When I develop ideas for a new fantasy series, I think first of the overall conflict, the positions the point of view characters occupy in their world, what forms of power they wield, and what role they can play in the story’s epic conflict. (Yes, I very approach this from an epic fantasy perspective, so you may need to adapt how you apply these ideas). In discussing power and conflict in world building, I’ll walk you through my thought process of identifying multiple forms of power and influence various characters, traditions, international bodies and more your world may contain and help you start thinking how these may impact on your story’s conflict.
Power and Tradition
Approaching world building as a history major, I’m very much aware of the contribution tradition can make to the status quo. So how much weight do societies in your world give tradition? Does it determine whose head of households? Or people’s seniority based on birth, or skills they utilise in the home and or village? Does tradition govern gender expectations? Are attitudes towards people of different skills, social classes, nationalities or religious beliefs determined by tradition? And what are the social and political consequences for anyone who defies traditions?
Is government based on traditions of patriarchal or matriarchal dynasties? Does your world include regional governors or nobility who inherit their positions due to traditions of feudalism/ monarchy/ imperial rule?
Do traditions protect or prohibit slavery, serfdom or indentured servants? Does it preserve a hierarchy of increasing privilege for a few elites, or equal rights and or opportunity? Are rights equal and opportunity available to everyone, or just people of certain skills, abilities or political, religious or magical status?
Is there a tradition of Elders or Town Councillors gaining status via their life experience, and local or cultural knowledge? Does tradition determine who teaches the young in the village/ family about their people’s ways?
How does tradition impact on foreign relations? Does it promote fair trade and treating foreigners as equals, or is it imperialist, viewing foreigners as inferiors or worse as subhuman?
In what ways do traditions in your world benefit or disadvantage each member of society? eg. who has the road of least resistance to career choices and positions of power, the path of least resistance to personal and social content, and how has tradition shaped either path?
If tradition, whether by social class, gender, religion, foreign conquest or other disempowers any one group, do they organise? Do they gather and form a resistance? To whom or which interests do such groups appeal? What resources, knowledge and experience do they gather? How much power do they have? Whom do they wish to improve life for, and what forms of persuasion and or power do they wield as they seek it? How does tension between resistance groups, people who are neither resistance nor in power, and people in power play out?
Power Through Religion
What’s the power balance between religion and the state? Do priests advise the ruler/ government? Does organised religion have its own rival agenda to politicians? Or do you have a theocratic government?
Are gods a real, physical presence in your world? How does their presence increase or decrease the power of their ranking and ordinary followers?
Whether a region of your world is small (eg. a city-state), or whether its intergalactic, is there a republic? And if so, is there radical democracy like ancient Rome, where any ordinary citizen can be elected to a council which passes laws, determines policy, declares war etc? Are their gender, religious, social status, ethnic, national, magical or other limitations on who can be elected to a democratic body which governs people?
Is there a tendency for a certain social class (perhaps a wealthy or well resourced one) to dominate the elected governing body? What tensions does this cause within the government? What tensions does it cause among the governed? Eg, do government policies tend to favour people of a certain rank, or who inhabit certain regions, and neglect others? Is it all about exploiting the regions, the outer territories/ outskirts of the empire for the good of the imperial capital/ centre/ planet?
Are some territories in your world wealthier? Are some militarily strongly or technologically better equiped? How do differences like these influence the balance of power across continents? Is there an empire or colonial power who dominates wherever they travel? Do some rulers greet each other as equals, and are some client rulers to more powerful rulers?
Are some countries dominating trade and or control of natural resources? Are there countries with failed governments who cannot control their borders, and are being exploited by other powerful countries, or criminal organisations?
How do differences in power between cities, or countries, foster international co-operation (and between who and excluding who)? And between which countries do power imbalances generate tension and lead to war (hot, open war or cold by proxy or guerrilla warfare)? And should war beckon, which geographical entities will ally with whom, against whom?
Was there a time when multiple nations had cause to unite with a goal of protecting human rights across nations/ countries/ continents/ galaxies? Is there an international body representing people of all countries —a U.N. equivalent? What kinds of decisions is it authorised to make? Does it have a police force? An army? A judiciary? Is it symbolic and paying lip service to international values, is it hindered by powerful countries or other entities, or is it the greatest power in your world? What powers does it have -if any- over individual countries, and what tensions and conflicts of interest can this result in?
