Although much of speculative fiction likes to concern itself with continent-spanning empires and colonies orbiting far-distant stars, I want to drag our focus back down to a smaller scale. Because for many characters — and heck, for many of us in our daily lives — the government that affects us the most is actually the one closer to home.
And yet, local government gets very little attention in much of the fiction I read. Characters will know about and have opinions on the king, but who’s in charge of their city? If the polity they live in is a city-state, consisting of one urban settlement and its hinterland, the answer might indeed be the same, but the rest of the time it probably isn’t — even if the city in question is the capital. The person in charge of the country as a whole is too busy to attend to local concerns; they have other people for that.
But thinking about this question in your worldbuilding opens a whole bunch of doors. Because as you scale down, lots of structures that aren’t remotely feasible for a larger population can come into play.
Mind you, it’s still fairly common to have a single person in charge (the strict sense of “monarchy,” though at non-sovereign levels we don’t generally use that term). A city mayor, a village headman: whatever the title, there’s someone with whom the buck stops. This is useful not only for decision-making, but for interfacing with higher levels of government; whoever’s the next step up the food chain would often prefer to deal with a single spokesperson than a whole pack of them who may or may not have gotten their ducks in a row for this conversation.
But whether the local authority wields autocratic power over those around them frequently depends on whether the position is filled from above or from below. A baron granted an estate by the king or a provincial governor appointed by the imperial bureaucracy has a very different relationship to the populace than someone raised up out of and by that populace. The latter is part of the community, with all the social ties that implies — and while it’s certainly not impossible for the mayor to start throwing his weight around in unwelcome ways, his neighbors often have more recourse available to them when he does so.
Because the smaller your scale is, the more often you see democratic processes popping up in history, long before the wave of state-level democratization swept the globe. With a small enough group, you can even run things on direct democracy, with nobody in charge and everyone voting on what course of action to follow — but I do mean small. Anybody who’s ever tried to get six people to agree on what pizza to order knows how fast this can break down. Once you have a few score or a few hundred people, what you’re voting on is more likely to be who will make the decisions going forward.
More likely, not guaranteed; Greek poleis did more with massive voting assemblies than you might think. But even they tended to have smaller units that performed a lot of the practical work, and this, too, is true of local government in many places: in addition to the person in charge, or in place of any such person, you see a ton of councils handling local matters. On the really informal level, the council might consist of all the adult men in the village, or all the elders above a certain age — basically, whoever ticks the box for “you’ve earned the right to be listened to.” As the settlement gets larger or the laws get more rigorous, the council might become a more select body, with its members voted in, and perhaps in turn voting on who will lead them all.
Don’t imagine that this means everything’s egalitarian, though. Oligarchic influence can exert itself here just as much as at the country-wide scale, and even at the village level, you may very well have affairs being run by the wealthier peasants, looking out for their own interests before those of their poorer neighbors. Maybe you need to own a certain amount of property before you’re allowed to vote for or hold a seat on the council, or maybe you just gather support by bestowing favors those who rally behind you; either way, power will gather itself in a smaller number of (often hereditary) hands. This shows up very clearly in the history of London, where the patterns around who became Lord Mayor and who sat on the Council of Aldermen or the Court of Common Council looked almost like a country in miniature.
Speaking of laws getting more rigorous: the interface between local government and higher levels can get quite complex and interesting. I’m mostly only familiar with English history in this regard, but there were distinctions around e.g. which towns were market towns, with the legal right to hold a market there at weekly, seasonal, or yearly intervals — those didn’t just grow organically out of the largest or best-placed settlements! And cities might maneuver for years to gain the formal right to incorporate . . . because that gave them political and legal clout to wield against the aristocracy and even the crown. It’s not just nobles who might rebel against the king; a city might decide to slam its gates shut, too. Usually to demand concessions rather than stage a takeover wholesale, but on the chess board of state-level politics, they could absolutely play a pivotal role.
I’ve mostly been talking about who’s in charge at the level of a province or city or town, but before we close this out, I should note that the more complex a society and its government gets, the more you’re going to have a plethora of other officials performing a variety of duties. We touched on police earlier this year, but there can be tax collectors, magistrates, surveyors, censors, animal control officers, and more — whatever suits the needs and concerns of the local populace. Whether their presence is a sign of good governance or oppressive control may depend as much on their relationship with the community as on the structures above them; it can go either way, if the officials build a rapport with the people they see every day and become estranged from the authority above them.
And when the story is taking place within a community rather than at the highest echelons of government, those relationships are going to matter far more to the narrative than who rules from the distant capital. Robin Hood may talk wistfully about “good King Richard,” but it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham who looms largest in his tale.