Main characters and slavery
The problem, at least for me, is when a MC born and raised in a world where slavery is acceptable or even a common practice (suddenly) hates it when they come in contact with slavery (for the first time). I find this weird, as we can see from history, slavery was often seen as completely acceptable and normal, hell, in ancient Greece entire wars were fought just to get some more slaves. So why would someone who lives in that world have a aversion to it?
In books I often find this hard to understand, and especially in the aformentioned world it ‘lowers’ my immersion in the story. Is this just me, or do some of my fellow readers share this opinion. And more importantly, is it something writers should try to avoid (the aversion without real reason part) in their novels?
Let’s make a really bad comparison: junk food.
Junk food is bad for you, period. Still we eat it, everyone eats it, it is normal. You see a few people campaigning against it, but the majority still finds it normal, or at least acceptable.
In a society where slaves are slaves are objects, wouldn’t it be alike most of the time?
In the case of ancient Greece or Rome, the written history we have comes from the upper and middle classes (the enslavers rather than the enslaved.) Just because they considered slavery acceptable didn’t mean all the slaves were on board with the idea. In fact, since most slaves were taken by conquest, it’s safe to say they would rather go free. Some estimates put the slave population of ancient Greece and Rome up to 40%. That’s a significant portion of people who naturally are against the idea of slavery, even in a society where it’s normalized.
Even among the upper classes, the writings that survived are more likely to reflect the politically correct thoughts of that era. If people were questioning the system and speaking against slavery, these opinions might have been censored for not aligning with the current thoughts. It’s the same way that Google will hide content that goes against today’s popular believes.
People are going to disagree by nature. Some more than others, depending on their personalities. But the fact that we’ve abolished slavery is proof that people are willing to question existing systems, even if they grew up in a world where it was once considered normal. To your point about junk food: I’m an American, and my wife and I don’t buy any chips, crackers, or other processed foods. It might be normal in this county, but that doesn’t mean everyone does it or agrees with it.
Back to fiction: many works involving slavery are shown from the perspective of the oppressed people (the underdogs)
In Mistborn, the skaa are enclaved by the nobility, and almost all the protagonists are skaa.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, Daenerys Targaryen is against slavery because she was personally sold by her brother.
In Stormlight Archive, Kaladin belongs to the oppressed group of people (the darkeyes) so he naturally objects to the way they’re treated.
But I assume you’re specifically talking about upperclass characters here (or any sort of character who isn’t personally at risk of becoming a slave.) In that case, consider this question: what makes for a more interesting protagonist? Someone who quietly goes along with what he’s been raised to believe, or someone who questions what he sees?
I realize the execution might be flawed in some stories. (For example, a writer might use this trope as a cheap way to earn reader sympathy, or the character might have zero inner-conflict about the idea.) But I wouldn't say the idea itself is flawed, or that the protagonist needs a reason for his aversion. It's natural to feel sympathy when someone is else is mistreated. It's natural to see someone suffering and think, "What if that were me, or someone I care about?" Mob mentality and groupthink can lead us to do things that are wrong and inhumane, but good protagonists are usually the type of people who stop and think beyond that.
Good and evil, right and wrong aren't mutually exclusive and are completely subjective. In many of our fantasy worlds it's perfectly fine to murder and pillage as long as it's against the right species, most commonly goblins and orcs in most fantasy worlds. But, killing a sentient being is still considered murder, no matter how you may view their morality. Just because goblins have a different societal system doesn't mean that it isn't a valid system.
Slavery, IRL, was still extremely commonplace across the world not even 140+ years ago. There is still evidence of slaves still being traded today. Back then the common consensus viewed slavery as a natural part of the common experience, with its sporadic detractors who eventually became the majority. While that timeframe is most definitely long, if we look at it in terms of generations that was only 3-4 generations ago, maybe less if we consider that life expectancies and the average life span has increased in the last 100 years. We have 100+ year olds still puttering around today and they could have possibly known active or former slaves and slave owners.
