Five Common Worldbuilding Mistakes in New Manuscripts

A planet that's half habitable and half toxic wasteland.

Something seems to have gone wrong here.

Worldbuilding is central to speculative fiction, but it’s also hard. Really hard. Experts in every field still debate how things in the real world work, so you can imagine how easy it is to make mistakes in a fictional world. I see such mistakes in a lot of the manuscripts I edit. Fortunately, that means the author can fix it before submitting or publishing their manuscripts. But it’s better if the mistakes never get made in the first place. To that end, I’ll describe some of the most common worldbuilding issues I see in new manuscripts.

1. Feudal Political Involvement

King Author and the rebellious peasants from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You’re the king? Well, I didn’t vote for you!

In modern times, we assume most people will have political opinions.* Widespread education means that most people have a general idea of how our government functions, so they have thoughts on how it could function better. There’s no guarantee anyone’s political opinion is a good one, but this is a basic cornerstone of any representative democracy. Politicians try to sway our political opinions so we’ll vote for them and their policies, even if said politicians are often light on details.

But this kind of political involvement doesn’t make sense in all settings, especially those feudal-Europe-inspired settings that are so common in high fantasy. In a standard feudal society, the vast majority of people have little investment in who rules them. For the average farmer or laborer, it doesn’t usually matter who wears the crown because everyday life will remain unchanged.

At the same time, feudal peasants have very little input on how they’re governed, short of rising in revolt, which requires extreme circumstances. Feudal lords don’t really have to care what their subjects think. Those subjects also lack formal education in most cases, making it hard for them to intellectualize the business of governing.

Despite this, I see a lot of manuscripts where medieval peasants get together and discuss the pros and cons of the various heirs vying for the crown. This sounds like a bunch of modern college students visiting a Renaissance fair. If you’ve read my articles in the past, you know I’m no stickler for historical accuracy, but in this case, storytellers are breaking their readers’ immersion for no appreciable gain.

Fortunately, this problem has a few easy fixes. For one thing, there are plenty of premodern societies in which political participation was widespread. If you base your setting off of the Roman Republic or Song Dynasty China, it won’t feel out of place at all for regular folks to have an opinion on politics.

Alternatively, you can create scenarios in which it’s more plausible for feudal subjects to have political opinions. Perhaps a local scribe finds a book on political theory in the church library, and when the duke raises taxes to pay for a third castle, the commoners wonder if there’s a better way to run things. Or you can focus on motivations that fit better into a default feudal setting. Peasants might not be educated on the finer points of tax law, but they know which claimant to the throne demands a greater tithe of wheat.

2. Absent Authority Figures

First Order troops assembled in The Force Awakens. Would the Republic maybe want to do something about this? Nah, sounds hard.

In order to control an area, rulers need some way to enforce their authority. Otherwise, they aren’t really rulers, and people can do whatever they want. At the same time, rulers don’t usually appreciate anyone causing mayhem and destruction in their territory. They’ve got taxes to collect, and that’s hard to do when someone’s causing a ruckus.

This can be an issue because violence and mayhem are the cornerstones of many speculative fiction plots. Sometimes it’s a dragon rampaging across a fantasy kingdom; sometimes it’s a squadron of space pirates marauding through the asteroid belt. This is usually a problem for the protagonist to solve – or occasionally a problem caused by the protagonist.

Either way, in any plausible scenario, the authorities would want to shut the mayhem down as quickly as possible, and yet they rarely do. Sometimes this is because they’re inexplicably sitting on their hands, which is a plot problem, but many of the manuscripts I work on simply have no authority figures at all. Kingdoms lack armies, modern nations lack police, and space federations have not a starfleet to be seen.

It’s understandable why storytellers often leave authority figures out of their worldbuilding. It’s a serious hangup for the plot if the villain is arrested in the second chapter. But most audiences have enough understanding of society to expect some kind of enforcement mechanism. If a setting doesn’t have one, the setting doesn’t feel real.

To solve this problem, focus on building a world that not only has the necessary authority figures but also has credible reasons why they can’t interfere with the plot. An easy place to start is to have a setting where centers of power are small and scattered. It’s hard for anyone to marshal the forces necessary to stop a dragon when the land is populated mostly by isolated villages. That won’t work for every setting, but if it’s an option, I highly recommend it.

You can also create authority figures that are clearly unable to interfere with the plot. If your setting is home to a sprawling space empire, you can show how the navy is so depleted by civil war and poor funding that it can’t stop raids on civilian shipping. Your setting’s authority figures could even be part of the problem. It would normally be the royal army’s job to stop an anti-elf militia, but if the army is riddled with elf-hating officers, they might ignore the militia’s activities.

3. Unaddressed Crises

A massive asteroid impacting Earth. It’s very nice that the lovebirds got together, but this is still happening.

If you opened a novel and the first page depicted how the world was slowly floating into the maw of a sun-sized chaos demon, you’d expect that to be addressed as part of the plot, yes? And if it wasn’t, you’d probably feel frustrated and confused. Sure, the protagonists may have defeated their nemesis, but the world is still going to be eaten by a chaos demon.

While I’ve never encountered that specific scenario, unresolved crises are fairly common in the manuscripts that cross my desk. They take the form of environmental catastrophe, collapsing infrastructure, and the like. These problems are big and urgent enough to make the audience think they’re part of the plot, but from the storyteller’s perspective, they’re just window dressing. When the story ends and the crisis is unaddressed, the audience isn’t satisfied because their expectations weren’t fulfilled. In most cases, such endings also feel very bleak because there’s a crisis about to doom the world.

This mistake usually comes from a good instinct: filling the world with problems. Dystopias are much easier to tell stories in than utopias because a dystopia is full of problems for the protagonist to solve. But authors can go overboard and create problems that feel more urgent than their actual plot.

You don’t have to fix every problem in the setting by the end of your story. For most stories, that would be impossible and likely unbelievable as well. It’s fine for a postapocalyptic story to end with the wasteland as hostile as it was at the beginning, or a fantasy story to end with monsters still prowling the dark woods. In most cases, the issue is that the problems are out of the ordinary or seem likely to spiral out of control.

If you’re writing a cyberpunk dystopia, then corporate abuse and organic chop shops are the norm. It’s fine to leave those around when the story ends. But if a virus is destroying every computer on the planet, that’s out of the ordinary, and it needs to be addressed. The problem doesn’t necessarily have to be resolved if you make it clear that it’s being saved for a sequel, but it needs to be central to the plot. If that’s not something you’re interested in, then don’t include a super computer virus in the setting.

It’s also possible to make a story that’s specifically about not resolving the crisis. If your plot revolves around what the characters will do in the face of an unstoppable apocalypse, then you would address the crisis without stopping it.

4. Oppressed Privilege

Polaris using her powers in The Gifted. How are we supposed to fight back when all we have are superpowers?

I’ve talked about this topic before, but it comes up so often in my editing work that it deserves a spot on this list. In this mistake, storytellers craft a world where a group of people are oppressed because of a trait that would actually grant them privilege in any plausible scenario. Magic and superpowers are by far the most common example, but I’ve also seen manuscripts where characters were discriminated against for being good at sports or just smart.

I understand why storytellers do this. Many of us learned growing up that anything differentiating someone from the group will be punished, and magical powers are certainly a strong difference. This mistake is also common in popular media, from classics like X-Men to newer entries like Fantastic Beasts, where wizards fear muggles even though wizards have magical powers.

However, simply because lots of other people are making a mistake doesn’t mean you want to. And oppressed privilege is a mistake because while it’s true that differences are often punished, that dynamic changes the moment those differences are exploitable. Instead, exploitable differences are rewarded. Though some people might fear a weather witch’s power or resent the witch for having abilities they don’t, that won’t bother the witch much when governments and corporations are willing to pay top dollar for better rainfall.

