No matter what genre is being written, a world is being built. Anywhere from downtown Chicago to galaxies light years away, an author crafts a setting—and out of that atmosphere, a set of circumstances unique to it. Never is this more present as in sci-fi and fantasy due to the absurd amount of work that goes into building those worlds and taking them apart to build space for conflict.
A huge part of that world is often politics—from godly rivalries in Percy Jackson to hasty survival-born groups in Lord of the Flies to the clear lines in Shadow and Bone. Politics is defined by a quick Google search simply as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area,” which gives any author a mighty broad category, and today, I’m going to present you with a brief breakdown on the links between aspects of worldbuilding to consider when developing politics.
All the Shadow and Bone fans out there know the correlation between the location of the Fold, and those who take advantage of it and profit off of it. In the show, it goes as far to declare half the country its own nation due to this unnatural occurrence.
However, geography on a flat scale is just as important. Climates affect what certain places can and cannot produce, which affects trade restrictions and perhaps leads to compliance in the event that one country’s economy becomes reliant on another for imports. Economic geography poses questions such as who is being used to produce and who is profiting off of it? Geographical politics are an integral part of the story because if the world will have multiple planets or nations interacting, there have to be dynamics between them that influence the way a character will live and see the world.
In the case of a war, distance will affect what the countries use to fight and whether or not they are able to adapt to enemy land, not to mention—again, the pros and cons of war with regards to the resources of the land. Geography and resources are a main motivation for imperialism as well, and any well-developed world needs a history that reflects coexistence and the drawing of borders. Politics builds the way everyone sees the world, down to our impressions of other nations and the people we trust and don’t trust, so consider the job markets as well. Some places are suited to easy industrialization due to a lack of already established business—others would have remained the sort that could live and earn off the land.
For sci-fi, the resources various planets may have would affect how earth (assuming there were humans in it) decides to form connections with them, whether in terms of settlement or war or general disinterest. That position would have to affect the way characters view the world around them as well as limit what they can and cannot do with regards to both laws and movement.
Building off on geography comes travel, another instance found easily in Shadow and Bone. The whole point of the Fold is that it cuts off travel access to Ravka, isolating it.
What characters have access to builds a nation in terms of who wants to go where, immigration, resources. Travel is often influenced by geography and politics, but its impact on the politics of a fictional world raises questions about why a nation or planet has what they have and how that affects social perception. There are also travel laws to take into question. How have they been enforced and who and why? If a world is plagued with prejudice as ours is, a writer can let the immigration and visitation laws reflect that. Ugly politics are a great way to build plot and bring a world to life, and the human ability to go wherever they want for however long they want is not a fair guarantee.
Travel politics also impact the economy, as does immigration. In sci-fi, citizens of a less-resourced planet would be eager to get off, so an author must ask themselves how they want it to play out. Unless all the worldbuilding takes place in a utopia, or even if it is utopian, there have to be restrictions on travel. Not only is that a great way to create obstacles for the character, there is also the effect of making the governing body more real and characterizing a country.
Oftentimes, political decisions are a result of what the people want, or impact what the people want, so think of travel and the idea of leaving a nation. Why would people do that? How can the citizens afford to go about it? Modes of travel create setting and scenery—a private jet versus smuggling through a cramped ship, and the government has great influence in what any person gets, so considering travel as a political device can be very useful.
The real world sees cultural differences and easy prejudice on a daily basis. It rises in people as simple as the food someone eats or whether or not they wear shoes at home. Cultural differences make social issues, but many problems can go further. Again, this finds itself in Shadow and Bone, where Alina, despite being Ravkan, is assumed to support the Shu. People assume she embodies that culture, their values, and since they are scared of them at the moment, put her down as the Sun Summoner for it.
The best example of this on a political scale is in the real world, with programs to “third-world countries” meant to modernize them. Way of life is seen as something that can be improved, and more powerful areas may hammer down on it. Conversely, oftentimes, countries collectively look at the cultures or lifestyles in certain neighborhoods as less or poorer, and that can influence what people are given by the government. Social norms can determine how politics in certain areas are carried out, and that is important to understanding the world a character grew up in.
There’s never a need to know a character down to what time they were born, but the world they grew up in is imperative to everything they are. For example, a neighborhood that received less or was plagued with violence or drug culture would yield a character with a mindset different to someone who lived in a culture of masking feelings and lavish parties. A character will also be prone to making assumptions about places or people based on what they are told—often through media or the news, which, in this day and age, is rather influenced by higher parties. Politics will always be a reflection of what someone does or doesn’t have, and prejudice will be the same, so when writing politics, one must ask themselves how these people work and how they choose to interact with the vast and different world around them.
In some ways, this is the most important facet of worldbuilding. There’s a reason everyone learns so much history in schools and a reason books honor their world’s histories. History is a breeding ground for prejudice and mistrust. For example, the start of WW2 being how things ended in WW1 is no singled out event. India and Pakistan's continued rivalry is also a matter of a deep-rooted history. What someone knows of a place will affect their view of them, and as stated before, politics is nothing but the way people see each other and treat each other.
Important considerations for sci-fi history involve a very specific how did they get there and how did they find each other? that will affect everything. It’s true what they say about first impressions, after all, so you want to know what planets thought about each other, how they planned to coexist and compare it to how they are during a WIP. With one fantasy planet, there’s more of an inevitability to interaction at some point or the other, but even then, the question of to what extent have they interacted with each other? If there’s, say, a war, will they be reaching out more? With historically isolationist nations, what then? History often ties to a sense of national pride, which can easily turn to a nationalistic mentality—so an author must think of that too.
A well-fleshed out history will not only impact political decisions, it will affect the way the public reacts to them. If an isolationist nation with a nationalism-fueled populace ends up reaching out for help, the people will not be happy. If a collaborative nation, full of plenty and surrounded by a mentality of do-gooders closes itself off, it will cause riots. History, or perhaps more importantly, the history that is fed to any character, will affect their views on where to go, who to trust, and perhaps even build preconceived notions that can be broken.
At the end of the day, every single character will have mindsets influenced by the politics of their nations—and will have to take into consideration the politics of other nations. From Kaz’s profit-based worldview to Matthias’ prejudice, it is what they have seen and what they have been fed by those with more power that influences them.
To make political development work into a reflection of politics in the real world, especially in a series centering around it, it must be something readers can see and place, with a tie-in, something the author could very well be able to write a “Cause of War” or “The Cause of So-and-So’s Progression to Isolationism.” This will help in creating a world readers will love to think and theorize about and will be able to more easily immerse themselves in. Since all these are factors affecting your character, small details will really go a long way.
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.