Imperfect Governance: Adding Depth to your Setting

Government Building


With only a few exceptions, most settings have some kind of overarching government that rules over the lives of its citizens. It can be a huge dictatorial force that your heroes need to struggle against or a semi-benevolent monarchy that provides a minimum of legal enforcement and a ton of tradition for your heroes to converse about. The government in a novel is a critical setting piece that is often overlooked by many authors. This is a pity since a good government can be a rich tapestry that accentuates your background and encourages readers to speculate or it can be something more akin to a crayon drawn piece of posterboard interrupting your otherwise wonderful backdrop. In this post I’ll try to outline some of the things to consider when setting up your setting, whether from a sprawling fantasy epic or a dystopian modern thriller. Some points you should consider when designing this crucial aspect setting.


Consider the moral purpose of your government


In most planning documents, this is the only mention of the government. This is the consideration of whether the purpose of the government in your story is positive, negative, or flavorful. Is a positive or negative role, it is the purpose of the government to either oppose or support your heroes in their role. In a flavorful role, it is simply to provide a framework to guide the characters with in their interactions with their fellows. In Dark Days, the federal government serves all three purposes but is mostly confined to flavor. It is the driving engine of many of the laws that the ExoReality Containment Agency enforces, but doesn’t frequently affect the characters actions outside of those laws. This is common in modern society, where local laws and federal laws tend to blend and complement each other. If the federal government was a positive morale purpose, then it could be in conflict with local prejudices or there could be a nobler cause that only the ERC officers believe in. In a negative morale purpose, the federal government could become oppressive or even tyrannical, providing another antagonist that the officers would have to work against. 

There are certainly aspects of both in the series. The federal government in Dark Days is a mix of reactionary laws passed as the politicians scrambled to adjust to the newly dangerous reality the world was thrown in. It has positive aspects in that it does provide and care for its citizens, but negative aspects in that it also publicly outs and segregates a portion of its own population based on some pretty arbitrary rules. 


Consider the balance between the powerful and the numerous


One of the worst sins in most government settings is that there isn’t a consideration of how the tensions are resolved between the few in power and the many who provide that power. Monarchies are especially often presented as big monoliths that everyone believes in without question when the truth was that they were often balanced on a very delicate relation between laws meant to solidify the power of the ruling class, laws meant to pacify the religious and middle classes, and laws meant to provide some agency to the common citizen. The balance between these competing interests could often become disrupted by the simplest things and could provide a much deeper experience for your characters than a world in which everyone believes the king is right and just. In To Every Shore there was a great tension in characters from the socialist collective-state of Socialist Concordat as one was revealed to be a federalist that believed the nearly paper-thin federal government should be expanded during war time but their localist companion argued that such ideas ran counter to the delicate mechanics of a socialist government. Both these characters believed deeply in the government system they had been raised in but could have very differing views based on where they fell in this spectrum.


In Dark Days, we see a version of our government that is changing from a massive shift to the numerous back to the powerful. Laws considered untenable in our day were implemented during the rift crisis as the citizen-federal power balance became nearly lost. Open carry firearms, armed citizen patrols, and the segregation of a minority were all side effects of this shift. As things have stabilized, we see the creation of a new federal-level agency that overrides local law enforcement within their own headquarters, a commissioning of a federally supported education system that includes conscription of some people, and new sets of laws banning certain types of exo-reality technology and literature. As characters come into being they can have differing opinions on all of these aspects that provide depth to the story. 


Consider the level of control versus tradition


Societies have differing levels when it comes to the actual enforcement of the law. Some provide a nearly omnipresent level of legal enforcement, with lawmen on every corner and a strict set of consequences for disobedience. Others provide a very loose form of enforcement, where only the shame of being caught provides any deterrent. In the science fiction tale Sen the ChainBreaker the Humanii have an incredibly loose monarchy in which the law is largely held by the ship captains of the tribe-fleets. Enforcement was largely at the hands of your fellow crew members and each tribe fleet had wildly varying levels of enforcement. Smuggling may have been punished by a beating in one fleet whereas another would simply expect a cut of the proceeds.

Modern societies often fall far more on control than we realize. It’s almost a mandate in a mixed immigration society like America, where it is almost impossible to agree on a common set of traditions. When writing for a non-modern society it is best to be aware that many societies throughout history had little to no guarantee that broken laws would be punished. In medieval societies a person often only had to cross a border to effect what was essentially wiping their slate clean of any previous crimes.


Balance your government


This I feel is the most critical aspect. No government can exist that is wholly pure or wholly evil. If the government is perfect, someone will find a way to game the system and introduce corruption. If everything is corrupt, then the average citizen will just ignore the powers that be and rule things via mob.  Instead consider that the government is probably acceptable for the average citizen even if it is completely unacceptable for the hero or reader. Sure, the evil overlord may be throwing random citizens into gladiatorial death matches, but crime is low and taxes spent on infrastructure for those not currently undergoing conscription. The king may be a noble and wise ruler, but the military is suffering under a pay shortage and the nobles keep raising the tax rate. Instead of aiming for the ideal good or bad government, create some compromises that muddle the waters and let your characters feel some tension with their environment.


In Dark Days, the federal government has made a series of hasty compromises that drive stories forward and provide great talking points. The US Government introduced federal-level open carry laws to allow citizens to defend themselves from the monsters that now show up anywhere and everywhere. Now it has the problem of armed citizens turning minor confrontations into wild-west style shootouts. It conscripted certain types of rift-changed people into mandated ‘safety courses’ but fails to have a plan on what to do with these citizens afterwards. It tried to keep the policy of outlawing undocumented immigration, but can’t actually send back many of them in the wild morass that international relations have become. Any one of these can create tension and plot details for my characters at any time. 


In the end, how you structure your governments is up to you, but I hope you’ll take some time to add depth to yours. A little detail, a smattering of conflict or even some corruption can add layers to your setting that you might not have even realized you needed.

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