Slavery is among the most despicable of things conceived by man, and because of this, it makes for great villainy. It isn’t hard to hate a slave-owner, in fiction or otherwise. As an American, I am painfully aware of the fact that my country was built on the backs of slaves (most empires are), and there is no excusing it.
In fiction writing, slavery can and does exist in a myriad of ways. Whereas in the history of the United States the distinction between master and slave was visually obvious, in other parts of the world this may not be so. There was a great deal of slavery happening in Africa before white folks came along, and many such slaves were sold by native Africans to the Europeans. And slavery need not be restricted to the definition of hard manual labor vs. some guy with a feathered hat and a whip in his belt nearby. Slavery persists into the modern era, under guises we may not recognize. If I go further with this, I’d be stepping into the realm of modern sociopolitical ideas, so lets set that aside for the moment.
In fiction, slavery can be used as a tool for creating a villain or for drawing sympathy from a character – likely both at once, for those of us who are not cold blooded. But in fantasy, more aspects can be added to the mix to make things more interesting. One can opt to either make the distinction between those in charge and those in trouble clear —
When the distinction is clear and obvious, it makes our brains easy to understand the “us and them” concept. Turning the rulers into something bestial also tends to flip things around, as in our world something this extreme is born entirely of the imagination.
One could also make the distinction a little more subtle. Visual cues aside, perhaps there’s something deeper that influences someone into subservience?
Slavery is about power dynamics, oppression (both physical and mental), and the illusion of restriction. The classic line of slavedrivers (office supervisors, factory owners, mining prospectors, take your pick from whatever story you like), usually when being confronted by the hero, is: “These people,” gesturing towards the crowds of slaving folk, “are free to leave.” But, of course, there is a catch; the slaves don’t speak the language. They’re addicted to some kind of drug. Their families are held hostage. Violence and fear might work in the short term for smaller groups, but when it comes to domination of one race over another – or the formation of entire social castes – there’s usually some underlying aspect a bit deeper.
When adding slaves to any setting, it’s important to consider the social and economic impacts this would have on a society. Is the culture based on the enslavement? Are there pockets of resistance who, for some reason or another, disagree? If the slaves were to rise up, would it break the economy or disrupt the social order? Is there a distinction between steed, servant, or slave? Do the slaves even know that they’re slaves? Better yet, do some (all) of them in fact enjoy their servitude, or do they just not know any better? Is freedom a possibility for “good slaves that earned it” (As in say, Ancient Rome), or do the enslaved people/beasts/demi-humans believe that they deserve their lot in life?
Many things to consider, and I’ve only barely scratched the surface as they say. Hopefully if or when you undertake such a setting, you’ll keep some of these ideas in mind.
What of you, dear readers? What’s the first question you would ask when designing a fantastical slave race/owner setting?