I have a weakness for all the high fantasy stuff I regularly denigrate: royals, castles, wars fought with sword and arrow, fantasy settings based on medieval Europe. But I do think a lot of it is very poorly done. Sometimes this is because of simple laziness, sometimes because of copying mediocrity in the subgenre, sometimes because the writers turn the story into blatant wish-fulfillment. And this strikes royals particularly hard. Most kings and queens—and especially princes and princesses—make me want to hit something.
Here are possible solutions to that.
1) Love, fear, respect…the attitude does not need to be universal.
You can have a king who is loved, but who receives little respect because he doesn’t keep his word, because he fools around with whores instead of doing the kinging, because he’s a good hunter but acts like an idiot when he has to grant someone’s petition, because he knows how to handle one faction and has never bothered learning how to manage the rest. Remember that it depends a great deal on who’s doing the loving. Before writing a king “everybody loves,” consider the content of your “everybody.” Perhaps the nobles love him, because he grants them leave to raise all the taxes they like, but I doubt that will make the peasants very fond. Perhaps the peasants cheer him on as he presents himself as a “man of the people,” but while he’s riding around and conducting merry singalongs, he’s not home ruling, and other people have had to take up the slack.
Likewise, his nobles may respect him, but not love him, because he’s a stick-in-the-mud, or has such strict standards he’s nearly impossible to please. They may fear him, but the moment his advantage, whatever it is—perhaps he commands armies of mercenaries—falters, they’ll be on him like crows on a corpse. They may hate him, but the hatred could matter little, because it’s so personal, and it comes from remnants of families the king beat down so that they hold little to no political power any more.
And, of course, this attitude should shape your monarch, and his response should shape his people’s response. If he grows up the darling of the court, he may take his people’s love for granted, and not realize that it’s conditional on his behaving well. So he starts acting out, and that earns him some negativity, and he’s flabbergasted, because he thought everyone had to love him automatically. He’s the king!
Or he might be a just man and know himself just, “hard but fair.” His men respect him. On the other hand, he doesn’t want respect, he wants love—but he can’t earn it, because that’s the kind of person he is. He grows harder and colder and crueler, and soon the respect turns to terror on the part of some of his followers, but they remain serving him because they’re afraid of what would happen if they should rebel. The king senses that, and his actions grow colder in turn. That’s Stannis Baraetheon in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Grace it with a turn of religious fanaticism, and you’ve got a character who is an absolute ass and whom I do not like, but the relationship between him and his subjects is always very understandable.
A monarch is usually so much in the public eye that his private character doesn’t matter as much as it would if he were a peasant with only his reputation and his actions to recommend him to his neighbors. Public attitude will sway around him and with him, and “truth” can have very little to do with it. I think this is the weakness of some stories where all the good characters love the true prince solely because he’s kind and brave; those aren’t necessarily good qualities for a ruler, and they can be twisted by rumor, distance from the people he rules, or clever spin doctors among the nobles. Perfectly decent people may hate him for good reasons, simply because they value a king on other grounds, or because they never meet him and so never know that the king who passes higher taxes is also kind and brave.
2) Posterity plays a part in it, too.
What is the royal’s relationship to her historic legacy? This can mean two things: the reputation she’ll leave after her death, and the reputation of her ruling family.
If she’s a new-made queen, swept to power on the swords and axes of a conquering army, perhaps she’s anxious to show her new people that she can be just as good a ruler as any old king. So she becomes open-handed and generous, takes a native husband, and adopts the native religion. She wants to make her people see her as one of them, not an invader, because that will lessen people’s temptation to throw her out on her backside if they begin losing their fear of her.
On the other hand, maybe she doesn’t care about kindness. Kindness is for wussies. It was strength that won her her throne, and strength that will keep it. Her soldiers confiscate weapons from everyone native. The foreign language is used at court, in the temples, in law. Foreigners claim new lands for themselves. The queen prays to her own gods in her own tongue, and goes about with a sword and wearing leather armor at all times.
Perhaps she comes from a family with a recent tradition of really bad rulers, and she wants to make sure that her people don’t just see her as a continuation of that line and start thinking “rebellion” sounds like a pretty word. So she takes pains to distance herself from the old ways and brings new counselors to court, passes new laws, imports new ways of doing things, conquers new lands. Nothing like a good old-fashioned war to get the eager bastards out of the country and off in a place where they might get a convenient spear in the throat.
Perhaps she wants the histories to remember her as a pious queen. She gives the temples money, works with the priesthood to keep political control, celebrates all the holidays in exactly the right way, dedicates one of her children to the faith, and gives orders that she must never be disturbed while she prays.