And for every person who personally dislikes someone for their exceptional abilities, there will be far more people who respond with idolization. You can already see this in real life. Some people are jealous of Michael Jordan’s success, but far more idolize him because he’s just so good at basketball. This is all just at the individual level. We haven’t even gotten into what happens when people with exceptional abilities start acting in groups. Even the X-Men can’t get around this one; the writers routinely craft plot contrivances to explain how the mutants don’t immediately defeat the evil government.

This mistake not only makes a setting harder to take seriously but also reinforces dangerous misconceptions about the way privilege works. The idea of being punished for privileged traits is at the heart of movements that proclaim it’s really white men being mistreated in our society. This ideology is then weaponized against people who are actually oppressed. That’s how we get people demanding an end to affirmative action and voting-rights laws with claims that these are discriminating against privileged people when in fact they are working to correct an existing imbalance.

None of this means it’s wrong to have a character with a special ability be oppressed. In most cases, it works fine for a character to be oppressed for reasons unrelated to their ability. While Michael Jordan isn’t discriminated against for being good at basketball, he still experiences racism as a black man. Alternatively, it’s plausible for privileged people to be specifically targeted by an outside enemy. When the Spanish invaded the Americas, they went after the native nobility first, not because the Spanish hated nobles but because those natives had the most power and the greatest ability to resist.

5. Unnoticed Supernatural Elements

An Erumpent from Fantastic Beasts Yeah, this is definitely the sort of thing you could easily hide.

Storytellers love putting secret supernatural elements into their worlds. Often, the secrecy is there as an explanation for how this fictional version of Earth can still resemble our own. This is the default for urban fantasy stories like The Dresden Files, but you also see it in historical fantasy when the author wants readers to imagine the story could be taking place in their past. In other cases, the secrecy isn’t in service of believability but is there so the storyteller can have a cool reveal.

Like oppressed privilege, this is a mistake that many popular franchises make. The Hellboy films portray a world where people have simply forgotten about magic, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has people blissfully unaware of the mass-murdering vampires in their midst. Neither story offers an explanation; they just hope audiences will be too enamored by cool fight scenes and witty dialogue to start asking questions.

The problem here is that supernatural elements are hard to miss. If your world includes wizards conjuring flames atop their towers, people will take notice. Beyond simple curiosity, humans have a strong incentive to notice and document the supernatural. If the supernatural is dangerous, people remember to avoid it. More importantly, many supernatural elements are exploitable, and humans never let go of something they can use. This is before we even get into the modern era, where widespread smartphones make it nearly impossible to keep anything secret.

When humans ignore the supernatural for no reason, it’s an obvious contrivance. It damages the world’s believability, making it more difficult for audiences to take the story seriously. What’s more, the consequences of this mistake are only going to get more severe as speculative fiction continues to dominate the mainstream. In the before times, audiences were more willing to get swept up in spectacle because worlds of secret magic were new and cool. Now that everyone has read Harry Potter a dozen times, the novelty has worn off and audiences expect more.

The best solution is to have a credible, simple explanation for why people don’t notice or remember the supernatural. Perhaps the magic in your world is so slippery and alien that it doesn’t stick in people’s memories unless they are full-time magicians. If you’re in a historical genre, then setting your magic in the distant past is a great solution. It’s totally plausible for the records of Bronze Age sorcerers to have been lost over the millennia or lumped in with all the other nonsense reported by ancient historians.*

If a complete explanation doesn’t work for your setting, then the best option is to present some plausible hand waving and move on. This is why The Dresden Files spends so much of the early books with the main character working alongside the Chicago police. It gives the author plenty of time to establish that regardless of the reason, normal people ignore the existence of magic until something magical is about to eat them. The protagonist even comments on how strange this is before concluding that no one will ever know the reason why. That reasoning isn’t totally satisfying, but it’s enough to get most readers over the believability hump.

While worldbuilding is only one of the challenges facing a speculative fiction storyteller, it’s one of the most important. A lot of readers are drawn to spec fic specifically because of the strange new worlds it creates. A poorly built world will send that portion of the audience running for the hills, even if everything else about the story is excellent. So when you sit down to write a new draft, keep these mistakes in mind. Avoiding them will save you time and money down the road.

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  1. 3Comrades

    I actually think it would be odd for peasants not to have opinions on their ruler. Sure, political theory would not be the topic on hand, but royalty and other authority figures were like celebrities in many ways!

    Peasants talked about unpopular laws, they talked about gossip and theorized on demonic influence. They made fun and favored the better looking or more fun ruler. I feel peasants with no opinion on their rulers is far more historically implausible.

    Sure there will always be the guy who goes “who cares nothing will change” but there are guys like that now. I feel like that is imposing a modern idea of the past. People will always have opinions. They know if their king overly favors another country and will mock him in songs all over the capital for it. It’s why so much of Shakespeare’s political satire hit home with peasants.

    I apologize for being so long winded over the subject, but I hate the idea that because our predecessors We’re less educated they were less intelligent or were apathetic.

    On another note, I think the root of the “paranormal things just aren’t noticed because people don’t want to notice” is from people who believe that is true in actuality. I know many people who think ghosts, aliens, vampires and demons are obvious but people just refuse to see the evidence. If they are the intended audience, the world building mistake could instead strike a chord with them, but that is very niche.

    • J

      Peasants in Europe would absolutely have a view on who rules them, you’re right. For so many reasons, here are just some of them!
      1) Coming and goings of kings and queens? Basically soap opera before soap opera. Henry VIII has done what to his wife now?!
      2) Divine right of kings – the king was chosen by god, so civil wars, evil advisors, pretenders to the throne etc all ripe for speculation and their effect on your immortal soul. Does your local lord spend too much time plotting with the king’s younger brother? Maybe that’s why the cows are sick and that two-headed foal was born last month.
      3) Local authority figures would be for or against the current regime – you may not ever see the queen but the priest asks you to pray for her soul every Sunday, and the local Duke wants to recruit your children for her wars…

      • Cay Reet

        As a person who would be a peasant in Europe, if Europe were still in the middle ages: no, peasants in Europe would hardly have any interest in political matters.

        1) Kings and queens are fun when you have quick mass media. Medieval peasants didn’t read and there was no quick messaging of any kind (radio, TV, internet). By the time you heard the king had a son, the kid was probably old enough to walk by himself. They would learn about stuff occasionally from travellers, but nobody told them much about what happened.

        2) Yes, kings were crowned as the ‘chosen by god,’ but that was mostly ritual. And it meant ‘we don’t have to think about our ruler, god knows what he’s doing.’ Besides, as mentioned, there was no mass media, most of the political shenanigans in court stayed in court, even nobles not living there often had no idea.

        3) Local authorities were pretty much very free authorities. The same reason why peasants didn’t learn much about the king’s life also prevented the court (especially once it was established in a capital) from knowing much about the local authorities. Unless someone regional who could write or pay a scribe sent a letter (which could take months) to the king, the local authorities ruled as they wished – for peasants, what happened around them, including drafting their children for war, was their local lord’s doing. And middle ages were a time of militias – apart from the nobles, hardly anyone was trained for war. Peasants were plucked from fields to fight other peasants plucked from other fields – only after the Crusades had heated up, mercenary became a job option. It was only in the very late middle ages that selling local people as soldiers became a thing. Wars in the middle ages often only lasted one battle and often only were very local (one local lord against another).

        People in the middle ages pretty much had their own, local problems to solve and didn’t care much about politics – which isn’t that far from people today.

        • 3Comrades

          1) This was what I was talking about. Before social media, people gossiped. We have proof upon proof historically speaking that peasants were obsessed with royalty. They don’t need social media or books. The king’s child was announced to the kingdom and people made bawdy jokes on the Queens heritage. These are real things. Perhaps you may not have been invested but a sizable population were. It’s a mistake to put our own ideas of the past onto them, and I think despite the clear evidence peasants did develop opinions, it seems presumptuous to think they wouldn’t somehow due to a lack of modern conveniences/ education.

