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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