Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm currently working on a novel, in which one of the POV characters is a slave. He was born to a slave (so he was born a slave) of a rich merchant family and was treated well most of his life. One day he travels with his master to a foreign country where slavery had been abolished. The interaction with the foreign "free" people makes him doubt his position.

Might be relevant that he is of a different race than his masters, and the population of the foreign country he travels to belongs to his race.

Initially I want him to not see the injustice in his state and to love his master (they have a close relationship since they grew up together), yet I (born into a mostly slave-free world) have no idea how to portray him. Almost anything I try to write about him feels contrived.

How could I better identify with him?


Any reference to a novel (historical fiction preferred, could be any period in history) with a slave POV character (third-person preferred) will do.

share|improve this question
I am quite convinced that most real slaves where convinced of the injustice of their situation. Some might believe that they profit from it and not seek freedom, but slaves in the USA, ancient Rome etc. knew that they or their ancestors originated in a free society. Even medieval peasants living in bondage for centuries did not simply accept their situation as natural and unchangeable, but often revolted. – what Apr 16 '14 at 15:26
@what interesting... I'm sure not all of the slaves were "fooled" all the time. I do believe though that it was possible for some slaves to adopt a certain racist viewpoint (viewing themselves as inferior) and judge themselves within that framework. A sort of cognitive dissonance as i see it. – Saal Hardali Apr 16 '14 at 15:31
The Robe (slave in Rome); Ben Hur (bond-slave to House of Hur); Johnny Tremain (indentured servant); The Kite Runner (servant is virtually a slave); A Thousand Splendid Suns (wives are virtually slaves); Uncle Tom's Cabin (duh!); Beloved (also duh!); Memoirs of a Geisha; Janissaries series (sci-fi, humans are a slave race entrusted with military affairs and law enforcement); Huckleberry Finn (escaped slave). You might also find this link useful: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HappinessInSlavery – dmm Apr 16 '14 at 15:53
wow that's really helpful. thanks! – Saal Hardali Apr 16 '14 at 15:54
up vote 3 down vote accepted

If you're looking for first-hand accounts, I'd recommend Ten Years a Slave. It's an autobiographical account of a free black man who was forced into slavery, and it's pretty shocking. It was also made into a (wonderful/horrific) film last year, which I'd recommend looking out for.

For a short-read, there's A Letter to my Old Master, a letter - believed to be real - from a freed slave to his old master, who asked him to return to work.

It's not quite a first-hand account, but I'd also recommend looking up the YouTube series Ask a Slave; it's based on the real-life, modern experiences of an actress working in a historical house, where she portrayed a slave and had to answer questions from visitors about her 'daily life'. What's quite interesting is seeing the inherent beliefs and misunderstandings people still have today about slavery and race.

Also, I don't have any books to recommend but it might be worth looking into Stockholme Syndrome and domestic abuse as well as slavery, to help with the angle of your character loving the slave owner. It might help your character feel less contrived if, instead of being naive, he's been manipulated. I think you can believe anything is 'your fault' if someone tells you so long enough.

For some more generic thoughts about your story, a person who has been raised in slavery from birth would most likely be indoctrined in the religion and custom of their slavers, which could potentially help mould the thoughts of your character. I'm not certain if your story takes place in this world? It might help your story to create some specific, rather racist religion if it doesn't, but even if it does some people have interpreted the Curse of Ham in the Bible as a condemnation of dark skin - as if it's something you're cursed with - and the Book of Mormon has mentions of God 'setting a mark upon' sinners, which has been interpreted as meaning giving them dark skin.

Now obviously that's hogswash, but if you lived in a culture of slavery, you would want to find reasons to justify your actions and ways of seeing your slaves as something lesser than you, and you could easily find meanings in religious passages to support your needs.

In Ten Years a Slave, the slave owners regularly gather the slaves to listen to Christian sermons and speeches, and if you were brought up having people read from important-sounding books every day, and explaining that the passages mean you're indebted to them, you might well believe it yourself.

However, I think the older you got, the more difficult it would be to believe. As What said, you would most likely be aware of the injustice. I think it would be entirely human to ask, 'Why me? What's the difference between me and my master?' You would compare yourself to them, especially if you were brought up together, and I'm sure more than once you'd see injustice directly, even if it was small - say he hit you with a stick or stole sweets from the pantry. When his skin didn't 'darken' and he wasn't beaten, you would have to question why.