Astrowoud Wrote: In books I often find this hard to understand, and especially in the aformentioned world it ‘lowers’ my immersion in the story. Is this just me, or do some of my fellow readers share this opinion. And more importantly, is it something writers should try to avoid (the aversion without real reason part) in their novels?
Although I agree with you in principle, I do think it should be avoided. The reason is that slavery is highly contextual to the culture and the reader will not have the cultural context needed. Still, I agree that slavery is used a bit too much as the 'cultural purity test of evil', and seems to only be included to make a particular culture/country/whatever evil. It's a pet peeve when slavery is tacked on to a culture/country/whatever to make it evil, whether it fits the culture or not.
The analogy I would use is eating meat. Modern day cultures have an entire culture around eating meat. Meat is more expensive, so social status plays a part. It often is viewed as a "manly" thing, so 'manlyness'/male identity plays a part. We have internal tiering, mystical beliefs, identity selection over eating/not eating, health beliefs, etc. We use it for religious sacrifice, for rare celebrations, on specific days... eating meat is surprisingly integrated into social and cultural norms.
How do you explain the 'meat culture' to a future culture that see eating meat as abhorrent? I mean, it's not enough to say that we think that eating meat is 'normal'. We relish in it, we embrace it, we identify by it... how do you explain thanksgiving, or why we will spend so much to keep our dog alive while we eat a chicken a month+? How do you explain backyard BBQs, all you can eat wings, butcher shops, $500 steaks, poterhouses, turduckens, etc.? Beyond that, how can you contextualize the western norms (eg: thanksgiving) vs asian norms (eg: roasted pig for weddings), or the complexity of what animals are protected (eg: horses vs cows vs dogs) across cultures?
And eating meat is not nearly as deeply intertwined as slavery was, and not even close to as varied as the huge variations in culture and types of slavery. It's just too hard to introduce realistic slavery, and the best approach is to look down at it - because looking down slavery fits with the modern context.
Rambling aside, the problem is that 'slavery' is a touch cultural norm to touch on. If the author doesn't want to spend a lot of effort designing a culture where it is normal, making it "normal" always feels really weird and wrong. On the other hand, if the author wants to disparage a culture, adding slavery is easy and never really feels wrong. There are a couple of notable exceptions - accurate historical representation, trying to represent a culture accurately, etc.
Also, slavery in general is one of the most trite and overdone elements of fantasy, especially in web fiction. It's there just to add some extra edge, or to add some black and white morality for modern day audiences, or in worst-case scenario it's there for, um, fanservice. Yuck. It's basically never handled well because the people writing really didn't do enough in-depth research to the experiences and culture of slavery. My recommendation is to avoid slavery at all costs in your stories unless it is absolutely, positively necessary.
I think Mr. Musk nailed it in the head. It's a matter of perspective. Just because slavery is normal in society then, doesn't mean that it is universally accepted practice by everyone. There are always people who consider the practice wrong, they simply do not have the means at the time to change their society, therefore the concept that it is "Unrealistic" for an outsider or even a person born in that society to question the slavery system is wrong.
The slaves obviously do not agree with the slavers and plantation owners that it is their due in life to be the property of another man. And even the slave owners understand that fundamentally, they are doing something not "natural," that is why they have a system in place to combat anyone who tries to change their "normal" way of life.
They will have a system for slave masters or slave trainers to impose their will because they know the slaves do not believe that slavery is good for them. They create spy network within the slaves like the head slave or informants to see if the slaves are planning revolts and civil disobedience because they know what they are doing is not "normal."
Finally, almost every great civilization that used slavery (the greeks, the Romans, etc) also has a system in place that made sure that it is impossible or at least very hard for the slaver aristocrat themselves to become slaves in the future. a good example of this is any variation of the ritual suicide, like falling on your sword, purity dagger for the women, poisons, etc., and when society became more "civilized" they started using ransoms, laws, and finally the governments themselves to make sure aristocrats do not become slaves themselves. All this indicated to me that even then people are aware that slavery isn't natural because based on their observation, there are worse things than death to contemplate about if they are captured.
