Just on royals, this time.

1) Establish the source of royal “exceptionalism.”

If you look at the history of our world, the means by which royalty maintained power often weren’t as simple as they are in many fantasy books, where the characters decide the ruler is a “good king” or “bad king,” and respond accordingly. Some relied on a tie to a previous royal family. Others claimed divine right, which depended on religion and would have fallen flat without that context. Right of conquest may have been the most brutal form, but also one of the most practical; many people would know where they stood with a king who had conquered using his sword, and was ruling because, well, do you have more men than he does?
My point here is that royalty is often treated in fantasy as a literal castle in the air. The royal family is special and deserves to rule. Why? Well, the reader doesn’t know, because no one ever questions it. On hearing that the heroine is a princess fleeing her evil usurper uncle, the peasantry, or the mercenary fighter, or whoever she finds, is ready to lie down and die for her. We know that they hold royalty in high regard, but not why. And because this isn’t Earth, and most of the time isn’t even a society based closely on one Earth country, we can’t just assume that the reasons are medieval ones.
Most of the time, given the scant facts that people living out in small villages or faraway towns might know about the royal family—they’re powerful, they have a lot of money, and, if the princess is fleeing, they’ve been forced out of power—it would make more sense for them to capture her and carry her home. The usurper would probably pay them handsomely. If her parents are still in power and she ran away to fulfill some prophecy, they’d probably be glad to have their daughter back, and a rich reward would likely be in order.
Oh, and that bit about prophecies being linked to the royal family and that’s why they’re special? Drop it, please. By now, it’s not a dead horse, it’s a skeletal horse, and oftentimes the writer doesn’t handle it correctly, anyway. The family isn’t prophetic because they’re royal and therefore have the money and power to get things done; they’re royal because they’re the objects of a prophecy. Why the fuck would anyone give power to one bloodline for several hundred years just because of a bit of pretty doggerel?

2) Decide how much power the monarch really has.

Even in a so-called absolute monarchy, it might not be very much. This is one thing some fantasy authors do right: have an adviser around, usually the uncle—what is it with making uncles evil, anyway?—or the vizier, who takes over more and more power from the monarch. The problem is representing this as always a bad thing, especially when the monarchy is less than absolute.
Once again, a lot of fantasy authors approach things ass-backwards. Instead of coming up with a society that works in a certain way and then explaining what happens when a conflict springs up, like a vizier taking power from a king who’s supposed to rule by himself, they come up with “good” and “evil” people, and then say that taking power from a good one is bad and taking power from an evil one is good. It’s a double-standard, carelessly and shoddily applied, and in at least a few fantasy books I haven’t seen much difference between the rightful heir and the monarch who’s ruling. (The puke-worthy Tamir Trilogy has a king who is, of course, evilevilevil because he’s not a woman and has quite sensibly eliminated most of his female royal relatives as threats to his power, but on the other hand there’s not much active suffering under him, and the heroine doesn’t have any mad leadership skillz. Why the king should not be on the throne, other than a stupid prophecy declaring that he doesn’t have the right set of genitals, is a mystery).
Build up a good system of power. Show what bad things happen when that system crumbles. That way, your audience will be prone to dislike the person disrupting everything for personal gain, and you’re not trotting out that tired old line about people having to cheer for your prince or princess because he or she is “good.”

3) Stick to the damn inheritance laws.

This doesn’t mean a particular set of them, but whatever set the author makes up. Don’t create an exacting set of principles for royal inheritance and then declare that, because your heroine happens to be so wonderful and special and perfect, everyone wants to make her queen despite her not coming from the direct line of the family, which would normally inherit the throne. Royal inheritance, like magic, can affect a lot of the plot, and shouldn’t be fucked over just because you want another way of making your heroine special. (Making people special, as opposed to interesting, is overrated).
Some questions you might want to answer:

  • Can either gender inherit the throne? Why not?
  • What happens if an heir dies in his or her prime and leaves young children behind? Who becomes regent? Why? At what age does that person hand over the throne to the heir, and why? If there are several royal children, and no clear parental will, how does the regent choose who becomes the next monarch?
  • Does age matter?
  • What’s the law on bastard children? (This seems to be one of the biggest places where authors cheat. Decide, and decide early, whether a legitimization process for bastards exists. If it doesn’t, then resist, yea mightily, the temptation to put your bastard hero on the throne instead of a distant cousin).
  • If magical talent plays a part in it, why? Magical talent doesn’t equal great intelligence, good leadership, or ability in statecraft, after all.
  • Is there a direct line—that is, would preference always go to someone descended from the legendary second son of the first king, rather than the elder son or any daughter? If one line is preferred exclusively, then the other lines wouldn’t start inheriting until everyone in the direct line was dead.
  • Know at least the first five people who stand to inherit the throne and why.

