There are two rants with equal number of votes in the poll, so that means I get to choose which one I write. And because I am feeling rambly and self-indulgent, and have had border wars in two of the last few stories I wrote, I’ll do this one.

1) Depending on their distance from the central government, borders may have some independence.

This is both good and bad for writing a fantasy story.

Two big advantages: The characters can get up to things that the central government doesn’t like, thus setting up interest conflicts. That can include smuggling, illegal escort of criminals (or other people) across the border, customs that aren’t popular with the rulers, and lives that would be threatened by law anywhere else. Of course, that assumes the border is relatively peaceful, and the people who live on either side of it don’t hate each other’s guts. If the border is openly hostile, then there can be lots of skirmishes and neat types of small warfare that authors have a hard time working into epic fantasy elsewhere (see point 2).

These advantages, turned around, are the disadvantages of writing a border story. When something important happens on the border, you can’t have everyone in the capital know about it the instant it does. No sending those desperately needed reinforcements two days into a battle when you’ve earlier established that it takes a fast rider six days to make the journey from capital to border or vice versa!

As for the other part of it, border warfare is different, particularly when the country is rough, as it often is—people have this thing about choosing mountains as borders if they’re available—and it’s the main area where the two realms conflict. I’ve read far too many stories where the king exiles, or threatens to exile, a troublesome noble to some castle on the border. This would be fine if there was peace there, but why in the world would you put a militarily important fort in the hands of someone who a) has perhaps no appreciable military skill and b) has reason to hate you and find the idea of letting raiders slip past his post pretty damn attractive? Think before you have the king make this threat to some court fop. Otherwise, it can sound as though he had the moron fish with stupid sauce for the feast last night.

2) Border warfare is often protracted, hit-and-run, and focused on skirmishes rather than large-scale battles.

This is assuming, of course, that there’s not some valuable resource on the border that the country is devoting armies to protecting, or that the warfare doesn’t regularly erupt into large-scale violence. If the two countries are simply exercising tensions mostly through the people present on the scene and the border is just a border (though see point 3), then these conditions will probably apply.

Protracted? Well, one realm isn’t just going to get up and vanish one fine morning, is it? I would say that the conflict between the people on the border should be rooted in more than just “separate heritages,” if possible. Fantasy authors don’t have the greatest track record of giving neighboring countries sufficiently different cultures to matter (the far more common trick is to proclaim that one country is evil and the other isn’t), and people who live side by side and far from their respective governments might easily make common cause against their masters, through some of the methods I described in point 1. Why is warfare going on instead? Pick a good cause, and it’ll take a while to splutter out.

Hit-and-run? If this is a border that doesn’t receive that much food or support from the interior of the country, then they’ll probably have to spend some time farming and herding and hunting and fishing (or doing whatever else they do to survive) on their own. They can’t fight all the time. They may raid each other, but unless one set of raiders was vastly superior, they couldn’t live by that alone. And frequent raids by a set of armed badasses on a set of helpless peasants is exactly the kind of thing that makes the government pay attention and send soldiers to garrison the border.

Focused on skirmishes? Well, yeah. Borderlands are usually thinly settled compared to the rich, safer interiors for precisely the reason that they’re more dangerous. Where are the countries going to muster enough soldiers to fight a battle that lasts six days and leaves the field knee-deep in corpses? Skirmishes, instead. Raids and scouting parties and patrols riding for the garrisons coming into conflict with other patrols. And if they do chase each other across the borders, they’d have to be careful anyway, since their presence far enough inland might cause a little international incident. Keep a careful authorial eye on this, too. I’ve seen it used well, but I’ve also seen authors ignore it; one country commits grievous offenses to a neighbor’s pride and dignity and sense of integrity without raising so much as a peep, because the author needs that country to do that for the plot’s sake.

3) Why is the border a border at all?

Some random line in the desert works well when you’re drawing a fantasy map. It doesn’t work that well when you get down to the nitty-gritty of politics on either side of the line and why people would respect it.

Yes, yes, modern countries have borders that may not be as precisely defined. This is because they are modern countries. It’s a lot easier to have maps of just about anything we want, since most people agree on where the lines are drawn. (When they don’t, we get wars). In a fantasy world without global communication, high cartography technology, and a general agreement that it would be best to put the line right here, you’ll have a much harder time.

Some suggestions:

  • Mountains! They’re big, they draw a lot of attention, and they don’t tend to move. Plus, they make an interesting natural barrier to separate cultures that you really want to be different, rather than just neighbors whose rulers are far more different than they are.
  • Rivers! Also easily identifiable. However, if they meander a lot and regularly carve themselves new beds, this can cause a problem. (Terry Pratchett uses that idea in Monstrous Regiment). Also, if they’re not wide, it’s harder to keep criminals and other undesirables from pulling up stakes and moving some place that may not have heard of them.
  • Oceans! Yes, I am being a smartass. But if the fantasy nation covers a whole continent, which is surprisingly common, it’s nice to know if their reach extends across the ocean, or not, and why.
  • Hills! Some of the advantages of mountains, while at the same time they don’t completely cut off clandestine communication and trade if that’s what you want.
  • Some area of generally significant land alteration! If one nation occupies a fertile plateau and the other a desert, the area common to both is the border, and may be hotly contested.
  • A magical border! These are also pretty common, and sharply distinctive, and can provide an entertaining challenge for your heroes to get across.

