A painting of the Roman Senate.

Most governments in fantasy settings are authoritarian. From feudal hierarchies to autocratic empires, readers and authors alike are used to power being wielded by a select few through force of arms, divine right, or whoever has the fanciest hat. But those aren’t the only options available. It’s also possible to build settings where the ultimate power rests with the people and politicians govern only with popular approval.

This form of government is generally called a democracy, and while that often seems like a modern concept, democracies are perfectly at home in most fantasy settings, be they based on history or devised entirely from your own mind. That said, democracies are often more complicated than monarchies or oligarchies, so there are a few extra things to consider when designing one.

Be Careful When Portraying Democracy

A painting of Greeks from the Peloponnesian War

Before you set out to create any fictional form of government, it’s important to remember that in real life, democracies across the world are under threat. This makes people particularly sensitive to how democratic government is represented in stories, which makes sense. It’s really easy to create a story that reinforces antidemocratic biases, especially when so many of us have learned to take democracy for granted.

In the vast majority of stories, it’s best to avoid plots where democratic institutions are a hindrance to the protagonist. You know what I’m talking about. The hero is a monarch or general, and they could surely save the day if they weren’t always being held back by those bleeding hearts and bureaucratic pedants in the legislature. Or maybe it’s a story about an otherwise morally upright leader turning evil because they must pander to the hedonistic mob.

Either way, these stories reinforce the idea that democracy is bad at a time when that same idea is gaining traction in far too many countries. In most cases, it doesn’t matter how well you construct the scenario or if you have a historical precedent in mind. Yes, it’s always possible for a democratic institution to cause harm, but nine times out of ten an authoritarian institution would be worse. Democracy is still the best form of government, or if you prefer: democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other form of government.

Occasionally, I’ve worked with writers who had the opposite problem: they were including democracy because they felt obligated to. If you ever find yourself in that position, remember there’s nothing wrong with a story including monarchies, oligarchies, magocracies, or any other form of government normally found in fantasy. They can even be benevolent if you’re building a more upbeat world; that’s fine. As long as your story isn’t saying that an authoritarian government is better than a democratic one, there’s no problem.

Who Is Enfranchised?

A classical illustration of a woman with a torch marching across America spreading women's suffrage.

Believe it or not, there’s no easy definition for exactly what counts as a democracy. It’s more of a sliding scale, measured in who is enfranchised with votes and how much those votes count for. At one end, you have the modern norm: universal suffrage for all adults, even if we sometimes argue what the voting age should be.* At the other extreme end, you have something like the Holy Roman Empire, where a handful of princes got to vote on who among them would be emperor.* That’s technically an election, but almost no one would call it a democracy.

Then you have the Roman Republic, where all adult male citizens could vote, but the system was so ridiculously stacked that a tiny number of wealthy Romans had more voting power than the rest of the population put together.* In the early years of the United States, each person’s vote was more or less equal in power, but you had to be a white male landowner to vote at all. Ancient Athens was a little better, with male citizens having equal voting power regardless of class, but that still leaves out most of the adult population.

It’s difficult to say which of these states technically qualifies as a democracy, but some are clearly more democratic than others, and that dynamic is important for your setting. In general, the more people who can vote and the more equally those votes are counted, the more egalitarian your society will be. Other factors like wealth and race can still create divides, of course, but if people can vote, they at least have some recourse when faced with other problems.

There’s no rule saying you have to build a world with full suffrage, but be aware what messages your story is sending by not doing so. If you craft a nation that operates like Rome, with aristocrats given vastly more voting power than the poor, most readers will accept that as simply the way things are. But if your characters wax philosophically about how these rules are necessary to protect the state from peasants voting themselves too many benefits,* it’s likely to come off as antidemocratic propaganda unless you clearly show this view is wrong.

Of course, a disparity of voting rights is a great source of conflict. If you want a story where characters are fighting for enfranchisement, go for it. You can even go the other way if you want to, where certain marginalized groups are given greater voting power as a way to counterbalance their lack of privilege. A lot of governments do this in real life, with a certain number of parliamentary seats reserved for women or racial minorities. Just remember that the group has to actually be marginalized, unless you’re deliberately trying to create injustice.