How much of this is genuine and how much is crowd control is up to you. Once again, some variation is nice. You don’t have to write utter naïve and trusting political children who only win with the help of destiny, or utterly 100% cynical and corrupt bastards/bitches who really use their praying time in the harems. Decide how your royal wants to craft his or her own political legacy, decide which goals are most important when doing that, and decide how much control they have. Those things will often help, in turn, to craft their sincerity, their emotional response to it, and their actual degree of control.
3) Know their relation to laws and customs, both.
It will make a great difference if everyone expected this prince to come to the throne, perhaps because he’s heir apparent, or if this prince is an unexpected heir, becoming king because both his father and elder brother died in battle. Some people will be caught flat-footed, but not everyone. And surely there will be some whispers that the second son is nothing compared to his elder brother, or not experienced enough to become king, or needs a—a regent, yes, that’s a nice word, to guide him and rule by his side.
That’s of course assuming that primogeniture guides the way your kingdom chooses its monarchs. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps the king himself chooses who follows him. Perhaps women can rule, as long as they’re older than their brothers, and if an elder sister dies, the next youngest child becomes heir. Perhaps birth order has fuck all to do with it. And if a ruler has siblings, where do they come in the order? Before his children? After it? Before children with obvious difficulties ruling, like a lack of wits, but after the others? What happens if a monarch is old when he dies and has had a passel of children with children of their own and leaves no clearly designated heir? What part do the nobles play in this? The church? Illegitimate children? If a child is too young to rule, does the surviving parent become their regent?
Heirs apparent seem to be more rare as the hero/ines of fantasy novels than the unexpected heirs. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but consider what it means for your prince who grows up a feckless clown because he lives in a world where society is determined by birth order, and then his elder brother dies in battle, his elder sister dies in childbirth with her child, and his second sister is kidnapped and killed. Plus, he has a clubfoot, and their society thinks such deformities are a sign of disfavor from the gods, punishment for sins in a past life.
I doubt his relationship to his new duties is as simple as, “I can’t do it! I’m not worthy!” (because then who is heir, and what if there’s civil war because he’s a selfish little shit?) or, “Father doesn’t love me because he never trained me to do this!” (I think his father will have his own set of concerns). He’ll have the grief from his dead siblings to contend with, the mutters of his people about the clubfoot, his own reputation—probably not entirely the invention of malicious gossips—as a fool, his father’s wariness/burning desire to make sure he survives, and the fact that his whole rearing conditioned him to think that he was safely tucked behind three other people and it was never going to matter what he did.
Done right, this is a fascinating struggle. Of course, it’s not usually done right, because of authors’ reluctance to let their protagonists a) have true problems and b) cause true problems. The gods show up and reassure him they don’t hate him, and it turns out that he has enough loyal supporters to win the throne—they are always truly loyal, not just putting up with him because they’re making the best of a bad business—and he has no self-confidence problems because of being the fourth-best candidate and the spoiled baby of the family. All he has is that “I’m not a good leader!” syndrome that melts the moment the crown is on his head, because, of course, everyone knows that people who don’t like ruling and believe they have no talent for it make the best rulers! KILL IT WITH FIRE.
If you believe that you would have a hard time writing about someone who is a true denizen of a world where a certain royal inheritance system holds sway—for example, women can’t be queens and never have been, and you simply can’t write a princess who would rather see her younger brother take the crown, despite the fact that she has no reason to think she’d rule anyway—then don’t write that royal inheritance system. Come up with one you think makes a good story. Then place it and your protagonist together, and I’ll bet you’re cooking.
4) Know how their life has forged them for ruling—or not, as the case may be.
In this case, you’ll need to decide what the standard for a good ruler is. This can come from the historical situation—a good war queen may be a bad choice in a peaceful time, to choose the simplest example—or from a traditional set of expectations. Have a queen who should be patient, pious, and politically canny? Where and when did this standard arise? Has it changed at all in the intervening years? Is it one that her mother established, and that she’s expected to uphold as her “true heir?” Is it one that she needs to maintain because the kingdom is all but a theocracy, and a heretic queen is nothing but bad news for everybody, herself first of all?
Once you have the standard, decide how well your protagonist matches it in actuality, and why. I usually laugh at the peasant heroes who become kings because it’s not made clear what qualifications they have for ruling. They may be brave and compassionate and in love with someone who complements them well, but is that a match for the complexity of an empire? Do they know how to read the people who will surround them, and to delegate well? What about sheer knowledge, like other languages, rules of precedence, heraldry if your world uses it, maps, politics, economics, arts like hunting and hawking? Can they keep their cool in a difficult situation? (A hot-tempered monarch in the midst of your typical dog-eat-dog fantasy court is asking to have his throat slit, either because he’ll insult people right and left and alienate his supporters or because it’ll be easy for one faction to goad him against its enemies).
