At its core, a story is something interacting with something else — people, animals, personified objects understanding, manipulating, and loving others. Throw easy power dynamics into ruthless battles and debates and power-grabs that impact millions of people at a time, vast changes that can throw any character’s life upside down.
And out of the shadows comes the terrible and brilliant world of politics. It’s time, my friends, to build some conflict.
Growth in Fantasy
Something I’ve noticed with fantasy recently is that the plot has begun to match the character arcs better, with a bigger emphasis on interactions and relationships, from soft found family to darker romances.
Fantasy as a genre started with fantastic works, the original myths and legends often centering around gods and monsters, that had fewer literary elements than medieval Europe and a lesser focus on detail than the fairy tales we now consider, such as those of the Grimm brothers. In contrast, the modern genre of fantasy, particularly for YA, tends to be character oriented with the same intricacy in world-building we see in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a series often deemed the one to shed light on the true potential fantasy genre.
LotR and following novels change the characters through the worlds they experience, throwing Frodo (and Bilbo in the prequel) into fate-of-the-world quests. These characters are often thrown into worlds where their decisions affect people on epic bases, using quests and the hero trope.
As writers, many of us are, to some extent, familiar with books about people in power, anything that takes what is often a monarchy and throws the main character in there. That range can go from the romance-focused The Selection to books with cruelty at every turn like Shadow and Bone as well as drive us into messes such as those in Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. These books back out of the quest format due to the higher involvement of those government systems or courts, the interactions with which are frequent and mapped out.
The Blood of the Stars series, admittedly lesser known, is a Mulan retelling about a girl who disguises as a boy to compete to become the Imperial tailor. For the main character, Maia, there is not the aspect of trying to change a flawed world, as there is not with Mulan. While both make a space in made-dominated worlds for themselves, there is not that sense of global change, and by no means does that take away from a story.
The facets of balancing a character with a book are the decisions of said character’s involvement with the greater world around them and their growing into that involvement.
The Hunger Games is not a political book. It is a glaringly political series, where the government plays every role in Katniss’ life, but book 1 simply sets the stage for a girl trying to survive. It leaves a reader gasping at the cruelty and poses to set a stage for Mockingjay, where Katniss turns involved with a rebellion, but it does not try to be political.
Even if you’re never going to go Mockingjay on your readers or spark a rebellion or give your character a seat at that table, details that range from the names to the social classes to the jobs available pose as a reflection for your world and a reflection of those in power and flesh out external conflicts for a character. The danger here is that very often, your characters will want things to change back into a “better world,” and for many of us a “better world” is more like once we know, or an idealized version of the world we understand.
We can look at Shadow and Bone’s Matthias Helvar the same way too; as a product of not only his religion and society, but as a reflection of the control those in power have. He never involved himself in a rebellion, or changed everything, and his faith was not the pillar of the novel, but creating Fjerda in that religious image added diversity to the series. Under most circumstances, you don’t want all your worlds being run the same, since it creates a lack of diversity (unless, of course, they’re being run the same for more sinister reasons.)
The world a character finds themself in needs to change your character, and one way to do that is the politics of it, the same way Ketterdam changed Matthias.
Some ideas for flaws for your world/nations are:
- A caste system, or anything that determines status by birth
- Economic disparity
- Prejudice engraved into laws
- A greedy government, that may not only hurt their own nation, but others as well
- Excess pride in matters of trade and war
It’s your choice whether that just hurts your character or if your character will one day change it. Not every book is about world-changers — heroes and criminals like the Crows are just as valued and valid, but again, you do want to think about the imprint a character will leave on the world, and it on them, they end up involved in such matters.
All this to say, as a writer, your nation should have flaws, and it is up to you to decide to what extent you want those flaws fixed and who will do it.
Quick note on building politics: Many JUVEN articles have covered integral parts of building systems and governments with brilliant range and intricacy, and I recommend them as lifesavers for world-building.
is a high school freshman in New Jersey. She likes (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and is always up to learn something new! Find her on Instagram at @writing_stoot.