          2) Some court things definitely stayed at court, but you really forget about the power of gossip. These lords and ladies had servants and scullery maids and the stories would grow with retelling. Just because a king was mandated did not mean the people did not have their opinions. This is also an era before TV, people got most of their entertainment from stories and that included the wealthy and powerful. People also wrote songs, many of which were scathing political commentary, or watched plays which made digs at the court. I mean Jesters were as much political commentators as comedians. All these things added for the Peasantry to have strong feelings about their rulers. As for the divine right of Kings while the idea was around during the Middle Ages it wasn’t fully accepted until long after.

          3) Part of what you say there is true, and part not. I don’t think you fully realize how much different areas relied on each other during the Middle Ages vs other time periods. I feel you are imagining an all powerful king when that was only possible after feudal systems were less powerful and the government more centralized. The only way a King could have any power was hoping his lords had his back (which they often did not). So there were many systems in place to solidify that. So yes, local authorities were often given some free reign but… they communicated constantly. Messengers didn’t need to know how to write. They memorized and traveled often.

          Not keeping up with his lords was easily a Kings downfall. Local Lords were often required to travel to capital and brought their servants would would be pressured to tell all when they got back. What happened at court could often affect your local which is why lords were always killing each other or setting up conspiracies against their monarchs.

          You also discount traveling monks, itenerants, mendicants, merchants, and minstrels who were often plied for more news and stories (often exaggerated)

          5 and finally) This is a debate where we are guessing so far as what peasants thought, entirely based on our own perceptions of them, but there is so much evidence otherwise…

          John Ball was a traveling preacher who was a major figure in a huge Peasant revolt in 1381. He had strong views so much so, it was against the law to hear him preach.

          Piers Plowman was a famous character in poems that dealt with a lot of political satire and complicated Church criticism. It was so often quoted by the peasants in the revolt many people believed he was a real person.

          We have troubadours who appeared around th 12th century and many of their songs had political bents, from drumming up recruits for the Crusades to complex rhyming political debates. And while the troubadours were aristocratic they did travel between villages singing these songs and poems.

          Finally, I remind you much of the literature during this time period started by emphasizing hearing something, and listening to the poets words, implying that most were not expected to read them but listen to recitals which were wildly popular.

          So with traveling priests preaching politics, and traveling musicians/poets reciting politics, and keeping in mind gossip and these were Peasants little entertainment, I find it far more unlikely for them to be apathetic as immersion breaking than them having an opinion.

      • Michael Campbell

        4) A concept known as the Hundred Court.

        P.S. Some historians think that democracy has it’s roots in the Greek trireme as any class of man could afford to own his own oar and therefore would insist on his agency (enfranchisement) with regard to his own destiny.
        I disagree. The Dory used in a Greek Phalanx could be bought by any class of man. But there’s a problem. While 100 men with 10 foot spears will almost always defeat 100 men with swords and shields: one man with a 10 foot spear loses to one man with a sword and a shield, almost all the time.
        Therefore, once the group has chosen to go to war. The individual is beholden to both himself and his comrades, to commit.
        The hoplite commits with his legs keeping him in formation: The oarsman merely commits by keeping his “arse” in the one spot.
        Thus the oarsman has patriotism by the defaults of naval architecture whereas the hoplite has patriotism by personal conviction.
        These two situations shine a very bright light on modern democracy.

      • Michael Campbell

        “Henry VIII has done what to his wife now?!”

        ‘What, seven men including her own brother!?!

        All true…one even confessed under torture! So it must be true.

        Oh well, there’s no way you can fix that no matter how much you love the woman…you’ve basically got to start with a clean slate after that…and Mr Choppy cleans slates like nobody’s business.’

        Who needs TMZ!?!

  2. Laura Ess

    Re: Peasant Political Opinions
    I’ve been reading TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY lately which is an Emperor by Emperor account of the various Roman Empires. In particular the Eastern Empire, which became the Byzantine Empire, has a curious history of one Emperor replacing another by various means, but mostly being a relative of an Emperor who’s just died (perhaps by murdered themselves), and mix of usurpation of various degrees of success. Anyway the point is that sometimes this sort of thing was affected by the masses political perceptions, but that the politics came from different concerns. There was almost civil war between two sports factions, Blue and Green. On another occasion it was iconoclast and anti-iconoclast forces (influenced by a rising Islamic military might.

    Sometimes the basics like taxes would be there, but it seems that for the most part the general population accepted the way things were done, which had evolved from an older Roman model to a more feudal one. Actually, when we talk about feudal times, a lot of what we think of as being feudal is actually inherited from the Romans. Vast estates worked by slaves or serfs existed in Roman times, only there were organised and run by great corporations instead of hereditary lineage. Traditional labour roles, where a son inherited the vocation of their father, comes from reforms by Diocletian (as a remedy for severe labour shortages after plague and civil wars). Counts were originally a Roman military rank from late antiquity.

  3. Michael Campbell

    “That’s how we get people demanding an end to affirmative action … with claims that these are discriminating against privileged people when in fact they are working to correct an existing imbalance.”
    I think the people demanding an end to affirmative action, see it as penalizing the young* in order to sate the consciences of an older generation.
    * Those who would have got into a coarse based purely on raw results but missed out when the playing field was made uneven in-order to right a societal wrong.

    Yes university racial percentages should match the general population of the country (if the theory that there is no connection between race and I.Q. is correct) however the correct way to do this is to make every schoolchild a beneficiary of a magnificent education.
    Choosing to tinker around with university entrance requirements has only one advantage over supping-up your high-schools and grade schools:- it’s cheaper. The big end of town don’t have to pay for justice, instead the universities get a special taxation placed specifically on them (dividing people into different streams and determining different cut-off points for those streams and then determining who is in and who is out can be done…by hiring staff to do it). But ultimately since university drop-out rates do not remain in line with the national racial percentages, it constitutes a truly second rate way of solving the problem.

    • Matthew V. Milone

      I’m glad someone brought this up, and I’m disappointed it didn’t get a response. While I mostly agreed with the larger point being made, bringing affirmative action into it was both peculiar and inaccurate. A person’s race doesn’t make them a better or worse college student or employee. Consequently, race should not be considered when people apply for these positions–and to do otherwise is racial discrimination.

  4. Michael Campbell


    I think you use the word privileged in a manner that biases your logic. Having a superpower does not make one privileged.
    Could I recommend you instead use the word “endowed” for people with super-powers or magic-powers. It may change the ultimate mindset that you are using to make your statements.

    “were discriminated against for being … smart.”
    We’ve all* seen it happen with our own eyes. It’s logical that we might assume that it’ll happen in our speculative fiction worlds.
    *Yes, I’m speaking in generalities.

    “And oppressed privilege is a mistake because while it’s true that differences are often punished, that dynamic changes the moment those differences are exploitable.”
    Actually if there’s one way to describe the bully who persecutes the “smart kid” it would be; exploitative.
    Similarly if The Army needs to chop Wolverine up into little chunks in order to give every soldier in the country; their own mutant healing factor?
    Well, exploitation here they come. Mutant rights be damned!

    • Cay Reet

      When it comes to superpowers or magic, it’s highly unlikely that people would be oppressed. Discriminated against? Possible. Mistrusted? It’s a chance. But oppression to the point of X-Men or the fate of magic users in Merlin is highly unlikely. Why? Because there are powers, actual, palpable powers.

      The smart kid in school is only a target for bullies because the bullies have their powers in their bodies. But the smart kid might actually devise plans to get back on the bullies which rely on the kid’s intelligence. And, yes, that can happen. In the long run, over the course of their life, the smart kid will probably gain a lot more from their intelligence than the bully from the physical powers that were so useful in school.

      In real life, witch hunts worked, because there were no witches. Because humans don’t have magic. What would happen if someone came after real witches? Well, if the were evil, as claimed, it would probably not be pretty – for the witch hunter. Even if they brought down one or two or three witches, the rest would hear and prepare. They’d sent out someone to deal with the hunters. In most cases, the side with magic would win, because an arrow or a crossbow bolt, as deadly as they are, are nothing against a bunch of fireballs or a good death curse. Now, if the witch hunters also had magic, it would be more balanced, but otherwise, the witches would win.

