These are the kinds of worlds that I prefer to build, just because I find monarchies overused (and sometimes ending up in places where it seems that it would make more sense to use another form of government, like far-future science fiction). Also, it forces you to rebuild from the ground up, and carries your world out of some of the most tired stories, such as the peasant-who’s-the-secret-heir plotline.
1) Who rules?
This may seem obvious, if you’ve got a society based on socialism or democracy or some other system in our own world. Remember that even our own world interpreted such systems differently in many different places, however. And remember as well that unless you’re writing an alternate Earth or a world that touches on Earth, there aren’t theoretical models like Marx and Paine available to hang the systems on.
So. How does your system of rulership work?
Does it have a Parliament, a Congress, a Council? How are they elected, or otherwise chosen? If it’s voting, can anyone vote? (This is a good place to make some of the restrictions of your society clear. It was only in the twentieth century that most countries granted women the right to vote, and it’s still not true in some places. There are still restrictions in place by age. In a fantasy society, it might be by either of those, or by race, species, amount of magic, eye color, or almost anything else). How do people assure that the voting isn’t tampered with? Have they invented secret ballots?
If the society is socialist, what kind of community does it serve? Few fantasy worlds have advanced enough technology to require factory workers, so it will have to be something else. Farmers? Serfs? (Although probably not, or that would imply that there’s some other society in place, and the serfs wouldn’t have much freedom). Tribes? How much of the community has to make a decision for it to stick? Does everyone have an equal voice, or are there restrictions in place as for voting? What is the wealth that would be equally distributed among everyone, and who makes the decisions of distribution?
If your rulership system isn’t like that, but is, say, a council of the elders, why? Does your fantasy society also have the belief that age= wisdom? If it’s patriarchal, are there the numerous religious and social beliefs in place to support that which exist in our own world? (A patriarchal society would be a lot more fragile without something like the Judeo-Christian base, especially if the women of that species were equally strong, in body or magic). Same for a matriarchy, but in reverse. How large an area do they rule? Are the people in a distant village compelled to take orders from the rulers of a central village, and why?
This is one reason that I find depictions of, say, simple elves living peacefully in the wilderness and ruled by their elders boring, especially when they have twentieth-century ideals. There are no answers to the questions of why they obey the elders. Develop a base, traditional or religious or political, and be able to say why it’s powerful. Otherwise, the society is just a paper bag stretched over cardboard, liable to collapse if the reader breathes too hard.
2) How do they keep the system stable?
Monarchy has a blood system, though of course real-world ones have often proved to be much less stable than most fantasy ones seem to be. If you create a different society, you’ll have to know how it keeps from erupting into civil war every four years, or six, or ten, or one hundred. You can leave loopholes for civil war to erupt near the time of the story, of course, for a more exciting plotline, but a system so unstable that it crashed and burned every time there was a change in power would give people no good reason to return to it.
Again, too, know what base the transference of power rests on. If you have a society ruled by a council of mages, and they choose their favored successors to take their places, what’s to keep a jealous and more powerful mage from simply rebelling? Perhaps there’s a ceremony that binds the favored successor to the council. Perhaps the council building is invulnerable to attack. Perhaps the mages are priests as well, and rely on a tradition of their council members being god-chosen, or supposedly god-chosen, to keep disagreement at a minimum.
3) What checks and balances are built into it?
And yes, you can study the American system for an example if it’s the one you’re familiar with, but it’s not the only one in the world. The basic notion of the branches of government keeping watch on each other and having the power to deny each other things is valuable, however.
Let’s go back to the council of mages. First of all, I hope you have an odd number of them, because otherwise there might be constant tie votes, and how would you break them? But even with an odd number, they probably shouldn’t all cooperate with each other. Perhaps they keep watch on different branches of magic, like shapeshifting, magic to do with trees, magic to do with the sea, magic to do with dragons, and magic to do with unicorns (to pluck some bland examples from the top of my head). What happens if the dragon mages want to clear some forests so that the dragons have more room to hunt? Or if rogue shapeshifters have been changing into unicorns, sneaking close to the real ones, and killing them for their hides? Do the council members just shout at each other uselessly, or always sneak around behind each other’s backs?