4) Put some dialect chains to work.

‘Dialect chain’ is the term for a series of linguistic alterations that stretches from one point to another. At one end is Language A. At the other is Language B. In the middle is Language A changing to Language B, with a series of gradations that borrow more and more features of the new language as they move to the end of the chain. People from far ends of the chain might find each other incomprehensible. People speaking two different dialects in the middle might understand each other quite easily.

This is a phenomenon that is not stopped by political borders. (Languages respect political borders far less often than people believe). Village D on one side of the border might share a common dialect with Village E on the other side, or speak one only a tiny bit different. Take a fairly flat and non-garrisoned border, or two countries who’ve been at peace for so long that the garrisons are minor, and the chance that people can communicate skyrockets.

Unfortunately, most fantasy authors don’t take this into account. Two countries side by side speak radically different languages, and people who might live only a few miles from each other don’t understand a single word that their neighbors say. Huh? Even if the two languages don’t share many common features, or one set of neighbors are recent arrivals, I’d expect a pidgin to start evolving as they engage in trade and wary living with each other. And if the villages are long-established and static—the usual case—then it makes no sense to be able to walk half a mile and encounter a village that’s picked up nothing, not even a few simple terms, from the other one.

Use this. People can hate each other’s guts and still learn to speak each other’s language. And though a fanatical fantasy government might declare this treason, languages don’t tend to consult the government as they evolve. A common linguistic skill, hidden from outsiders as necessary, is more interesting and more workable than blind and blinking dumbness that’s endured for hundreds of years.

5) Know what kind of people are likely to evolve on your border.

Interesting stories can be spun with all kinds. Perhaps they secretly hate their government and are in negotiation with the one next door. Fine. Perhaps it really is lawless, in the way that the American West is usually portrayed, with people killing each other casually. Fine. Perhaps the border is important and heavily militarized, meaning there’s actually much less freedom there than in the capital city. Fine.

Just…keep the characterization and the setting consistent, please?

Too often, it seems to depend on author manipulation of the characters involved, rather than actual characterization. The protagonist arrives. He meets some people who are nice to him, and therefore, Good. He meets other people who are nasty to him, and therefore, Evil. The Good people are the loyalists who want to help the protagonist protect his country. The Evil people are the traitors who want to help raiders across the border. And they are perfectly committed to their separate goals, and hold on, stop the bus, I’m getting off.

Are you telling me that the Good people never feel the slightest shred of resentment towards their government? Particularly if it’s portrayed as not really caring about the border, or sending this protagonist there purely as punishment, without caring about the welfare of people whose lives he’ll affect? Yes, of course. And any moment now, pigs will fly out of my ass.

Are you saying that the Evil people are completely Evil because they prefer a different way of life? Gee. Twist it around a little bit, and that sounds like a proclamation that tolerance and open-mindedness are stupid, stupid, stupid, and hating our neighbors is better than living with them, and that mindless patriotism is better than any hint of a compromise. And these are the “virtues” you want to praise?

Know what the climate of your border is like. Know why it’s there. Know what the relations between that country’s government and its neighboring one are like, sure, but remember that because of their very distance and liminal nature (see point 6), borders are not necessarily a microcosm of their particular government’s political and economic policies. It would also be nice to know what the opposing government thinks, what the border people’s relations to each other are, what the people on the protagonist’s side think of the opposing government, and what they’re going to do when their lives become mingled, as they almost inevitably do, in ways like trade, friendship, and intermarriage.

6) Borders are in-between places par excellence.

It might seem too obvious a conceit to make a borderland an in-between place, where values get combined and cultures blurred, but on the other hand, if you set a story in a borderland, then people are going to suspect you of that anyway. If you got it, you might as well flaunt it.

Hostile borders are great, but so are peaceful ones, where an entirely different way of life develops. The freedom to do things that the government doesn’t approve of here, because the government isn’t looking over everyone’s shoulder, can result in happiness, as well as angst. The border between an elven and a human country could be the perfect place to raise a half-elf whose parents love each other and him, and whose most important decision is not going to be which race he belongs to (by now, a thoroughly overworked idea). And then you don’t have to resort to rape or one member of the pair being killed, either.

You can do interesting things with the physical boundary between lands, too—or worlds, such as a boundary between Earth and an otherworld. Authors usually skip over that in their haste to get to the otherworld. It doesn’t have to be skipped over. It can be a whole place by itself. (Greg Bear does that in The Infinity Concerto). A really interesting plot, I think, could involve someone who has the ability to step into the threshold place but no ability to go further and actually see the otherworld. How does this person think and feel?

People should use borderlands, I think, not just make them convenient excuses for wars.