I’m working on a fantasy novel, and I’m wondering if its take on the “oppressed mages” trope makes sense from a world-building perspective. In the novel’s world, people who can perform magic are called Shapers, and their powers have a bunch of limitations—they can only affect non-living objects, can’t create matter from nothing, and unless they greatly limit the use of their powers, the strain causes their lifespan to be considerably reduced. Being a Shaper, in other words, is practical for small tasks but not much more—you could heat up a kettle of water by touching it, but not create a towering inferno.
The Shapers are enslaved by the story’s villains, who are working them far beyond their physical capacity in order to power their war machines. The average life expectancy of an enslaved Shaper is a few months at most, because they’re forced to use their powers at a rate far higher than their bodies can handle. Because of the aforementioned limits, their powers aren’t especially useful for fighting back under normal circumstances.
So how does this work as a setup? Shapers are magic users, yes, but they’re very “handicapped” magic users; is it possible that this oppressed-mages scenario could be pulled off?Gray Stanback
Hey Gray, thanks for writing in!
You’ve clearly put a lot of thought into this, and I’d say the answer here depends a lot on who is reading the story. If it were me, I’d still have a number of questions, but I’m (in)famous for being critical of the oppressed-mages trope, so I don’t represent the average reader.
You have a clear motivation for why the villains are doing this, which is good, and you’ve limited the mage’s powers, also good. A lot of similar stories don’t get that far. If it would be helpful, these are the questions I’d still have, based on your premise.
- Is it really not feasible for Shapers to use their powers to resist?
- Even the limited level of power you describe sounds pretty useful.
- If they can boil water, can they boil the blood inside a guard’s head, turn an enemy’s bullets into sludge, or open a hole in the fence to escape through?
- If the enslaved Shapers are doomed to living only a few months anyway, are there none among them who would choose to shorten their lives for more impressive powers of resistance?
- Depending on the magic in question, it might not take many.
- If they can’t do that on their own, I’d wonder how the villain is forcing them to do it.
- And whether there was any way the Shapers could hijack the process.
- It’s possible to imagine answers, but they might come across as contrived.
- Is the production boost these villains get worth the effort of going after what would likely be a wealthy and influential class of people?
- Unless the Shapers’ magic only just appeared, they’d probably all command high prices for their services.
- If enslaved Shapers only live a few months at most, how useful would this setup really be to the villains?
- Unless there are a LOT of Shapers, at which point I’d wonder how the villains are getting away with targeting such a large slice of the population.
If you want to avoid or at least de-emphasize a lot of these issues, you could always switch things up so that the enslaved Shapers are taken from conquered nations, with the villains own Shapers ensuring that no one can use their magic to escape or fight back. If the main axis of oppression is along national or ethnic lines, it will be much easier to explain. Such a scenario would also allow you to relax how deadly the system is, which would also make it more villainously practical.
Alternatively, it’s probably possible to answer at least some of my questions by adjusting the base premise, but that could create another problem: Can any magic characters still do cool things with their magic? I don’t know what kind of story you’re telling, but that’s usually something authors want to do eventually, and it gets harder and harder the more restrictions they put in place to justify an oppressed-mages premise.
Hope that helps, and good luck with your story!
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Comments on How Well Do These Oppressed Mages Work?
I would say, unless the oppressors have more powerful magic than the Shapers, it’s still a problem to have oppressed mages at all. They have weak powers, everybody else has exactly no powers. The Shapers despite their limits, still effectively have super-human advantages.
Maybe using their powers has a really slow buildup so they can be physically outmatched by soldiers in the short term? But there’s still the problem that, how Shapers would be significantly socially powerful in their culture. If not the ruling class, they’d be high up there, and their own people would defend them. They’d also have to be kept captive somehow.
Hasten to add:
A couple of possible solutions. Perhaps Shapers can easily disrupt the powers of many others of their kind. That way a small number of Shapers can keep a large number under guard.
Alternately, there could be “anti-Shaping”, a way to stabilize matter and block Shapers’ powers. Anti-Shaping would need to be far less damaging to users than Shaping, otherwise you’d run into the problem of motivating Anti-Shapers: either the Anti-Shapers are fanatics who don’t count the cost, and sacrifice their own health to keep the Shapers down, or they are oppressed mages themselves. It’s oppressed mages all the way down!