      With the X-Men, who would be more likely to allow themselves to be subdued by the government? The ‘good ones’ who potentially would help as well or the ‘bad ones’ who would potentially destroy the government and take control? I dare say the answer is ‘the good ones’ for obvious reasons. Because if humans throught differently, then the police could simply demand of all criminals to turn themselves in and not resist. What would happen if no good mutants stood against the bad mutants? The bad mutants would wipe the floor with military and police forces and take control. To prevent them from doing that, the logical solution is to join forces with the good mutants – and that doesn’t mean to oppress them, but to integrate them and, most likely, even give them certain privileges.

      • Michael Campbell

        “In real life, witch hunts worked, because there were no witches. Because humans don’t have magic. What would happen if someone came after real witches? Well, if the(y) were evil, as claimed, it would probably not be pretty – for the witch hunter.”

        And where does the witch’s power come from?
        Blood (yeah, I’ve been reading Orson Scoot Card’s Hot To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy)!?!
        Maybe a deal with the devil?

        And nobody noticed the slaughtered cows!?! And called in the local militia?
        And Mephisto would never “cut his loses” on account of the fact that it’s a bad idea to throw good mojo after bad!?! I mean that would be breach of contract right there and Lucifer would never do that!

        What you need to do is to make your argument hold together with numbers. Or at-least adjectives containing implied magnitude. As follows:-

        “The smart kid in school is only a target for bullies because the bullies have their powers in their bodies. But the smart kid might actually devise plans to get back on the bullies which rely on the kid’s intelligence.”
        The government has bodies…lots of bodies. They call it the army or the police but its lots and lots of bodies with the best hardware money/bureaucracy can buy.
        On top of that, the government’s got a shortage of time because (according to your logic) all the homo-superiors need is time to formulate a plan to take over.
        So attack becomes the imperative for the government! Shoot first, ask questions later.

        So ultimately the questions are, how many commandos does it take to bring down one mutant? And how many mutants are there?

        Your rhetoric seems to be based on the idea that even one mutant is enough to beat every soldier the army has. And there’s some truly enormous number of mutants out there?

        The battle of Gettysburg was not pretty – for the union.
        But if asked, most people in most any government in the world, would say; “It was worth it.”
        Logically then if the government must lose a few good men or even a great many good men to save the nation from mutant terrorist/revolutionaries, the same justification will be used:- “It was worth it.”

        • Joe

          “Your rhetoric seems to be based on the idea that even one mutant is enough to beat every soldier the army has. And there’s some truly enormous number of mutants out there?”

          I mean that is kind of the issue with mutants being oppressed. Maybe not all of them, but say, Phoenix or Apocalypse or Magneto do indeed stand a reasonable chance of beating every soldier the army has in a straight fight.

          It’s not even a case of mutants planning together, it’s simply that its hard to hurt, control or exploit people who, on an individual level, can level cities with their mind.

          • Michael Campbell

            X-men II had some cool stuff.
            The idea of mutants Class 1 through Class 5.
            And the line “In chess, the pawns go first.”

            Oh and the fight between Lady Deathstrike and Wolverine. They both have a mutant healing factor so Logan says; “This could take a while.”

            I guess the question really is for the Class 5 mutant.
            Does he/she care about what happens to Class 1 mutants?

          • Cay Reet

            That’s the point, yes. With mutants (or magic users), you stand a good chance of having different power levels involved and those on the highest could easily reach a stage where they could destroy the world without breaking a sweat. And once we get to ‘mutants working together’ which is obviously a thing with the X-Men (because X-Men), you don’t even need mutants on a near-god level. You only need a good leader with enough strategic abillity to make optimal use of the members of the group and their talents, mutation and otherwise.

            In a mutant population, you’d have at least three different levels of mutants (you could specify more, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m staying with three here).

            Level 1: mutants with weak powers or with powers which cannot do damage to property or people. Depending on whether it’s possible and mandatory to check for mutations (X-Men can do that technically, since the place of the mutated gene/s in the DNA is known and DNA-screening is a thing, others might not), those mutants might not even know they’re mutants and neither might someone else. In that case, they wouldn’t be oppressed, because nobody would know they fall into that category (real-life example: POC who happen to be light-skinned enough to pass for white in a racist society). They would not pose a threat to society and could be subdued by normal means (law enforcement or higher up).

            Level 2: mutants with a medium level of power and abilties which could be dangerous to others (superhuman physical traits like super-strength or speed, certain levels of psychic traits). Those would probably be found out as mutants at some point, no matter how careful they are. They would display abilities or cause things which cannot be explained otherwise. Most mutants on earth would probably fall into that category, because population curves tend towards the middle. There would still be differently dangerous people in that category, but on the whole, they’d be able to cause quite some chaos and it would be likely soldiers or specifically trained and equipped law enforcement would be needed to subdue them. It would also be much harder to keep them locked up, depending on the kind of powers their mutation gives them (do not think of physical powers, they can be blocked, but think of people like Mystique or Nightcrawler – they’d be hard to put down and even harder to keep locked up, because their powers make it easy to stay ahead of any hunters).

            Level 3: mutants with near-godlike powers. Those would be the elite of the mutant world. Their powers would be immense. People with telekinesis at that level could throw around vehicles like toys. People with telepathy on that level could simply turn any soldier sent to deal with them into their own soldier, growing an army as the world tries to bring them down. A person like Storm at her best could devastate the world and change its very face by changing whole weather systems. A person like Magneto would simply laugh at all the metal which the army would throw at them and could rip apart whole cities simply because modern buildings rest on a steel frame. Those mutants would be next to impossible to subdue – unless you have the help of other mutants, which is pretty much the premise of X-Men. And to keep those other mutants from joining their brethren, you would treat them well, not oppress them and fuel their hatred and rage (which is something you’ll always get with oppression).

  5. J

    SFF professional here to say that I agree with almost none of this (and apparently Buffy and the X-Men are on my side, so). Often find myself in this position reading this website. Anonymous to avoid creating drama.

    • American Charioteer

      The fact that these mistakes are common even in popular media doesn’t mean they should be embraced. Buffy and the X-Men, like much of SFF, are entertaining only if you can accept their conceits, and many people don’t. In fact, when people say the don’t like superhero movies it is usually because of their absurdity, which comes from being disconnected from how we think people/society realistically behaves.

      And that is exactly the problem that Oren is addressing.

      • Michael Campbell

        Is it really the absurdities of presentation of the characters they don’t like? Or is really the absurdities of the suspension of disbelief regarding physics?

        I mean, if Hank Pym has a Chinese knock-off a T-72 on his key-chain, that’s simply shrunk down:- the 41.5 tonnes that it still weighs would logically tear a hole in his pants pocket.

        • American Charioteer

          I don’t know that physics is a major concern for most viewers; we’ve been trained pretty thoroughly to suspend our disbeleive. Even in classic or mainstream movies you frequently see “movie” physics. (Obviously including almost every action movie. “Titanic’s” infamous and much debated door than can only support one person is also an example where audience expectations of physics did not match with what the movie showed.)

          When I hear people say that they dislike SFF specifically, it is usually because it just feels weird. Everyone knows that James Bond is fiction, but because he wears a tuxedo instead of a cape and uses firearms instead of swords, many people feel less ridiculous watching a James Bond movie than a science fiction or fantasy movie.

          Thus SFF characters, especially superheroes, have the burden of already being inherently ridiculous to anyone not used to them. This article explains how some authors end up writing SFF stories that demand the audience suspend their disbeleif even further. If you ask too much of an audience, you may end up with characters who behave in such an unrealistic manner that they don’t even feel human (which is how I felt about The Last Jedi).

          • Michael Campbell

            Well I’ve got a theory that the more divergent from our known world the film is, the less complex the plot becomes.

            Pity I don’t have the wherewithal to prove it.

        • American Charioteer

          “The Avengers” does make quite a few of the mistakes listed by this article. (and, as you pointed out, makes up physics as it goes along). The reason that “The Avengers” is wildly successful anyway is that it knew that superheroes are inherently goofy, and leans into light-hearted comedy.

