The smallest settlements, like villages, may have no formal leader but will still defer to someone who makes good decisions or who has some power, such as a wealthy farmer. This may change if that leader makes a few poor choices, or even one disastrous one is made. A large village, and certainly towns and bigger, will have a definitive leader, who might rise to power in the same way as a village leader, or through actual elections in a free society, or by appointment from someone within a sovereign power. This is largely a function of government, which is discussed in chapter five, so what we really care about within the settlement is who this person currently is, what sort of influence they wield, and what curbs their power. On one extreme is someone who can enact laws or simply declare something a crime and someone guilty of it, and what punishment would happen. Such tyranny tells us much about a place and the quality of life there. We may use this in authoritative states but not elsewhere. Conversely, a place with elections and laws that reflect the moral code of the population is likely to be fairer to all, though minorities can still suffer. Leaders of such settlements can be accountable for their actions, decisions, and even be the victim of poor situations, such as an economic downturn that isn’t their fault but results in losing the next election. In between these extremes is a wide variety of possibilities that provides us leeway to create limits that impact our story.
Determine Power Structures
The larger the settlement, the more formal its structure, but unless our story features this, we can skip this stage and focus on our actual leader. If we need it, we can decide on a structure such as a city council made up of individuals who represent each ward, or neighborhood of town, each of whom are elected by their ward. A mayor might be little more than another member of the city council, albeit one who presides over all meetings and has ceremonial duties, but little power to act independently. He might have final say over financial matters or anything else we assign to him, such as decisions on magic or technology. Other mayors have more power, including veto rights, the ability to hire and fire staff within administrative bodies, and some legal authority. They are more definitively in charge but still need cooperation from the council on certain initiatives, which are at our discretion to decide upon. Great variety exists on Earth and gives us leeway to determine what we need. When inventing a settlement, only decide on the details of power structure when you need to use it. Otherwise you might just contradict yourself later, or find yourself needing to change it for another story. That a council and a mayor exist can be assumed in any place larger than a town, so all we might need to do is decide who the person is and the influencers on them, then worry about council and mayor interactions when, and if, needed. Our characters might need to understand relationships if they want cooperation from a settlement. This is when the mayor’s power, or lack thereof, becomes an issue we can leverage. They might think they can appeal to him only to discover that he’s powerless to help. An appeal must be made to the council, meaning several people must be swayed, not just one. This adds complexity and makes goals harder to achieve, even if an audience cares little for the details of government; the workaround is to make this about the council members’ personalities, turning them into characters with agendas that interfere with our main characters.
Who Has Influence?
Before we decide on power and limits, we might also decide if there’s someone other than the nominal leader who is in control. A clandestine group might have corrupted settlement officials and be getting their way. Lobbying groups can bribe and otherwise influence someone, or get their chosen people into government and then exert control behind the scenes. Some leaders become little more than figureheads. In these cases, the apparent authority they wield is sharply curbed. This creates a good conflict where the public might know the leader can do something but he refuses because someone is controlling him, and yet he can’t admit this. Our characters might also run afoul of this influencer and find a more challenging situation than they had prepared for. It doesn’t have to be “evil” people who influence leaders. A benevolent wizard could insist things be a certain way. Those running a space port might need a degree of cooperation and assistance from town officials. A group of farmers may influence decisions that benefit the crops, which aid many in town. A resident hero might inspire not only the population, but the leaders into doing some things his way. Decide what role this settlement plays in your story and whether some complication can help enliven it. If not, we can decide a leader is truly in charge and then change this later if needed. A new influencer can always arrive.