How Educated Is Your Population?

A painting of a creepy looking Renaissance scholar.

It is impossible to overstate the benefits of an educated population to a democracy. For one thing, voters with a solid grounding in economics can tell whether a politician’s tax cut is really just a gift to the wealthy, while history teaches the importance of rejecting bigoted demagogues. On a more basic level, voters need to know something about the candidates or initiatives on offer, or else they can’t make an informed choice.

This can be a major hurdle for fantasy settings, as many are modeled off periods of European history when even the elites were often illiterate and the common folk had little knowledge of life outside their home village. A good number of these settings are actually worse than their historical counterparts, as storytellers choose to focus on poverty and ignorance rather than portraying history in all its infinite complexity.*

Fortunately, not all is lost. For one thing, there’s no rule saying the people in your fantasy setting have to be uneducated, even at low tech levels. Inventions like the printing press certainly help spread knowledge, but they are not a requirement. Many ancient societies had advanced education systems, to the point where Medieval Europe was the exception, not the rule.

If a society is wealthy and well organized, it is perfectly believable that most people would have a decent education. If newspapers don’t fit in your world, powerful states might post bulletins in town square for anyone to read or even pay heralds to shout important news at passersby. From there, political parties can host social gatherings where they pitch candidates and policies to prospective voters. Such events are likely to be rowdy and full of hyperbole,* but they can get the job done.

But that’s not all! Even if you’re set on the uneducated medieval model for your world, democracy is still possible; it just needs to be smaller in scale. A random leatherworker from the frontier might not know much about what’s going on in the capital, but they know plenty about their own village. People don’t need extensive schooling to vote on local issues or elect someone to their town council. From there, local councils can choose representatives for higher legislative bodies, and so on until you have a system that runs on layers of democracy.

Education is also an option for generating conflict, especially if your story takes place over a long period of time. If your democratic system was designed with a certain standard of education in mind, and that standard starts to slip, democracy could be in trouble. This could happen through malicious sabotage or simple neglect. Either way, a less-educated populace is far more likely to vote against their own interests, possibly even giving up their democratic power altogether.

How Do People Cast Their Votes?

A black and white photo of people in voting booths.

Once you’ve handled the more philosophical, abstract questions of who gets to vote and how much they know about the candidates, it’s time to consider the basic logistics of how people cast those votes in the first place. This is a contentious issue even today, so it’s worth spending some time on when creating your setting.

Unless you’re deliberately creating an unjust system, people should probably vote where they live; otherwise it’ll be a mess. One of the many flaws with the Roman system was that citizens were expected to travel to Rome to cast their ballot. Imagine needing to go to another city in order to vote. Now imagine you have to do it without modern transport. As you can guess, only the wealthiest citizens could afford to make the journey, and even then, only the ones who lived on the Italian Peninsula.

Assuming people vote locally, you’ll need a way to communicate voting results to a central government. Unless your setting has magical communication, that probably means human messengers, either on foot or on horseback.* These messengers will need roads, rest stops, and likely protection, as unscrupulous individuals are not above trying to literally steal an election.

Even under the best of circumstances, it will take time to tally the results, and it will take longer for larger countries. Then there’s the possibility of contested elections, which mean you have to send messengers back to double-check the totals, and so forth. So you’re probably looking at a fairly long election cycle; otherwise, there just isn’t time to get everything done.

Finally, you get to decide how people physically vote in your world. Written ballots might seem like the obvious standard, and they do make it easier to confirm voting results, but they also require a lot of paper,* which is often expensive to produce. Other options include having people walk to different locations to indicate their vote or determining a winner based on which side shouts louder, both tried-and-true methods of historical democracies. You could also employ a less-orthodox option, like dropping pebbles into jars representing a preferred candidate, otherwise known as the Night’s Watch method.*

What’s the Ratio of Direct to Representative Democracy?