          In contrast, DC tried to take itself seriously without fixing any of the flaws Oren listed (especially 3 and 5) and it was embarrassing. The only superhero movies that really did succeed in taking themselves seriously were the Dark Knight Trilogy, which avoided the pitfalls Oren listed (which is obviously easier to do without supernatural elements).

  6. LOX

    I’t seams to to me the old saying that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down rings true! as a history student i can’t find a singular parallel where this has not rung true! would you please enlighten me on your view of the oppressed privilege?

    • LOX

      except for Jesus of course !

  7. Lox

    sorry about the J word wow bring him up once and my post gets deleted? seams unfair we can’t talk about religion on this page not only did they delete my J comment they deleted all my comments! some one on this page is a serious Catholic!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to but we haven’t deleted any of your comments that I’m aware of.

      • LOX

        sorry must have been some kind of glitch or my phone acting up!

        • LOX

          ALSO i visit this site when i’m complacently pickled so i really don’t appreciate you guys making me look like a fool and taking away my spell cheek! don’t think i don’t know your sneaky backwards ways after all it took you six months to re ply to me!

    • Michael Campbell

      Not having a post pop-up for about 18 hours is the norm for me. Don’t worry if things arn’t instantaneous.

      • SunlessNick

        And me. (Also, slightly bemused at the idea of going from thinking a post mentioning Jesus was deleted to concluding someone on the site must be Catholic).

        • Torchbug

          I have heard that a lot actually… It makes me laugh every time.

  8. Deana

    I think you meant that peasants would not care which national ruler, e.g. King Current or Prince Possibly was ruling when you were talking about peasants having political opinions. And that was reasonably true, but the peasants did have strong opinions on things like taxes, war and peace. And they would have far more opinions about their direct overlord. So they would have been quite vocal about a local lord, and less interested in their more distant monarch, provided standard taxes, tariffs and feudal obligations did not change. However, the various peasant revolts show that they did care if the local lords got too abusive or a war happened to be happening on their village green. If their ancestral obligations were changed abruptly, all bets were off. Also, if a disease came calling, the rulers (local or national) were going to get the blame.

    • Cay Reet

      They would become vocal when and where politics interfered with their own life (which does mostly happen on a local level). They would even become rebellious on a local level, if things got worse enough. But there’s a difference between ‘I think those taxes the local lord and the church demand are too high’ or ‘I don’t want to be forced to fight in a war with the neighbouring region, I have no quarrel with them’ and ‘I’m interested in politics and want to discuss which of the local lord’s sons would make the best next ruler.’ Medieval peasants discussing the pro’s and con’s of a future ruler or whether or not the king should marry off his daughter to this crown prince or that one is not very realistic.

      • Michael Campbell

        Well, the whole point of dynastic monarchy is to “not choose” the better leader.
        Choosing inevitably leads to a shogunate solution.

        One simply follows the laws and traditions; good government be damned.

        I mean around here, we’ve created a little problem for ourselves by having a lazy government.
        The British changed the law of succession and we didn’t.
        So if (heaven forbid) Prince George were to drop of the perch:- England would have Charlotte as their queen but we would have Louis as our king.
        Ah, the fun and games when laws clash with traditions.

  9. Martin Christopher

    Interesting to see the Hellboy movies mentioned. Because the comics are a great example of the modern world being very much aware of the supernatural. People always act very casual around Hellboy and the other weirdness around a BPRD investigation. Nobody ever seems surprised about supernatural accidents and crimes.
    But with the way the plot goes, there’s no way people wouldn’t notice THAT.

  10. Greg

    My problem with the “oppressed mutants” theme in the X-Men comics is that the X-Men live in the same world as the Avengers and all the other Marvel superheroes. So we have people who have no problem with super-powered people unless they are specifically mutants.

    • American Charioteer

      This is a problem more generally in superhero franchises. Each hero has their own turf and their own villains and they somehow manage to stay out of each others’ way.

    • JGrey

      They had to retcon it into being the result of a mirco-organism that couldn’t infect mutants but had always been present in homo-sapiens, and began to act as a Hate Plague.

  11. Michael Campbell

    To a degree, the Nazi regime wanted Sigmund Freud to leave Nazi occupied Europe. Because sending a world famous Jew up the chimney might get a few too many column inches in the international papers. His elderly sisters didn’t fare so well.

    I suspect Cap. (leader of the Avengers) might have the same level of fame.

  12. Chris

    Great article! point 2 in particular runs true to me.

    Regarding point 4, I think the ‘oppressed privilege’ actually makes for an interesting perspective, if done right.
    Take for instance a culture that divides all people into two classes (the oppressor and the victim) and believes that in all circumstances the suffering of the ‘victim’ class is necessarily the fault of the ‘oppressor’ class, and they must do everything in their power to rectify this difference.
    If it’s true, then it makes perfect sense. But if it’s not, then you do have an interesting scenario where those who have done better or are better off (magically-gifted for instance) are indeed oppressed by the culture.

    It’s essentially the flip-side of the ‘tyrant’ narrative — the ‘envy’ narrative.

    • Cay Reet

      The problem with oppressed priviledge is that to successfully oppress someone, the oppressor must have the power to do so – which doesn’t go well with magic or superpowers, because both, by definition, make their owner really powerful.

      • Chris

        That’s true. ultimately it would come down to a number of factors, such as:
        the relative strength of the supernatural over the natural (I.e the magic system at play); moral implications with how magic is used on the part of the magically-gifted; whether the gifted are a numerical minority; whether the oppressing class has garnered the support of some from within the magical community (self-hating sorcerers, haha) etc.

        I definitely get that the gifted=oppressor narrative is the more plausible one on face value, but given the right circumstances the gifted=oppressed narrative is entirely plausible as well.

        • Cay Reet

          The problem is while I would totally buy the ‘gifted live as normal people’ part (meaning they don’t oppress the not-gifted), you will sooner or later find gifted people who don’t accept the oppression and that is when it would end, because those would ruthlessly use what they have at their disposal to right the wrongs committed against them. A lot of the things you list as possibilities for oppression are personal (such as morals or the strength of power – it’s logical not all magic users or supers would have the same power level). In the long run, there would be more oppressed people who fight back against oppression than there would be people who support it. That is what human history, even without magic powers or super powers teaches us. And for those who objectively wield more power than the regular oppressed person, the oppression would most likely not last long.

  13. Kahasai

    I used to like X-Men, then I noticed that the mutants didn’t seem to be going anywhere in their fight to be accepted. So now I just stick to the first two movies and pretend the others didn’t happen.

    The logic of those with magic being oppressed makes a lot of sense, and made me panic when I realized that I had one of those types in my fantasy novel, which is full of different types of magic-users (almost all of whom are looked up to and discriminated against by the normal humans).

    Then I remembered why these magical people are being oppressed: their magic has ghastly consequences. Many of them get addicted to their powers and become a bit twisted in the head; it’s quite common to find a murderer among them. That, and some of them have terrifying powers, one of the worst being a Skin-Thief.

    I amaze myself sometimes, with what I forget about my own stories. Good thing I write it down.

    • Cay Reet

      Look at human history and think again, though. Oppression isn’t ‘we’re choosing not to do magic, because it’s bad for us.’ Oppression means ‘you have less rights and we might do horrible things to you just for being part of a specific group which we oppress.’ Do you really think that, with being incarcerated, with being treated like dirt, with being humiliated, beaten, or otherwise treated horribly, none of the magic users in your example would decide ‘fuck the dangers of magic, I’m going to fight back and make life better, if not for me, then for those who come after me?’ Because that is what oppressed people in human history have done for millennia.

      • Kahasai

        It’s a bit of both.

        The consequences are different for each subtype of the magic. For the worst of them (such as the Skin-Thief I mentioned), it is like being high on cocaine, kicked up a few notches. One hit (the first is often accidental), and they’re hooked.