The fact that their life expectancy is greatly reduced because of slavery feels like the most plot-breaking part of the setup imo.
If you’re already doomed to waste away before next winter anyway, why would you not go out in a blaze and try to take down your captors with you ? Not all would be willing to give up their remaining life, yes, but enough that it would greatly sabotage the war effort.
Unless you have the enslavers use leverage, for example keeping the women and children captured somewhere else and threaten to torture them if the men disobey. Now that would explain why almost no one tried to get revenge before, they are willing to sacrifice themselves to keep their families safe.
I don’t know how dark that book is supposed to get, but I feel this has implications to get pretty unsettling, because if the Shapers only live a couple months, does that mean the slavers have set up a chain-pregnancies system to keep having workforce ? Forcing Shaper women to have children one after the other ?
If not and the Shapers are captured instead, then wouldn’t then go all out to defend their families ?
“If you’re already doomed to waste away before next winter anyway, why would you not go out in a blaze and try to take down your captors with you ?”
Or at the very least, refuse to work.
The short lifespan of enslaved Shapers makes me think of sugarcane plantations in the West Indies. Of all the horrible conditions in which enslaved people might be put, sugarcane plantations were arguably the worst. On top of the usual backbreaking labor demanded by slave owners, there were a number of innate dangers: wading through water full of venomous snakes and insects, all the possible diseases that entailed, and the work itself—harvesting involved swinging sharp, heavy machetes for hours a day. Even the processing machines were dangerous. As I recall, the average life expectancy of a person enslaved on a sugarcane plantation was something like two years!
Sadly, these brutal conditions didn’t tend to lend themselves to rebellion—on top of the usual mental trauma of being enslaved was the excessive physical trauma of the work—with one notable exception: Haiti.
Sugar made Haiti the richest colony in the world in the 18th century, but nowadays it’s celebrated (or should be) as the only lasting nation founded via slave rebellion. Not only that, but the Haitian rebels beat the Spanish, French, and British armies, of whom the latter two were almost certainly the two most powerful militaries on Earth (this was the age of Napoleon and Wellington).
But to Oren’s point, slave labor on sugarcane plantations was only possible because of a steady traffic from Africa, constantly bringing new people to abuse and use up, and justified by racism.
Too, the Haitian revolution was possible because enslaved people vastly outnumbered the rest of the population—and even then it was a long, terrible, scorched-earth war that reduced Haiti’s economy to less than 1% of its pre-war output and created a national debt that Haiti is still recovering from today.
You surely know this, but every time Haiti comes up I feel compelled to mention it: If Haiti is poor today, that’s because they only very recently finished paying off their massive debt to the French government to compensate them for the paying former slaveowners for the loss of their enslaved workers.
And if that sounds backwards to anybody here, well, yeah.
Plus the US went along with it and made things worse for Haiti because we didn’t want our slaves getting any big ideas.
On a related note, you’ll find people even today making the claim that Haiti only won their war of independence because of evil voodoo magic.
This can be put in the same category as “evil ‘g***y’ magic” and “cursed indian burial grounds” – it’s all inherently racist. These are real people with real religious practices and if they could actually harm their oppressors then… honestly, good for them if they could. But they can’t. Not with magic, evil or otherwise. Wait, I think I’ve cycled back around to being on-topic.
Secondary note: The term ‘gypsy’ is, of course, a slur. Many Americans don’t know that, and sometimes don’t even seem to realize that these people are real and not fictional.
I hate to say it, but one thing that might work is cultural inertia
The Shapers are slaves because they believe they deserve to be slaves
You’d have to explain why they no longer believe this, of course
And there is a real danger of “happy in slavery” theme that needs special care
I don’t think any group in the entire history of humanity has ever felt they “deserve” to be slaves. You could probably find individuals who did for whatever reason, but enslaved people have always resisted in whatever way they could. Cultural inertia is a real thing but it would manifest in the enslavers thinking that they can’t end the practice because it’s been around so long.
That’s why I was hesitant to suggest this
Although I agree about the enslavers
The other way that sort of cultural inertia can work is if the enslaved believe that resistance is futile. This kind of inertia has the advantage, narratively speaking, that it can create a generational gap where the older Shapers have seen revolutions come and go, while the younger ones still have the fire to try again, something that would sell well in YA markets if that’s where you’re aiming.
