In the royal sense, not the legal one.

It’s funny, really. I continue to be excited by the possibilities of medievaloid, high fantasy, monarchical societies in outline even though reading the details usually makes me say “Ugh” and decide not to buy that particular book. Perhaps I have an attachment to social systems that I don’t to a particular set of attitudes (for example, that having the “proper” bloodline makes a king good by default) or characters (the young abused prince who has to find a mystical object, the young abused princess who’s being forced into an arranged marriage).

So there comes a point at which I start considering how I would invent a court.

1) Know the building.

Where is the court housed? Yes, it’s important, and I think more fantasy authors need to remember it. Perhaps it’s because “King’s Court” is so often seen as synonymous with the people in it, not the place, but it does make a difference.

What kind of differences?

Some are economic, especially when you start getting into how you feed everyone (see point 2). Some are imagistic; a court placed in a castle poised for war on the borderland is going to be very different than one placed in a sprawling summer palace by the sea where no one’s had to worry about attack for generations, and it will be regarded differently by the people who don’t live there. Some are important to the plot. It might be handy to know that the hero has a secret passage in his room. And some are purely practical. If the author tells me that the kitchen is in the palace’s western wing, then I want to know why the hell the heroes are sneaking into the eastern wing of the palace to reach the kitchens at a later point in the story.

Even more than that, though, I think having a firm picture of such an important place will ground your story in its own world, rather than in the floating, generic pseudo-medieval world of bad high fantasy. If you take a bunch of generic ingredients and bake them well enough, you can wind up with something special. You can’t do that if you pay no attention whatsoever to your ingredients. Yeah, yeah, a few cold stone halls, a few tapestries, “women’s quarters” (never mind that the author does not usually imply a society so gender-stratified as to require separate women’s quarters in other parts of the book), a throne room, and you’re done.

Except not. You’ve just contributed to the tide of bad fantasy by flinging in a story that could ride on any old piece of seaweed.

If you get good ideas from research, study historical courts. There are obvious landmarks, like the gardens at Versailles, that wouldn’t be possible at every royal court, simply because not every court is in a place warm enough to support gardens like that. There are places that would be unlikely to have glass windows, because the driving force of the rain and hail would be enough to shatter them. There are castles that might be built of granite and others that might be built of marble, depending on the stones that could be quarried near there. Some courts will command a high vantage, a river, or a bay, and others won’t. But decide. Don’t leave it up to chance, or decide that your people are so important that you can totally ignore your setting.

2) You’ve got a ton of people. They gotta eat.

That often means an intense dependence on the surrounding countryside, if the castle or palace is in the midst of farmland. The peasants will send or sell food to the court. If the court is based in a city, then there might be housekeepers who do a lot of the shopping, necessitating daily trips to market. A court next to a prosperous shipping lane will doubtless draw trade from the sea, and feast on a lot of fish and crabs and shellfish and the like. There will be traders coming from other countries, bearing their goods.

Why is this important? For grounding your court, again. Even the most beautiful and lavishly decorated castle can seem to be a castle in the air if the people in it feast on roasted swans and larks’ tongues and mulled wine every day, but there’s no sign of anyone cooking anything, or mulling the wine, or picking up the dishes afterwards, and especially if you have no idea how the food gets there. No, you don’t need to take up the viewpoint of a scullion, or have your protagonist view the kitchens. But I do think an author needs to know this, especially if the whole or the majority of a story is set at a court. Once again, think of all the plot points you can use once you know where the kitchens are and what an effort it takes to prepare a meal each day. Among them but not limited to them are:

  • The kitchens as a possible hiding place for protagonists who have gotten in trouble.
  • The kitchens as a radiating place for gossip.
  • Enemies poisoning food.
  • Clues to how the surrounding countryside influences your court, once again (what are the ovens made of? How do the cooks prepare the food? What do they prepare? Is the diet mostly based on meat, fruits, vegetables, fish, grain, something else? Do the cooks have to keep the kitchen open during the summer, so they don’t swelter to death, and closed in the winter, so as not to waste the heat of the ovens?)
  • Easy positioning of important minor characters (scullions, cooks, and the servants whose jobs it is to clean up after the meals certainly have a good reason to be in the castle and overhear interesting tidbits, as opposed to random mercenaries).
  • A sense of a true ‘cast of thousands.’
  • A way of broadening your fantasy world, such as by having people talk about foods and spices that come from other places. This connects your court to the rest of the fantasy world, as well as its immediate setting.

3) How does the court relate to the monarch?

I suppose one could answer this as, “The monarch is the center of court life, duh.”

Well, yes. If you’re the monarch.

I would think that a well-developed court would have several different opinions about the monarch, especially if she’s done something controversial/is young/is old/has married someone unsuitable/hasn’t chosen an heir yet/is getting them involved in a war that most people feel is ill-advised/talks to the voices in her head. I’m always puzzled whenever other political systems are represented as having factions, but a court is either unified, or divided into two groups (the loyal ones, who are Good, and the disloyal ones, who are Bad). I’m sorry. Huh?