        For others, the effects can be less in the head and more in the body (yes, I know the effects in the head are because of the effects in the body). For these others, they often die of not enough oxygen in their blood stream, heart failure, cancer, among other things.

        But mostly, they get addicted to their magic and get violent. I think it’s pretty obvious why people would want to oppress a Skin-Thief (I think you can get an idea of what they do through their name). For others, they can cause more mild trouble by starting fires, poisoning the water, dehydrating the fields.

        The thing with oppression, often times (not every time), it is because of a preconception: in religion, it could get to the extremes where they believed so much, they’d destroy other religions. In race, for a long time the white people associated blacks as slaves, so that preconception has lived on through the years, though it clearly isn’t true (and it has now turned into something more aggressive). Individually, just neighbor to neighbor, if you have a preconception (true or not), that that neighbor was likely to steal your pig, you’ll blame him.

        What I have noticed about humans is that they’ll often get stuck in a mindset, be it simple or grand, right or wrong: thinking they are unable to write a novel, thinking everything must be perfect, that his/her opinion is the right one, that God exists, that they know exactly what happened two hundred thousand years ago. Some people get more stuck than others and some people get less stuck in the rut.

        In regards to the people in my novel, they are oppressed because of the preconception from years ago that they were out of control monsters (which was mostly true). This reality lasted for a long time. The authorities round them up and exterminate them as often as they can. (These same authorities kill them because it’s cheaper than looking for something that reduces magic).

        Individually, the populace varies on what they think of these magical people. But on average, they don’t look too kindly on them because of past experiences.

        And they are fighting back. What made you think they weren’t? Did you think I had commented on the whole of this culture? (Which isn’t even a part of the main plot; it’s just a setting.) I originally commented on a small piece of this culture. I have now commented on a fair bit of it, but that’s not going into the history (which, I admit, isn’t entirely clear from about fifty years ago to several hundred years ago; but since I’m not going to get into that too much in my story, I think it’s okay to keep it vague).

        • Cay Reet

          As I posted below (next comment here), there is a difference between oppression, discrimination, and bullying. Discrimination and bullying can and, probably, will happen against magic users. But oppression is so severe that at some point the cost of using the power which can free you simply no longer matters – because your individual life doesn’t. During an uprising in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, unarmed inmates attacked the armed and much better fed guards, simply because they had decided the possibility to overcome those oppressors was worth the risk of death. So your magic users will come to the point where they will freely use their powers, no matter the cost, if they are oppressed. That is what I mean. The individual who is bullied or discriminated against will probably not do that.

          • Kahasai

            Well, then. I’ll just have to make sure the power of the government strong and make sure to show the magic users aren’t just being slapped around, that in fact they are fighting, that they are tipping over the edge.

      • Michael Campbell

        Again you need to outline what power-level and capabilities the individual has.

        Let’s say a guy finds a magic spell.
        He can live for a whole year without aging.
        All he has to do is sacrifice a virgin woman on the night of the first full moon after the summer solstice.
        And let’s say he’s been doing this now for about 500 years.
        And let’s say he’s carefully managed to parley his longevity into incredible wealth equal to that of Warren Buffet and Donald Trump combined. Faking his own death each time his youthful good looks become a problem for his persona’s age and bequeathing the wealth to his younger new persona.

        Is he really going to “come out of the closet” and admit to being a serial murder? Is his wealth and privilege really able to buy away the fact that young woman are dying for his youth and the courts will take issue with that?
        Or will he operate in secret; knowing that the cops are following up a bunch of missing persons cases and one slip-up could spell disaster:- locked in a prison cell under a life sentence would mean he would begin aging again and then he’d actually die in prison of old age.

        Sure if he’s got the ability to walk through walls maybe he can escape and start again in some-other country…but that wasn’t listed in the outline of the capabilities.
        Defining the power level becomes important to telling a story about people with superhuman/supernatural powers.
        Just ask Orson Scott Card.

        • Cay Reet

          It is not about the individual. Oppression is not about the individual. And that is the point. That is why, sooner or later, even the oppressed with less power than the oppressor will risk everything to end the oppression.

          Perhaps I need to make another point first, the point about the difference between bullying (mentioned here as well, but not in this comment), discrimination, and oppression.

          Bullying always happens on a personal level. The bully decided whom to bully, who will be at the receiving end of their actions. Today the smart kid, next week the girl whom they don’t like, the week after the artsy kid. A bully’s targets can and will change and virtually nobody is really safe from becoming a bullying victim. While the narrative usually casts the bully as the physically strong one and the victim as some ‘outsider’ such as the very smart kid, reality is that bullies don’t have to use physical violence to bully (female bullies usually are more prone to social manipulations to isolate the victim and often more likely to use verbal abuse) and everyone can be the target. Because it’s highly personal. Even among adults, were bullying might be used to remove a co-worker or superior the bully can’t stand.

          Discrimination is above the individual level. A person or a group of people (such as a company) decide not to include a group with a specific marker (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion etc., take your pick) in their midst. That can mean that the HR person of a company automatically removes all POC or women from the applicants’ list for a job (and that HR person doesn’t have to be against them at all, they know it’s company policy not to employ those people above a specific level or in a specific department). It can also mean that a baker refuses to do a cake for a gay wedding. Yet, there can be laws against it and it will still happen – usually, because most forms of discrimination can’t be proven by the discriminated. The baker was stupid there, because they said ‘it’s because you’re gay.’

          Finally, there is oppression. Oppression always happens at state level – because oppression happens with the agreement of the law. Laws the goverment makes and enforces take rights and freedoms from one or more specific groups. On an individual level, that can lead to bullying (because nobody stops anyone from treating the oppressed group horribly), on a medium level, that can manifest as discrimination (like the ‘colored not allowed’ signs of the Jim Crow era). But the difference is that oppression is not personal, like bullying – not an individual deciding to attack another one. It’s also not discrimination, because the decision to treat that group differently comes from the government. It’s legal, perhaps even required, for citizens to treat someone differently. It’s required for the oppressed to behave differently. Like the Jews in Nazi Germany, they might be forced to wear an outside sign which identifies them (like the yellow Star of David). Like the Native Americans, they might be forced to live in specific areas (and reservations usually were put up in areas which the whites didn’t want). They will be kept out of specific professions by the law, people who attack them will be protected by the law instead of being persecuted.

          So saying ‘whether or not an individual will rebel depends on their power level’ actually has nothing to do with oppression. Oppression is keeping a group down through the laws and means which are legal in that place. And sooner or later, so human history tells us, those people will rebel. Not all of them, sure, some might rather suck up to the oppressor for better treatment. But at some point, the oppressed will have reached a point of no return when even death is better than continuing to live like that. How long it takes until that point is reached, is very much down to the level of oppression and to the possible ways the oppressed can react. The oppression of women lasted long, because it was a relatively ‘light’ oppression, women were kept out of public life and not given the same freedom to act in the economy, but they weren’t treated badly and many probably didn’t really mind it. That is why the first wave of feminism was split between the women from middle-class and up who wanted social influence and the female workers who wanted at least the same rights as their male counterparts (money and workplace safety, to name two).

          And with people who have magic or people who have superpowers, the high level of power they wield themselves (even a mage who can only do little magic has more power than a person completely without it, even a super whose power is weak has more than human without it) will lead to resistance early on. A resistance which will leave the non-powered oppressors incapable to continue the oppression. That doesn’t mean that individuals can’t be bullied or that some people won’t discreetly discriminate against magic users or supers. It just means that oppression against them is highly unlikely long-term.

          • Michael Campbell

            “Bullying always happens on a personal level.”
            So you’re saying that when the Drill Sergeant calls the recruits “maggots” he isn’t Bullying them because he’s calling all 30 of them maggots at the same time???
            It’s somehow moved into the realm of discrimination?
            Or maybe it has even become oppression because he claims to have the weight of law behind him and slackers can easily find themselves in Fort Leavenworth for dereliction of duty?

