1. ladyserenity

    ladyserenity Member

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    My Protagonists Own Slaves

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by ladyserenity, Aug 4, 2017.

    Hi there. I'm writing a story that is loosely based off of The Odyssey and set in a land that is based off of Classical Greece. I felt that I couldn't do justice to the setting if I omitted slaves from the story. I made the rather controversial decision to make all of the main characters (both protagonists and antagonists) slave owners because of the classical Greek setting. The story follows a woman named Glykeria, who, while on some sort of diplomatic/military mission, gets separated from her beloved husband and daughter. Her husband's name is Penn (a play off of Penelope). Her daughter's name is Corinna. The story follows Glykeria's attempts to get home. It also closely follows the lives of Penn and Corinna at home. Other key characters include Persephone, Corinna's cousin, and Diokles, a mute slave boy who learns to read/write and becomes Corinna's closest friend. Diokles, Corinna, and Persephone might eventually get their own book.

    Because we will be spending a lot of time in Penn's home for part of the book we will also get to know some of the other domestic slaves and even a few of the agricultural slaves. Penn is also disabled, and struggles with a disease of unknown origin that saps his strength, nearly robs him of his ability to walk, and makes physical labor very difficult, so the family definitely has domestic slave labor. Penn's family is also from the upper crust so having servants or slaves is to be expected. There will be numerous interactions with household slaves, especially Diokles, throughout the book. I do not want to give away too much, but Diokles is also the key to an important plot point. I have a few questions for the forum members:

    1. Have you ever written a character that owned slaves?
    2. If you read a book that had a slave owner for a main character, would that fact impede your ability to sympathize or empathize with the character?
    3. If you have written with a slave owning character, how did you choose to portray the relationship between the owner and the slaves? Did you portray the relationship in a positive light, a negative light, or was it seen as a mixed bag?
    4. How can I incorporate this into his/their character development?

    Side-note: I know that Penn isn't a Greek name. Therefore, this name might just be a placeholder unless I cannot come up with something better.
     
  2. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView

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    I think readers will be okay with this as long as your protagonists are treating the slaves well. I love The Odyssey and have read it many times, and although I have some criticisms of the protagonists' behaviour, their slave-owning status isn't one of them. As you said, everybody had slaves. It would be ludicrous to write a prosperous Ancient Greek family without them, just like it'd be ludicrous to write a middle class Victorian family without servants.

    Also, Greek slaves had very different status and treatment to the black slaves of appallingly recent centuries. If you can work some of that cultural context in, it will help. But I would avoid going too far with it and having your protagonists treat the slaves exactly like one of the family - that'd be a kind of whitewashing, IMO.
     
  3. Fiender_

    Fiender_ Active Member

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    1, no. 2, it would really depend on the situation. 3, N/A. 4, idk.

    Forgive me, I'm not super up-to-date on ancient Greek culture, it's been a while since I've studied/read anything about it. But I don't believe women were in charge of their own households, correct? So it probably wouldn't have fallen to Glykeria to acquire her family's slaves. If that's the case, it means your main character didn't actually have a hand in the character's enslavement, which I think helps towards their likability. Of course, having Glykeria show sympathy towards the enslaved characters, and acknowledge the slaves' unfortunate situation would also help.
     
  4. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    I have to say I disagree.

    Except that, maybe your protagonists treat their slaves well, but some others may not be so generous.

    My point is that I'm sure there were some kind slave-owners, and some more brutal. In the same way that there are, currently, good employers and bad employers. I've worked for some that made me glad to be alive in this century and this society, because back in the day, they'd have been free to abuse me as their power allowed.
     
  5. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I agree that you have to write in a way that's consistent with history - you can't just pretend they wouldn't have had slaves. You can downplay the word slaves, though... unless it's a plot point, you likely wouldn't get into the socioeconomic model of domestic and agricultural labour, right? So refer to the slaves by the job they do. Cook, housemaid, field worker, or, as I understand the ancient slavery model, bookkeeper or tutor or whatever.

    If you're writing from the POV of the slaves themselves, I imagine there'd be significant trauma attached to the circumstances of their enslavement. But if you're writing from the slaveholders' POVs, unless they were unusually enlightened for the time, I doubt they'd have been thinking about slavery at all. So your narrative doesn't really have to get into it.
     
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  6. Trish

    Trish Damned if I do and damned if I don't Contributor

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    1.No, I haven't, but I wouldn't hesitate to write it if that's what was in my head.

