Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

Okay so maybe it’s more like forty-ish. It’s hard to design a country from scratch. Many authors have to design at least several. If you’re sitting in front of a blank page scratching your head, this list is for you.

1. What is the climate like?

Us humans are pretty adaptable. We make otherwise hostile environments work for us by tailoring our clothes, our diet, and our homes to the local climate. Even ceremonial or luxury objects are descended from very practical pieces of technology.

2. Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?

There’s a reason that most population centers are near a body of water. Water is literally life. It hydrates us, harbors fish and seaweed, and lets us move faster and easier than we can on land.

3. What resources are present?

Natural resources provide the foundation for an advanced economy. Without a strong foundation, the people of this country might be dependent on foreign supply lines.

4. What is the terrain like?

Is it wide and flat? Or rugged and mountainous? The easier it is to travel and communicate the easier it will be for a central government to exert control.

5. Are there any natural barriers that would impede movement?

Does an ocean or mountain range protect the country from invasion? Do its rocky shores make a harbor difficult to build?

6. Where are the sources of water?

Is it everywhere or nowhere? Who controls the potable water?

7. How many languages and ethnic groups are present?

Do the people see themselves as part of a single whole or are they just temporarily united for the next few decades or the next century?

8. Have any of these people been recently displaced?

Have these displaced persons been accepted by their new community?

9. How is society organized?

Who has all the money? Who does the populace listen to?

10. What form of government is there?

Is it a new democracy? An ancient autocracy? Something in between?

11. Do the people look favorably on the government?

If someone were to start a revolt how many would be likely to support them?

12. What religions are practiced?

Possible flavors include monotheistic, polytheistic, animistic, ancestor worship.

13. Is there a state religion?

Does that state religion tolerate competitors?

14. Who are the country’s neighbors?

And if there are neighbors, do they get along? Are they part of a regional coalition or trade zone?

15. Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?

Is someone preparing for a war of aggression? Does the populace fear an invasion in the near future? Has revolution in a neighboring country put the ruling class on edge?

16. What are the country’s major industries?

Does the government feel that it needs to prop up these industries? Are any of these industries owned by the state?

17. Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?

Can these resources be used as a form of indirect control? Do the people feel that they are paying fair prices for these imports?

18. Does the country have any colonies abroad?

Who owns these colonies? Are they ruled directly? Are people born in the colonies citizens? What languages do they speak?

19. Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?

How long has this territory been contested? Do the people living there have family on both sides of the border?

20. Does this country have any historic rivalries?

Populations can have rivals just like people. Is the rivalry over religious differences? An ancient betrayal? Are the royal houses related?

Riots & Rebellions Part 2: Revolutionaries

Whether an attempt at revolution succeeds depends very much on who is fighting it and what their goals are. Can they convince others to follow them? Do they have the skills to lead or are they a good enough judge of character that they can choose others to lead for them? What is motivating them? Is there a limit to how far they are willing to achieve their goals? All of these are important things to think about when plotting your world’s next great uprising.

Leadership

Not every revolutionary needs to be charismatic, but it certainly helps. So many uprisings come down to a single moment, a spark that sets off the rest of the powder keg. Your character either needs to be someone who can capture and channel that energy or have someone willing to take the stage on their behalf. Lot’s of people look back at George Washington as a great general but he actually didn’t win that many battles. Rather he excelled in picking good generals to advise him, getting people to work together, and keeping their moral up. The revolutionaries you design should have their own failings just like he did.

Whatever their brand of leadership may be, make your to leave room for them to make their share of mistakes. Make your character an brilliant planner, or a charismatic speaker, or maybe just someone who is too stubborn to give up. But also give them failings, bonus points if these failures are very public. Put your characters through the wringer and make them prove to the people that they deserve to lead the revolution.

Ideology

Revolutions are often preceded by decades of debate, philosophizing, unrest, broken promises, and even failed revolts. Competing ideologies are bound to spring up amidst all of this disagreement. Your characters may find themselves forced to work together with opposing factions in order to bring down the current regime, leaving pesking details like who will be in charge for later.

There may also be a fair number of martyrs in your setting’s revolutionary history. To your characters these martyrs might be serve as memories to rally around of a painful part of history that people are afraid of seeing repeated. These memories of failed revolutions can range from lost battles in the field and dissolution due to infighting to overzealous investigators guillotining everyone. A lot of this may not make it into the final story, but it makes for good worldbuilding and can be useful for figuring out how your characters will interact with their world and with each other.

Circumstances

You’ll need to decide very early on what your character’s background is and make sure that it is consistent with the cause they are fighting for. Their past should contribute to their motivations and why they want to see the current regime brought down but that does not mean their goals at all need to be noble. Some might become revolutionaries because they want glory or riches for themselves. Your revolutionary could just as easily be an army officer who was passed over for promotion or a foreign merchant who would rather see those annoying tariffs go away.

And what about revolutions that come from the top down? Say an altruistic monarch in your setting decides its time to implement a constitution. Will the country’s elite go along with these changes or will they fight to keep business as usual? Will the populace rejoice or will they suspect ulterior motives? Most people just want to keep food on the table and their families safe. They might well distrust someone who rocks the boat to much, even if they have good intentions.

Limits

If you are writing a story about revolutionaries then it’s probably safe to assume that you have them fighting for good cause, but how far are they willing to go for this cause? Is no price too high for the sake of the revolution, or are there some lines they simply will not cross? Better yet, is there a difference between where they say the line is and what they actually do?

You may want their adherence or lack thereof to influence their success. Making a choice that goes against their normal values may alienate supporters. Otherwise, your character refusing to do something that goes ‘too far’ might cost them an important victory. Values that limit their actions may drive a wedge between them and their allies who may come to see their morals as an obstacle in the way of their goals.

Vision vs Outcome

You should keep in mind what your revolutionary thinks is their end goal. Say they succeed in toppling the old regime. What will they do then? Do they want to lead the new government and build their ideal world or would they rather retire and let others carry the torch.

A revolution’s reality often does not live up to its promise. How will your character react when other revolutionaries have other ideas, or when they find themselves contradicting their beliefs for the sake of victory. Conflict requires hard choices and those choices might not always be the most appealing to your character’s moral compass.

Finally, if the revolution prevails will your character have the skills needed to build their envisioned future?