They shouldn’t. See point 2 again; a system that can’t maintain itself somehow isn’t a reliable one, and in the case of mages or elves, who are often portrayed as living longer than non-magical humans, it would be especially disastrous, since they should have the experience to see it doesn’t work. Perhaps disagreeing council members can only approach each other in certain venues, or the first one to attack the other is judged in the wrong, or the forest mages have clear right to all the forests on the west side of the mountains and none on the east. This will have to do with many other smaller things, like precedent, how the council makes laws, how powerful the magic of each branch is, how powerful each individual member is, what personal grudges they might have against each other, how they got in power in the first place, and on and on.
There’s probably no way that a fantasy world-creator can anticipate every possible loophole in her system, the same way that there’s probably no way to create a society that couldn’t be overturned by a civil war somehow. However, you should address enough of them that your system isn’t obviously a piece of Swiss cheese.
4) What competing powers do they have to work with?
This is something that even fantasy writers with monarchies often forget. The king might have to face a Dark Lord, or a usurper, or both at once. Sometimes an author will cast a nasty and intriguing set of nobles in there. However, there appear to be no special interest groups and no one of any comparable power in the kingdom otherwise.
Read medieval history to be cured of that. There were many times that a strong baron could be more powerful than a weak monarch. Other nations could threaten war, or snatch bits of a kingdom’s land, and they’d certainly try if they thought they could get away with it. The peasants might rebel. The outlaws could make the roads trying, and unscrupulous knights (which was most of them) would kidnap important people and hold them hostage for ransom. People of other religions were seen as threats, the Jews distrusted and the Muslims feared and sometimes Crusaded against. And always, always, there was the Church, wielding temporal and spiritual power both and scoring victories over the monarchs when it could. It wasn’t until the Renaissance and the weakening of the Church that things like King Henry VIII declaring himself independent of the Pope could happen. You got threatened with excommunication otherwise.
So where are these threats in your world? If your society is non-theocratic but has some kind of religion, surely the church and the state won’t always agree with each other, and not all the clerics will be candidates for your world’s equivalent of sainthood. There may still be rebels, though perhaps they’ll be city workers instead of peasants. There will be people who are powerful in ways that the system might not run on, such as rich people in a meritocratic society, and they’ll try to take something for themselves. Add in religious, racial, linguistic, or other kinds of minorities, and there’s another possible problem. There will be people who don’t like the law and have to be punished by it, and probably will be resent that. There should be threats outside the borders, too, and they don’t all have to be minions of the Dark Lord. Adding in a perfectly mortal but military nomadic people, like the German tribes that sacked Rome, could give your President some uneasy dreams. Add a leader like Genghis Khan, and they could become a nightmare. And then there’s magic, which could easily raise all the stakes times ten.
I’ve mentioned before that I find it particularly aggravating that fantasy authors tend to have their heroes or heroines unite the disparate “good” peoples by basically waving their hands and saying some dusty proverb, after which the leader follows them around like a puppy dog. Monarchies can squeak by by invoking something about the hero or heroine being the true King or Queen of everything (though Tolkien’s the only convincing example I’ve ever seen of that, and even then Aragorn didn’t rule the whole world). So destroy the monarchy, and what’s left? How is the council of mages going to persuade the necromancers, who refuse to have a council representative because the original council insulted them so badly, to ally with them instead of helping the invaders from over the sea? There should be some pride-swallowing and negotiating—the kind of thing that happens all the time in real-world politics, though very rarely in the single-threat societies that fantasy portrays.
Didn’t get to everything I wanted, so I’ll probably do another part on this tomorrow.