Understanding Sovereignty


This section delves into the differences between kingdoms, nations, countries, empires, and more. In addition to allowing us to name sovereign powers appropriately, it helps us create different types with varied rights, outlook, and overall feel for our inhabitants and audience. Different governments are often ideologically opposed, and inventing such places, whether adjacent to each other or not, helps create friends and foes. The subject is an enormous one to which entire books have been written, so while this is not exhaustive, it’s enough information for world builders to understand powers at a high level. Details on creating one are later in this chapter, but I highly recommend that world builders understand this material first; it may suggest possibilities that hadn’t occurred to you.

Appendix 2 is a template for creating a sovereign power. It includes more comments and advice, and an editable Microsoft Word file can be downloaded for free by signing up for the newsletter at https://artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter.


A concept impacting all powers is sovereignty, which means the right to govern oneself without outside interference. It’s a matter of recognition, both from other sovereign entities and from within. Generally, the power structure of sovereign powers is hierarchical, with the typical king or emperor at the apex and a dizzying array of nobles and aristocrats beneath. This book doesn’t delve into this because the subject warrants a book by itself, and because this book series is aimed at contrasting overall differences between power types—and what life is like for inhabitants. Those world builders who intend to write a Game of Thrones style narrative, one dealing with those nobles and aristocrats and their struggle for power within their hierarchy, can find details in any number of available resources to become informed.

The issue of whether sovereignty is recognized by others is crucial. Recognition broadly falls into two categories: external or internal. In other words, do other powers acknowledge the country’s sovereignty? Do the residents recognize it? This impacts the attitude of others and can result in events like war, peace, or revolution.

External Sovereignty

A sovereign power may or may not be recognized as having sovereignty by other sovereign powers. When Napoleon declared himself emperor of France, most European nations refused to recognize his sovereignty and repeatedly attacked France (together) to prevent a French Empire. We can leverage such real-world events for our invented one. It’s recommended but optional for world builders to read about the rise and fall of various sovereign powers through history to get a sense of how this works.

One factor influencing sovereignty is exclusivity. Is a sovereign power the only one claiming control over somewhere? This place can be the land itself or something on that land, like a weapon or source of power or wealth. If someone else is also claiming it, then one of them must be destroyed, engulfed by the other, or otherwise proven illegitimate, or neither of them is truly sovereign; they cannot both claim it and have this mutual claim last and be respected by the other. Sometimes a sovereign entity has a legal right to exercise control but doesn’t have actual control due to lack of might, an uncooperative population, or other impediments.

It’s possible to achieve sovereignty but not be independent due to needing help from other powers. This assistance can be military, technological, magical, or humanitarian, to name a few. To build ships, one might need access to materials located in someone else’s territory. The territory could be landlocked and need an ally on the sea. Perhaps our power has no territory near the equator from which to launch spaceships, and must find an ally who does. Note that a desire for something doesn’t necessarily cause dependence; it’s only when a power cannot continue existing without support from another that it becomes dependent (but still sovereign). These situations can cause tension, assisting storytelling. Our monarch might need military aid for which he must bargain, possibly offering crops or natural resources. A power can be independent but not sovereign because sovereignty is claimed by more than one political group within it.

During a military occupation, a sovereign nation can retain its sovereignty because the occupying force does not contest it. Storytellers might be loath to waste such an opportunity for conflict, but this respect of a nation’s sovereignty can show the benevolence of another power. The United States and its allies are a good example, such as after the Second Gulf War, when Iraq retained its sovereignty despite defeat. A republic may do this, but a dictator likely won’t.

Sometimes one country can take over another’s territory. The conquered sovereign entities (royalty) can continue to exist in exile and still be recognized by the international community, who see the occupying force as an invader and not someone with a true claim to that territory. This can lead to our deposed king claiming his rightful place has been stolen; perhaps he promises rewards to those nations who help him get it back. This is reminiscent of Game of Thrones.

Internal Sovereignty

The relationship between a sovereign power and his subjects might also be strained. In extreme cases, the people overthrow him, and murder, imprison, or exile him. The latter two offer further chances for mischief by our deposed monarch, should he choose it or have those loyal to him who are willing to assist. Leaders are overthrown when they are weak. Weakness includes inability to:

  1. Restore or create peace
  2. Squash rebellion
  3. Enforce laws when those laws are broken in particularly costly ways

Promises made to one’s own police and military forces must be kept. Failure to do so can result in internal war and a coup, possibly resulting in a military junta or dictatorship. A strong leadership can bargain with opposition to keep peace.

Centuries ago, many believed a single person should rule because this provided a single voice of decisions. In time, this fell out of favor so that an elected body, such as a parliament, assumed authority.


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