Do religions have international organisational structure? Is there a hierarchy and any one place considered to be that religion’s capital? Is there a single person who heads any one religion? What influence do religious organisations wield internationally in your world? Who funds them? How well resourced are they? Do they come into conflict with, are they endangered by or a threat to any particular country or group within it?
Is there an international magical or technological body that governs magic and or technology? How it is organised and where is it based globally/ galactically? On what terms is it with each nation? Are their nations who fear and reject magic or technology, and who refuse to have anything to do with such an organisation? Can its members be hired out, to work for countries or groups within them? Whether that’s legal or not, does it still happen?
Is organised crime limited to cities, and countries or do some crime groups organise, resource and expand to the point they become international organisations? Are they in conflict with particular countries or authorities? Eg. a country’s government, an international body, or a particular religion?
Power Through Magic
Is a person’s magical ability what determines their status, legal and other privileges in life? Do you have an institution which trains people in magic? Is it controlled by politicians or religious authorities? Or is it autonomous?
Are powerful magic wielders pawns of the state, privileged state employees, or did they rise up and seize power for themselves? Or can everyone wield magic of some sort? Do the government and police have magic wielders among them, and is it an aid, and or cause/tool of warfare and conflict?
Power Through Technology
Do you have an empire with chariots, bronze suits of armour and iron weapons fighting naked soldiers armed with weapons of wood and bone? Bronze armour combating catapults, long bows and iron armour? Or higher tech vs. low tech? Does technology give a particular kingdom or empire the advantage and lead to attempts at a mass expansion and conquest or colonisation? Does space age tech lead one particular nation or group to dominate space colonisation in any region of any galaxy?
Power To Influence Through Advising Decision Makers
Having written a main character whose a ruler, I’m very aware of the importance of these side characters and their influence on events in Umarinaris, my fantasy world. So does anyone in certain positions have the respect of their people and or leaders? Do magicians advise rulers in how to combat magic? Do physicians or healers advise how to combat plague? Is there a person in each household versed in basic first aid, and homemade cures consulted for medical support? And in any of these situations of advising and influence, do any of these people exploit their position or distort advice they give to pursue their personal interests?
If your world has slavery or servitude, how much power does your legal system grant masters over slaves? Can they beat them? Kill them? Is the latter a crime? Is the penalty for killing a slave merely a fine (as it often was in the ancient world)? Are slaves well treated and considered part of the family, or are they mistreated and likely to seize the first sign of family weakness to escape, or rebel?
Same question for servants -are they treated with respect, decency and loyal to the family they serve? Or do they serve with resentment, fear or anger? How does this impact tension or conflict in your fantasy world?
Who educates the young? Are the children of wealthy people privately educated by scholars? Are schools open to all children, or —if you have a more Bronze Age civilisation— is literacy only required for people working for the government, and do only the children of the ruling class go to school? As I suggested in the Tradition section above, is it stories by Elders or certain members of the family who teach most children how to behave and the ways of their people?
Privately or publicly, who are your educators? Scholars? Governesses? Priests/ priestesses? Do they have political or religious teachings, or do they encourage the children they educate to decide for themselves which side they think is ‘right’ in societal, political, racial, religious or familial disputes?
Whether your main character is a servant or works for national government, do they have allies? Is it a single person of the same status and power? An organisation? Individuals of different rank and power within the same government/ kingdom/ organisation? Do alliances threaten or force power structures in your world to adapt? Whether that be a middle class allying with people of higher political or religious rank to campaign for more rights, or international alliances ganging up on another country or forcing an international body to make concessions, or even going to war with it. And do allies continuously support, or splinter off and become enemies where conflicts reach a point when point when their goals and or needs differ or conflict?
Further Reading/ Viewing
Just in case I haven’t given you enough food for thought, here’s some more world-building blogs.
World Building Geography considers how geography may influence everything from general and defensive architecture, to water supply, heating, farming and how geography may connect to religious beliefs, sacred spaces and magic.
World Building Humanoid Life offers suggestions on how physical things like clothing, food, work, pastimes, family life, legal status and opportunities may differ among social classes and offers food for thought on sexual and gender diversity.
Six Sources of Conflict for Your World gives you more ideas on what people in your world may be fighting about.