Building a Better War — Using Politics in Fantasy Fiction

You know, there was always something that really irked me about Star Wars. Through all of the battles, duels, and reconstructions of planetary annihilation devices, the audience is never directly told what the rebels are, erm, rebelling against. The galaxy is decimated, legends are born and snuffed out across the board with unimaginable death tolls, for what? They sacrifice so much to thwart the galactic empire, but we never know what they plan on doing with the victory. What government is to be installed once the Empire is destroyed?

Call me a loyalist, but the Empire did nothing wrong.

Palpatine’s ascension to Galactic Emperor was, after all, the result of a democratic vote. He unified the galaxy under one banner, yet he ruled under constant opposition of the Rebel Alliance. So, what then, would the Empire be supplanted by? Another Republic rife with the same corruption, stagnation, and incompetency that the prequels proved it to be? From the perspective of the Empire, the Rebel Alliance was nothing but a coalition of terrorists.

Alderaan, you say?

Why would the Empire build a planet-annihilating weapon in a war of attrition fought with mostly guerrilla-style tactics? It is highly possible Alderaan would have been host to many a traitor and spy, thus a threat to Imperial government. So was Palpatine truly sadistic enough of a person willing to sacrifice all that manpower and resources required to build the Death Star – twice – just to oppress his dissidents?

In the original canon, the extended universe beyond the films, it is surmised that Palpatine foresaw the coming of a massive alien invasion by a race of powerful creatures known as the Yuuzan Vong who have a terrible reputation for mass genocide and terraforming of planets. Palpatine needed something to level the playing field with such a foe. And those pesky rebels managed to blow up their saving grace in such a war – twice. Way to go, Luke.

Politics in a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away aren’t so black and white after all. Or red and blue, for lightsabers’ sake.

Neither should your own universe be.

Building a Better War with History

I’m not so sure about you, but I’ve always had a fondness for history. Learning about how humanity reached the point today has always intrigued me. I attribute this to my excessive obsessing over world building in my writing. I don’t see it as a bad thing, however. I believe that every fantasy fiction writer should share that passion: the passion to discover how deep and rich your own imagination can be – as well as the work of others. Take a look at the Silmarillion; it’s legitimately a book of lore for Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And readers LOVE it.

You can really get lost building a history for your own fiction. And to be fair, it seems to me that the franchises with the deepest lore, like Warcraft, Star Wars, or even The Lord of the Rings, have the biggest followings.

Their audiences have so much content to absorb that they could teach a college-level course on them. Think about your own work in progress. The events unfolding could be a lot juicier if they had a little bit of history to grow upon. How far back does its history go? How far back are you willing to flesh out?

With a well constructed history, what takes place in the narrative of your story has a better foundation to stand upon. It gives your setting a whole new layer of depth, and can make your universe much more colorful.
But you’re not writing a history book, now are you? You’re writing something happening in the here and now, so to speak.

It is no secret that the fantasy and sci-fi genres love to revolve around and romanticize war. To many people, writing about warfare can be an intimidating thing. Some have experienced it first hand, while others have only simulated it on a computer. How do I make a battle seem authentic? How long does this war I’m writing about last? Just how important is a supply line?

It should be known that wars are never decided after one or two battles. That wouldn’t make for much of a compelling story. They are often arduously drawn out. So, if you plan on writing a story that involves warfare, best to study up on actual wars. I would recommend reading How to Lose a Battle and How to Lose a War by Bill Fawcett.

Troves of inspirations lie within our own history books.

Studying the tactics and outcomes of ancient battles are great ways to come up with the sequence of events for your inevitable clashes of whatever factions you have involved. George R R Martin drew a lot of inspiration from The War of the Roses. Tolkien drew his inspiration from the Great War. Star Wars has a lot of allusions to World War Two, some would even argue Vietnam.

There is a nod to the age of antiquity during the Battle of the Bastards in the reign of war that is ASOIAF. The tactics employed by Ramsay Bolton during the battle were a masterful use of the phalanx formation. The clash mirrors the Battle of Cannae when the much smaller Carthaginians lead by Hannibal crushed one of the greatest massing of a Roman army by simply outwitting them. Hannibal drew out the Roman forces, and slowly retreated, tempting the Romans further and further into a trap that would enclose the massive army and, ultimately, defeat them.

