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During Roman and medieval times the use of slaves was very common in most civilisations. Crimes often carried punishments that would fall under "cruel and unusual" today.

Is it possible to write a story depicting things like this and not have the reader be appalled by the main characters being ok with it? And without having a story that is considered extremely dark?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

As a rule, when people read fiction from another time period, they expect the culture / thinking style from that period. I can't remember how many books I've read based in medieval Europe, where the hero talks about the rights of man, individuality, democracy etc. I usually throw such books away, as it shows the author hasn't done their research.

Second thing is, you assume that all people in ancient times were cruel, and supported their respective social evils. So for example, all Romans loved to see people being eaten by lions. This is not true. Just like in modern times we have racism, religious wars, sectarian violence, but in actuality very few people actively support extremist groups. 300-500 years from now, today will look like the dark ages.

To answer your specific question, people have their own moral compass, which they follow, no matter what the society believes. So you could have your hero supporting slavery, but showing a random act of kindness to a slave. Or he could hear the story of how a slave was captured, and change his views on slavery. Or he could accept slavery, but not have personal slaves, as it doesn't agree with his own moral compass. The characters don't need to be black or white.

In short, don't force modern, western enlightenment views on your characters. But that doesn't mean they have to be barbaric "Ooga Ooga, me steal woman" type characters. Your characters can be nice people, trying to survive in a unjust society, and doing their small bit to help others.

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I suppose that this works if the focus of the story is the moral interaction. I read the OP as wanting to know how to interact with a morally depraved society (by modern standards) without this being the focus of the story. But a +1 for the importance of proper research into historical novels. –  Schroedingers Cat May 22 '12 at 11:56

First, consider your intent. Middle Ages were mostly dark and grim, indeed. Even most members of nobility were untaught, uncultured and brutal.

Now, many people are attracted to Nazis, particularly to the SS and Gestapo. Being "bad guy" seems to be great to them. So regard it as certainty, this will appeal to someone and you can do nothing about that. (Furthermore, I think most "fantasy" stories are inherently anti-humanistic.)

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"Anti-humanistic"? Can you explain that in more detail? –  Lauren Ipsum May 22 '12 at 10:11
    
This... doesn't really answer the question. –  Neil Fein May 23 '12 at 19:53
    
@Lauren Ipsum: The downvotes were for the last statement, weren't they? Although I am standing my ground I must admit that I was very impetuous. It is out of topic, definitely. So I do apologise for it. –  Nerevar May 25 '12 at 4:24
    
@Neil Fein: If the question was about different attitude to cruelty and about preventing readers from being appalled/attracted by it, I think it would be an answer. –  Nerevar May 25 '12 at 4:30
    
@IndorilNerevar - I generally don't DV for a single statement, and that wasn't the case here. And tangents can be interesting and fun. I see this answer as an illustration of cases where the sympathetic Big Bad does happen, which is useful. But the question is asking how to make this happen, which your answer doesn't get into. (I would be interested in hearing more about your deleted statement sometime, though; feel free to drop into chat sometime!) –  Neil Fein May 25 '12 at 4:47

The important thing is that your characters do not come over as cruel and sadistic, but they treat it as just part of what happens. So your soldiers who have to impale offenders need to do it with the same sort of mundane routine as others might write weekly progress reports.

If your characters can have slaves as part of a normal life, but ignore them most of the time, except when they have to deal with them, then you readers should accept this as part of their lives. It becomes an issue only when you focus on the slave-owning aspects of their lives. They didn't treat it as particularly noteworthy, so nor should you as you write about them.

The middle ages would have treated people maimed from both accident and punishment as part of life - as we treat the homeless today. They would have accepted that most families would have lost someone to punishment, disease or accident - nobility downwards. The challenge - and it is a big challenge - is to write your characters as if the casual cruelty of life and state were perfectly reasonable and normal.

If you can do that, you should show just how appalling it was, but without losing sympathy for the main characters. There is a sense that the novel as a whole will shock, which is probably a good thing.

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I think you first need to distinguish between whether you are writing fantasy or historical fiction. If you want to write a fantasy novel, then you don't have to depict anything that happened in our own history. After all, you are creating a new world and you get to depict it in whatever fashion you deem necessary for telling your story. If you choose to use elements from our own medieval times in your fantasy world, then simply depict them as standard elements of the story. In describing your world and its inhabitants, you have the opportunity to determine how the reader perceives your characters, and ultimately it is truly up to you to do this. The important thing, however, is that with a fantasy story, the reader does not come in with any preconceived notions on how your world was formed or how its society behaves. You have to paint that picture for them.

On the other hand, if you are writing a story that is historical fiction, then you are going to be telling your story in a setting in which your audience will have preconceived notions. It is likely that your readers will have at least some level of understanding in regards to the morals and behaviors of that time period. Even so, it is still up to you to make sure that your readers understand that while certain standards of behavior might be considered barbaric today, in the time period in which your story takes place, those standards are considerably different.

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Think about it this way: Why weren't Romans (for example) appalled by their own use of slaves? Because to them it seemed normal. I haven't ever been a Roman slave, but I believe that slaves too didn't see anything wrong with slavery. (Though they probably would have preferred not be slaves, just as almost everyone nowadays would prefer to be rich. Want? Yes. Be upset about it? No.)

Remember, slaves are given food and shelter in exchange for their work, which is something that wasn't taken for granted in older times.

My advice, therefore, is that you show how the "victims" of such a code of morals accept it as well.

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Another thought: they weren't appalled by their use of slaves because people had the right to sell themselves into slavery. Many times people found themselves without food or land or heavily in debt, so they would sell themselves into slavery to a rich master as a better option to starvation. I honestly believe people should have the right to do this if they so choose, in fact they do it today, but they sell themselves to a government system to avoid starvation when they are not productive enough to survive. –  ioSamurai May 24 '12 at 17:52

Darkness is in the eye of the beholder. And if there weren't a significant attraction to materials of a certain dark and twisted nature, then you would have never heard of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub or even Edgar Allen Poe. Darkness is part of the human condition. After all, it was Thomas Hobbes who argued that the life of man in nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". We like darkness; it's part of who we are as a species.

Most people who read a story that's set in medieval times or in a medieval-themed dark fantasy world expect that the life of man is much closer to a Hobbesian state than the modern world. Slavery, injustice, brutality, violence, class, caste — these are just some of the things you expect in a world from long ago and far away.

But if you have concerns that the day-to-day operations of the world you create will simply be seen as unnecessarily brutal or overtly dark, then there are a few ways to introduce that sort of world to your reader and help them accept what's going on.

My personal favorite is to introduce a character from outside the bubble or that otherwise has an extraordinarily high moral code (but not thoroughly modern or it won't seem genuine). This character comes from a world where the value system is closer to that of your reader and each controversial element is introduced and addressed in its own time in a very "this is how it's done; this is how it's always been done" sort of way.

Maybe your character changes the way things work; maybe the way things work change your character. But either way that allows your reader to come to terms with the poor, nasty, brutish world you've created.

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