Hadassah makes an excellent point in that an MC growing up in an echelon of society that is used to or accepting of chattel slavery will likely need some push, whether it's a "beloved" slave telling him s/he wishes to be free, an encounter with an abolitionist, first time witnessing the horrors of a slave caravan, etc., and both Hadassah and David Musk highlight different responses based on one's social stratum.
Some other things to remember, as well, many societies did not put their own members into chattel slavery. Instead, they would put captives, criminals, or different-appearing individuals, so that they could justify the discrepancy in treatment, as those "destined" for slavery were Other. As such, in a world with non-human races, that racial difference and indoctrination would be another barrier to tear down - and this barrier is surprisingly effective. In 1676 there was a rebellion of poor White and Black men in the Virginia colony*, who were upset with how their needs on the frontier (protection from attack by Native Americans, whose land they were intruding upon) were being ignored by the Governor. After the rebellion was quelled, the governor of the Virginia colony intentionally altered the nature of slavery, such that only Black individuals could be enslaved, for the express purpose of preventing the lower classes from ever rallying together, as even the poorest White person would then still be better than somebody. In essence, he force a stratification of the lowest class, base on race, which was then rapidly adopted an use to drive a wedge between poor folks of different races throughout the majority of American History.
Of course, this isn't even addressing the statements many people make, that if they lived back then, they'd be against slavery. Maybe, but maybe not. Far more people would fall in line with the indoctrination and believe it to be a necessary evil or even find a way to moralize it (See the noble General Lee revision as part of the Lost Cause Mythos).
So, yeah, with all that being said, I very much echo Thedude3445's sentiment: avoid at all costs unless you are able to portray the dehumanizing an unjust nature of chattel slavery and, if you plan on having MC engage in slavery, like in Rise of the Shield Hero, you better have a good way of justifying it without moralizing it (and definitely better than Shield Hero's rationale).
*From the Wikipedia article on Bacon's Rebellion:
"The alliance between European indentured servants and Africans (many enslaved until death or freed), united by their bond-servitude, disturbed the ruling class. The ruling class responded by hardening the racial caste of slavery in an attempt to divide the two races from subsequent united uprisings with the passage of the Virginia Slave Coes of 1705."
If it was some lordling raised around servants and slaves, it would make sense to not bat an eye at it. But a village "hero" who sees it for the first time and could easily see himself or his friends/family being in the same situation as abused slaves or just has a softer heart, of course he would be all against that with a passion. Views, perspectives, morals and cultures could be very different between people in the same world.
Once upon a time slavery was acceptable here. The people that fought against it, removed it and outlawed it were also people born and raised in a world where slavery was a normal thing. So you can probably blame the author's method and explanation or the lack of it about the MC's reaction, but the logic is there somewhere in some cases.
ps. If I've been isekaied and there is slavery around, you can bet I'd get a slave or two and definitely won't die trying to change the system.
Empathy can arise in basically any situation, and can only really be effectively prevented through “distance” between the oppressors and the oppressed. If you look at the story where trench soldiers during one of the world wars spontaneously decided ceasefire during Christmas in defiance of their commanders you might learn that there were several contributing factors to that development.
They were in close proximity for prolonged periods and could hear the daily activities of the “Other” side quite frequently, and the individuals were quite constant since they only really got cycled out for new troops afterwards. They were all extremely exhausted by the war in general and there might have been constant talks about getting the war over “by Christmas time” or the like. Also the fact that Christmas was a shared culture between them that allowed them some common familiarity with one another despite various other cultural barriers. Despite everything bitter enemies can find solidarity and empathy for one another in vicious circumstances because there was relatively little keeping them truly “distant” from one another, as well regular stuff like allowing the other side to collect the dead without shooting at them out of respect and such, all of which were compounding factors that grew over time.
