If you are building an entire world from scratch for your fantasy novel(s), then there are lots of big-picture things to think about. One of those things is the overall society structure and types of governments in your fantasy world.
The chances are that there will be some kind of structure or hierarchy. It could be a simple case of king > everyone else but it can be much more complex if you want. In this post, I’ll be talking about the different types of government, class and hierarchies and what they mean for your fantasy world. Hopefully, this will give you some ideas for your own fantasy novel.
Types of governments in fantasy
Deciding on a type of government is probably the easiest starting point. Is your social structure a feudal system? Is it a republic, a dictatorship, democracy or something else entirely?
I guess the best way of determining what it is is to ask – who has the power and do the people on the bottom of the ladder have any say?
Deciding on these two things, to begin with, will already tell you a lot about your society. Here are some of the main types of government you might want to use in your fantasy world:
Starting with the one that people are probably most familiar with. This is pretty much the default in fantasy fiction as fantasy is set vaguely “in the past” and often draws parallels with history in this world.
Monarchy is one of the oldest forms of government and just means that a monarch, such as a King or Queen, rules the country, kingdom or empire. Monarch is a hereditary title which means that the throne is inherited and people usually don’t get a say in who runs the country. However, if there is no heir or someone abdicates, rule can pass onto someone not in the bloodline. Some monarchies can be elected e.g. the Pope, but it’s most commonly a title passed down by bloodlines.
A republic is a form of government ruled by representatives of the citizens. These representatives may be elected via democracy, oligarchy, autocracy or a mixture of those methods.
The idea is that sovereignty belongs to the people. However, who “the people” refers to can differ between countries/governments. For example, it could just refer to nobles, men or white people so it’s not necessarily fair.
Democracy allows the people to have a say on legislation or the representatives who carry it out. You can have direct democracy which is where people get a say on legislation directly or you can have a representative democracy where people vote for representatives to decide on legislation on behalf of the people.
A theocracy is essentially a government and a society ruled by religion. In a theocracy, it’s the priests who rule the land and they answer only to their god or gods who act as a sort of supreme ruler. This is one government type I use in my story.
This is where one person or political party has supreme power over a country or empire. This person or party is not subject to any kind of legal or moral restrictions. There’s nothing they can’t do. This can also tie into monarchy, oligarchy or dictatorship.
While this doesn’t cover every single type of government, most examples you read about or want to write about will fall into one or more of the above categories. Some of them are quite similar and will blend together. For example, you could have a monarchy that is also an autocracy or a republic which also is a democracy. Of course, when it comes to fantasy, you’re always free to spin these systems into something that’s unique to your story.
If you decide to build a big world, as in, more than one country/city or continent even, then it’s important to look at societal differences across nations too.
Presumably, all your nations will be different, and the key to understanding and identifying those differences will be in the government types.
Each country will likely have different forms of government, social structures, class, and hierarchies. Some countries will be similar to each other, usually due to a shared history. Some will be completely different.
For example, look at the social structures of the English-speaking world, say the UK, USA and Australia. At a basic level, we are quite similar because we have a shared history, a shared language, similar dominant religions which have influenced laws, and democracy.
Where nations differ could be a source of conflict or an interesting way to highlight the variety of your world.
Changes in Government
One interesting way to create conflict or history in your world is to highlight changes in government either in the present or in recent years.
When you create governments in fantasy worlds, they don’t have to be fixed. In fact, if it is, it could feel a bit false and too perfect. Governments naturally change, public opinion changes, society can value different things as a whole.
The same people who vote in favour of a leader who helps the poor might vote for someone who ships immigrants out to dangerous countries a few years later.
Change happens when people are unhappy, mistreated or neglected. If you have a republic or a democracy, it might even be because people were not happy with what we had before. This is often a monarchy – if you want to take some inspiration from this world.
For example, in Ancient Rome, the monarchy was destroyed and replaced with a Republic. That didn’t stick either and it became an Empire afterwards. Julius Caesar came along and threatened the status quo of the Republic, threatening a dictatorship with him in charge. People started to fear a return back to the old ways but some welcomed change. Caesar was killed to save the Republic although the Republic started to die anyway.
Sometimes people decide to flee the country they’re in if changing the government is too unrealistic. In this case, they may find another country to build a society that appeals to them (typically ignoring the natives already living there of course).
Social Structures and Class Norms
Once you’ve decided on the bigger issue of governments in your fantasy novel, it’s time to let that information influence the little details of your world and the daily lives of the people themselves. Social structures don’t just exist on paper, they will influence almost every part of your life, according to what social class you belong to.
People who live in noble families will behave differently, believe different things and have a whole different internal monologue than someone who has to steal bread to survive every day. It seems obvious, but it’s important to think carefully about class differences and social status when it comes to injecting detail in your world.
When you write about characters from different classes, it’s the little details that make their lives feel real. It’s also a good way of highlighting differences between different characters.
For example, in the Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson, Alethi women have a custom called a ‘safe hand’. It’s a symbol of modesty where women must cover the left hand up.
The rich women have dainty sleeves that cover the whole hand. The lower class women have gloves because they need to use their hands more freely to work. This is something that would probably be seen as vulgar to the high society ladies. Eww, you can see the shape of her fingers – that kind of thing.
As far as I can remember, the safe hand thing is never explained. It doesn’t necessarily need to be (that would probably be info-dumping). But this is a simple example of a little detail which is threaded throughout the books. It doesn’t have a massive impact on the plot, but it gives colour and texture to an already big, fascinating world.
It’s all in the details
To conclude this rambling about governments in fantasy, class and society, remember that everything is connected and ties together. Good worldbuilding doesn’t just drop random facts in, it builds a real-feeling world where all these facts link together and influence each other.
It’s not enough to decide that your country is run by a theocracy. What impact does that have on the daily lives of priests, kings, nobles, peasants, bakers and soldiers? Thinking about the whole picture allows you to thread the kind of details that will make your world feel vivid.
Have you built your own governments in your fantasy world? What do you think is the key to creating governments in fantasy novels? Let me know what you think!