The drawback of course is that then you not only need to think about how the revolution is going to work this time, but why it didn’t the last three times.
You’d also have to explain why they would believe that in the first place, especially when their powers are so minor and relatively mundane.
I’m doing something similar in my current project, where my mages believe their powers are evil… but that’s because they’re pretty horrific, all revolving around manipulating bodily tissue, invading minds, and subjugating souls, and were literally learned them from eldritch abominations in exchange for supplying said abominations with an unending supply of human sacrifices.
Even then, this only works at all because the entire modern mage population is less than a dozen mages at a time in a single secret village of less than a thousand people, and their queens are a matrilineal line of clones descending from an original rebel leader with a guilt complex so massive she built an entire cult around it.
There would have to be some serious rationale given for why these Shapers would think their powers entitle them to enslavement, even if it ultimately turns out to be propaganda. The powers themselves aren’t anything dramatic enough to justify it, so it would have to be something about where they originate from, “these powers come from the devil,” style.
I don’t think it could ever be justified to say any group would be “happy in slavery”. However it could certainly be something that the enslavers themselves believe, or want to believe, a narrative that is deliberately spread.
Even now, in the US South especially, there’s ongoing aftereffects of that nasty and pervasive memetic virus, that slavery was “not that bad”. It skews social and political values to this day, clawing back social progress and civil rights. Witness the rabid moral panic over teaching social justice in Florida, for example.
(Note that this only works if slavery is an ongoing, established institution in that society. War captives would certainly need a very different justification.)
And in any case, all this only works if the slavers have more powerful magic themselves. Maybe the oppressor’s magic is of a different sort, something not practical for industry but useful to hold and threaten captives.
If the shapers’ lives are much shorter, maybe the cultural intertia isn’t that they deserve to be slaves, but that their principal duty lies in using their magic while they can, for the benefit of others. At one time they were honoured for this, but the idea has been twisted into justifying slavery under the guise of social or religious conscription.
I think the problem with that is, as I’ve understood the idea, that the shapers’ lives are only short if they massively use their powers. Once enslaved, they’re driven to using their powers a lot and that shortens their life, so they don’t last long in slavery. Outside of it, using their powers carefully, they can have a normal life.
The main problem with the opressed mages conundrum is that aside from (more or less powerful) magical powers, they are still people that can fight or negotiate or influence others in the usual way. So it is always a plus, and have a easier time to get on top. Cause a human with powers is by definition more than human. You need to make the mages stupid or “lesser than humans” to put them into a situation where they can be opressed. Otherwise, if the opressing side have mages too, it won’t qualify for “Opressed mages trope” and just opressed people.
Making it parallel to a real life slavery is pointless, cause the powerful side is never enslaved (even when a powerful person was captured in war, the more powerful would be released sooner than later, and if it wasn’t the case it meant that they wouldn’t be powerful anymore). In my book i made it that magic can do a lot of things based on the knowledge and skill of the wizard, but my MC didn’t put the time or effort into it to do huge things, and he still achieve gaining the edge in a lot of situations, allowing me to let him fight several oponents and win (which in reality would be near impossible)
“lesser than humans” is such a weird way of putting it, tbh. any weakness that makes the magic will do, it doesn’t have to be lack of intelligence.
Example; A certain tribe, the “Greenies”, have the ability to make plants grow better just by being present. Its involuntary, they can’t just decide to stop making plants grow, as long as they’re nearby it will happen. So when their tribe is attacked by a more powerful civilization, the ruling class turns them into serfs and forces them to live on farms to improve yield. That sounds pretty plausible to me, and doesn’t imply that the greenies ate “less than human”
It still doesn’t jive.
A person is more than their special power. Your “Greenies” aren’t just objects put next to plants. They are people with intelligence, able to think, able to speak. Sometimes, it just needs a personable person to convince others to join their cause or speak for them. One “Greeny” influencing a person high up the ladder can make changes without having any magical powers.