In a “dystopian” medieval slave society there would generally be very few people who would actively oppose the establishment to a significant degree, for long at least. We do not act upon things we think of as “wrong” all too readily if the circumstances don’t encourage us to do so. That said, a slave state has a strong interest in keeping “distance” between its favoured citizens and its oppressed slaves to avoid the above Christmas scenario. That means that there either goes a lot into justifying such treatment of slaves through propaganda or by standards which go “at least we don’t treat them all that badly for slaves” or whatnot, or to keep more normal citizens as ignorant as possible and focus instead on indoctrinating the people who get more exposure to the realities of slavery.
Just because slavery is “normal” in a society wouldn’t mean that the experience of slavery or encounters with slaves is all that normal. Slave societies don’t necessarily have that “many” slaves relative to what the average person would encounter, and the ones that do have loads of slaves have a higher risk of both a Christmas scenario and a Spartacus scenario rearing its head. The people with slaves would be the high class rich people, who also are less likely to be the people interacting with said slaves since they tend to be so snobbish. This means it’ll probably be the servants and whatnot to the wealthy who interact with slaves, who might also dislike the exploitative rich to and extent and might somewhat emphasise with the slaves but avoid acting too publicly on it since they need the monies. Think about the kindly woman person giving out the bread to Jack after climbing the beanstalk but probably prefers such actions to remain secret to avoid complications.
Since the snobbish rich avoid the slaves, any random one of them who actually encounters the true reality of what it means to be a slave and thinks about it hard enough for the ethical dilemma to sink into their pudding addled brains you get the worst possible scenario: the children of the rich revolting against the hand that feeds them and needs them to administrate its power structure.
So, the problem for any slave society is that there are multiple angles from which almost any random citizens can get ideas that slavery might be bad. This can happen at any time, and it’s impossible to tell how quickly it can blow up into a revolt. And suppressing those blips of objection can lead to more widespread awareness of state oppression and suspicion of government and yet again back to the revolution.
My point is that some maverick raised in a slave society absolutely can decide one day slavery might possibly be bad, and is totally realistic, but what is important is that there is loads pf nuance between slavery is not-bad or slavery is bad, and the brainwashed protagonist might take a while to figure out all that nuance.
The implication is this: most of the time this rebellious youth would start out with a mild objection against slavery, or just be confused about the ethics and let their parent “sort them out” at first at least. They’ll take a big while to decide to advocate for slave rights, then maybe move towards revolting against the current establishment of slavery, and then maybe figure out that ALL forms of slavery should be unilaterally abolished and not just most of them, and so on.
Of course, a smaller fraction pf such sympathetic citizens might skip straight over figuring out the nuance. This is the group that instantly decides all slavery is bad, all slavers are bad, and they and the slaves should go on a genocidal killing spree. Big jump there, but the human brain really just doesn’t like uncertainty and having to figure out nuance has loads of uncertainty in it.
So the real conclusion is, very few people are enough of an activist and an independent thinker to jump straight to enforcing the best ethical structures for society, most of those who would try wouldn’t be all that intense about it and might not do all that much without a movement to join and encourage them, and the people who make the biggest leaps tend to lack a bit of nuance in that they skip the part where the ethics actually gets figured out and jump straight into purging heretics (literally and metaphorically, this includes milder actions such as mad ravings in mobs to peacefully protest against stuff, because a peaceful protest can still be pretty intense all things considered).
Edit: as a fun aside, the original concoction of a “utopia” society was by this one Catholic guy who chose the name because it meant “no place” or “no where” while also being close enough to another world to be a pun on “good place” as well. In said Utopia (name of the island, big one, several cities) the people were secular and intellectual but tolerated religion, and all crimes were punished by temporary slave labour. Also they didn’t use money so probably fit into some definition of communism.
In general I do get a sense of imbalance when a medieval or some such person has, for some reason, a very modern style of morality that would fit in great in a middle-class, white college campus.
veted Wrote: Ah I was thinking this thread would be along the lines of "modern man gets reincarnated, and hates slavery.... but that catgirl is really cute and he's a 'nice' guy, so buying (sexy) slaves is ok for the protagonist. BUT EVERYONE ELSE IS EVIL WHEN THEY DO IT!"