A black and white illustration of Gaius Gracchus.

Another logistical consideration is how much of your setting’s democracy is direct and how much is representative. Direct democracy is, as the name implies, when people vote directly on policy. Representative democracy is when people vote for someone else to decide said policy. It’s the difference between voting on which crop to plant next year and electing someone to the office of chief crop planter.

Despite what some internet memes might tell you, these are both legitimate forms of democracy, and most systems use a combination of the two. Representative democracy will probably always be necessary on some level, since it’s just not feasible for the entire electorate to vote on every little thing a government manages. Plus, this way you can vote in experts who know about crafting effective policy. The downside is that elected representatives tend to be from the upper classes and can often be out of touch with their constituents, and that’s before powerful interest groups start “lobbying” them.*

Direct democracy can serve as a useful check on the power of elected officials, especially if those officials are dragging their feet on something most people want done. A lot of progressive measures get passed this way in real life, but direct democracy can also be used for evil. California’s Proposition 8 is a particularly infamous example, where the majority voted to strip marriage rights from a marginalized minority. It’s also ridiculously easy to get support for anti-tax initiatives, thereby starving the state of much-needed revenue.

What ratio your democracy uses will depend a lot on its scale and how equitable it is. Both Rome and Athens had a system where the elected legislature would pass a bill, and then the bill was put before a public assembly for approval. That works fine for a city-state, but probably isn’t practical for laws that affect a large country, unless you want to give the capital disproportionate power. Speaking of power, while the Athenian system was actually designed to give voters a voice in policy,* the Roman model was heavily stacked to the point that popular assemblies were little more than a rubber stamp for most of the Republic’s existence, so you can consider that as well.

In a larger country where power is evenly distributed, direct democracy will probably be practiced mostly at the local level. At the national level, direct democracy requires both a highly educated populous and excellent lines of communication to function, and even then it’s a major undertaking.

From a storytelling perspective, the ratio of direct to representative democracy will affect where your setting’s political drama resides. If most of the power is exercised by representatives, then the maneuvering will mostly be done within legislative structures, except for speeches around election time. With more direct democracy, ambitious politicians will spend a lot of time out and about, whipping up popular support for their proposals.

Are Votes Cast Individually or Proportionally?

An illustration of the Gerrymander Monster.

Even settings with a lot of direct democracy will have some need for elected officials, and it’s important to understand how the votes for those officials are counted. Broadly speaking, there are two generally accepted methods: individual votes and proportional votes.

Individual voting is what most people in the United States are familiar with. Two or more candidates* run for a position, and everyone votes for whichever candidate they like best. Sometimes there are runoffs until one candidate gets a majority; other times, the winner is chosen based on who gets a plurality in round one.* Either way, an individual candidate is elected, often representing a geographic area.

In a proportional system, votes are usually cast for a political party rather than an individual candidate. Each party then receives seats in proportion to their share of the vote, and the party itself decides which candidates fill those seats, often from lists announced beforehand. To vastly simplify it, if the Red Mages Party got 10% of the vote for a 100-seat legislature, they would get 10 seats.

Which of these methods works best and in what circumstances is hotly debated, as I’m sure you’re shocked to learn. Nevertheless, we can say with relative surety that proportional systems produce governments that more closely match a country’s general political opinion. Whether that’s good or not depends on your perspective. On the one hand, more people have their views directly represented in government, so they’re more likely to participate. On the other, lots of small parties can often lead to a divided government that has trouble getting things done. A side benefit is that proportional systems are usually easier to administer, because they don’t require the careful drawing of geographic districts.

Most large democracies will have elements of both, but which you choose to focus on will have a big impact on political storylines. In individual systems, the political landscape is typically dominated by two large parties, and yet at the same time, specific candidates matter a lot more. In proportional systems, party affiliation tends to matter more than individual candidates, since each party can have a stronger political identity.