It gets harder if there are more slaves, as there are likely to be, as you would be exposed to more points of view which would likely be different, and it would be very easy to be jaded and bitter from very early on. Even 'kind' masters didn't treat their slaves well; a slave is a slave.

I don't know how grim a story yours is, but in American slavery, we have accounts of children being taken away from parents and sold, and young women being raped; it would be pretty easy to see the injustice there.

Still, as Craig pointed out, some slaves in America stayed with their masters because it was the only life they'd known - a home and daily meals (and not being killed for running away) would seem the sensible option to many people. That doesn't mean they were happy. It's not really comparable but just as an example of human psychology, in 2011 Gallup reported 71% of American workers hate their jobs - I think it's fair to say a lot of people, no matter the situation, will take the devil they know.

I think there's a very interesting and complex psychology there to explore. Good luck!

share|improve this answer
Very glad this answer was accepted, much better than my own. – Craig Sefton Apr 24 '14 at 9:42

Although not a slave in the sense you're describing, I would recommend reading Nelson Mandela's first volume of his auto biography, Long Walk To Freedom.

What is quite interesting in this book is that he starts off not really seeing the injustice of his situation, or that of his people, primarily because of where he is raised, how he is raised, the education he receives, and the benefits that he gets from his situation (for example, access to education that is done to make him and other black South Africans be more like a British concept of a 'gentleman'). While he was among a small minority that could get education, the general populace were left to live as they always had, and given the "freedom" to do so.

There is one particular moment I recall in the book where Mandela is undergoing his right of passage to becoming a man in Xhosa culture, and a local chief who was the guest speaker (I forget who, apologies) gives a speech about how the Xhosa people are not free, and Mandela gets angry thinking this man is being so ungrateful for what they have.

True, Mandela was not directly a slave, or owned by someone, but the same principles apply: you grow up in a world where you don't know any better, and you're often purposefully left uneducated so you don't ask awkward questions, but given enough to improve your lot that you are grateful.

Even during slavery in America, slaves often stayed with their masters not just because of the threat of violence or intimidation, but were content with their lot, often because many didn't know anything different, were uneducated, and only knew how to perform manual labour. They had somewhere to live, food, and some were given autonomy to practise various manual skills and even hire out their skills for a wage. Their friends and family were around them, and they lived in places that they considered their homes.

I know in South Africa, religion was often a powerful tool to keep people in line too, where it was adapted to show the inferiority of other races to the white man, and I suspect something similar occurred during slavery as well.

The prison of the mind is far more effective in controlling people than the stick, so if your character loves his master, it's likely because he's grateful for his position in relation to a situation where no-one knows any different. For example, his master may allow some leniency that others don't: perhaps teaching him carpentry, brick laying or other skills. Maybe his master welcomes him into his home regularly, gives him a good place to live while many others may not be so fortunate etc. Maybe his master saved his life once when he was being attacked by those who were racist or xenophobic, or even helped deliver his slave's son.

People are complex, and while things like slavery are often portrayed in binary terms, it's never so neat as we make out when we're dealing with real people.

share|improve this answer
Thanks for the thorough answer! I'll try Mandela's book. – Saal Hardali Apr 16 '14 at 22:14
I haven’t read it myself, but it seems that Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography would be even more informative. – Seth Gordon Apr 17 '14 at 17:55

Sounds like from the description, you are writing a "slave narrative." This was a popular literary genre in the US around the Civil War. It can either be fiction or non-fiction. One of the most famous examples and my personal suggestion is the Life of Fredrick Douglas. He was born a slave and later became a leader in the American Abolition Movement.

What I learned from his book is that freedom isn't inherently obvious. Before Douglas was taught to read by his master, he was very happy as a slave. His realization that he was a free-born person came slowly over time and then he was compelled to run away as slavery became an unbearable condition. The problem was not that his master was cruel, but the knowledge about the alternative. That seems to a theme in your book, so that's why I suggest it as a starting place for your research.

The WPA's Federal Writer's Project did 2300 interviews ex-slaves during the Great Depression. That research is available here. That seems like a great resource to understand what the average slave thought about slavery.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.