Ugh... Such a common trope, especially in isekai & anime. What if the vice were different? What if it were rape, exhibitionism, pedophilia, murder? At what point do we say the "otherwise-virtuous" MC has crossed the line and can no longer be held as a semblance of a hero?
Slavery is such a huge institution. There were so many forms of slavery, some of which are practiced today.
To narrow down, however, historical context of an individual's opinion of slavery as an everyday fact in their world. I highly doubt the character would have strong feelings naturally and would need some kind of powerful emotional catalyst to feel one way or another.
EX: Doug and Sara were walking through their favorite stretch of woods along a most charming babbling brook. This would be the best place to set up a picnic. Suddenly, bursting forth from the brush and undergrowth, three rough looking men in black leathers threw barbed capture nets at them. Doug pushed Sara into the brook, saving her from the insidious grasp of the nets. Sara ran, vowing that she would find Doug and free him.
Suddenly Sara when from not really thinking at all of slavery, an everyday institution in her world to vowing to destroy the slavers.
EX: Matt cried, why had this happened to him, where was his mother, his father? What happened to everyone in the village? The small boy, growing tired, hungry and more and more afraid with each passing minute decided he had to move. He beat his tiny foot against the trap door leading out of the crawl space of his house. After some struggle he finally got it open. The sight that greeted his eyes overwhelmed him. Everything was destroyed, bodies lay everywhere. A man in black approached him, "hey there, son of generictown. You will come with me and we will get revenge together one day.
In the above segment Matt would grow up an emotional slave, driven to revenge with every thought being a provocation to war. His rescuer could have been the one to do the damage for all Matt knows. Since he is there as Matt emerges and immediately begins playing to his emotions, the rider is the de factor slaver in this situation. The rider leaves Matt no choice to his future.
EX: Randy knew only the punishment of the sun. His horse had broken its leg in the dangerous, shifting sands. As Randy lay dying of dehydration he was found. Warm water washed across his face and he eagerly lapped at it. He'd been saved. He realized that he'd been saved by slavers and with exhausted resignation accepted his fate for now.
I think the above is obvious enough to stand on its own. Survival is a powerful desire.
To sum up without diving deeply into negative and therefore sensitive portions of the nature of slavery, In historical context it is important to identify several key factors before determining the MC's stance of slavery.
1) This is most important. What era of slavery exists?
2) Has slavery impacted MC's life?
3) How do MC's contemporaries feel about it?
4) How do the slaves feel about it?
5) Are there specific moments designed to manipulate the morality of the MC?
6) Does including slavery in your world add or improve concepts integral to the story you are telling?
This is even more so true in instances where the society is accepting of something that most human beings with a blank slate would find morally questionable on a very basic instinctual level. Basically any time a behavior is very obviously breaking the golden rule, most human's with a normal working sense of empathy who have not otherwise been indoctrinated will tend to find the behavior uncomfortable or questionable on some level.
In cases like this there will be some more free thinking people or those who have been personally touched in a negative manner by the behavior in question who will come to dissent against the prevailing attitudes.
Look to the southern USA a couple hundred years ago for instance. The underground railroad was alive and well back then precisely because many members of their society found slavery morally objectionable to the point they were willing to risk their own safety and freedom in order to break the law and oppose it.
Have you ever seen some drunk asshole publicly beat his wife and kid? How many of the people in the crowd do you think actually morally agreed with what was going on vs how many of them any actually did something about it?
The number of people who are willing to make waves and publicly act on a moral conviction is a MUCH smaller proportion than those who simply have said moral conviction. This is a very round about way of saying that even in societies where some instinctively immoral behavior is considered legal and the norm there will be people that do not agree with it and for each vocal dissident you find there will be many more silent ones.
Having said all this, the slavery hating character in question should have the sort of background and personality that would make sense for them to have developed this dissident opinion. For instance you wouldn't expect a greedy plantation owner who has spent his life trying to enrich himself anyway he can to throw down a soap box and start preaching about the evils of slavery, but this behavior would make perfect sense for a boy who watched his childhood crush get carted off as a slave and then raped to settle her parents' debt.