A sovereign power is keenly interested in symbols, flags, and even slogans that are associated with it; this is also true in a feudal society. Although outsiders can stigmatize a place by associating it with something undesirable, this section focuses on inventing identifiers a power has chosen for itself. The goal of an identifier is to embody and portray a fundamental trait of a sovereign power. As such, the identifiers acquire power. They can inspire love, loathing, and indifference. They can be a rallying cry for resistance in war. They should not be overlooked. With travel such an elementary part of SF and fantasy, our characters will be looking for them when approaching space stations, ports, and fortifications. Failure to mention one is an oversight.
Despite all of this, world builders may need to invent them later in the process of creating a sovereign power when our idea of a place is more firmly established in our minds.
A sovereign power often has a symbol, which its reputation may influence. Symbols may change when the government does to signify the change to outsiders and a country’s own people. Inventing a symbol allows us to emblazon it on flags, ships, buildings and more.
To invent a symbol, we should decide how our sovereign power wants to be viewed by its citizens and by outsiders. An authoritative government will have a more intimidating and bold symbol (and colors) to imply oppression and dominance. A show of strength might be desired, either to intimidate potential attackers, or to bolster itself against a sense of weakness. A democracy might want to appear more inclusive and benevolent. Some symbols are negative like the skull and crossbones of pirates, while others show unity, like the United States flag and its stars representing each state. A symbol might not accurately reflect the power.
If we choose an animal to represent the power, this animal doesn’t need to be specific to the landscape there, or even be found there, particularly if it’s considered a wide-ranging animal. This is also true of plants. However, a distinctive landscape feature like a mountain with a peculiar peak should be located within the territory; for inspiration, consider Crater Lake, the Matterhorn, or the Devil’s Tower. Other symbols can be based on the sovereign power’s reputation (see the section in this chapter), regardless of which came first.
When deciding on a symbol, we should remark upon the impression it creates. If we’re an artist, we can draw a hawk that looks vicious or that appears noble and proud. Simply saying it’s a hawk doesn’t convey this important distinction. While implying an impression can be fine, the ambiguity leaves room for uncertainty—and a sovereign power typically wants to be quite clear with its symbolism.
While black or white colors can be used for identifiers, other colors can be used to increase the impression an identifier creates. Domineering governments often choose bold primary colors. The black, white, and red of Nazi Germany springs to mind. Benevolent countries might choose softer and lighter shades of colors like yellow and green. While this approach can yield results, it is unrealistically simplistic. Usage is everything. Don’t be afraid to use colors for no apparent reason. We needn’t tell the audience what each color represents, assuming it represents anything. They’ll care about the impression it creates. The meaning of colors will be lost upon us unless explained, and explanations are best avoided unless done quickly and artfully.
When choosing and creating sovereign powers, try to prevent too many of them from having the same color combination. Having a list of them will assist with this. Organize the list by continent, region, or alphabetically.
Flags often include the symbol in the power’s colors, but not always. Many flags are quite simple, being strips of colored fabric. In a world with less technology, flags should be simpler to produce because they’re likely being made by hand. This doesn’t mean they need to be three strips of colored cloth sewn together, but simple geometric shapes are helpful. There are talented seamstresses who can embroider something extravagant, but this takes longer and there aren’t as many of them to do the job. In SF, more elaborate flags (and symbols) might abound because machinery can crank them out.
On Earth, we often don’t understand why a flag has its design unless it’s from our own country. In SF, with so many things to distract us, we might tend to care less about such things, but even in fantasy, fewer people will know, or care, about a flag’s design. This gives us some leeway to invent without much justification. To make life easier, it’s recommended that world builders decide on a symbol and place this on a flag, killing two birds with one stone.
Our power might have a slogan associated with it. These are short, memorable phrases that epitomize a fundamental aspect of the sovereign power’s outlook. They can inspire greater passion, loyalty or fear, such as “Resistance is futile” by the Borg of Star Trek, though the Borg aren’t really a sovereign power as we think of it. Games of Thrones used this to good effect (“Winter is coming”) and so can we. Inventing this calls on our skills as writers to sum up a truth in a catchphrase. Like the other subjects in this section, it requires knowing what our power is all about.
Our sovereign power is likely associated with certain traits. These can include basic quality of life and freedoms (or the lack thereof), but we might want something more specific, such as an item from this list:
- A mad king
- Slavery (this includes being the source of exported slaves)
- A space craft design or type of man-o-war
- Raiders (like Vikings) or conquerors (maybe a specific individual like Genghis Khan)
- Wizards being banned
- Unique plants, animals, or products
- An unending war, either internal or with another country
- The first place something happened (a launch into space, a discovery, an invention)
- A horror, whether supernatural or technological
- Superior weapons, armor, technology, or other devices/items
- Nomadic tribes with expert horsemen
- A seafaring or spacefaring superpower controlling territory
- Being near the elven homeland (or any other species, pleasant or not), and having good/bad relations with them
Make a list of options you’d like to cover and begin assigning them to the powers you create. Using Earth analogues makes this easier. Remember to change details and mix and match traits to obfuscate the source; see Chapter 1 from Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1) for why. These issues don’t have to dominate a nation, but they can be good starting points we expand on.
To get started, consider geography and government. For example, a naval or spacefaring superpower will need ship builders and might export ships to other countries. A seafaring one might be an island nation that excels at fishing and facing sea monsters, with legends, myths, and famous sailors. Animals or plants from the sea might be harvested. They probably also have a history of colonization attempts. Where am I getting some of this from? Great Britain.