Podcast Episode 14.1 – How to Create Sovereign Powers


Episode 14.1: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create sovereign powers like kingdoms, dictatorships, republics, and more. This includes what sovereignty is, how it is gained and lost, the divine right of kings, some roles like head of state and what each means, and branches of government.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What sovereignty is and why it matters
  • The difference between external and internal sovereingty
  • How sovereignty is gained and lost
  • What the divine right of kings is
  • What a head of state and head of government are and how they differ, and why you should care

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Episode 14.1 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number fourteen, part one. Today’s topic is how to create sovereign powers like kingdoms, dictatorships, republics, and more. This includes what sovereignty is, how it is gained and lost, the divine right of kings, some roles like head of state and what each means, and branches of government. This material and more is discussed in chapter 5 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

What is Sovereignty?

To talk about sovereignty, we naturally need to understand what sovereignty means. Basically, it’s the right to govern oneself without outside interference. It’s also a question of recognition, both from other countries and from the people within its borders. This is known as external sovereignty versus internal sovereignty. We’ll talk about both of these in more detail now.

External Sovereignty

A sovereign power may or may not be recognized as having sovereignty by other powers. In other words, we can’t just buy an island somewhere, declare ourselves the king and have sovereignty because other, actual sovereign powers may refuse to recognize that we have this sovereignty. There are some reasons why they may refuse to do so.

Exclusivity is one of these reasons. If two sovereign powers are contesting an area of land, that means that neither of them is recognizing that the other one has sovereignty over that land. Therefore, neither of them have sovereignty. Of course, a power could have sovereignty over other lands where that is recognized, but when it tries to take over another area of land, its sovereignty over that particular area is not recognized.

There is a modern example of this where Russia has sovereignty over many lands, and there was another country that was independent and had sovereignty, but Russia decided that because its citizens lived in that country, that this other country belonged to it. So, it invaded and took over that country. And it felt that it had the right to do so, but most of the rest of the world disagreed. In this instance, what Russia was doing was claiming that it had sovereignty over that country and, at the same time, it refused to recognize that that country had any sovereignty of its own. Since much of the rest of the world, such as the European Union, did not agree with this, Russia was subsequently punished and kicked out of the G8 summit, which became the G7 as a result.

So, if two powers are claiming sovereignty over something, or somewhere, then one of those sovereign powers must be destroyed, or it must be engulfed by the other, or otherwise proven illegitimate. Otherwise, neither of them is truly sovereign. Two powers cannot be sovereign over the same territory. One of them has to give.

Another factor that can come up is that sometimes a sovereign has the legal right to control a territory, but it doesn’t have that actual control due to a lack of military. Their military may be insufficient to control that territory. This is something that comes up in war when one country attacks another and drives them out, but other countries see the invaders as exactly that – they are invaders who do not actually have a sovereign claim to that territory. Sometimes, when the war is finally over, it’s because allies have kicked out that invading country on behalf of the country that was invaded.

I said that in a way that’s a little bit confusing, so let’s use an example. This may not be historically accurate, but let’s say that Germany invaded France and expelled the French nobility so that they were no longer there, but the rest of the world did not recognize that Germany now had sovereignty over France. The rest of the world might have thought France has been invaded and they need to be properly put back where they belong when it comes to the rulers. So, therefore, French allies might have joined forces with France and helped expel the Germans. In this case, the reason for this was the question of sovereignty. France’s sovereignty over that territory was recognized by other countries, but Germany’s claim on sovereignty over French territory was not respected.

During this war, it’s possible that France’s army would’ve been defeated. And, in that sense, it would have this legal right over that territory, but no longer have the military might to enforce that sovereignty. Therefore, it would have to turn to allies to help it. If those allies agreed, then they would help. If they did not agree, then Germany would be successful in taking over that territory. Now, just because Germany has taken over France, that doesn’t mean that other countries immediately recognize that it has sovereignty over France, but, in time, they may.

Now, rather than this being a military issue, there could be other reasons such as a population that is being uncooperative. Perhaps Germany is trying to rule France, but the French citizens are just being incredibly difficult and rebelling all the time. This could make it difficult for Germany to exert the sovereignty that it is trying to claim, even if Germany has defeated France’s military.