As Ramsay’s army squeezed Jon Snow and his Free Folk Army, the impregnable shield wall was the constricting snake, ending life as it tightened by each spear thrust into the hapless, defenseless warriors.

But even such a defeat as the Romans faced at the Battle of Cannae, the war would go on.

Speaking of wars that dragged on, the Crusades are a must-study. Even a brief overview should do to give you a fair enough glimpse into the wars that defined an age of humanity. If you don’t have the time to take a college course on the crusades, check out Deus Vult: A Concise History of the Crusades by Gem Duducu.

It’s shocking, really, to see how easily there could have been only one Crusade. It’s equally surprising on how Islam could have been wiped from the Middle East, but wasn’t. One would think that both sides, being opposing religions, would rally all of their warriors in the name of their God and let them have at it. War is not so simple.

Neither is humanity. Humanity is imperfect, and those imperfections are catalogued in what we call history books.

Both sides suffered from petty political squabbles, stemming the effectiveness of the campaigns of war waged in the Holy Land. The early Crusaders were lucky that the Muslims were prone to infighting, because if the crusaders would have met a unified Muslim host, they would never have gotten close to Jerusalem. There were a lot of battles throughout the crusades, whether you want to attribute it to divine will or dumb luck, that could have swung in favor of the Muslims.

There were even times deals were struck between Christians and Muslims, to work for a mutual benefit. There were also times that Christians turned on their brethren, and the same is true for the Muslims. Hardly a just war of black and white. The early Crusades, arguably the most romanticized of them all, offer a lot of insight as to how many factors could affect the total outcome of a war. If the Crusaders spent less time worrying about who gets to sit at the throne of every city they sieged, then perhaps they would have been able to hold Jerusalem longer than they did. Religion may have been a large log on the pyre, but there were plenty of other factors that were the kindling for the flame.

Building a Better War with Politics

When I write about warfare, as much as I look forward to the exciting parts – the battles, the grand sieges, the clashes of heroes and villains – it is important to me to make sure the reasons my antagonists and protagonists are pitting their steel or magic against one another are equally compelling. The rising action should be as moving as the conflict. Everyone’s read the heroes gathering up to beat up a dark lord and his legions of smelly McBadfaces. Yeah, he might want to enshroud the world in eternal darkness, but why? What does he get out of it? What are those smelly McBadFaces going to do after they smash all the good guys to bits?

A better question might be who let the dark lord amass such an army in the first place? Did the good guys just wait around for him to put the rest of the world in danger? Now that I think about it, our dark lord should be commended on his work ethic.

So, you need two armies to go to war. But you’re not sure how to pull it off.

Sure, one side could be a bunch of greenskins that want to eat a few villages, and that would warrant some kind of military action. But what if you had someone convince the greenskins to eat your humans? Why would such a person want to achieve this? How did they barter an alliance with the greenskins?

You can follow that rabbit hole into a whole new plotline.

What reasons would bring two opposing groups to mortal combat? Cultural differences? Religion? Natural resources? What would make them commit to war?

This forces you to really understand the intricacies of your world building, and commits you to brushing up on your finer details. Flesh out your cultures and civilizations. They are living, breathing entities. Write them so!

Dragon Age: Origins weaves political drama into high fantasy exceptionally well. Early on into the game, your hero fights alongside his king and fellow elite warriors known as the Grey Wardens against an innumerable horde of demons. The stage is set for the battle to completely stem the tide of the foul creatures, with both a garrison of the king’s finest troops entrenched within a castle and a massive, well-armed force led by his trusted general and father-in-law to arrive later into the battle when called.

But, like the Crusades, not every party involved has the same goals in mind.

When your need is most dire, with the demons at the gate, the general abandons the fight, leaving you and your king to be slaughtered.

My point is, if you want to get your audience into your plot, piss them off. Be a politician!

And what better way to set the player against his former ally than to be betrayed by him? Especially when you learn he did it to seize the throne! I highly recommend the Dragon Age video games series if you like some politics thrown in with your dragon slaying.

When I write about war, I want to bring the reader into the conflict with my characters. Make your audience understand why your characters are in the situations they find themselves in. Convince your reader to go to war with them. In this day of age where political dramas such as The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones (not to mention the one we’re living in the pages of right now) are very popular, you can do better than the simple dark lord trope as a primer for war. Which brings me back to Star Wars.

