case in medieval times; in that period, you have estates and kingdoms but also unclaimed lands in between.
One important takeaway here is that your political worldbuilding will also make assumptions about space in your world, and how that space is divided up.
Many stories will include societies based on a hierarchy. If you have a hierarchy, you will almost certainly have conflict of some kind, and conflict makes for a more exciting story!
One interesting group of people to follow when exploring hierarchy would be those people in an interhierarchical role. For example, knights or village leaders who have an upward allegiance to the Queen, and a downward responsibility towards serfs or village peasants. These people are sites of conflict between opposing forces (which may align with your protagonist–antagonist lines or not).
Two approaches to political worldbuilding
Once again, there is a top-down and a bottom-up approach to political worldbuilding. A top-down approach might look at different structures and systems in the abstract and make large-scale decisions.
A bottom-up approach would either start with an encounter in the storyworld and build outwards (e.g., through discovery writing) or it would start with an analogue society in the primary world, which it uses for loose inspiration.
You should also consider what resources the groups in your storyworld are fighting over. Do your groups live in a postscarcity society, as in Star Trek? If so, then other needs may dominate everyday life, such as the need for safety and security (higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Are your groups fighting over water, grain, oil, or something else?
You can use struggles over resources to up the tension in parts of your story. If there is a drought, then members of your groups will behave differently and submerged conflicts will likely surface. This is one way in which you can use setting to increase the underlying tension.
It’s difficult to discuss this topic without mentioning Karl Marx, who developed a theory of society based on antagonisms and conflict between classes, amid a struggle over finite resources.
But it’s also worth considering how you understand conflict in relation to other orders in your world. You may have a well-developed religious or spiritual system: do you view this as more-or-less autonomous from or dependent on the political and economic orders in your world?
Do any groups promote social harmony? What do members of that group and others think about that?
Let’s return to our groups and consider some examples to make this clearer ...