The second part of this rant that I did last night. Another series of questions to ask about non-monarchical societies.
5) Who’s going to defend them (militarily?)
Kings do have a solution to this, though again it’s not one that a lot of fantasy writers with monarchies in their stories ever portray. They can call on their nobles and demand that they raise certain levies of troops, probably based as much on terrified farmers and peasants as on knights and mercenaries actually serving them. Or they have enough money to buy mercenaries of their own. Or they might be married to the daughter of another monarch, who will send his own army in aid. (Or the writer might pursue the course of madness and conjure up an army from thin air, but we’re talking about actual good writing here).
How does a leader who can’t just wave a hand and say, “You, raise some troops now, chop-chop,” cope with the idea of defense against the screaming hordes you’ve unleashed on him? There are a variety of ways. If you’ve got small, scattered towns, perhaps each has a local militia. Perhaps there’s a standing army in which all the people of the nation/commonwealth/whatever you have take turns serving, so that there are immediate troops to call on as well as untried men and women and trained veterans. Perhaps they have a minority of some kind who’s good at fighting and makes up almost all the troops they call into battle. Perhaps they’re rich enough to buy mercenaries, too.
The point here is to think about it. Conjuring armies from thin air is never good practice. Nor is bringing in one from outside the country if the other leader has no compelling reason to aid your society’s people. Why isn’t he just hanging back and waiting to pick this nation’s bones with the other crows? Come up with that compelling reason.
6) How does the justice system work?
Oh man, can you have fun here. If you have a complex government with competing branches, you still don’t have to have a separate judicial branch. Imagine what would happen if that council of mages I mentioned in the first part tried to agree on the proper trial methods for mages using a particular kind of magic, in the middle of political backsniping and conflicts. Would the unicorn mages’ representative trust the shapeshifters’ representative to fairly try a shapeshifter for his crimes against unicorns? Probably not. Or perhaps the council would remove everyone with such an obvious conflict of interest, leaving only people outside those branches of magic. Would they be trusted to fairly give a shapeshifter his due? Probably not.
You should know what crimes are punished most severely, what kind of penalties are in place, and what kind of protection criminals should have. Unless the society is despotic, like a military dictatorship, shoving prisoners in the cells and leaving them to starve will come across as strange. A society that is portrayed as a communal one where everyone can vote and everyone is equal should have some standards in the treatment of its prisoners, too. How do the judges protect them from assault? How do they make sure that people don’t start witch-hunts by simply saying that someone else stole from them, or is practicing illegal magic, or is looking at them funny? How do you hold on to someone who can teleport out of his cell? Is a rapist tried more severely than a murderer? Is treason considered a crime at all? Is something most readers wouldn’t think of as a crime punished? (Don’t overdo this, or you can start making your society seem like a cartoon). Do they exile criminals found guilty, or do they have executions, or do they ostracize them for the rest of their lives?
Maybe there’s no trial. One thing a lot of fantasies do is mix and match a fairly modern judicial system with a medieval setting where it fits not at all. You could have trial by ordeal, trial by combat, trial by magical combat. If you have a dictator, he could just declare that everyone above a certain height is guilty and kill them all (and then get toppled by the next revolt). Bring magic into it, and you can have judges charmed to be impartial, magical oaths that force people to speak the truth, people who can see the past and find out just who committed the crime. This is one of the most fertile grounds for invention, and coming up with a society that has truly different standards than our own, while not just being a Fantasyland clone.
One piece of advice I would give, though: Have the most important people in the society delegate others to deal with minor crimes, unless you’re writing about a very small and self-contained group of people, like a single village. I roll my eyes whenever I see the King of a whole country sitting in on every argument between farmers. He just wouldn’t have time to hear them all. And if you have a large, non-monarchical country, remember that not all law cases in the United States come before the Supreme Court, either. Have ways to insure that those council members don’t get rousted out of bed every time someone uses a minor illegal spell.
7) What does the daily business of your government look like?
I can hear the chorus going up to the skies right now complaining about how that’s so boring. Do hush. First of all, it doesn’t have to be; the tendency of fantasy governments to turn into bureaucracies is a product of fantasy authors’ sensibilities about real-world life, not an inevitable thing. You can have a perfectly interesting government. Second, you have to know what it looks like so that you will know what your war, or quest, or political intrigue, or whatever, is disrupting.
Who answers to whom? You know the highest power by now and how they transfer power, but how do they hang onto it in the meantime? Brute force is the answer in a lot of fantasies, and aside from boring your readers to tears, it’s hard to imagine that people would remain so terrified for the length of time the story usually requires. Someone will try to rebel if things get bad enough. They won’t passively wait ten centuries for your hero to come along and do something about it.
Make it more complex. You have your special interest groups in place by now (right? right?), so how does the government keep them all happy? What happens when two of them want opposing laws passed? Or the elves want a forest kept as it is, and the humans want it cleared for farmland? Negotiation, compromise, threats, diplomacy, can be just as powerful and just as intriguing a part of your story as assassination, which happens with such frequency in fantasy governments that it surprises me people don’t run screaming when they’re offered a political position. Seemingly simple things, like the government of another nation wanting permission to send their traders through this country’s territory, can becomes issues fraught with tension if, say, your country is extremely abolitionist and what this foreign government wants to trade in is slaves. Personal insults can start wars, if you write them the right way. Paperwork can be boring, but it doesn’t have to be.
Basically, know what you’re disrupting, what the heroes in your books might want to destroy forever, and what everyone who’s calmer and more pragmatic will just want to get back to.
8) How does information get spread around?
It’s perfectly lazy to assume that your government has a media outlet that compares to our modern global communication if you don’t do anything to establish that. One part of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover that she put a lot of thought into (and which impressed me) is what exactly telepaths would do all day long. And part of the answer was: communications relays. Messages would be sent from one group of telepaths to another until they reached their destination. Keeps the telepaths busy and insures that it would be reasonable for people on the other side of the world to know what was happening a few hours after it happened.
Perhaps your world has invented the printing press, and there are broadsheets absolutely everywhere. (In which case, no, it does not make sense to maintain stubbornly that most of the population is illiterate). That still wouldn’t explain the despot of Despotic Country A knowing about events three thousand miles away in Despotic Country B the instant the broadsheets are printed, but it would be a start. Perhaps you have mages whose sole purpose is to fling messages around. What happens if they decide to have a little fun, or if they get hold of inaccurate information and pass it along before checking that it’s true? Now there’s a plot I would love to see: a group of mages who are honest and true about their standards, and a group of mages who act basically like a tabloid, and blurt out that the governor’s daughter is having an affair with the deputy’s son to everyone in the country. That could be so much fun.
There are other answers, of course. Fast courier systems, like the Pony Express. Magical travel rather than magical communication; if someone hears about news and can step through a gate and be on the other side of the world in seconds, he would have no trouble telling anyone who wanted to confirm if the rumors were true, and there’s no need for communication mages. Fast messenger bird systems, though those would be much slower than the others, and more subject to mischance, like birds getting lost or getting eaten.
And how does the government keep tabs on your incipient information system? Very few fantasy societies have freedom of speech (unless you count the way the heroes often manage to get away with insulting the villains). Freedom of the press would probably be even rarer, unless you were dealing with a government that had a reason for refraining from control, or a press that had some other power base. Come up with those reasons and set them in motion.
And what happens in times of war? Is it sedition for those tabloid mages to fling around inaccurate information then? What about if someone starts a panic? Fantasy societies with fast communication can be fun, fun, fun, but you need to think about the problems too. And then there will be more conflicts, and then there will be more stories.
Man. Now I have tabloid mages on the brain.