    2.No, it wouldn't bother me, because it's correct for the time period you've placed it in.

    3. N/A - but if I was, it would be a mixed bag. I don't see how it wouldn't be for me. The owner may feel awful about the circumstances, but they're still going to expect them to carry out their duties, because that's the deal. So, you can feel bad, but you're still going to tell them what to do - whether it's because of society, peers, husband expectations, or whatever.

    4. A growing understanding of their own place in life, and the expectations and pressures that puts on them (whether they embrace it or resist), or a growing empathy for the slaves they own?
     
  7. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    Not sure the Greeks were so broad-minded when it came to disabilities in their off-spring? I think a juicy 'why didn't they just drown the baby at birth like normal people...' might need an airing, followed by 'Oh Heroditus, you write so well for a slave.'

    Was he Greek, or Roman, oh shit..
     
  8. ladyserenity

    ladyserenity Member

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    Penn isn't disabled at birth. He gets struck with a mystery illness that starts the plot in motion. He's desperately ill and that results in his wife going on the military/diplomatic expedition instead of him.

    Diokles might experience some of those comments though. Infant exposure was common, but so was enslaving those babies who were exposed.
     
  9. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    Aye, they put babies on hillside. Good point.
     
  10. ladyserenity

    ladyserenity Member

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    Diokles is shaping up to be pretty interesting. I'm also trying to shape up Penn and some of the household slaves a bit better but I do like Diokles as a character to be honest. He's the mute one but he's actually the most interesting and intelligent slave in the household besides Corinna's tutor.

    Penn's interactions with the slaves will be varied and complex. If Diokles wasn't mute, I think Penn might've adopted him. Trouble is, Diokles is mute and commoner, so if he were adopted folks would never accept him as heir to Penn's lands. So Diokles is forced into an awkward position of 'technically a slave but really well-liked and most likely to be freed' while some of the other slaves have more traditional roles within the household. The relationship between Penn and Diokles will be interesting to write but even more interesting will be the relationship between Diokles and the other servants. Half of them would love/appreciate him, and the other half would feel jealous of his close relationship to the master.

    If I were to do a painting that illustrated relationships within the household it'd go like this: Penn is in the center, sitting on a throne of sorts. His wife and daughter sit to either side of him. Standing directly behind Corinna's chair is Diokles. Pictured further behind the family are the tutor, cook, and head housekeeper. The crowd of people off to the side would be the minor domestic slaves (assistants to the housekeeper) and the wide variety of agricultural slaves.
     
  11. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    For my taste, if you're putting this much emphasis on slavery (like "might've adopted him" and "most likely to be freed") I think I'd be more likely to object. I mean, there's a world of difference between some slaves working away in the background and a world in which someone cares about a child enough to consider adopting him and at the same time legally owns that person and doesn't set him free immediately. It's a weird combination of ideas, to the modern mind.

    I'm not saying it can't be done, but I think you'll have to pay a lot of attention to making sure it's done sensitively.
     
  12. big soft moose

    big soft moose An Admoostrator Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Also bear in mind that in addition to slaves a wealthy estate would have freedmen (that is former slaves granted freedom and employment) - it wasn't unusual for freedmen to rise to positions of power although they couldn't hold office themselves. For example in the roman empire Narcissus (chief advisor to the emperor Claudius , and a man so self obsessed that he gave rise to the word narcissism ) was a Greek freedman. Men of rank often had freedmen as advisors because they could not seek to usurp the office . - this does raise the question of if diokles is so well liked, why is he not a freedman

    I'd disagree about the need for it be done sensitively or for them to treat slaves kindly... if you are writing about a time when slavery was normal and accepted, then they should view owning a slave as normal and treat them in whatever way is consistent with the MCs character. I also wouldn't duck the issue by using job roles because an estate would generally have a mixture of paid servants, freedmen, and slaves and the interaction of the classes would be something you'd expect to be clear both at the time and in creating a realistic setting. If the Modern PC brigade don't like it that is their problem not yours.
     
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  13. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Narcissism came from the Roman Narcissus, not from the Greek legend. Really? Do you have any kind of a source for that?

    OP, be aware that moose seems to be on a bit of a anti-PC rampage in the last couple days. Well, actually, maybe he's always been like this and I just haven't noticed, but please don't mistake the forcefulness of his statements with any sort of authority. You're writing for a modern audience. When I read historical fiction I want to get a flavour for the time, but I don't completely leave my modern attitudes behind. I don't think I'm unique among readers.
     
