How are laws made? How are people chosen? Where are the forces that might cause corruption?
The go-to form of government for a lot of epic fantasy is the monarchy. In this case, you are usually working with a hereditary monarch. It's important to understand what kind of rules define who is next in line for the throne, and how people might be able to influence succession. It would also be good to know what exactly the monarch controls (and what their resources are).
Who are the monarch's representatives? Does anyone complement or counteract the monarch's role?
Research on real monarchies is obviously a great way to get ideas that aren't totally generic.
Single powerful rulers, like dictators, are easy. Not easy, but less complicated to manage than large governmental systems. You still need to figure out what their enforcement strategies are, though. Who are the enforcers? How are they controlled? Why do they follow the monarch? What constitutes the rule of law in your system? What are the consequences of changing the monarch?
Then there is the question of staff. Bureaucrats are part of many government systems, and deserve to be explored. What are taxes, and how are they collected? Is it just sending your buddy out with a club and a sack to canvas the town? We mentioned the Tudors, and how Cromwell was bureaucrat #1. People in the system can skim off money, so no one should have both the books and the key to the treasury. How do you make people pay?
I mentioned Yes, Minister, because it clearly showed (and made jokes about) the elected officials, the appointed officials, and the staff. A person who has been around long-term can have considerable power just by virtue of the fact that they are not constantly having to re-learn their job. That person becomes the arbiter of "this is how things are."
When we look at a congress, they too come with staff and interns. If you have elections, who is running the elections?
I mentioned my Varin government system, because it is a mixed system with a seeming monarch who is in fact elected by a small group of fifteen people out of a pool of twelve candidates. The biggest trick if you have a complex system of government, and a complex system of succession, is to keep readers' focus on the story. The government structure can't be what the story is about! It's easy to get distracted by structure, but you have to keep the focus on people. Who are the people involved, and how are they hurt or helped by the structure, and by the events?
My discussants recommended House of Cards on Netflix.
I mentioned the Iroquois system, which is definitely worth looking into and which had significant influence on our own system of government. One unusual feature of it is that women picked the representatives for each tribal group.
Scale changes a lot of things. Small population, or small population of the government itself, means that there is more influence for individuals.
No matter what structure you choose, ask yourself, "What are the points of influence?" Sometimes you find things like a culture of ratting out neighbors for favor from the powerful.
Is there a secret police body where no one knows who is actually a member (as in Perdido Street Station)?
Are there fake or puppet elections?
Is the government run by a person, or by an AI?
The belief that government will function as advertised is very important. When lack of confidence intensifies, you tend to get revolutions. If you are going to have elections, you have to have confidence in the results of that election.
It's important to note that government can be very reliable for privileged groups, and very inconsistent or even actively harmful to marginalized groups.
Politics tends to favor the top, and to favor the government players.
Thanks as always to my wonderful discussants. This week's hangout will be on Google Hangouts on Thursday, March 24th at 10am. We will talk with author Fábio Fernandes and learn about his work. I hope you can make it!