Monday, July 27, 2009

World Building For Writers: POLITICS

World Building For Writers, Or Why Everyone in the Galaxy doesn't Speak English

TOPIC: Politics

(again, from a course I taught in 2008)

Contemp? Sci Fi? Regency? Police Procedural? It doesn’t matter. If you write commercial genre fiction, then the political climate of your story world is important. It’s important because your character(s) relates to it in any way no way else does. I don’t care if it’s January 4th, 2005 or Solstice 1352 or Yelbragh 19498th . Whatever is going on politically in your story world has some impact on your story.

Some more than others. Let’s play with some ideas:

• A war or change of command destroys a long-standing monarchy
• Gay marriage is legalized globally
• Polygamy has never been a crime
• Women lose the right to vote
• Sorgs (a third gender long cast in to the role of caretakers) obtain the right to own property
• Gun ownership is banned in the US
• Legalized time travelers create a new level of citizenship…

It doesn’t end. Its limits are your creativity. Your plot. Your conflict.

Unless your story has a political plot line (Princess Leia has to find a way to stop Darth Vader and the evil emperor), the politics may be very much in the background. For the READER. But you, writer, need to know the political climate of every novel you pen, from a contemporary romance to a medical thriller to an outer space saga.

“But in a contemporary romance?” you squeak.

“Yep,” I bellow back.

Let’s say your characters, Josh and Jillian, are destined to fall in love. You, writer, know something must keep them apart in the beginning. ‘I don’t like you yet’ isn’t sufficient conflict. What is? Judging from contemps I’ve read, often is a subtly political issue: she’s a tree-hugger, he’s a corporate mogul paving paradise and putting up parking lots. She’s a nosy news reporter. He’s a secretive cop. Whatever.

The problem with writing in our current time period (give or take a dozen years) is that we’re so used to our “world” we forget the elements that build it. We forget that from the city councilwoman right up to POTUS, politics shape what we do daily, even if it’s the approval of a new skateboard park down the street, or a zoning decision that permits larger signs. Traffic lights exist at the intersections they do because at some point, some politician or political (regulatory) body decided those were the intersections that needed lights.

How do your characters feel about the mayor of their town, the governor of their state? Are your characters politically liberal or conservative? Again, this can be subtle in a contemporary novel—very subtle—or it can be a main issue. But you, writer, need to answer those questions.

Do you need those answers before you write? Depends. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Your writing style is your own. Just remember that the political climate—and your characters’ response to it—is a question that must, eventually, be answered.

If you write urban fantasy, you likely are inventing an entirely new political system, one where vampires or demons or werewolves have their own political agenda, and possibly even political party. If you write fantasy—what are the politics of magic? Would the use of magic be regulated? Taxed?

If you write outer space sagas than span star systems, you need to create a multitude of political and regulatory entities. No, one person cannot rule the galaxy, solo. It’s logically illogical. One person ruling an entire planet is even a stretch. There would be sub-governments, divisions, deputies, factions and more.


Because the entire planet, the entire star system, the entire galaxy doesn’t speak English.

Good world building must have two key elements as a base:

1 – Logic
2 – Plausibility

Where a lot of amateur SF and F writers fail is they ignore logic and plausibility in world building. The entire galaxy speaks English. All sentients look (relatively) the same and breathe oxygen. One being rules the universe.

A solar or star system is a very large physical area. A galaxy is gi-normous. The universe is, well, beyond galactic proportions. Logically, keeping in touch with and track of beings across the galaxy would not be an easy feat. Look at our own technological failures on our one planet and multiply that by thousands. “Can you hear me now?” is still the annoying war cry of cellular telephone customers. Computer systems crash. Computer systems get attacked by viruses. Yes, certainly, a civilization that is capable of star travel will have advanced communications system but they won’t be any more perfect than ours are today. They will break down, there will be dead zones, there will be technological limitations.

So the Universe’s OverLord can NOT transmit his proclamations instantaneously to his subjects, galaxy-wide. It just ain’t gonna logically happen.

The larger the scope of your novel, the more governmental and regulatory entities you’ll have populating it. As James Bond traverses the globe, he deals with the Russians, the Afghans, the French, the Bahamian government, the CIA, FBI, FAA and God only knows who and what else.

But you, writer, should know.

The diversity on our own planet is the template you can use to create your cities, states, countries and worlds, whether you’re populating a distant galaxy or recreating New York City in a demon-run urban fantasy. We have the FAA and the CIA. We have school boards and zoning boards. We have steelworker’s unions. Some countries have presidents. Some have kings or queens. Yes, it could mean dragging out your old college Political Science textbook, but you need to do that when you build your story world.

Who would hold the power in your story world, and why? In many of CJ Cherryh’s SF novels, space captains and pilots hold a lot of power because they’re the necessary link in supplying the various worlds. Economics drive politics in those books. But in her FOREIGNER series, lineage and legal assassination fuel the political parties.

In my AN ACCIDENTAL GODDESS, religion heavily influences politics. Just as it does in the Middle East on our own planet. The Taliban, anyone?

Politics also influences the creation of law enforcement agencies and militaries. A space based fleet will be of little help with a riot at a dirtside spaceport. Is local law enforcement independent or a puppet agency of a dictator? How are jurisdictions established?

Politics in your story world can be a driving force or it can be a subtle influence. But you, writer, must have it structured in your mind and in your notes, or you’ll be shortchanging your reader and your characters.

Some useful links:

Patricia Wrede’s Fabulous Questions

World building:


Some useful books for learning more about military/police:

Air Force Officer’s Guide, Col Jeffrey C Benton USAF, Stackpole Books, 2002
She’s Just Another Navy Pilot, Loree Draude Hirschman, Naval Institute Press, 2000
When You’re The Only Cop in Town, Jack Berry & Debra Dixon, Gryphon Books, 2002
Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, David Simon, Ballatine, 1993
True Blue, Lynda Sue Cooper, Gryphon Books, 1999

HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, Feb. 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

This wasn’t Fleet. This was at best a rogue’s gallery—an uncertain and desperate attempt at salvation and justice… Hope’s Folly suddenly sounded all too accurate.

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