The second part of the ‘writing empires’ rant, since the last one got too long to pack everything into one essay.
5) “Your administrators aren’t.”
The empire will have problems with rebellious natives, travel, communication, people who are half-imperial and half-native, and other countries or empires. It will also, sad to say, have an awful lot of trouble with the people who are the cogs in the great machine—that is to say, the governors, mayors, colony leaders, and other mid-level bureaucrats.
Consider this. What kind of people will the administrators most likely be? Probably imperial, especially in the beginning, when the empire can’t trust any people native to the colony to govern themselves and act in the empire’s interests instead of their own neighbors’. (Perhaps the empire has magical controls to insure they act that way, which could provide an interesting plot hook, or perhaps the question never arises because the natives have been wiped out entirely and there is no choice for having an indigenous administrator). They’ll have to have connections, money, power, magic, patronage, or something else high enough to insure that they get a position of such trust. After all, in a colony distant from the imperial city or capital, the emperor won’t be looking over their shoulders at every second. On the other hand, the administrators will also have to have some reason to risk going into the colonies and missing out on all the advantages of living at home.
A lot of those possible motivations are not going to be good news for the colony the administrators govern. If they’re there to get rich, they’ll insure the colony turns a profit, whether or not that hurts the people they’re supposed to be protecting. If they’re shipped off as embarrassments to their high-powered families, they might turn out to have secret mad leadership skills—but it’s not likely. If they’re building experience that will let them climb higher in political office, their eyes will always be back on the empire, and they probably won’t consider the colony as home. If they came with romantic illusions, those illusions will suffer a quick and severe dashing, and a disappointed leader can make everyone around him really the hell unhappy.
Now, this doesn’t mean that there will be no exceptional governors and leaders. It does mean that those exceptional ones will be the exceptions, rather than the rules. Colonies are likely to suffer quite a bit, at least until they can start persuading the empire to accept as governors/leaders/cogs in the machine people who were born there and have a vested interest in making the colony better, instead of simply profitable or useful. And depending on the depth of conflict between the imperials and the natives, or how quickly the colonials start seeing themselves as separate from the mother country, that could take a long, long time.
6) “Who steals my reputation steals quite a complicated thingy that is liable to blow up in his face.”
A common trick in fantasy is to assign countries reputations. That particular kingdom is evil, because it’s ruled by cruel King Whippersnapper, and the hero has heard that they’ve recently started practicing human sacrifice and Satanism something that looks an awful lot like Satanism with the names changed. That particular country is graceful, refined, but fading, the very last remnant of the powerful magical empire that ruled the continent generations ago. This empire will usually have white-columned buildings and people sighing in the ruins (they might be elves). And this country over here is experimenting with democracy and is bold and decisive in all the right ways. No points for guessing what particular cultural mindset the author is siphoning off there.
For empires, the reputation tends to be polarized into graceful, refined fading-ness that the heroes are supposed to admire, or invincibility that no one can touch—unless this particular plucky band of heroes is destined to turn into a band of equally untouchable revolutionaries, of course. These reputations are used to explain why the empires act as they do. They have no power left and know it. Or they have invincible power, and that’s the reason they win all the wars. In fact, rebels surrender as soon as they see imperial troops coming, because they know they have no chance.
Then I want to know why the rebels ran up the flags of opposition in the first place. Reputations can certainly exist, but it’s lazy to use them to avoid any and all conflict (or propel protagonists into the spotlight by making it seem as if they were the first ones who had the idea to rebel). And it’s more than just armies that will give empires their reputations. Size matters, remember? Inside an empire so big, you’re going to have colliding opinions, and outside it, different nations and groups and other empires will have conflicting ideas.