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  14. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    This isn't like writing about American slavery where, obviously, you'd need to tread carefully. After all, we only abolished the thing 152 years ago which is not really that long ago in the grand scheme of things. Your setting is in Ancient Greece (or in a land based off of Ancient Greece.)

    Two things to keep in mind:

    #1- The slavery of the Ancient Greek days was thousands of years ago. As I mentioned, American slavery only ended 152 years ago. In comparison to the Ancient Greeks we Americans may as well have ended slavery yesterday.

    #2- The concept of slavery for Americans was on the basis of racial lines. You're of a different skin color, so therefore you are an inferior animal and must serve us. We had entire racial laws constructed around this notion. For the Ancient Greeks, theirs was more of a "OK, so you were conquered by us"/"born into this class". Race wasn't included in their form of slavery. You're actually on relatively safer ground here.

    EDIT TO ADD: What you're looking for is how to make a morally bankrupt individual (I mean, c'mon, they own humans as property) sympathetic. You could have them treat the slaves kind enough, but not the point of family. Maybe they believe that mistreating slaves doesn't net them anything good in the long run so they stop a slave owner from beating a slave?
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2017
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  15. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I think that the ease or difficulty with which you handle slavery will depend in part on your overall presentation of your characters. If they're presented as people with a lot of ethical/moral gray area, and with a structure of attitudes that is different from the reader's in many ways, then it's going to be a lot easier than it would be if you tried to make them someone approachably and impeccably or near-impeccably "good".

    To put it another way, the more our engagement with the character is about directly identifying with them, as opposed to observing them or being aware of the contract between areas where we can identify and areas where we absolutely can't, the harder it is going to be.

    As an example, if we shifted them back to a slaveowning place and time, Sherlock Holmes could get away with owning slaves far, far more easily than Dr. Watson could.
     
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  16. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    So I'm understanding your post:

    Holmes would get away with it simply because he's more of the logic and the contract. Dr. Watson is more empathetic and heart so he'd never bring himself to own another human being?
     
  17. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    That doesn't work, Holmes & Watson. :confused:

    ...

    Here on WF we proffer wisdom, hear ye, the advice that every 11th century knight must behave with the entirely comprehensible, and logical manners of a 21st century desk jockey, by order.
     
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  18. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    'My murdering rapist?'

    'No.'

    'My fat nun?'

    'Nope.'

    'My hunchback of Winchester?'

    'Absolutely not!'
     
  19. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Aye, lad, except we're talking about men and women from thousands of years ago. :p
     
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  20. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    In my specific example, yes, though my more general point is that Watson's appeal is fairly heavily dependent on the fact that we can identify with his thought process, while Holmes' appeal is fairly heavily dependent on the fact that we can't identify with his thought process and we find it interesting. Holmes doing a "What? How on earth could a person do that?!" thing is part of the structure of his appeal to the reader.

    I've been thinking about this more lately, because Swietek in the Highly Flavored Novel is arguably a Bad Man, possibly a Very Bad Man. But by his own standards, he's a good man--and he does indeed make substantial sacrifices to follow his own standards; they don't exist for self-delusion and a comfortable life.
     
  21. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    Oh yeah, got it.
    ...
    But not Sherlock
     
  22. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    I think if you want to write accurate historical fiction, you need to understand the mores of the time period you're writing about. Do a lot of research.

    You'll find that many of the cultures the Greek slaves came from were slaveowning cultures themselves. It was more or less the done thing in the ancient world to make slaves of people who were captured in war. In a way, the slaves themselves would have accepted their fate, knowing they would have done the same if the situation had been reversed. (By accept, that doesn't mean they wouldn't be longing for freedom, of course—it just means they wouldn't particularly consider it an unfair system.) I believe criminals and unwanted political figures were sometimes sold into slavery as well, as part or all of their punishment—which might, or might not, have seemed better than a death sentence.

    It was also true that in Greek culture (and certainly Roman culture) slaves could be freed and become part of the society that enslaved them, and many were given that option and some rose to quite high places.

    Keep in mind what your characters would think of slaves, and how they would treat them. Also consider what the slaves themselves would think of their situation and of their 'masters.' If you stay in the period, I think your readers will forgive you for being accurate, even if what you're writing about is not politically correct today. Just try to present a balanced picture of the time. (If some people treated their slaves horribly, while others treated them like valued members of the household, make sure these two extremes show.)

