Developing a Fictional Government — The Short Version

If you’re like me, developing governments and politics might not be the most thrilling part of worldbuilding. But it is an important facet to think through–especially if your stories tend to prominently feature governments and/or politics. (Anyone else end up writing lots of political stories even though you’re not a big politics person?) So today I’m going to show you the most critical pieces of shaping a fictional government. Once you have these principles in place, the rest is a lot easier and less time-consuming.

The Function of Government

First, it must be noted that government is inherent to society, whether or not it’s systematized. Every family, every group, every organization, every nation has some sort of government that informs the way it runs and what rules are enforced. The fundamental function of government is to bring order to a body and ensure that it remains within predetermined parameters, using rules and consequences administered by those in authority. Government is found at every level, from self-government all the way up to the government of an entire empire. It’s important to be aware that where there is no intentional structure, the gap will be filled by rules, authorities, and consequences that were not intended. It is inevitable that your world will have some form of government within it.

But as you look beyond the fundamental reality of government, you can consider the function(s) that a particular culture would assign to its government. Was your culture’s government instituted to keep its populace safe, to keep them in line with an externally imposed set of rules, to simply enforce inherent moral law, or for some other purpose?

What purpose your culture assigns to its government will be informed, as always, by that culture’s values. A culture that values liberty will likely have a more hands-off government that only steps in where civilian order fails, while a culture that values safety might want its government to step in more often and provide security, and a society that values order might have a strict, legalistic government.

Of course, your culture’s purpose for its government may or may not align with the purpose the government assumes once in power. Government authorities may overstep their responsibilities or shift the focus of government. Whether or not the governed notice–or can do anything about it–will depend on further details of your government’s structure and, again, the values of your culture as a whole; shifts in line with your culture’s existing values may be excused even if they’re not fundamentally proper for the government to focus on.

The fundamental function of government, the functions assigned to a specific government by a given culture, and the functions taken on by a government in practice may or may not fully match. These three categories of government purpose are the foundational base for shaping the structure of your fictional government.

Three Spheres of Government

In general, any government—intentional or not—will have three primary tasks: to outline and communicate law, to interpret and apply the law, and to punish those who break the law. These powers may be broken up by category, or one part of the government may be assigned multiple categories to handle; that’s where government structure comes in. But let’s first look at the functions of each of these spheres in brief.

Legislative Responsibilities

Your culture’s legislature has the responsibility of outlining law and communicating that law to its people. This does not necessarily mean that your legislature is creating law; some cultures will only put words to the basic moral law their consciences already understand, while others may impose additional laws for the sake of clarity or control.

What your culture writes legislation on will depend on–you guessed it–what they value. Cultures that value religion may take law directly from the perceived and/or known will of their god(s), cultures valuing liberty may draw laws from conscience, cultures aiming for safety may have laws to prohibit a great number of potential dangers (maybe even everyday hazards), etc.

In the legislative category, there is also the responsibility of communicating the law to citizens–whether that means printing charters for each region of the kingdom, distributing charters to those with judicial responsibilities, posting laws in relevant locations (e.g. laws of transportation provided upon purchase of a means of conveyance, laws for food and drink posted in eating establishments, laws on discourse posted in debate halls and other places of frequent discussion, etc.), etc.

Judicial Responsibilities

With the law established and communicated, it moves into the hands of the judicial party. The magistrate may overlap with the legislature and/or the executive, or may be separate to avoid a conflict of interest or too much power entrusted to one person/group. Regardless, the magistrate is responsible for interpreting the law and applying it to specific cases, passing verdicts and judgment on those thought to infringe on the law.

A judiciary body cannot be impartial. Because sentient beings have biases, it is inevitable that they will judge from those biases—despite their best efforts otherwise. As such, you must determine how your society manages this reality, if they are even aware of it. If they are unaware of this element of judgment, they may have more difficulties in judicial contexts and a bigger problem with partiality in legal cases. If they are aware of it, they may not care; certain classes may be discriminated against knowingly, without recourse. Or, of course, your culture may find ways to minimize the adverse effects of an inherently biased judiciary. Does your culture require the majority of a diverse jury to agree on a verdict before it is passed? Do they require members from every class in their nation to be represented on a smaller judiciary panel? Are biases controlled, with judges representing the largest population of their region? In each case, different consequences will apply and need to be considered—to varying degrees depending on the kind of story you are telling.

This part of government is also responsible for fulfilling the law, which means that general law enforcement, investigative departments, and those responsible for carrying out sentences all fall under the judicial category. This is where you’ll need to think about the consequences of criminal actions, because the judiciary will be responsible for carrying out those sentences.

Executive Responsibilities

The chief executive of a nation—be it an emperor, president, king, chieftan, etc.—will serve as the face of that nation. He or she represents their nation to others, and to their own people, and thus shapes widespread perception of the nation they govern. If your culture cares about how their nation looks to those around it, this may shape the requirements for an executive.

Cultural Values & Government Structure

Now that the general functions and responsibilities of government have been laid out, we can start to look at how they might be structured. Does your government have a separation of powers? Is there some overlap, with one branch still separated–either above the others or simply kept separate for ethical reasons? Or are they all wrapped up together under one leader or council?

The way that these various aspects of government function can also be determined by government structure. Take, for example, any sort of constitutional government; the government’s actions are limited by an existing piece of legislation, which requires a whole process to alter.

Again, what your government can do and how it is shaped will depend on your culture’s overarching values, and, in fact, I have a whole list of potential government types along with some notes on what types of cultures might choose (or allow) them. If you’re looking for a quick-start resource, I recommend checking it out.

The overall questions you’ll want to ask are: Who can wield power (the rich, the intelligent, the elected, etc.)? Within that group, who is responsible for what responsibilities? And what are the limits of their power, if any?

There are the basic building blocks of a fictional government, distilled from a much longer chunk of the book I’m currently writing about worldbuilding. (Check out the progress bar in the sidebar for a quick glimpse at how far through I am.) If you’re interested in hearing more about that book as it gets closer to completion and publication, sign up to the newsletter below (plus, get access to the worldbuilding checklist and accompanying mini-course that goes through the core elements of your world!). And thank Catherine Hawthorn for the push to turn these worldbuilding posts into a book in the first place!

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you find is the most difficult (or the easiest) part of developing a government? Do you enjoy the process, as a whole, or wish you didn’t have to spend so much energy on it?

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