Religion was, in our own world, a driving force behind the conflict of empires. The British Empire of the 1600’s and after often used propaganda to distinguish itself from the Spanish Empire, because the Spanish Empire was—gasp—Catholic. The so-called ‘Black Legend,’ that the tortures the Spanish inflicted on the Native Americans were worse than any before or since, whipped up British indignation, strengthened religious identification among Protestants (at least they weren’t like those awful Catholics, even if they did have to share space with other Protestant denominations they despised), and cemented the idea that the British treatment of the natives, whatever they did, was better. This functioned in the mother country to increase national approval of privateer attacks on Spanish ships. It made British colonists feel pious and sure they had come to the New World for completely different reasons than their Spanish counterparts. Other empires, such as the French, accepted or dismissed the Black Legend as was convenient. Meanwhile, of course, the Spanish viewed themselves entirely differently, as the saviors of the natives; if they became Catholic before they died, their souls were still saved, and that was the important thing.
Play around with reputations in your fantasy world. They may contain quite a lot of truth, but they should never be equated with the truth. And don’t let reputations function to such an extent that they predetermine everyone’s actions. Look at which functions the reputations serve, and think about what other motivations they may be aiding, disguising, or prettifying.
7) “Gibbon’s ________ and ________.”
Empires do fall. It’s been the course with almost every empire in the real world, and a good many of the ones in fantasy novels. However, the causes behind the fall of fantasy-world empires tend to be simplistic: one king is evil, one special person is chosen to destroy the evil (or good) empire, the gods abruptly abandon them, there’s some ill-defined magical catastrophe, and so on. This may be because authors often put the empire’s fall in the past, and let their characters walk around ancient ruins and say “ooh” and “ahh.” But there’s at least as much, if not more, to be gained from writing about the empire’s fall in the present and showing that there are multiple reasons working together to cause it to fall.
Need a laundry list of reasons an empire’s strength might decline and falter? Here’s a short, short list to get you started:
- A rival empire gains in strength. Spain exploded onto the scene in 1492 with the discovery of the New World and the final expulsion of both the Moors and the Sephardic Jews. By the time it started declining, the French and British had long since been snipping off little bits and pieces of it, and the wave of revolutions in its former colonies sped the process.
- The colonies diverge enough from the mother country not to consider themselves loyal anymore, and start rebelling (perhaps encouraged by rival empires).
- The empire gets into a war elsewhere that demands more of its time and attention and doesn’t let up. Think a decades-long Vietnam.
- A plague, famine, great fire, storm, or other devastating non-war catastrophe strikes at the heart of whatever city or land the imperials consider “home.” That’s going to affect morale and the empire’s reputation as well as its pure military strength.
- The empire becomes divided into rival factions—perhaps between two military or political leaders of equal importance, perhaps because a city established elsewhere unexpectedly starts flourishing—and breaks into bits.
- Trade changes/a resource diminishes/someone finds another source of a product that the empire once had a stranglehold on, and sells it cheap and far.
- A boom of technological growth leaves the empire reeling and unable to change fast enough to accommodate it.
- A philosophical/theological “revolution” makes people start questioning old strictures, including inevitably some of the ones that bind the empire, and they no longer believe they have to obey the force of tradition. Think the Reformation, which spurred some countries to become militantly Protestant and urged Catholic nations into a defensive stance. Think the French Revolution, which inspired anti-monarchical ideas that led shock waves far into the 1800’s.
- Internecine conflicts take up the empire’s attention. Surely, if you have a bunch of bored, jaded, highly educated imperial nobles, one of them is going to get into trouble sooner or later. It could be as severe as a civil war. It could be the noble making a fuss about the imperial family’s bloodlines. It could be multiple and multiplying schisms, like the “heresies” that plagued the early Christian Church.
Imagine several of these happening at the same time, or one acting as a catalyst for the others. A noble starts a heresy, the church persecutes it, nobles are killed and drag their families into it for revenge, a famine at the same time insures the peasants are restless and willing to listen to the heretics, a distant colony sees the imperial chaos and starts revolting, a rival empire seizes the opportunity to offer military protection to the colony in exchange for a juicy bit of land, and the empire doesn’t have enough food to feed the soldiers due to the famine and not enough warm bodies to fill the army, either. If you want a great big explosive story, writing about an empire’s fall is right up there. And I haven’t even touched on the harm that magic and non-humans in a fantasy world could do.
Seasonal variation is next, and then it’ll be the start of another poll-time.