Royal successions are and should be touchy times, given what chaos could break out if two heirs had equally good claims. Leaving your inheritance principles up in the air is just asking for trouble, and for leaving big ol’ plotholes in your world that your audience will spot.

4) Remember that few royal families endure forever.

England alone can provide an example, if that’s what you’re looking for. Parliament invited in William of Orange from the Netherlands in 1688 and George I from Hanover in 1714 to take the throne, and actively tried to shove the Stuarts out of power in the 1640’s. At other times, the direct line died out, queens ruled only because their elder siblings had died (Elizabeth I was actually the third choice among Henry VIII’s children for the throne), and monarchs were forced into exile. Real royal history can be perilously exciting. Fantasy royal history seems to be deadly dull and boring, with the same line of monarchs ruling peacefully for century after century until an evil usurper happens along. Then it’s a blip on the radar screen, because they find the runaway princess or the secret hidden peasant heir, and things go back to normal.
Try shaking things up a bit. Instead of sweeping in and saving the royal line whenever it totters, let it die out. Then your peasant hero, who hopefully is a real peasant hero and doesn’t have some secret stupid trace of royal blood in his background (see point 5), can establish a new dynasty without worrying about some mad gibbering king in the background. Let a barren queen be barren. Let the Dark Lord hunt the old royal line to death. Let monarchs die in battle, be exiled, be executed, run away, or die of food poisoning. Hell, the sheer number of kings in fantasy worlds declares that at least some of them can’t have been offed by the Dark Lord or the evil usurper.
The excuse for an everlasting royal family in fantasy is often, “Well, the Middle Ages didn’t change a lot.” But that’s a case of people taking a narrow focus on a few things—often technology—and declaring that because the pace of change in those centuries wasn’t the same as our pace now, families must not have changed either. Let me blow that idea a very large raspberry. In a world with danger and magic and battle and poor hygiene lurking around every corner, people should die more often, and it strains the bounds of believability to hear that the royal family has produced single male heirs in the direct line for four thousand years. (David Eddings is the object of my very pointed stare here).

5) Don’t use royal blood as an “explanation” for a supposedly low-born hero.

It’s not clever, it’s overblown, and it has really nasty implications. Satisfied?
This is one of those points where the number of authors using the convention has influenced readers of the books. It’s not clever, now, to hint that your “orphan” hero is really of royal blood, and so destined to save the world and rule the kingdom. It’s appeared in so many places that the subtlest clues the author plants often won’t make reader suspicion go away. (Also, most times, authors think they’re being subtle when they aren’t… but I digress). If you want to use it mainly as a cool plot twist, you should be aware that that time has really passed.
It’s also another place where authors approach royalty ass-backwards. Instead of showing why everyone fears and honors and is in awe of royalty—or, hell, elevating the peasant hero to the heights and showing how dizzied he is by his change in status—they expect readers to embrace royal blood as the final proof that he’s ready for the throne. Once again, it’s a sacrifice of an interesting person to the specialness virus, and writers make it even worse by trying to make the announcement of the hero’s royal blood dramatic. For sheer percentage of fantasy scenes that turn into purple-prose-filled melodrama, these have to be the kings.
Finally, the nasty implications bit. So your hero has struggled through blood and sweat, has defeated his enemies, has inspired his allies, has done many good deeds, has defeated the Dark Lord…but, of course, he can’t possibly be fit to rule unless his ancestors fucked the right people. Never mind that it doesn’t make any sense, since the hero’s immediate background and upbringing are usually completely peasanty, and he can’t be a “natural” king any more than his identically-raised neighbor would be. Never mind that it might have been centuries since that oh-so-special fucking, or his ancestors might have been people whom no one would have trusted with the throne, or that he is a perfectly fine character without this extra, clumsily added trait. Never mind that the final, really nasty analysis is that he’s not a hero because of what he does or believes; he’s a hero because of who he was born, something he didn’t choose and can’t change. What a wonderful implication!
Now you know why I have the urge to shred books containing that plotline.
Perhaps peasants shall be next.