            During the Cowra Breakout, many Japanese POWs took turns to hang themselves in the barracks.
            Well, partly because it was official Japanese government policy to tell young women to tell their boyfriends that “she would rather he came back in a pine box than as a POW.”

            Really, it’s the interrelationship between power-level and desperation that makes rebels rebel, not simply desperation alone.

          • Cay Reet

            A drill sergeant calling the recruits maggots is not bullying. It’s a shitty technique to break and rearrange their characters to turn them into functioning soldiers. A technique which works as well as a coach calling his athletes sissies – they are humiliated so they strive harder to do what they’re supposed to do. As I said, a shitty technique, but something used often. Apparently it works, but I’ve never been trained for military nor did I ever play a team sport, so I can’t say how or why or even if really. Negative reinforcements or something similar.

            The Japanese POW on the other hand were embedded in a culture which is all about keeping face – or why do you think samurai used to commit suicide when their master died rather than become ronin (masterless samurai)? They were taught from childhood that their own life mattered less than their reputation – and then they were taught that being a POW would tarnish their reputation beyond repair. Not bullying, not discrimination, not oppression. Just a culture which works that way. Same with a Viking warrior being told to come back with his shield or on it – successful or dead. It’s a question of the culture, it only works if they have been initiated into a world where the individual life doesn’t matter, but other factors do. For the Japanese, it’s keeping their face. For the Vikings, it’s earning a trip to Valhalla by being heroic.

            There’s actually a nice article on face culture vs. honour vs. dignity culture.

          • American Charioteer

            Michael, I think the question you were trying to ask is whether the only difference between bullying and discrimination is the number of targets. I was in the Army and I have seen noncommisioned officers who went far beyond normal protocols into bullying. The answer to your question is no, the drill sergeant isn’t committing discrimination by mistreating every member of the platoon, that is still just regular abuse.

            The difference is intent. Discrimination occurs when a person is targeted BECAUSE they belong to a particular group. Even if every member of the platoon were African American and the sergeant targeted all of them, he would only be committing discrimination if he were targeting them because of their race. On the other hand, if the drill sergeant abused only one recruit but the REASON for the abuse was the recruit’s race, then that would be discrimination.

            (I am taking this definition of discrimination from the way the FBI classified hate crimes:

  14. Leon

    You’re forgeting real lofe witches in the middle ages. They didn’t bring rain or turn people onto frogs. They did something much more terrifying. They gave people an alternative to begging an indiferant god for help.
    Witches litterally did what the church promised but never delivered, they gave people hope. And for this they were all hunted down and murdered.

    I dont see how it would play out any different if there were people who could put oil tycoons and shipping companies out of business.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The thing is that people persecuted as witches in the middle ages, or any other time, didn’t actually have supernatural powers. Some of them had uncommon knowledge, often related to birth control, others were targeted for political reasons.

      • Leon

        Thats my point. They didn’t even have super/mystic powers, and they were a threat to those in power. Imagine how those in power would fear super humans.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes. But someone with real superpowers or real magic wouldn’t have had to just sit there and take it. That’s a huge difference.

          • Leon

            But they do heve to sleep, and eat, and they probably have loved ones. Nobody is untouchable and at the end of the day, weaponised powers are just weapons.
            The only way that supers wouldn’t be viewed as a threat by the powers that be, is if they are the powers that be. And thats a completely different topic. You could probably find some good parallels in Sumarian stories about Nephelim.

          • Cay Reet

            Exactly. They have loved ones. If those are threatened by the powers that be, chances are even higher they’d eventually fight back. I don’t say there won’t be bullying or discrimination against magic users or superpowered beings. But outright oppression isn’t going to work long-term.

            The powers that be would be more likely to go the opposite way: they’d be nice to those with the powers, because they’d need them, for war, but also for enforcing the regular laws when it comes to other beings with power. While the regular powers that be could do little in some cases, other superpowered or magical beings could. And to ensure their help, you’d be nice to them, you wouldn’t oppress them.

          • Leon

            That would be ideal, it would definately be the best approach for society, and everybody would win. But society is not one cohesive entity with agency and power. Society is a cluster of organizations and individuals who only want whats best for themselves.
            Supers would be exploited in the military (imagine the emotional trauma of killing hundreds of people every day). But in a civillian capacity, a super is going to take a big slice of somebody elses pie, or take jobs away from other people. They would also get a lot of hate from people who have seen their friends and family slaughtered by other supers (if supers are fighting a war there is no front line).
            You could create a world where supers can thrive and use their powers to the fullest for the benefit of humanity while also being careful not to leve anybody without work.
            But thats hard and people are lazy, even supers.

          • Cay Reet

            As I said, there will be bullying (not against the strongest, obviously, but against some) and there will be discrimination (more or less discreetly). All I’m saying is that outright oppression will not be likely to happen and will not be happening for a long time, because the power actually swings towards the oppressed fraction. Will some supers (those with weak powers or powers that are no use as offense) be bullied? Quite likely. There might also be bullying among people with superpowers (not all supers will be heroes, after all). Will some people discreetly or less discreetly discriminate against supers? Also very likely. They might claim to have no free tables at a restaurant, because the possible customers are supers. They might not employ people with known powers. But both is not oppression and that is the point.

            Oppression would be the government taking rights and freedoms from superpowered people. If the government is not made up of other supers (and then that law wouldn’t work, because it wouldn’t encompass everyone), how are those laws going to be enforced long-term against supers? Against people who control elements, can raze whole cities to the ground, or kill people with a thought?

          • Leon

            Numerical advantage.
            If supers aren’t rear they aren’t super-ior to regular people, they are just people.

            I think this discussion is futile without some well defined paramiters.
            A lot depends on level of power. Some supers are just really good at a normal job (mostly it’s killing people), others can put corporations out of business and ruin nations. Some are walking gods.
            Ratio of supers vs norms matters alot. Also are powers hereditery like in x-men or is it a lottery like in Avatar. Distribution of power levels is important too; is it a bell curve or a bath tub (could make for an ineresting story for a mutant sitting in the middle of the bath tub), is it downward slope, is it flat?
            I think we all have a differant idea of what a world with supers would look like. And for any meaningful discussion, it is important that we are talking about the same world.

          • Cay Reet

            Numerical advantage doesn’t solve everything. In a zombie-apocalypse scenario, zombies would at some time have numerical advantage. Insects have numerical advantage over all higher life, bacterial numerial advantage over all other life. Slaves had numerical advantage over the slavers. None of those advantages was of any use.

            Power is the thing in question. Zombies have less intelligence than humans, so they don’t formulate plans, unlike their enemies. Insects are neither strong nor devious enough to do away with higher life, same goes for bacteria. Slaves were more in numbers, but the slavers were the ones who held the whip, the chain, and the law (since a slave rightfully belonged to their owner).

            Then let me define a superpowered person. A person who has a skill or ability or trait at a level that is above what is biologically or otherwise possible for a normal human. A bit on the faster side? Not a super. Fast enough to outrun a car? Definitely a super. Stronger than average? Not a super. Strong enough to bend steel beams or lift whole cars? Definitely a super. High intelligence? Not a super. The ability to move things with your mind? Definitely a super. Yes, there will be a grey zone, where powers might or might not be super. There might be a genetical component (as with X-Men). But the definition of a superpowered individuum is always ‘above human range.’

            If there is a hereditary component, it might be easier to indentify a super, but it’s likely even supers would sometimes have children who lack their powers (as wizards and witches in Harry Potter sometimes have non-magical children, the so-called squibs).

            And, yes, we are talking about different power levels. Low-powered supers might be just a tad above human range and it might be able for well-trained and well-equipped humans to take them down. Medium power level (which should be the middle of the Bell curve, since nature tends towards the middle) might not be too dangerous on their own, but humans tend to stick together in groups. A group of medium-powered supers might actually be a danger to regular soldiers already, as they would have to deal with a wider range of powers all at once. High level of power could indeed approach god-like individuals who could be stopped by a group of other supers (or another super on god-like level), but would simply laugh at everything regular humans could throw their way. Add someone who is not only a super (or, perhaps, even a very low-level super), but also has a mastermind personality (high strategy skills, good at plotting), and even a group of medium-level supers (lots of them around) would be dangerous.