We’ll be talking about internal sovereignty in a few minutes, but, basically, that’s what we’re hinting at here. If Germany now possesses France’s territory, but the citizens of France do not recognize that they are now citizens of Germany, then there’s a bit of a problem. The territory itself, the people in it, are not recognizing Germany’s claim of sovereignty.

It’s also possible to achieve sovereignty but not be independent due to needing help from other powers. In fantasy and science fiction, we probably don’t like this idea because we want someone who is weak to be overtaken by a nefarious kingdom that our heroes can then try to destroy. So, if a kingdom has sovereignty but it needs a lot of help and is, therefore, not independent, it could be taken advantage of by another sovereign power. Or, in the case of our fantasy and sci-fi settings where we want more aggression, then it could just be taken over.

But there are times when a large country, like the United States, is benevolent toward other countries and trying to stand them up as a democracy, for example. One of the reasons that can happen is for ideological reasons where we prefer democracy to spread throughout the world as opposed to authoritarian governments proliferating. Therefore, if there is what we consider to be an evil regime that has fallen, and a new government hasn’t taken its place yet, but they show an interest in democracy, we might help them try to achieve that democracy. In this case, what we would be doing is showing them respect for their culture and their own sovereignty. And, even though they need help from us, we are providing that without just trying to take them over.

The kind of assistance that one power can lend another could be military, it could be technological – which is especially interesting in science fiction – or it could be humanitarian. Or, in fantasy settings, it could be magical assistance. Maybe the wizards of that sovereign power don’t have anywhere they can get schooling, so we allow them to come to our country for that. The same could be said for the ability to pilot spacecraft. Maybe they don’t have the training facilities, but they’ve got people who have the talent. So, we provide that for them. We give them the training. Maybe we even loan them some ships or help them start their own industry. The leader of such a sovereign power, such as a monarch, might want military aid that he has to bargain for by offering something else, such as crops or natural resources.

One thing that we can gain from all of this as world builders is that we can start thinking of alliances that different sovereign powers might have because of the ability to trade for something that they don’t have in their territory. So, for example, if your sovereign power has no large forests, then they’re going to be at a loss for the kind of wood that might be needed to build wooden ships if we’re in a fantasy setting. A sovereign power that has no mountains might have a lack of mines and, therefore, no ore to build technological weapons or spacecraft. This is one way that the terrain of a sovereign power can be used to help us create more relationships that make sense.

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Internal Sovereignty

Now we should talk about internal sovereignty, which is whether the sovereign power is recognized by its own subjects. In more extreme cases, people might overthrow the ruler, or murder him, imprison him or even exile him. As storytellers, we tend to like these more extreme versions, don’t we? If the person who has been overthrown still lives because they’ve been exiled or imprisoned, that does give us the option for further problems that this person could cause. Death tends to eliminate that option unless we have a setting where undead are an option.

So, the obvious question is when does a ruler get overthrown by his people? Why do they not respect his sovereignty? The main answer for that is weakness or, at least, perceived weakness. This can come in several ways. The inability to create peace, or restore it if it has been disrupted, is one of the reasons. War is not typically good for anyone. Though, in our modern times, we sometimes cynically say that the companies who manufacture weapons, for example, often benefit from war. And that is true, but, generally speaking, war is devastating, and it’s considered a very negative thing.

This is still true even if your side wins. The reason people celebrate the end of a war is that they can go back to their peaceful lives. So, a ruler who cannot create peace or restore it when something has gone wrong is considered weak, and he might end up getting overthrown if the tension goes on for too long. It also must be remembered that usually it is males who get sent into war – at least historically on Earth – and this really does cause a major problem with reproduction and people’s ancestry continuing as people are being killed off during battles. If war drags on for a long time, this can really have a devastating affect on many aspects of life. But it’s not even just war. Even smaller conflicts can cause these kinds of problems.

Another source of peace going wrong could be rebellions. If there is a rebellion happening within the country, and the ruler is unable to squash this, this can be considered weak. That tends to encourage more people to rebel, so this tends to be bad for not only the ruler, but the people who are trusting him to do something about this will increasingly lose faith. And they might actually join such a rebellion.