Social class may influence how people feel about a monarch. Nobles who know him well and could get political favors from him will regard him differently than a servant who sees him once a month or never. Gender could influence it, and with some complexity, too; I’m tired of novels where a queen rules for the first time in a male-dominated environment and gets nothing but catty jealousy from the other women in the book, while, of course, her handsome prince recognizes that she’s doing a great job. Then there are people who may admire certain of the monarch’s qualities but think she’s unsuited for the job, and people from outside the kingdom, who’ve seen the far-reaching effects of her political decisions as the people at home haven’t, and those who understand that she’s the rightful monarch but find it hard to care about that when they’re struggling to keep from starving…

As I’ll discuss in a moment, with point 4, court life can have other centers. But even if everyone swings around the monarch, their orbits can be individualized, and in many books, where the monarch is supposed to be a complex and faceted character, it would make a good deal more sense than mindless loyalty or mindless hatred.

4) Decide who the other powerful people are.

I think this is the number two mistake many writers make with their courts (the number one is relying on the generic pseudo-medieval trappings to create the setting rather than developing any unique ones). They act as if the king or queen rules alone, as if there’s some huge gap between the monarch and everyone else, and everyone has to do what the monarch tells them, instantly, or they’re an evil traitor.

Ha-bloody-ha.

A lot of our own historical monarchs had enormous trouble with their nobles, because, while they might have the right bloodline, there was no reason for historical nobles to be as cowed and awed by that as most people in a fantasy world are. They might respond that theyhad the right amounts of money and land. A king could be blocked or stymied if he spent a lot of his treasury and then had to turn for money to his nobles, who of course would want concessions in return. A monarch might travel from holding to holding and need to be feasted and housed, which would inspire resentments among those who bore the heaviest burdens. The “young and abused princess forced into an arranged marriage” cliché that’s so beloved of high fantasy has to marry someone, and while it might be a monarch from another kingdom, it would also not go amiss to have her wed a powerful noble from her own country. A duke or earl or lord or whatever title you’re using who wields that kind of leverage is going to wield it elsewhere.

Nobles in a fantasy court can certainly be ultimate loyalists to the current monarch, or solidly behind an evil usurper. That does not mean they need to. If your court is of a temper to tolerate political intrigue (see point 5), then the nobles have to be skilled at it, too, or how did they survive in positions of power more than a few months? That means they might switch their loyalties when the see the winning side changing. They might arrange to be in power through their grandchildren if they could, or the eminence grise behind an unstable throne, or the regent for a child monarch who of course grows up trusting and loving them absolutely. (I don’t get the regents who are stupid enough to abuse their authority when they have a chance to mold a child to their will). They could easily bargain with a king in times of war to march their peasant levies and not just sit at home, particularly if there’s not an actual framework of laws that commands them to march. In a kingdom run on “tradition,” as so many of them seem to be, there could easily be “traditions” of resisting stupid and unworthy monarchs, in all sorts of tricky ways. And if the monarch is weak enough, look for the nobles to herd him into a bind. The Magna Carta happened because the English barons were pretty damn tired of King John, and managed to force him into signing a document declaring that he wouldn’t intrude on certain of their rights.

Consider some complexity, please. Look away from the bright and blinding light of the monarch once in a while. You may like your crown prince or your youngest princess just fine, but that’s not an excuse (it never is, no matter what the type of character, but it happens more often with royals) for making the other characters “good” or “evil” based on how much they approve of your protagonist.

5) Intrigue, intrigue, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

There’s an art to writing intrigue. It’s not as simple as dumping a bunch of “scheming, shifty-eyed” nobles in a room and expecting them to, well, scheme, and provide you with material for the plot. Their goals:

  • Need to make sense with the world you’ve established.
  • Need to make sense with the court you’ve established.
  • Need to make sense with the relative power and position of the individual nobles, their families, their positions in court (see point 6), and any other traditions or organizations they might serve.
  • Need to achieve something.

Remember, these people don’t know they’re in a book. They don’t know that you’re setting them up just to get foiled by the heroine, or to have a plan go spectacularly wrong at the crucial moment and reveal their dastardly deeds. Therefore, they won’t go out of their way to enact complex, torturous plots that grind on and on, warn their opponents of their intentions constantly, and win them nothing at all, or only tiny gains that are undone the next day. You can easily create characters who don’t notice a fatal flaw in their plans because of their own personalities. I have never found a convincing character yet who just altered his or her actions to serve the plot and nothing else. That’s because those characters aren’t characters, they’re plot devices. Having them act stupid to keep your torturous intrigue going is just not on. The plans need to have some kind of basis, some kind of rationalization, and some chance of succeeding, either real or convincingly imaginary, and work with all the other factors I mentioned.