One “Greeny” pointing out to the right people that, for instance, if they and their people are more happy and will reproduce more often, they could be spread across more farms and grow more stuff, but they won’t reproduce while they’re unhappy and being forced to stay on the farms without their friends makes them unhappy. Happy “Greenies” are more useful in the long term and to make them happy, they have to be something better than a serf, they have to have more freedom. Did that “Greeny” use magic? No, they used communication, a skill all humans have.
this argument feels like it would apply to any group from being held in slavery, though. I’m sure happy farm workers would be work better than unhappy farm workers, and happy factory workers would be better at their jobs than unhappy workers. but those groups have been very successfully enslaved in the real world, and being unhappy has not historically prevented enslaved people from having children. why would enslaved cotton pickers not use “communication” to negotiate with their captors?
(If it’s not super clear, I don’t want my meaning mistaken– there are a ton of reasons why people can’t just negotiate their way out of slavery. What I’m saying is that the real-world reasons would apply in this situation as well– we have many many examples of real world serfs, peasants and slaves-classes that continue for generations. It’s very possible for one group of humans to capture another group and force them to work, and they don’t need to be physically stronger, smarter or more powerful to do so. )
I can’t fully agree with that. Serfs were under the control of a lord. They worked for the only person who could afford guards and had weapons. The person who owned all the land and could very well just throw them in a cell and forget about them. The only way for a serf to escape was to get into a free city and stay there for over a year (technically a year and a day), so they’d get citizen rights. Then the lord couldn’t demand them back.
Power comes in many forms and political power and social power can be enough to keep the status quo for a long time.
In Germany, the peasants rose up in the early 16th century and were all cut down by mercenaries, so nothing changed. They had no fight training while their lords had the money to hire mercenaries in the first place.
Real slavery has always occured between humans and humans and in a sense between humans and animals. If you want to keep a species with powers enslaved, they must be animals. Otherwise they would use their own resources plus magic to get the upper hand. Just think “Why don’t Mutants take over the world and stop being oppresed?” the answer is They try, but there are other mutants preventing Magneto to conquer the world. so in essence the more powerful side allows their people to be opressed for plot reasons. Which is one of reasons for Magneto to be as popular (sure, adding other non-mutant supers leverage for it, so mutant don’t equal exactly to powered people, but add complexity in the form of several axis mutant-non mutant and powered-unpowered).
I can’t imagine any scenario where a group of people with special or extra powers would end up oppressed from bog-standard humans with no special powers. Even if the special powers were not particularly powerful or combat oriented, they would still be able to use them to their advantage with some thinking. Like the ability to cast illusions might not be combat oriented per se but it can be used to trick or frighten other people. That still makes them hard to oppress. I understand the allure of the oppressed mages trope but it doesn’t work that well in practice and can come across badly if done wrong.
Well, the only real value in oppressed mage trope is in the narrative use. Logical or not, when the marginalized are given something special, it makes them look cool. And when someone is cool, the audience is more likely to relate to them and root for them. Meanwhile the privileged, by being un-special, look pathetic in comparison and thus are less likely to gather the audience’s sympathy.
This is also why flipping those who have and don’t have powers is not a good idea.
“Oppressor Mage” is more logical trope than “Oppressed Mage”, but for the purposes of commentary it’s awful. If it’s the privileged who have special powers, then the audience is likely to root for them instead of the un-special, pathetic marginalized. Not to mention that the problem of how the muggles are supposed to defeat the mages hasn’t gone anywhere. It has just gone to the other foot.
If you want commentary on your speculative fiction story, that is both realistic and correctly understood, you need to give both the privileged and the marginalized something.
I get the narrative appeal of the oppressed mage trope. “We the oppressed really are the powerful beautiful ones compared to the boring majority uncool normies” has tremendous romantic appeal for lots of people. That doesn’t make the trope workable in practice and can set the oppressed mages up to become the new tyrants when they over through the boring majority uncool normies and restore the righteous order of the universe. It just doesn’t work. Either the oppressed mages need to be saints or you get a sort of anti-French Revolution narrative where aristocrats are going to take back their place from the masses.
That is why in most Oppressed Mage – stories, the mages never triumph against non-mages.
Magneto never successfully builds a mutant utopia, Merlin never makes a move against King Uther, Wizarding World hides from the Muggle World forever, and so on.
So long as mages remain the underdogs, nothing uncomfortable emerges.
I’m not saying that it makes Oppressed Mage trope better or anything, but does it matter?
I mean, if we were only allowed to use tropes that work in practice, what would be left?
