Five Types of Government Beyond Feudalism for FantasySep 14, 2021
Post written by Andrew Wall.
Fantasy and Feudalism
King, queens, and nobles are commonplace when it comes to fantasy books. There is often an implicit assumption that if there is a medieval level of technology in a fictional world, some sort of feudal system will be present in a book. In this article I want to push back against that notion. Not only does good fantasy not need to be feudal in nature in order to utilize the associated technology (i.e., swords, plate armor, catapults, castles, etc.), but authors would do well to see if there are any other forms of government that fit the context of their stories better than feudal monarchies for numerous reasons, one of the chief of which is overuse boarding on cliché.
Looking Beyond Feudalism and Monarchies
In this article I highlight five different types of political systems writers should consider using in their fantasy settings instead of feudalism.
A theocracy is a governmental system in which those who are believed to be immediately guided by the divine (such as priests or those who are part of a religious hierarchy) are the wielders of power. Interesting religions and cults are as key to many fantasy series as monarchies are. Why not just cut out the “middleman” and give the religious types in your world the authority of governing the people as well? This opens up a lot of different possibilities in terms of themes for your story to explore as well as some quirky societal dynamics that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
In a council democracy, the most basic unit of community in a country (a workplace, neighborhood, village, etc.) gets together and elects a representative. This representative serves on a council with other elected representatives in the next community size up (town, city, county, etc.). This council is responsible for local policy. They also elect a representative to send to a regional council, which oversees regional policy and elects a representative from their number to represent them in the next step up. This continues until the national level, where the national council, made up of representatives of representatives of representatives (and so on), is responsible for policy that affects the whole of the country. Thus, power is delegated from the bottom towards the top. And citizens, in theory, are the primary source of power as they can dismiss and replace their representatives at any time.
This is a fascinating form of democracy that could function extremely well in a fantasy setting. The cultural values it engenders would be familiar to readers, but the shape of the society itself would still feel other/alien. There are also a lot of ways you could augment this to create some interesting power dynamics within your fictional world.
Unlike a military dictatorship where an individual makes the power of the military their own power, a stratocracy is a military government, meaning the military is the government itself. Power is derived from being a part of the military and power is distributed accordingly across the military hierarchy. This is much like the theocracy in the sense that you are using a different organization type as a replacement for a modern concept of government, but it brings with it a much more aggressive flavor. With a military government comes a militarized culture, which is perfect for any warrior society no matter the genre.
This form of government is a different take on aristocracy than classic feudalism’s. Instead of those with the money and bloodline ruling over the people, as in classic feudalism, a timocracy is a government in which those who are considered most honorable are in power. How honor is measured is a contextual question based on other aspects of your society, but you get the idea.
Kritarchy means “government by the judges.” The power of government is derived exclusively from one’s status as a judge (i.e., as someone who can mediate disputes and establish societal order through the enforcement of the law). How judges are selected depends largely on the individual system. Whatever your kritarchy would ultimately look like, the judges would be the ones with the ultimate power in society.
In this article, I have outlined a sampling of five different types of governments you can use in fantasy writing that aren’t a feudal monarchy. While going along with the common choice is not necessarily a bad thing, selecting something out of the norm will help your world stand out. If you are interested in seeing more options of political systems (because there are a TON more), check out our Society-Building Toolkit!
Not sure if the governmental system you've selected is working well with the other aspects of your world? Book a world-building consultation with me and let's chat about it!
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