Another potential sign of weakness is when the ruler refuses to enforce a law when those laws are being broken in a way that are very costly to the country. For example, in the United States and other countries, we have immigration laws. There are people who feel like illegal immigration is a major problem and the government is not doing enough to enforce the laws by removing illegal immigrants. The failure to act in a way that the people find acceptable is considered a sign of weakness.

Of course, another issue is that a leader could be too strong about enforcing those laws in such a way that it is disrespectful of human rights, and that this also causes disillusionment and an idea that the leader is still being weak because they are actually being too forceful in the name of being strong. But, you know, being strong doesn’t mean being cruel to people, such as separating children from their parents when they cross a border illegally because of your detention policies.

So, different people are going to have different ideas about that, but this is a very timely subject. This is an issue that’s not only happening in the United States right now, but in other countries, due to an unusual amount of migrant population moving from one country to another, not only in the United States, but also in Europe. So, this is an example of a law that is not being enforced enough for some people who have determined that the leader is, therefore, weak. They, therefore, lose respect for that leader. Incidentally, enforcing laws in a draconian fashion might also upset the people so that the rebel.

Something else that we also see play out in our own country is that promises to one’s own people need to be kept. We often see people being removed from office in democracies because the people feel like they campaigned on certain promises and then did not uphold them once they were elected. So, at the next election, they get booted out of office. In our science fiction and fantasy settings, we might especially want to pay attention to the idea that promises that are made to one’s own police force and military force must be kept. Otherwise, this can result in an internal war and a coup with a military junta or dictatorship taking the place of whatever leadership was there. And if you’re not sure what a military junta is, we’re going to be talking about that in another episode.

And the last note on this is that many centuries ago, people tended to believe that a single person should rule because this provided a single voice of decisions. But, as the years have passed, this idea has slowly fallen out of favor. We’ve moved towards more countries that have an elected body, such as a parliament, that has authority.

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Gaining Sovereignty

All of this may have you wondering how a power gains sovereignty. So, let’s talk about that. As I alluded to earlier, a conquest is one of the more interesting reasons for us. In the modern world, and potentially in science fiction settings where there is a lot of communication, there might be more of this issue that we have today where things like the European Union are joined. These are multiple countries that are working together. And, therefore, at this point in Earth’s history, we are generally opposed to one country conquering another.

While that may have been true in the past, the military might that we had back then was not so great, and the cooperation was not so great that we could actually stop countries from doing this as much as we can today. One of the reasons we can stop countries from doing this is that we have a very integrated world when it comes to things like trade, and we can jointly punish a country that invades another, the same way that Russia was recently punished.

So, if we are creating a setting that is like that, this is something we may want to consider. We might not have sovereign powers conquering each other so much anymore. But, if we’ve got a setting that is more like what you typically see in fantasy, then it’s much easier for one country to simply attack and absorb another, and then hold onto that territory for long enough that it is considered sovereign over that territory. How long is long enough? Well, it’s probably going to be at least 5 years, maybe 10. But, certainly after 100 years, everyone who was alive when it used to be another sovereign power is now dead, unless we have something like elves that live 1,000 years or more.

So, if no one in living memory even remembers that being a different kingdom, then it’s no longer that kingdom. That’s gone. That kingdom might actually still exist, but the territory that it used to have might have been taken over by another country and held for so long that it is considered part of that other country. Although, of course, we could still have historical records and people saying, “Okay. This is still a sore point. We still want that area back.” But it might have gotten to the point where other countries just decide, “Okay. We recognize that this other sovereign power has taken over that country or that territory for so long and has held onto it that we now recognize, yes, it is sovereign over that territory.”

Figure 3: Erizon
Figure 3: Erizon

Another possibility that can come up is that one power could cede land to another via a treaty, for example. This isn’t the most exciting for us, but it does happen. An example of this would be the Louisiana Purchase that happened in the United States where the United States bought a huge territory in the center of the United States, or what is now the center of the U.S., from, I believe, France. And why did France agree to sell that huge area of land? Well, France was having a money issue back in France because Napoleon had declared war and was attacking all these different other sovereign powers. He also decided he couldn’t fight wars over there and over here at the same time, so he just sold the territory to the United States. Now, it’s been a while since I read about that, so there may be details I’m forgetting, but you get the basic idea.