Building a Better Regime

It truly bothers me that we never get to fully envision what authority (or chaos) rules the galaxy after the Empire is thwarted. Does the Rebel Alliance reform the Republic? Or do they become warlords over their own little slices of the star map? Even in the newest film, we never truly understand what’s going on politically. Who is in charge of Jakku?

While there is only so much time reserved for the final cut of a film, I’d hate to cut out anything that pulls the audience deeper into the story. You go to the movies to escape reality for a bit, right? Get us there!

This is where the more politically savvy writers shine. Some writers can whip up a fully-functional society effortlessly, while others come up with a generic monarchy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Sticking to what you know is often a suggested way to go about writing.

But not every fantasy deserves a democracy or a monarchy.

Take the Empire, for example. They were authoritarians. They were effective. They may have been cruel, but there are some inevitabilities that come up when you’re trying to run an administration that rules over an expanse of a billion or so light-years.

Although it was run by a cruel, power-hungry Sith, who would you want to defend you from the Vong? If you knew a massive armada of aliens were coming to enslave you and destroy your planet, would you complain about the numbers of Star Destroyers in orbit?

To prove my point, let’s take a look at the Imperium of Man from Warhammer 40K. Both are fierce, authoritarian regimes that must look after their own people in a universe full of endless threats from both forces alien, and traitorous factions within. Both have massive armies at their disposal, not to oppress their own people, but to ensure their survival. In a hostile time where enemies are around every corner, personal liberties afforded by a democracy take the back seat to something that can ensure survival.

In a universe where everything is trying to either kill you, eat you, or enslave you for all eternity, an authoritarian power is the best solution. Would you really want a democratic form of government if an alien host is coming to your planet to destroy you? Think about it. A vote would have to be held by some type of parliament, and then trickled down to state, and local approval. Who writes up the bill to ask the other branches of government to allow the resources to be spent to defend the planet?

By the time the vote is counted, you’ve been invaded! Hence, why the Empire was born from the Republic. With the Empire, someone makes the call, and an action is taken immediately against whatever threat there may be.

Of course this is an absurd example, but it makes you think!

And perhaps you aren’t writing something on a galactic scale. A democratic form of government might just be the perfect fit for your story. Everything is relative to the setting. You decide who is the king, even if a few of your characters have an issue with that. The Warhammer 40k universe offers a wide range of political ideologies from all its unique factions vying over the dominion of the Milky Way.

Politics are always a compromise. A lot of yin and yang, if you will. Exploring what you know of politics, and what you think you know about politics, is a good exercise for creating an authentic and appropriate plot for your fiction. Think about your own views, and why you really support them. What is the opposing view? Why do they have the stance they do on the issue? Harness your passions and motivations, and carry it into your writing. Fantasy fiction is an excellent platform to explore political views. You can test out whole forms of government that haven’t even been thought of yet! And you can see how they work with or opposed by another powerful entity.

Further Discussion

What form of government is best suited for the denizens of your world?

The question in itself could be a whole new plot line. Politics can drive a plot forward very effectively if it is one of the engines under the hood of your imagination.

Codey Amprim

12 thoughts on “Building a Better War — Using Politics in Fantasy Fiction”

  1. Interesting article with some good advice! I completely agree that it’s very case-by-case and depends on the story being told.

    What I find interesting is that the Empire was based on what happened in Germany (Stormtroopers ring any bells?) : a theoretically good but weak and ultimately corrupted republic (like Weimar) becomes a fascist state through an election. Similar examples are present throughout history in many dictatorships: does being democratically elected justify a ruler’s actions? (A dilemma one could examine through a story as well.) Doesn’t this just go back to absolutism and the Mandate of Heaven, except with a different start?

    Whether Star Wars’ parallels to Nazi Germany were well-constructed and explored is another matter, but Star Wars was probably meant to be a story of good vs evil. Stories with grey morality are arguably more realistic, but if one wishes to judge the writing of a story, it may be more important to look at whether it achieves what was intended as well as whether it was well-liked or interesting.