Naturally, this is just scratching the surface of all the different ways elections can be run. I haven’t even touched on single transferable votes or additional member systems. As with most aspects of democracy, you can always go deeper, especially if you’re telling a story that’s really getting into the nuts and bolts of how governments work.

How Long Do Representatives Serve For?

A black and white illustration of politician.

Here in the US, term lengths are often taken for granted because they rarely change. Presidents serve for four years, senators serve for six, House reps serve for two – it seems set in stone. But those numbers didn’t spring fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, and the term lengths you choose will have a big impact on how your setting operates.

Putting aside other factors, the longer an official is in office, the more powerful they become. For one thing, they have more time to get things done. Just as importantly, they have more time to build up influence and connections. In the US, a six-term representative has far more influence than someone who’s just entered the House. Sometimes this can even lead to situations where a veteran politician can equal or surpass other officials who are more powerful on paper. Roman senators, for example, were elected for life, and some of these elder statesmen had more influence than the supposedly more powerful consuls who only served for a year.*

Adjusting the length of political terms can change the setting in several ways. On paper, it seems like shorter terms would make a government more responsive to popular demands, and to some extent that’s true. Politicians who run for office often have to be more careful about their image. But on the other hand, newer politicians are often more vulnerable to influence by special interest groups, because they are less established and don’t have many resources at their disposal. This actually makes governments less responsive and is one reason why term limits are so controversial.

Shorter terms also tend to reduce stability for two reasons. First, officials with a limited time in office often have to go all out getting their agenda through before their term is up. This was a constant problem in Rome, as consuls only had one year to pass legislation. Second, every election is a chance for someone with different politics to enter office, potentially leading to a situation where the country completely changes directions every couple of years. This gets way more complicated if term lengths are variable, such as with parliamentary systems that allow for snap elections to be held whenever the government likes.

While instability is usually negative in the short term, it’s often necessary in the long term, as societies that are too stable can find themselves unable to address growing problems. Which option you choose will depend on the type of story you want to tell. Are you interested in dissidents struggling to change an ossified system or a society where the system itself is breaking down under the constant weight of change?

How Easy Is It to Stall the Government?

A bus blocking a highway.
Moscow Traffic Congestion by Nevermind2 used under CC BY-SA 3.0

A defining feature of many democracies is the ability of certain officials to bring the government to a screeching halt when it does something they don’t like. This doesn’t come up as often in authoritarian governments because autocrats can generally do whatever they please, while in a democracy everyone is supposed to follow the rules.

Sometimes governments are stalled through official powers, often called the veto. You would not believe how many people in the Roman Republic had veto powers. In other cases, the government is stalled through procedural tricks or emergent properties. You’ve probably heard of the filibuster, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the US for example, the senate majority leader isn’t supposed to have veto power over legislation, but they effectively do in most cases, since they’re the one who decides what gets brought up for a vote.

As with so many other aspects of democracy, how easy it should be to stall the government is the subject of much disagreement. To some extent, it can be a useful check against extremism, but it can also be a way for entrenched interests to block much-needed popular reforms. This is what happened toward the end of the Roman Republic. As Rome faced a crisis of citizens losing their farms and livelihoods, some politicians tried to deal with the problem, but conservative senators had so many ways to stall these extremely popular measures that the situation just dragged on and on until Rome’s entire government broke down.

This is another area where it pays to be careful in your stories. You can get a lot of great conflict from a scenario where the villain exploits flaws in the system to keep the hero from getting things done, but that’s also where a lot of stories go into antidemocratic territory. It’s easy to look at those situations and conclude that what we really need is an authoritarian to sweep aside all this democratic nonsense and get things done. In reality, such situations are usually caused by officials using their position to resist popular demand. The problem is rarely too much democracy, but rather not enough.

We’ve only done the most cursory examination of how democracies work in practice. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert in democracies to portray them in fiction. As with most aspects of worldbuilding, you only need enough to make things believable to the audience. Of course, if you want to go deeper, there are countless resources available. You could even get yourself a political science degree and take things to the next level. But most of us can get by with just a little knowledge and some critical thought.

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