This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.
Historically, there have been many monarchies – from iron age, to medieval, to pre-industrial era, to contemporary monarchies.
Monarchies can be a short hand so you don’t have to describe governance arrangements in detail (as can other types of governance that your readers will be familiar with), then you can focus on the characters and their goals. Fiona McIntosh said of governance by monarchy in her fiction: “It’s already set up as a framework and off I go.” The panelists discussed that monarchies tend to be more entertaining for stories than elections and committees, suggesting that if you have a meritocracy with competent leaders the story possibilities aren’t as exciting. This point is of course open to debate but, regardless of comparisons various types of governance, fictional monarchies can provide a lot of opportunity for story conflict.
The following five points types of character motivations/goals were discussed by the panelists in relation to fictional theocratic monarchies. However I have adapted them below, as they can apply equally to secular monarchies/dictatorships, representative democracies (based primarily on freedom or based primarily on governmental control), single-party dictatorships, democracy by direct vote on all official government decisions, and so on. Issues of governance, used in a fictional story, can provide story possibilities such as characters who:
– use the excuse of tenets, rules, theories or laws and claims of access to the source of them to justify their actions
– follow tenets, rules, theories or laws
– manipulate tenets, rules, theories, or laws which other people follow
– try to take down tenets, rules, theories or laws ‘from the inside’
– openly oppose tenets, rules, theories or laws
For each of these motivations/goals there can be characters who:
– strongly believe in what they’re doing
– are used as pawns
Glenda Larke said she likes readers not knowing what the government/political system is in a story. Duncan Lay said that, in one of his stories, “the King is there only as long as people will tolerate him.”
Ultimately, monarchs hold their position through the loyalty of many other people. Although, there are fictional scenarios in which a monarch could use technology or magic to command without the support of others. Monarchs are typically like the chief of chiefs in a particular area of land. When power is concentrated heavily in one person, imagining a villainous character with a taste of power who wants more is just a short step away.
There is plenty of contemporary monarchy conflict to draw from for story ideas. For example, in Malaysia the King is elected by Sultans and it just takes disagreement among the Sultans for major conflict to arise.
In fantasy stories, magic can be used to manipulate people in powerful positions – whether monarchs, their family members, their advisors, their lords.
One of the panelists mentioned that the Italian mafia is like a political dinosaur, as it is a continuation of loyalties and control of resources which has not been fully supplanted by the Italian government. This raises the issue of contemporary ‘monarchies of the mind’ in which a single person, organisation or informal group may not be able to assert their control over a large area of land but may be able to assert their control over a large number of people, who are dispersed in areas of land controlled by one or more countries.
You don’t have to strictly base the governance arrangements in your story on any actual circumstance which has happened. As Fiona McIntosh advised, a novel is not a textbook; you can play with it and change whatever you like. Although, you can do detailed research for your fiction, as Kate Forsyth mentioned she did on Mary, Queen of Scots for her novel The Puzzle Ring.
The panelists discussed the difference between a kingdom and an empire, and Fiona McIntosh described her Valisar trilogy as being about a kingdom being turned into an empire. There are various definitions of kingdom and empire. A kingdom could be broadly described as a distinct area populated by a distinct population who interact with one another and often share similarities in behavior, language and general opinions with official power held by a single person, while an empire could be described as multiple kingdoms for which official power is held by a single person. In contemporary times, with fast and widely available travel as well as fast and widely available telecommunication, ideas of cohesive kingdoms and empires are less appropriate.
Fiona said, in a recent interview with The Australian Literature Review:
“I like writing about power. It seems to emerge from all of my stories whether I’m writing about the power of a serial killer over his victims in a crime thriller to the seductive power of money perhaps in historical fiction. We discussed what makes a good epic fantasy with sovereigns and so on at Aussiecon and I reflected that writing about power was a mainstay in fantasy and why monarchs and realms made the best playgrounds. The next step up is empire of course. I’d dabbled a little with it at the conclusion of The Quickening and rather like this notion of ‘absolute power’ and answering to no one. Percheron which came next certainly reflected that – the Zar in my tale was answerable only to his god and some of the events that took place showed how power corrupts. It felt extremely natural to keep exploring the idea of empire in my fourth series but I chose to do this through the actions of one man, how he achieves empire and how it affects other people and ultimately him as the new emperor.”
The Pillars of the Earth is a prime example of the intricacies of a kingdom, involving the competing concerns of lords, earls and monarchs; monks, friars, and bishops; merchants, builders and entertainers, and so on. A kingdom is far from being as simple as one person ruling everyone else in the kingdom.
For more info on empires from various times and places (including a range of links), you can read the article On ‘Steal the Past Build the Future: New Histories for Fantasy Fiction’.
NEXT: On ‘Hand-waving Rule Bending and Other Dirty Tricks of Hard SF’
The Australian Literature Review