Nations are large areas, regions which affect entire people. While they encompass religion and culture, while there are cities, while there is history, here is a broad view of what goes into a nation. Some of these are applicable within any of these other areas.
Nations have a government, one which reaches over a large swath, or it can be a city-state. Historically the most common ruling body is a monarchy (one ruler), or an oligarchy (a small group of elite rulers). While people are heard in a variety of ways, they rarely actually have a voice. Even in most democracies or republics, the people have no voice. Voting is to make them feel good about themselves.
If you decide to go the monarchy route, there are numerous paths for ascension. It can be through blood, which was common in the Middle Ages. It could be through trial by combat, common in more brutal nations like the Norse. Sometimes it’s vote by tribunal, or whatever the council is advising the king. There are countless ways to put someone on a throne, despite our stereotype of getting there by lineage. If you pick the blood path, remember incest was rather common to keep it in the family, which means there was the chance of simply a bad king, and then there was the chance of a genetically bad king. Or queen.
Monarchs do not rule alone. They have trusted advisers, whether a small council, a prophet, a wazir. Generals, friends, chieftains, governors, and any number of other councils may exist. Monarchs who listen are often good and wise. Monarchs who are tyrannical to subjects and advisers often end up dead. Looking at you Caesar. Weak rulers become puppets of their council, and are often dead as soon as they grow a spine, too old, or too temperamental. Joffrey. Due to our indoctrination to the ways of democracy, we seem to view all monarchs as cruel and horrible rulers, when in fact they were often very pragmatic and just, even if it was not noticeable while schlepping troughs. Few will see justice, but the machine works brilliantly.
If you want an excellent guide to ruling as a monarch, read The Prince. I firmly believe it’s satirical and bitter, as Machiavelli wrote it after losing Florence to the Medici, who were not very nice folks. Machiavelli would go on to never rule again. However, all the practices in his treatise are signs of excellent rulers who created great kingdoms and empires. Hence, I do not believe Machiavelli subscribed to a single word he wrote in that book, he just noticed those ruling did.
Oligarchies are made up of numerous personalities. Usually each oligarch is there for a certain skill or task. They are a minister of agriculture, war, crafts, and so on. They reach their spot by sleeping in the right beds, scoring well on exams, climbing through the ranks of their bureaucracy, and so on. Meritocracies can take this form, just as well as nepotism. Personalities clash, and that clash is what keeps a city in check. Sometimes, especially in the face of riots, there will be a voice of the people. The people put them there, and either this “emissary” works well with the upper class, or he sits there and shuts up. If he fails both, he ends up in a well. Check out Rome for more information on the poor trying to be represented.
Oligarchs will have underlings, often times entire departments. Their job is to keep the world spinning, though they rarely actually reach into the machine to mess with cogs. They have others who can do that. Many times, there are machinations in place to discredit other oligarchies, to bestow favor on subjects loyal to them, and to give that leader more edge and voice than another. The council rule may claim all votes sway the same, but this is most certainly not true.
National laws exist, created through need. Often times, early societies created laws as issues came up. We still do this today. Murder becomes illegal the moment someone commits it. Throw them in prison. People keep getting murdered? Mutilation and public execution become the price. Tired of thieves? Cut off an arm. The king had his wife cheat on him with a slave? All women who are adulterers will be branded on the forehead. If the poor are the only ones to suffer, and it does not affect the gentry, chances are no laws will be created. While you don’t need to create a story, every law does have a story. Just like I’m sure the NYC ordinance it’s illegal for monkeys to smoke, drink, and gamble has an amazing story behind it.
There are also programs. Conscription, taking slaves from outlying villages (Hunger Games takes the idea from a proud history), creating schools, allowing indentured servitude, and so on. Remember, all of this comes from something happening. Three tributes revolted, so now all must suffer humiliation and offer up slaves. There was a war, and the nation was not ready. Now all men at the age of 16 must learn to fight. Inbreeding leads to issues, and communities are too small, so the real purpose of skirmishes and wars is to capture women to diversify breeding stock. Natives Americans would use this, along with many other tribal nations. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of real wars as well, but kidnapping the women was as much necessity as pleasure.
I’m hitting my word count and then some. Next time I’ll write on secret organizations, as I really wanted to include that here. I hope you gain some good ideas and insight, and please feel free to add your own in the comments.