I’m in general agreement with you. The oppressed mage tropes just stretches my incredulity more than other tropes.
I feel like half the issues with the oppressed-mage issue are solved by making the empowered-evil just a self-aggrandized group of mages.
The first peoples oppressed by a given nation are whoever is native & weak at the time, like the peasantry in England, Spain, and any other burgeoning superpower.
The fact of xenophobia doesn’t actually make it easy to be poor while in the majority, it just makes it easier to excuse ones own maltreatment.
Its hard to recognize that your position is unfair, or even that that unfairness matters if your entire society was built to justify that preexisting structure.
So, why aren’t more oppressed mages actually in mage societies?
Because then its not oppressed mages, its mage society with oppression in it.
IMHO any mage and most magical societies are going to be oppressive by our standards simply because equality can’t exist in the face of a fraction of the population who are a thousand times stronger or more powerful than the bottom rank magicals, let alone the possible existance of beyond mage level entities of various kinds which might occasionally let their preferences be known.
In my own works Belle Drake gets a vote on the World Council whether anyone likes it or not simply because ignoring even a fledgling Greater Entity is extremely unwise
People making way for the “true and real” elder-gods doesn’t sound too far off from the historical baseline of religious policy in many cultures, but it also doesn’t come off as a proper counterpoint.
I wasn’t referencing a ‘power structure’ as in elder-gods or some other bunk, your supposing pure merit into power structures that given the realm of fantasy can be more nuanced, that even in real life are more nuanced.
All I’m saying is that the history of power-acquisition and inheritance matters in the construction of more complicated worlds. And you know, might solve that little issue that is pretty much the fall back on here, why would actually powerful/healthy/functional people subject themselves to societies that hurt them?
That being said, the assumption of merit is actually a helpful psychological tool in developing the types of people that must inhabit societies that haven’t collapsed due to the very real suffering conveyor needed for drama.
Short answer is they wouldn’t, more powerful entities might suborn themselves to others voluntarily for their reasons but they will get out of it if it harms them, I would expect the middle ranks to benefit the most from dedication and merit simply because immortal god-monsters aren’t as vulnerable to flattery as non magical leaders.
Maybe the enslavers have control of something that can mitigate the shortened lives of the shapers.
They don’t. The whole idea is that shapers have a normal life outside of slavery. The life is shortened by having to use their powers so often and on a high level. That is why the enslavers need more shapers regularly – theirs only last a few months. A regular shaper living freely and only using their power on a low level can live as long as a regular human. The enslavement is what cuts the lives short.
how aware are the free shapers of this slavery ring (?) Because if theyre free and aware of the possibility of being kidnapped and worked to death in a few months, i would imagine very high organized resistance from the free population.
Or the free shapers are among those profiting from slavery ring, enslaving other shapers and selling them to non-shapers.
Like the Congolese.
Then there isn’t “oppresed mages” just slavery among mages.The point of the trope is that non-mages manage to opress the mages. In that case the balance of forces is equal as both have the same skills.
As described in your short question, the enslavement makes zero sense.
More importantly, it sets the stage for zero sympathy for an enslaved protagonist from the readers.
If the protagonist is running towards an early grave, why would they not use their magic to free themselves? Whatever lifespan they sacrifice fighting, they surely would have lots left over, provided they didn’t tegularly work major magic once on the loose. It makes absolutely zero sense for a prisoner to stay and sacrifice their lives for the “convenience” of their captors. Even if the escape attempt fails, better that than rewarding the slavers with whatever they’re having the prisoners do. Any prisoner that stoically accepts their fatey or bemoans being thusly exploited is likely to receive zero sympathy and even a bit of scorn.
Change it up!
Maybe include some kind of anti-magic device? Threats to loved ones are despicable, yet effective.
Oren, I believe the OP wrote that the mage’s magic does not work on living things, so boiling a man’s head wouldn’t work.
Even if the Shapers cannot fight back with their magic, here’s the thing… People can also fight without magic. It’s more dangerous but it isn’t impossible.
“The average life expectancy of an enslaved Shaper is a few months at most, because they’re forced to use their powers at a rate far higher than their bodies can handle.”
If I’m interpreting that correctly, it means the Shapers have not been slaves for very long, as they just don’t last under those conditions. So they must have existed as part of a free society. If so, are there others of their kind who avoided capture?
