What is Head of Government?

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Jul 022018

The “head of government” is the person leading it. He has a title like prime minister or chancellor. This person might also be head of state, in which case they’ll have a title like king, emperor, or president. Be aware that the duties of a role, such as president, change from country to country. This means world builders have some leeway to give or take away rights from someone should our situation require it.

Writers tend to state someone’s title without providing much idea on the person’s powers. Some of this is natural to avoid some potentially boring exposition, but it might also be a lack of thought given to this subject. There are many potential acts various heads of government can do and it’s worth researching them to gain some idea. For example:

  • Can they veto laws or sign laws into existence by themselves?
  • Can they be booted from office? By who? The congress or a popular vote?
  • 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 things done?
  • Can they get away with conflicts of interest?
  • Can they declare war?
  • Can they oppress/suppress media, communications, and the people?
  • Are there exceptions to any of this?

Regardless of our decisions, I recommend a scene giving some idea of the person’s limits. They could be in a bad mood because they’re thinking about laws that constrain them from doing something. They can think about what consequences they might face. Rather than coming across as exposition, it sheds light on their turmoil, obligations, conflicts, and character, hopefully all of it relating to the present storyline and whatever is bothering them right now.

For example, “As the steward departed, leaving him alone, King Davos hurled his full goblet at the wall, red wine splattering like the blood he wanted to spill. It dripped down the painting of his grandfather, which seemed appropriate. What good was all this power if he couldn’t quash a rebellion? He snorted in derision, powerless to crush anything more than the golden cup rolling around the polished floor. He was a useless head of state who knighted star fighters and blessed new warships. Prime Minister Kier had all the power, making his puppets in the parliament dance to his merry tune.

“The Davos line deserved better. That damn grandfather had signed away all their rights to parliament, the last act of the last absolute monarch. Maybe the time had come to wrest power back once more. He smiled coldly, knowing just the right people to stage a massacre. That new neutron bomb he’d secretly had developed would end this government once and for all. He could frame the rebels, too. And in the power vacuum to follow, who but dear old King Davos would the people turn to? He suddenly lamented the spilled wine. Revenge was thirsty work.”

Such a passage not only gives us insight into a character, but their situation and how their role is impacted by history and their form of government. It’s arguably better than just calling the guy King Davos and never commenting on any of it. Providing vividness to our readers requires having clarity ourselves. This chapter aims to provide this.

It can be assumed that if a sovereign power has a prime minister as head of government, there’s also a ceremonial head of state who has less power. If you’ve ever wondered why the U.S. President (head of state and head of government) regularly meets with Britain’s Prime Minister instead of the Queen of England, it’s because those meetings are between heads of government. If the President and Queen meet, it is ceremonial, as heads of state.

Prime ministers can also have other titles and are sometimes temporarily a minister of something else (see next section), particularly in times of war (Minister of Defense). Some heads of government serve a set period of years while others can remain in power indefinitely; it depends on what the sovereign power (or the author) has decided on and passed into law. The head of government has an official residence like a head of state, though not nearly as grand. This home is well known, having a recognized name, similar to the White House in the United States. That’s also the head of state residence, but you get the idea.


There are sometimes multiple, other “ministers,” each overseeing a different area like finance, defense, or foreign affairs. Or wizardry. Or interstellar travel. They usually have simple titles like Minister of Space. The Harry Potter series is full of ministers, like the Minister of Magic.

What is a Head of State?

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on What is a Head of State?
Jun 282018

In any government, there are roles and titles. A few are most important for us as world builders.

Head of State

The “head of state” is the visible representative of a sovereign power. He often has no actual power or authority, being ceremonial, such as the Queen of England. This leader sometimes appears to have power in making appointments to the government, but this is often a formality, as the real power to accept—or reject—these appointments lies in the legislature. Other functions are also ceremonial, including the signing of bills into law. The head of state is also the highest military leader, or commander-in-chief, but as with other matters, the responsibility can be ceded to others who have control (in this case of the military).

Examples of heads of state would be kings, emperors, and presidents. Presidents are sworn in. Monarchs are coroneted. In a hereditary monarchy, the head of state provides continuity with the past. Sometimes the image of the head of state (actual portraits, statues, or images on coins) replaces national symbols like the flag, resulting in a cult of personality. Ceremonial heads of state often attend events to add excitement to them.

One power they do have is to grant knighthood, nobility, and other honors. They can also declare martial law. As world builders, we can grant them whatever powers we wish. On Earth, governments and previous heads of state have granted the position a wide variety of rights, many of them reflecting the nation’s culture. As a general rule, however, heads of state have few powers unless they’re also the head of government, which is where their real powers originate.

Monarchs generally inherit their position as head of state. On Earth, the role is typically reserved for males unless none are available. If we’d like to be more modern, we can include females. These bloodlines and the order of succession are sometimes not clear, leading to wars when two people think they’re the next king.

Jun 212018

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 http://www.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.