Depending on the standard you have in place, the peasant monarch may do just fine after all. But, in that case, please show how. Otherwise, they’re unlikely to be actual kings and queens. “Pawn with a crown” would fit better.
5) Realize that their independence will be compromised in most cases.
Many fictional kingdoms have to have a large court of nobles gathered around the throne, both for plot purposes and for more mundane ones (who’s filling all the court positions, paying taxes, and ruling the local lands otherwise?) A monarch who irritates them might not get herself deposed, but I’ll bet she makes her life unpleasant.
That’s to say nothing of all the untitled people she depends on: servants, maids, cooks, the farmers who bring in the food so that her court can eat, guards, jailers, merchants. And if she has a powerful group of mages or a powerful church to contend with—I’ve argued sometimes that if someone comes up with an analogue of medieval Europe but has no analogue of the Catholic Church, the balance of power is going to be very different—or neighboring kingdoms or rebels to deal with…
She can’t do everything herself. There simply is not enough time, and she’s supposed to be ruling, not watching prisoners or making sure people reach the court safely. And that means that she’ll need to accept that she has that dependence on others. This is in some ways the obverse of Point 1; this time, think about the physical side of that bondage of reputation. If she strikes out on her own—where is she striking, exactly? If she orders all her guards beheaded for fear of a traitor among them, will other people be as eager to serve as guards? If she promotes a friend to royal treasurer so that she can reward that friend or have a familiar face near her, he may be loyal to her, but will other people think the same thing? And what happens if the friend is incompetent at his job?
Someone used to functioning in a court necessarily accepts some limitations. The only one that seems to get regular play is how restrictive and uncomfortable fancy clothing is. Well, yes, it probably is, but the time demands are even greater. And when trouble starts in the kingdom, whether or not the queen had anything to do with the cause, it will affect her.
The reason I devote so much time to this in particular is that so many fantasy heroes are mavericks or outcasts in one way or another. They’re scorned by others, or hated for a difference they have from the majority, such as unusual magic or unusual looks, or distrusted because they do odd things like practice swordplay when they’re a girl. And they’re used to acting alone; it’s even sometimes insisted upon that they don’t understand the games of court politics that depend on deception and bribery (to make them “good” people, I assume). That kind of person is not going to adapt well to becoming a monarch unless you set up the situation very carefully. I would say that the story would benefit if you made your monarch more of a politician, but then, I often say that. Politician heroes seem too tainted by their real-world counterparts to become common, alas.
6) Realize that marriage and love are not problem-free, either.
This is probably very obvious, but someone who grows up royal should expect an arranged marriage, either to secure the loyalty of a powerful noble in the kingdom or to arrange an alliance with a neighboring country. Princesses and princes who are surprised that their parents expect them to marry inside a certain select group never cease to surprise me. I wonder where they’ve been all their own lives.
If you’ve got a system based on blood inheritance, there is another huge problem. Sleeping around can lead to bastard children can lead to problems for the succession. If you have a complicated system, with gender and magic and birth order and the like playing into it, there’s even more possible chances for confusion. And, of course, if you’ve arranged it so that it’s treason to sleep with the king or queen when you are not the queen or king, or if you have stern punishments for adultery, the consequences get more severe. There should be a little bell ringing in people’s heads here, and the bell has the names ‘Guinevere’ and ‘Lancelot’ on it.
Does that mean that your royal character should never feel romantic love? Of course not. Just have him or her be a citizen of his or her world in this, as in all else. People who fall inconveniently in love with someone other than their spouse are certainly human, but they also have to deal with the consequences of that, not just say, “Fuck it!” and do whatever they want because they’re in love.
So perhaps your character sleeps with his or her lover—and their spouse looks the other way, because that spouse has a lover of her or his own, and so long as it’s not public, there’s not a problem with it. Perhaps the lover is close at hand in the court, and can meet often with the royal without it causing comment. Perhaps the couple always takes precautions so that they never produce bastard children. Perhaps no one cares because the king only frequents whores, and a whore is seen as no challenge to the rightful queen. If he had a noble mistress, now…
Or perhaps they really do love their arranged spouse, or they try and make the best of it because their personal morals are so against adultery, or they know there’s too great a chance of being caught and they’ve grown out of the hormonal teenager stage. Though I had some other problems with other aspects of the romance, I liked the way the princess character, Iselle, deals with this in Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion. She evaluates the choices for a marriage that would actually keep her in political power, makes the best choice, and sends her loyal servant to that prince with a marriage offer. No running away dressed as a peasant, and no marrying whoever she wants just to spite someone. Since she is a teenager, that makes it all the better, and a rebuke to those fantasies that insist that teenagers must always make the most irrational choices ever, with “Hormones!” as the all-purpose excuse. In our world, sure—but in a world with a different standard of adolescence, and a hero/ine trained to assume rule most of their lives, I think it doesn’t work as well.