There’s another way that territory can be claimed, and that is if no one is claiming sovereignty over it, then, in a sense, it is up for grabs. The example I’m going to use is, once again, the United States because when the Europeans – the British, the French, and the Spanish conquerors – landed on what is now United States territory, each one of them just claimed sovereignty over different areas of it. Why did they feel that they could do this? The Native Americans were here. The answer is that the Native Americans did not really understand this concept of sovereignty, and they didn’t recognize it. And, therefore, they weren’t really sovereign over this territory. They considered it to belong to everyone. You know, these other people come in and decide, “Well, no. This belongs to my country. That belongs to the other one.” So, it just got divided up.

Basically, these countries that invaded did not recognize any sovereignty by the Native Americans. And, therefore, they just took the land. There were overlaps, at times, with different countries claiming different areas of that land. And, of course, that led to wars and, eventually, what is now the United States won out and everyone else ended up leaving. When other countries departed, what they were doing was also finally, and formally, recognizing that the United States had sovereignty over that land.

We can use this same sort of scenario, especially in science fiction, where different spaceships from different planets or sovereign powers could discover a country at roughly the same time. And they start investigating the minerals and other ores that this planet provides, and different countries could be deciding that they want one continent, or part of it, versus another one. And, next thing you know, you have all these wars. You know, I haven’t seen this scenario played out in a science fiction book, but it seems like something that’s fairly obvious. This might be a little bit harder to do in fantasy, unless we have a situation very similar to the one I described a minute ago about the Native Americans. Of course, what precipitated that was an improvement in the quality of ships that could sail over the open ocean. And, therefore, different countries were able to discover North America at roughly the same time. By roughly, I mean over the span of a couple decades.

Barring something like that in a fantasy setting, we might have to have something like the wall in Game of Thrones come down, and various kingdoms decide that they want to take that land. You know, there would have to be some sort of discovery of new land that no one had claimed in order for several countries to rush in and start claiming it.

The Divine Right of Kings

Let’s also talk about the divine right of kings. This is something that sounds really cool, and which you’ve probably heard of before. Basically, what this means on Earth is that someone is considered to be sovereign by the will of god, and that is the only person to whom they answer. A dictator or an absolute monarch is going to be viewed this way, or, at least, want others to view them this way. It implies that they are above the law.

You’ve probably also heard that quote that absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, tyrants tend to like this idea. It could be considered treasonous to stand in the way of this absolute monarch. If we have a world where there is more than one god, we could also do this and have one person decide that they were appointed by one god to be the ruler, and another person could decide that they were the one appointed by a different god to be the ruler, so that we could have conflict.

Now, here on Earth, some places, like Asia, consider a sovereign to be legitimate only if he is a just ruler. If he is unjust and engages in very bad behavior, then he could be stripped of this sovereignty. This is an area ripe for conflict because we could have some people deciding that this sovereign was acting justly, while other people decide he was acting unjustly. And, therefore, when he is stripped of power, some people might want him to be restored to power. So, this is another way we can use something for storytelling.

Losing Sovereignty

Since we’ve talked about gaining sovereignty, let’s talk about losing it. We’ve already touched upon this because one of the most obvious ways is to be conquered. Another is to be overthrown from within, such as during the French and American Revolutions. Both of these violently ended the rule of sovereign powers. When this happens, a new government must take its place. If you’re looking for ideas on what sort of government could replace them, we will be covering many options in the next episode. There are some additional details found in Chapter 5 of Creating Places, but I’m going to move onto roles such as the head of state and head of government next.


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Head of State

The head of state and head of government are the two most important roles in a government. And, at first glance, this might sound like it’s going to be a boring subject, but it can actually be really interesting and very beneficial to understand this when we are doing world building or any storytelling involving these characters.

The head of state is the visible representative of a sovereign power. He may have no actual power, or very limited powers, being largely ceremonial. This is the monarch who might show up to bless a battleship or a sailing vessel, or to knight someone. If there’s an annual parade on a big holiday, this is the figurehead who will be in a prominent position during that parade. Sometimes, they appear to have power, but they are just going through the motions. That could be something like signing a bill into law where the parliament actually does that, but this person still signs off on it. This head of state is also the highest military leader, or commander in chief, but, as with other subjects, this power could actually be ceded to other people who have control of it.