          • Leon

            Im not talking about who would win in a fight.
            I’m saying that, weather or not humans decide to use their superior numbers to do away with the supers, depends on a lot of veriables.
            Are you honestly saying that you can not imagine a situation where a small nunber of people, from mysterious communities, who have made dozens or hundereds or people redundant, and have inflicted horrific wounds on your friends and family as they fight their wars in your cities and communities, become so terrifying that people feel they have to do something to do something about them? (And once again, people are lazy & violence is easy.)

          • Leon

            And as everybody here should know, just because you can win the fight doesn’t mean you should fight.

          • Cay Reet

            As human history has taught us, if a group oppresses another, the oppressed group will, sooner or later, fight back. Because they will try to regain freedom or equality. If not for themselves, then for their children and grandchildren. Humans are like that. During the middle ages, peasants went up against their lords more than once. Most of those uprisings failed. But they didn’t stop doing it, because they wanted to end the oppression.

            During Apartheit in South Africa, many of the oppressed POC rose against their oppressors. Many were killed, but they didn’t stop. Not until Apartheit was abolished.

            With humans who have powers above those of the oppressors, that will happen once, twice, three times, before the uprising is successful. We’re not talking centuries, we’re probably not even talking decades. We’re talking years at best.

            You shouldn’t start a fight, just because you can win it. But if someone has set out to hurt you and those close to you, you fight them, no matter whether you can win. That’s also human nature.

  15. JD

    I agree that “Oppressed Privilege” clearly doesn’t work on characters or populations where social power dynamics are simple, and they have easily controllable, hard to exhaust powers.

    If, say, you have a population that WILL be super powerful if they are given enough time, and these people are visible in some way before that power can manifest, then mass oppression could follow historical examples without being too much of a stretch. I think the bigger problem is absolute oppression that doesn’t end until the lone hero shows up. That’s not realistic for several reasons. As mentioned above, when oppression becomes too severe, people will eventually take the risk of death to end it. Stories about that particular tipping point can be compelling, but the political and interpersonal power dynamics need to be appropriately complex: Oppressed people will have psychological and physical scars from it, Military-style revolts don’t fix prejudiced cultural attitudes, Not all members of an oppressed group will want the same outcome, There will be an aftermath even if they win unequivocally, etc.

  16. Michael Campbell


    Whether not weather.
    You can remember it because like; when, where and why, it’s a “wh” at the start and it involves a question.

    Oh and variables not “veriables”.

    But otherwise: nicely concise comment.

  17. Leon

    Thanks. I can never spot those errors. I can’t hear the differance between alot of letters so have no natural instinct about which letters to use.

    • Michael Campbell

      Well just seconds ago, the Police spokesperson on TV just used “bought” where he meant “brought”, so you’ve in good company.

      And always remember. There’s no “K” in everything.

  18. Dave P

    Well as to #1, the peasants may not have been directly able to influence their governance, but there’s definitely indications that they talked about it and had favorites. I mean there’s period accounts where people talk about how King John was drastically worse than King Richard. Even though if you look at the actual actions of the two, they weren’t that dissimilar just John was less liked.

    I mean I don’t directly have any influence over who wins an Olympic gold medal, but I’m still super interested in it. Many people who have no influence on who gets the rose (or doesn’t get the rose, I’ve not actually watched the Bachelor) have a huge amount of interest in that. I mean it’s interesting, I imagine that the nobles conflicts were something like Soap Operas for the peasants, Rich people cheating and divorcing and murdering, better than HBO.

    • Cay Reet

      The big difference between you (or me) and the medieval peasants is that we have access to mass media. We can read, we can fire up the internet, and we can watch TV.

      Information travelled a lot slower in the middle ages. Few people could read, most people didn’t travel further than about 10 km from their birthplace, there was no moving-type printing, and other media, such as TV, internet, or radio, didn’t exist. Information travelled mostly with messengers (from noble to noble, from court to local government) or with merchants (the whole gossip).

      The peasants wouldn’t have heard about most things which happened outside of their village until a merchant passed by and told them. Hardly a soap opera, more a fan-fiction that is updated twice or three times a year.

  19. Dvärghundspossen

    “This mistake not only makes a setting harder to take seriously but also reinforces dangerous misconceptions about the way privilege works. The idea of being punished for privileged traits is at the heart of movements that proclaim it’s really white men being mistreated in our society. This ideology is then weaponized against people who are actually oppressed. That’s how we get people demanding an end to affirmative action and voting-rights laws with claims that these are discriminating against privileged people when in fact they are working to correct an existing imbalance.”

    I largely agree with what you write on this site about privilege and oppression, but I think the claim that white men are oppressed is very different from having a story where people with magical powers or superpowers are oppressed.
    The idea that white men are oppressed because of feminism, anti-racism etc is absolutely stupid. BUT in another world, white men could very well be oppressed, because light skin or male gender aren’t intrinsically powerful traits. There might be good reasons not to write such a story (laid out in the “persecution flip” article), but there’s nothing inherently strange about a society that considers light-skinned people inferior to dark-skinned people, or men inferior to women. These traits are, in themselves, pretty neutral, and it’s just prejudice that makes one out to be better than the other.

    There IS, on the other hand, something inherently strange about a society where people are considered inferior for having awesome powers.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I have a mental illness roughly in the schizo ballpark. When I was younger, I lived in a pretty close-minded village, plus behaved rather strangely a lot of the time, and was a bit of an outcast as a result. I really liked to tell myself that I was actually better than other people because special and different, and that if other people had a problem with me, it was actually because I was superior to them. That’s bullshit, but it was a coping mechanism I leaned on for a while, and I don’t think it’s a rare one. It also seems pretty common nowadays for people with some neuropsychiatric difference like autism or ADD to talk about their condition as a “superpower” that makes them superior in various ways, and if you regard yourself that way, at the same time as you’re marginalized due to your condition, you might think it completely reasonable that the X-men are hated for having superpowers.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s true that in a universe with a different historical context, traits that are considered privileged today might be marginalized instead. The issue with X-Men and other Oppressed Mages stories is that within their own context, people are being oppressed for traits that inherently make them more powerful. In their case it’s magical powers, but this is the same dynamic we see at play in books like Atlas Shrugged, where it’s really the rich and successful who are being held down by the poor masses.

      The idea of Oppressed Mages as a power fantasy for people facing discrimination is interesting. At the very least it’s more honest than most people’s defense of the trope, and it’s totally understandable. I went through a similar phase when I really struggled in school because of my dyslexia.

      However, there are plenty of ways to create a power fantasy for marginalized audiences that doesn’t harm a setting’s integrity or send the harmful messages this trope does, so it’s usually best to focus on those instead.

  20. gfox

    I don’t really agree with you about the “oppressed mages” trope. In the story I’m currently writing, mages (yes, I know, very creative name) are persecuted and forced into hiding by non-magical people and this happens because of one reason: numbers. Mages are simply very rare and the non-magical people’s aversion and fear of the unknown is strong. Whenever there was a mage uprising they would be pushed back, beaten by sheer numbers. So yeah, I think that the oppressed mages trope can work quite well if it has an actual way to, you know, oppress the mages.

    • Cay Reet

      Under certain premises, this can work, yes, but you have to be very careful with the power-level of your mages.

      Numbers are a good argument until you have a mage with an almost god-like level of power. You also can’t allow for the mages to move away from regular settlement and found a place on their own where they can thrive and which they can protect by magic or other means.

      Numbers are used as an argument in the Artemis Fowl series as to why the fairies went underground, despite having the better technology: humans could out-breed them. Here, it works, because most fairies are physically weaker than humans (average height is at about 1 m), and need a lot longer to mature, making their generations a lot longer than the humans. They can never reach the numbers of the mudmen (us humans). Still, they are very powerful and can deal with small groups of humans in a pinch.

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