    Do lots of research. It will help you shape your story, and might even give you some story ideas you've not thought of yet.
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2017
  23. Robert Musil

    Robert Musil Comparativist Contributor

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    1. Several of my POV characters in my current WIP own slaves. And they all live in a society in which slavery is common and the slave-trade is a major industry, so even those who don't (and aren't themselves slaves) probably benefit from slavery indirectly. One of my POV characters is herself a slave.

    2. Depends. Answering only for myself, I think the closest I can come to a definitive answer is "it would make them less sympathetic, but that might not matter".

    3. As I said, this is a WIP so it's still a bit up in the air. I'd say that, at different times and with different individuals, the relationships range from almost a partnership (one slave who has a lot of influence helps the ruling family to talk down some slave-rebels), to various sorts of benign or mundane (the small children talk to the slaves like any other member of the household, the grownups mostly take them for granted but sometimes grow close with certain individual slaves), to pretty horrific (several of my POV characters participate in a slave raid that involves burning villages, lots of screaming women and children etc.)

    Overall, I'd just like to add to what a couple posters above me stated or alluded to--the thing about chattel slavery is that it's a fairly foreign concept to (most of) us, in the sense that almost no one alive today has lived in a society where it was widely and legally practiced. So it's hard to say if it makes a given character more or less sympathetic--it's more like it makes the whole story a bit less relatable and more alien. Which, if that's what you're going for is great. You can play it as "it's terrible" or as "well that's just what this society is like". You can use it for a lot of different things, really.

    Ugh, just like every other post on this forum I've talked myself into an "it all depends on the execution" type of answer, sorry.
     
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  24. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    Particularly when you are in a classical setting as you are, @ladyserenity, you can't omit slavery because it was part of the woof and weave of almost every culture. It was also, I found through research on my "Eagle and the Dragon," very different from the slavery of the South, and the way classical slavery is treated by Hollywood. In fact, I would say there were more parallels to the difference between the self-employed worker and the person working for another, than between slave or free. There were no restrictions on literacy, slaves were usually free to earn outside income, and reading classical literature, it seems that physical abuse of slaves, while perfectly legal, was socially frowned upon in Rome. There was quite a bit of sexual dalliance, but how much was enforced and how much mutual, or even the slave seeking some advantage? Probably all three. Remember, if you wanted a tutor for your child, you went down to the market and bought one, brought that person under your roof. The Latin word for household was familia, and included both his blood relations and his slaves. The average duration of enforced servitude in Rome was 15 years, after which the relationship usually changed to patron and client after manumission. Your former owner would set you up in business as your patron, steer his friends to you, and you in turn cut him some special deals. A person could go from slave to citizen directly though it was rare, but it was not unusual for a freedman to become a millionaire. And there were more than a few famous Romans, the first Senator Cato for instance, who had slave blood just a few generations back.

    I dealt with one instance of slavery in my E&D, because the Senator owned his financial manager. However, the relationship appeared to be mutually very close and mutually respectful. Lucius was a genius at crafting financial deals. The Senator was a shipping master involving huge sums of money, insurance, contracts, balloon payments, penalties, and Lucius Parvus was master of them all. However, at one point all seemed lost, he manumitted Lucius, his four bodyguards on the ship, and all his other slaves in his various households (they are far from home in the Indian Ocean). Lucius is ecstatic, until he realizes that the Senator intends to commit suicide rather than face almost certain bankruptcy. This is very emotional for Lucius, and he says he would rather remain a slave than have that happen... which says something of the way the Senator treated his slaves. He doesn't commit suicide, and Lucius cooks up another plan, with a bit of humor. "Why? are you worried the crew will throw you overboard? You were ready to take the "pink bath" a few minutes ago, sir! Lost at sea is covered by insurance, your suicide would be non-performance." However, Lucius and the bodyguards remained manumitted, and continued on with him to China. Oh, yes, and he makes the Senator a lot of money on the trip!

    I did deal with one other instance of slavery, in which a man on the run from the Parthian government seeks shelter in a friend's house, but is instead given a small some of money and told to leave town, he is too hot to stay there. When the man leaves, his friend tells his head slave to assemble the servants, select one and cut his tongue out, as an example of what might happen to them if their own tongues get to flapping. It could also be horrible.
     
  25. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I'm pretty wary of any understanding of slavery that equates it with having an employer rather than being self-employed...
     

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