Examples of heads of state would be kings, emperors and presidents. A president is sworn in, whereas a coronation is for a monarch. As world builders, we have the ability to grant these heads of state whatever powers we would like them to have. On Earth, this changes from kingdom to kingdom, so we can do whatever we want here. Don’t feel like you have to get this right by modeling it on some kingdom here on Earth.

We also don’t have to explain the reasons why they are only ceremonial, in one way or another, and have no actual power. Readers don’t typically want some sort of history lesson unless that story has something to do with the reason this character does not have the power, because that character wants to flex that power and discovers they don’t have it. Unless it’s part of your story, you don’t need to worry about that too much.

Head of Government

The more important role, arguably, is the head of government. This person is the one leading government, and they usually have a title such as prime minister or chancellor. If this person is also the head of state, then they will have a title like king, emperor or president. Arguably, writers have a tendency to simply give a title like “President So-and-so” without actually explaining anything about what they can do. Some of that may be natural because we don’t really want to bore the audience with exposition explaining all the things that they can and cannot do, especially if they’re not going to impact our story. But it does help us to think about this. So, I’m going to give you a couple ideas here.

What we want to do is think about what this head of government can actually do. So, for example, can they veto laws or sign them into existence by themselves, or do they need parliament? Can they be removed from office, and by who? Are they protected from prosecution? Can they be executed? Can they raise and lower taxes? Do they need permission or cooperation from others in government to get anything done? Can they declare war? Are there exceptions to any of this? For example, maybe they cannot declare war under normal circumstances, but, in more extreme ones, they can.

If our sovereign power has a prime minister who is the head of government, that means that there is also going to be a ceremonial head of state who has less power. An example of this would be the prime minster of Great Britain. He is the actual head of government. The queen is the ceremonial head of state. This is why the President of the United States meets with the Prime Minister of Britain to discuss matters of government, because these are the two heads of government. Now, in the case of the United States, the president is also the head of state. So, there are times when, in the capacity of head of state, the President of the United States meets with the Queen of England, but this is mostly a ceremonial function. Why is that? Because the Queen of England does not have that much power. All of that resides with the prime minister and with the parliament.

And if you were paying attention, I did just say that in something like the United States, which is a democracy, one person is in the role of head of state and head of government. But then, in certain other setups, like a monarchy, we might have the king or queen be the head of state. Power has been ceded to the prime minister and parliament. This is what’s known as a constitutional monarchy, and we’ll be talking about that more and it’s alternate version, the absolute monarchy, in the next episode. The absolute monarchy is one where the king is the head of government and the head of state.


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Branches of Government

I’m briefly going to talk about the different branches of government. The executive branch is the one that administers the state and enforces the laws which are passed by the legislative branch, whereas the judicial branch is the one that interprets those laws. The reason this is separated this way is to prevent abuse of power. Even in a democracy, there are those who wish to abuse power and try to merge or force their way past these delineations to get what they want. The separation of powers inhibits that. It is built into the government structure by design and on purpose to prevent the sort of abuses that happened in the past.

An absolute monarchy where the king, for example, is both head of state and head of government, and believes he has this divine right of kings and only answers to god, this king is the kind of guy who’s going to do tyrannical things that really upset a lot of people. And, over time, people resisted this kind of thing. Sometimes, they got executed by the king for this. But, sometimes, enough resistance built up in the population that the king ended up having no choice but to cede power to government, and he became a head of state and, next thing you know, you had a parliament that had these different branches of government. And that parliament was led by the prime minister who was the head of government who had much of the power.

One thing that we are implying here is that earlier forms of government were often this type where they were an absolute monarchy, and things have progressively moved toward a more diverse separation of powers so that no one person has that much control. One way we can use this in our world building is that if we have a very advanced society that you’re likely to see in science fiction, then they may have also moved away from things like absolute monarchies. On the other hand, a fantasy setting where things tend to be more like our past, like a medieval setting, they are more prone to having this sort of government because, maybe, they have not collectively moved past it. By collectively, I mean that multiple countries might still have monarchies. On Earth, this was once the primary form of government, or one of them, and today, it is one of the least popular or common ones.


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