Once more we gather writers, for another installment of Being a Better Writer! And today’s topic is an interesting one, once again written in advance as I am out and off of the grid for the time being. Today’s post grew out of another potential topic, but felt better suited to the aim of Being a Better Writer as a whole, IE that of improving the writing capabilities of those who follow Being a Better Writer.
Now I get that upon looking at this title, some might immediately wonder “What does this have to do with writing?” Well, today we’re going to talk about worldbuilding, specifically, and address some common issues you may have noticed across fiction, as well as talk about the role of governments and rulers and how this can impact what you write.
Again, I know this seems odd, but bear with it for a bit. You might wind up surprised. Hit the jump, and let’s talk about … well, that giant title up above. Now hit the jump.
Okay, so why would this be a topic we would ever talk about? Why would a writer even care?
And … I get that. What if your story never has the protagonist interact with a government at all. Isn’t our tale supposed to be one of escape, not taxes?
Perhaps … but that doesn’t mean our protagonist, antagonist, and everyone else won’t exist in a setting where there isn’t someone attempting to or being in a position of decision-making for the wider scope population. Whether it’s a village council, the old wise woman, a king, or an elected parliament of peers, settings have some form of governance or leadership. Without them, there’s a vacuum, which nature abhors. Things will either go wrong, or someone (or a group of someones) will step in to do what needs to be done, either out of desire to be in control, or a need to make things actually function on a level above the most basic societal forms.
And this sort of functionality? We shouldn’t forget about it when we’re seeking to lay out our setting or assemble our plot. Not because we “must” write about it, but because by ignoring it we ignore whole facets of culture and opportunity for our characters to embark on.
Case in point: At the time of writing this I have very recently seen The Super Mario Bros. movie. One of the characters in this film is the classic princess, Princess Peach. Most would be very safe to assume that she as a character is every bit a reflection of the classic Disney Princess.
Save that she’s not. Not in the slightest. No, the film actually goes out of its way to show Princess Peach ruling her kingdom, meeting with advisors and even making personal sacrifices for her people. A strong core of her character shown in the film is that she understands the burden of serving her people.
When was the last time a Disney princess did that? Frozen, maybe? Or Brave? Except I seem to recall both of those were more about “being yourself” and running away from the responsibility of leadership, which even when the end arrived and the characters “accepted” said burden, we never actually got any shots of them doing, you know, leadery things outside of parties and celebration.
Peach, by contrast, uses her role to show her character over the course of the film. I think it says something that while I wouldn’t consider The Super Mario Bros. movie a high-bar for complex characters, Princess Peach still manages to be be a better “strong protagonist, female” than anything pumped out by Disney in recent memory.
Because rather than shying away from her actual role in governance, TSMB actually embraces it, and in doing so, shows her character far better than if she’d just been a vaguely obscure ruler telling another protagonist either “go do things” or “I don’t like my throne, I must abandon it to become empowered” (I’ll cool it with these shots when Disney gives us an actual decent ruling protagonist).
Point is, the film’s writers could have chosen to ignore the whole “ruling” aspect of her character, and no one would have batted an eye. But instead of going with the flow, they saw it for the opportunity it was: an opportunity to build a character that otherwise would have been left vacant.
This is a fairly long example, but the point holds true: Ignoring an aspect of your setting denies avenues for our characters to develop. I’m not saying that they must take that avenue, that your characters should interact with governance and leadership at every opportunity, but that by pretending such doesn’t exist, we deny our characters an avenue of growth that could otherwise lead us interesting and surprising places.
In other words, when you’re building your setting, go the extra mile and at least figure out what sort of leadership your characters might run into. They don’t have to embrace it—in fact in many stories it’s common to butt heads with authority—but when sitting down to build your world, one of the things that you should be aware of, especially if you want to get into how the world works in any fashion so that your character’s actions can have impacts, is who is in charge.
Of course to do that, you are going to have to know at least a little about how various forms of rulership work. And why. And what conditions put them in power. And how they stay in power. Or lose it. And execute that power. And what they do. And … etc, etc, etc.
In other words, you’re going to need to probably do a little research. At least, once you’ve got your mind fixed on an idea or concept. After all, just as farmers get annoyed when reading about characters growing vegetables wrong, historians and people who do lead aren’t going to enjoy much a story that portrays leadership roles in a blatantly incorrect manner.
And again, as we’ve noted in prior posts, learning things is what stretches our mind to be able to determine how things might progress with a single twist. I don’t mean to insinuate that you should go all out and lose yourself in the study of kings and how they operate, but if your story starts heading that way, it may be wise to do some further research and development, and have known the basics ahead of time.
Again, don’t dive down the rabbit hole. If you’re pretty sure your protagonists are only going to have the faintest touches with whoever is in charge (and I don’t mean in avoiding them, but just in summation), then you aren’t going to need to know what bureaucratic office does what.
But if you’re planning a story where your protagonists are circumventing the law while being hunted by the local ruler? Or having them save the royal family from a corrupt advisor? Well … you might want to think about how the system will be set up in order to facilitate the story you want to tell.
Before I’ve talked about how one can almost view setting as a character in a story, especially with certain story types. Well, government and forms of authority are in a way also aspects of the setting with that importance, and quite often can function as characters in addition. A government, be it comprised of a single autocrat or a thousand voters, is in a way a living, moving creature that can interact with your protagonist and setting. Think of a government—or several—as a part of your setting and character during the creation process, and you might stumble upon some very unique paths you otherwise wouldn’t have.
Okay, let’s step away from the theoretical and broad and talk specific once more. How can keeping such aspects of our setting in mind enhance our story? Setting aside the example of Princess Peach offered above, there are a myriad of ways that our story can be influenced by who’s in charge. Governments and rulers are powerful bodies, meaning their impact can be felt in ways subtle or direct.
For example, suppose our protagonist is a fantastical wizard in pursuit of a dangerous magical artifact and enters a run-down nation in their pursuit. Suppose the king of that nation is rightfully alarmed that this powerful wizard is cagey about what they’re up to, and grows suspicious? You may have just given yourself a subplot moment, something that could shore up a sagging middle. Or perhaps the antagonist that the wizard is racing against gets to the king first and promises them a share of the riches or power for finding said artifact? Now you may have the king’s men acting as an obstacle against the protagonist. Or, they may be shrewd enough to see through the antagonist, and their men surround the wizard … before informing them that they are going to speed the wizard on their way because the king does not trust the antagonist.
There are a million ways that scenario could go, and that’s just one scenario. You could play it out in similar but different ways with a regional council, a small local lord, a plutocracy … There are a myriad of forms for the story to take.
And again, you don’t have to use them in the story proper. But when you’re sitting down to build your world and figure out the rough shapes, figuring out governance and who is in charge is a good step for shaping the world your character will interact with.
Remember, part of the fun of fiction is being able to explore the fantastic, or to see what would happen if something in our own lives was given a twist. To empathize with people in other situations and scenarios. Governmental issues and systems count! Sci-Fi authors have famously written books as ways to explore various forms of governance. Fantasy authors have had great fun by taking real-world forms of rulership and throwing magic into the mix, or even new sapient species with their own goals and objectives.
In other words, have a little fun with it. Don’t shy away from governance in your stories. See it as the tool it is. Make it part of your worldbuilding, rather than just a generic bit of filler. Do something neat, perhaps. It may have no impact on your story other than to ground it a little more, make the setting sharper and more distinct. Or it might be the avenue of new story and character development.
Either way, give it a shot and do a bit more with your next setting. You may surprise yourself with what you find.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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