And if Shaping can’t affect any living things, that makes it useless for certain things. There must have been warriors to protect the Shapers, and farmers to feed them. Where are they, and can they provide any aid?
In the end, mages oppressed or enslaved by non-mages will always be a no-go. Power Structures Do Not Work That Way, power flows to power. The only way an enslavement scenario of mages works is if mages exist in both the oppressor society and the oppressed.
Maybe a large nation with Shapers conquers a small tribe or culture, and rather than use up the nation’s own (super) human resources by pushing their Shapers’ powers too hard, prefers to grind up the captives’ lives instead. But that’s not Oppressed Mages, just war captives with an imbalance of power and a particularly gritty setting.
Alternatively, the captors could have their own mages, but discover that some other group’s mages have particularly useful, specific applications of magic. The captors’ own mages can’t or won’t use Shaping themselves for some reason (like the lifespan issues). So the captors “annex” the Shapers’ territory to acquire those unique talents by force.
In either scenario, the captors would still need a way to catch, hold, and force Shapers to work themselves to death.
For the oppressed mages/mutants/whatever to work without their enemies simply having better magic, the key points are:
-reasons for oppression: Why are people against mages again?
-mechanism for oppression: Why did mages lose?
-counter oppression factor: How are magical powers exploited? Are some types of mages tolerated?
My two go to examples of it working are wizards in Warhammer fantasy (or psykers in Warhammer 40k) and natural mages in Laundry files. Let’s start with Warhammer.
-Reason for oppression: Natural, untrained magic is demon magnet. Which varies between accidentally killing mage, sterilizing his bloodline and unleashing national disaster. Untrained/badly trained mages are dangerous liability to people around them.
-Mechanism for oppression – Badly trained mage poses enough danger to himself to make hunting them feasible. In fact, the amount of fallout they generate is high enough that one can ague that average mage poses danger more due to risk of their self destruction taking village/city with him.
-Counter mechanism – Rigid system of magical training. Highest members of 8 orders of magic are basically influential nobles. This means that even if magic isn’t necessary to kill average self styled witch before they blow themselves up, the actually powerful witches and those playing with dark powers have competition from other mages.
Laundry files – humanity has been killing off natural mages from before homo sapiens.
-Reason for oppression: natural magic at low level is more likely to give you literal brain damage from thinking too hard about math than do anything useful. That or summon up something hungry from beyond the veil. A lot of potential progenitors of magical humanity ended up as brain damaged puppets of some nasty parasites being beaten up with clubs and spears by their early hominid brethren.
-Mechanism for oppression: Chasing way ill tribe members that randomly set fires around themselves by thinking about math. With rate of attrition of average natural mage (as opposed to even rudimentary, archaic training let alone modern methods), it’s closer to killing/abandoning sick members of the tribe than actual combat or oppression.
-counter mechanism – math is useful skill. Those with a knack for math that doesn’t end up with their brains can do math without randomly frying themselves from accidentally visualizing summoning circles gave raise to modern mankind.
Anyway, the problem with oppressed mages is power dynamics. Power naturally flows to those with advantage (including cumulative advantage of your parents having power).
To make mage oppression make sense, you need to shift balance of power away from mages. Being a mage has to be, by nature, something undesirable for society at large and a build in handicap of having big enough to give normal person advantage against mages.
For the first factor, magic has to be either naturally harmful to the community (pollution, human sacrifice, demon/monster magnet, miasma, etc) so normal humans have sensible reason to fear wizards and see them as liability or have magic exist as threat to the existing power structure (People with more mortal/temporary types of power like money or status would fear being supplanted by wizards and capable of cracking down on them).
For the second factor, you to actually give wizards exploitable build in flaw that makes them, in some areas, meaningfully weaker than normal people. Not merely knocking them down to human level, but actually weakening them enough to make normal people pose a threat. If you are going with more classical understanding of magic, having anti-mage weapons be either natural things or stuff normal human can put together that can’t be used against normal humans works best. You can for example have magic infused crystal whose presence is painful for mages but not for normal humans. Or have wizards be naturally bound any promise they speak out loud. Or make it so magic makes you unable to swim or even stand contact with sea water. If your average mage is only guy in town who can be defeated just via burning some seaweed near him, it’s much more obvious to see why he would have hard time fighting back.