Likewise, remember to create convincing ways of letting the hero/ine find out about the dastardly intrigue, or join in. The two most common solutions to this problem are: 1) a mass of overheard conversations, stupid villains who slip the hero/ine deliberate clues about their plans, and fortuitous clues that the hero/ine discovers by implausible coincidences to overcome the intrigue, or 2) “inexperienced” hero/ines who just happen to be “naturally” good at intrigue, even though they’ve never entered the politics of this court before.

Both are stupid. The first one is stupid for reasons I hope I don’t need to go into, as they should be obvious. The second is stupid because it once again reduces the complexity and uniqueness of your court to any old fantasy Generica-land, where the protagonist always overcomes all the obstacles in his or her way, and is of course the smartest and best person there by virtue of being the protagonist. The individual nobles, with their individual reasons for scheming, fade into a shifty-eyed mass. You don’t have the fragile, bruised Elise who’s involved in an obsessive, codependent relationship with her husband Charles, and helps him for that reason; you just have a noblewoman who, for some reason, despite her years of taking care of clues that might reveal her husband’s involvement in democratic activities, slips up around the protagonist, who can “naturally” see through her behavior.

I think it’d be more fun to choose protagonists already involved in the intrigue, give them friends and enemies and the knowledge to navigate the terrain, and not let them win all the time. But then, what do I know? I think court intrigues should actually not be complex if there’s no reason for them to be.

6) Decide who’s responsible for what, and how they work together.

I am trying to think of the offices I most commonly see represented in high fantasy. There are seneschals, masters of horse and arms, army officers, captains of the guard, grand viziers and chancellors and regents- who are nearly always evil, of course- “advisers” who don’t always have a reason to sit on councils, court wizards, sometimes court healers, heralds, and numerous faceless servants who exist to add background or be spies or gossip where the protagonist can overhear them.

And, what’s more, all of them act independently from one another.

I find that baffling, frankly.

A court is a functioning body of government, and the monarch cannot do everything. No, not even if he’s really conscientious. He’ll learn to delegate if his court is large, or else he’s being stupid and irresponsible, probably running himself ragged trying to get everything done, and not conscientious.

This is related to the point about nobles, actually. The large gap that fantasy authors seem to envision existing between monarchs and everyone else makes no more sense in the daily life of the court than it does in the political life of the country. There have to be people who help, who handle things the monarch can’t or doesn’t know how to or doesn’t have time to, who decide what kinds of people get in to see the monarch, who perform the everyday chores that the monarch can’t be bothered with, who meet with representatives of organizations who have no particular reason to petition or talk to the monarch directly, who keep track of information, who manage problems the monarch can’t be seen associating with, who serve as trusted intermediaries with those people who wouldn’t know the queen by sight if she danced naked, and so on and so on.

They’ll have their own lives, their own personal interests, their own alliances. And once again, that they might have some other foremost concern than the happiness of the monarch doesn’t make them evil. If anything, I would trust an adviser who served the kingdom before I would trust one whose main concern was that the princess stayed happy from morning to night. The latter adviser might be persuaded to sacrifice vital money or lands or people to make the princess happy.

So, consider who runs things in your court. Know who they are, and why they run what they run; don’t reduce everything to nepotism. Consider what kinds of people they would be forced to associate with, and what kinds of accommodations they would make with them. Consider what weaknesses they would have, what intrigues they might be drawn into, who they would incline towards naturally, whether they have outside interests that might come into conflict with their interests in court…

Frankly, you don’t need a whole bunch of scheming nobles whose main concern is getting a different king on the throne. You’ve got enough friction in a court’s officers to keep you occupied for a whole damn novel.

7) Touch on keynotes other than luxury.

This applies to both characters and setting. Palaces that are nothing but rich tapestries and marble pillars and gilded mirrors, nobles in nothing but cloth-of-gold and cloth-of-silver and silk, meals that are nothing but rare fruits and meats, become wearing. They can make your court seem more airy and unreal, or unreasonably lavish; surely some things in the court are ordinary, because they don’t need to be ostentatious. They can lead to purple prose, which many fantasy authors have a sorry weakness for. They can lead to lazy characterization, wherein one noble is evil simply because he likes good clothes, or one noblewoman is stupid just because she likes roses grown in the greenhouses during the winter. Opposing them, of course, is the virtuous protagonist, who is perfectly happy to wear rough clothes and have nettles during the winter and make friends with the servants. I’m sure that it’s absolute coincidence that she winds up wearing a silk gown and a gilded crown for her coronation, too.

This is really nothing more than keeping an eye on the larger setting, not just those things that apply to fanciful ideas of a court or sound pretty- and that’s been the main theme of this rant.

I have such a weakness for good courts. Both my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay and George R. R. Martin, regularly include them. But the shallow, simplistic, irritating ones are rather easier to write, and so they’re the ones that get written more often.