    On the other hand, there are quite a few assumptions in here which I feel would be interesting to question and explore: whether an authoritarian regime does or does not have the advantages mentioned really depends on the structure of government. And what if the Head of State is indecisive? What if the Head of State is not very bright? What if the Authoritarian state is rife with corruption (as it exists in both authoritarian and democratic states)? These would all render the state very inefficient, regardless of the existence of councils (which do tend to exist in Authoritarian states as well: human(oid)s with goals band together). So take a look at all the different kinds of ways all the different kinds of governments could go wrong, and use them! (or don’t)

    Another interesting idea is having more than one type of government in your setting, and having them interact with each other, in war or in peace. Or, to add more grey morality, have two sides fighting each other, but humanize both: you can state that one side (or more!) is clearly in the wrong while also showing that it has reasons for its actions.

    There is a scale from simple to complex, and it all depends on what you want the focus to be when it comes to how much you show – the political machinations can be hinted at, nonexistent, or the main intrigue. Even the narrator could impact this depending on how observant and/or politically savvy they are.

    • This is an excellent post!

      Absolutely true that each system of governance is a two way street, whether based upon real life examples or not.

  2. I avoid writing on politics because it is so much drama, but I can see where it would be smart and help. I really should try to do this a bit more. I am going to take your advice.

  3. Not to defend George Lucas, who is just an average story teller IMO, he knew his audience and didn’t burden them with the details. Tyrants are very often democratically elected then cancel election. All we needed to know was Palpatine and his bloodthirsty gang were opposed by a more decent and noble element of that society.

    On a broader scope, writing politics into fiction – especially if a writer wants to mirror society – can be daunting. Unless you specifically state that this asshole character is (for example) Donald Trump, people will not understand the point you’re making.

    Just my take.

  4. I know a lot of stories and movies have used politics and done fairly well. I feel like it can be a good foundation if you know what you are doing. With that being said… I would not have a clue! I have been talking to a friend who wants to write a story that is loosely about what is going on today in the US. Involving a lot of the conspiracies as if they were real. Kind of like a modern 1984 story. I just don’t know how to help her on this one. I will make sure she read this though.

    • Ohhhh how I could go into detail about how Orwellian things in our society are becoming, buuuuut this isn’t the place for that!

      There’s always someone pulling the strings behind the curtains, and those people could make very interesting characters. Especially if they have to step out of the shadows and get their hands dirty to achieve their goals

      Conspiracies are interesting, no matter how wild they can come off. They are always worth looking into, especially to see what light their sources, evidence, contradictions, and coincidences can shed. Anything can be a conspiracy, if you think about it.

      Good luck to your friend! And thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  5. Politics create this unbound grey area for its story to build up and unfold. There is always this eternal fight for power and dictation, and it provides motivation to carry out the most unscrupulous measures.

    I foresee a government who actively covers up its lack of resources by over-glorifying its small achievements, or even stealing credit from small unknown heroes to sustain its reputation and power.

  6. Oh so excellent, Cody! Thank you, a thousand camels as a blessing, thank you! Editing my final book in my series and some major rewrites happening and you nailed it. Not to mention working through the politics of my next book. So much of fantasy is about politics, it really is! Maybe that is what attracts us who write it. Thank you for such an insightful article!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Susan!

      A thing to keep in mind – and it is hitting me now as a post-publication regret – is the endgame. Speaking broadly, whenever one ponders on political thoughts one should always envision the endgame of whatever policy or stance they take. What will be the ultimate result of x or y policy? Could it be disastrous further on? Could a peoples prosper from it? Everyone should consider the endgames of their political views.

      Trickling this down to fantasy fiction, whatever factions that are in the power struggle of your universes will have their endgames, too. What does each side want to achieve?

      Having good plotting and storyboarding experience will pay off big time when it comes to devising politics!

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  7. The denizens of my world live under a monarchy, because that’s what is expected in the fantasy genre. Maybe it’s time that I rethink this expectation, and try something different?

    What forms of government would you recommend for mixing things up?

    • Think not what is expected of the genre, but what is the most fitting to your world.

      Without much detail on your world building, my suggestions won’t be that great. Try tinkering with your current system. Perhaps there are multiple monarchies vying for the same goals?

      Perhaps you have a court of powerful figures that convene to make decisions about the world. A council of sorts. Some get along, and others not so much. Maybe one wants to have more power over the others? Maybe another thinks it should be disbanded, and is willing to go to great lengths to accomplish this anarchy.

      Your imagination is your limitation. 🙂


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