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I'm planning out an idea for a short story. In the story, slavery didn't abruptly end but instead continued to modern day and beyond. The structure of the story will be similar to The Last Question by Issac Asimov where the theme is explored by multiple characters over multiple time periods.

The protagonist of the first story, let's call him Nathan, is the son of a plantation owner where slaves perform only manual labour. Shortly into the short story his father dies. Unlike his father, Nathan thinks highly of the slaves and believes that with some education they could be doing taxes, engineering or general scientific research. Crucially, the slaves would remain in bondage. This idea isn't liked at first but ultimately makes Nathan rich... blah blah the rest of the story.

I'd like the reader to like Nathan despite the fact that he is still a slaver. To generalise:

Do you have any tips for keeping a protagonist likeable despite being on the wrong side of history?

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    Have you read (or watched) "Gone with the Wind"?
    – Alexander
    Apr 27, 2018 at 19:06
  • Explain that the situation is nuanced. For example, George Washington was firmly opposed to slavery, yet owned slaves. The reason for this is that the slaves were dowager gifts from his wife's family. While they were Washington's slaves, Washington did not technically own them and thus legally couldn't free them (since they were to be returned to Martha's family if he didn't want them.). However, as both of them were the last in the family line, they did leave a generous portion of their estate to their slaves in their will on top of freeing them.
    – hszmv
    Jan 3 at 16:49

4 Answers 4

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To me the answer depends on why was slavery not abolished?

If slavery remains in practice because enlightenment failed in America and economic and racist interests won, then (from the perspective of a reader today) anyone supporting slavery must be "bad", and your protagonist can only be good if he is secretly against slavery and working towards abolishing it or at least attempting to relieve his slaves from as much of their suffering and granting them as many freedoms as possible. But then I don't see the point in your alternate history, because some slave owners in history acted that way, and all you would have done is set it at a later date.

If on the other hand your society is one where slavery is not racist and commercial, then any person can be good or bad, just as in a society without slavery. If you look at history, there are societes where slavery wasn't a result of slave trade, but of war. For example in ancient Rome, slaves where prisoners of war who were made use of, instead of being put to death or left to rot in jail. They were brought into Roman society as slaves as a way to civilize them and turn them into Romans. Their slavery was not exploitation so much as reeducation. And consequently it wasn't rare for Roman slaves to be set free eventually and even rise in society. Sure, you had the gladiators and other slaves that were used as cheap labor, but then many Roman citizens lived in much worse squalor and slaves were not treated worse than a poor Roman farmer. Because in Rome, there was no racism at the root of slavery. Slaves weren't considered animals, but people.

So if you want a "good" slave owner, then you need a society in which slavery is not based on commerce and racism. It could be a world where the United States have become an empire like the Roman empire, expanding by conquering new lands, and many African countries have been taken into that empire. Slaves then are prisoners of war from newly conquered lands. If they are educated, they are teachers of the children of the slave owners; if they are uneducated, they work in the kitchens and fields. They are treated well, sent to school (because the goal is not exploitation but education and civilization). And if they have led good American lives and acquired American values, they are eventually rewared by being set free and considered American citizens like all others.


In brief:

If slavery is not racist but educational, and if "good" slaves are rewared by being set free and accepted as citizens, then a slave owner can be a good person, because his role is that of a supportive parent and teacher.

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  • "White man's burden" to educate the natives? Apr 28, 2018 at 10:14
  • @Galastel You're still taking on the racial view. In a Roman-empire-style America, the US wouldn't (probably) just conquer African states (and only have black slaves), they would also have slaves from "non-negroid" populations, say, from Canada or Mexico, I guess. The attitude would be an imperialist or colonialist patriachalism, not a racist one. Think of the British Empire in India, China, etc., with a war-slave system like the one in ancient Rome.
    – user29032
    Apr 28, 2018 at 10:24
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    I am thinking exactly British Empire. "American man's burden" if you prefer. It's not racism, in that there's no perception that the "others" are inherently, genetically, inferior. But there was the perception that "we're more advanced, more civilised, it is our duty to educate them, they are like children". That's what Kipling's poem was about. These people genuinely believed they were doing a good thing, they were good people. That's why stories of "cannibalistic natives" and "noble savages" where so popular. You can have a character like that, of course, but there's a values dissonance. Apr 28, 2018 at 10:34
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You can't judge a period character based on modern values. In a setting (real or imaginary) when slaves are owned, and society does not challenge it, it would be anachronistic for your character to refuse to own slaves. Such modern values stick out like a sore thumb.

As long as your character is not worse than the society around him, not actively sadistic, and has likeable traits (that are not related to the slaves issue), he will be likeable enough. In fact, it your character's values are too progressive, it would make him unlikeable, like a Mary Sue.

(Just to clarify, I'm not criticising your story idea. I don't know enough about it to give constructive critique. I am pointing towards what would make a character most unlikeable in my opinion.)

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  • Thanks for the input! For clarification the story wouldn't quite be historical but more of an alternative time line. Whilst I'm not sure if it will actual involve American history an analogy would be 50 years after the south winning the civil war. I'm a fan of stories that take a major historical event and reverse the outcome. Apr 27, 2018 at 0:10
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I am on the same page as Galastel. I believe that to make your character likeable, you will have to portray him as "advanced" for his time.

I could imagine someone like your character operating in the South around 1850. In that case, "tech" education of the time might be something like saddle-making, or "working on the railroad," which was better remunerated than mere agricultural labor. That is, he'd be on the "wrong side of history" today, but not for his time.

I don't see the story flying in modern times. No one will thank your character for taking away rights that were granted by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments immediately after the war, even if he gives people high tech training.

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  • Perhaps likeability is too much of ask, I'd just don't want him to come off as an antagonist. Considering the culture he's surrounded by he's fairly liberal but a progressive slave owner rings off like an oxymoron. Apr 27, 2018 at 0:18
  • @TheJohnMajor01: I believe that someone like this in modern times would come off as "antagonistic," because he would be "turning back the clock." Whereas someone in 1850 would be "improving" on the status quo. "It's all relative."
    – Tom Au
    Apr 27, 2018 at 2:02
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Have you ever read anything written before the 20th century?
While you were reading, did the story turn you off because every single male character was "deplorable"?

It's not likely, because they were simply being normal for the time. Yet those same normal people didn't recognize women as people, didn't allow them to vote or own property, … . Everyone, men and women, were what we would now call misogynistic, but were at the time called normal people.

Except for those very few that wanted to change society, no author would ever have depicted these ordinary people as deplorable. Men naturally took it for granted that they could vote and own property, and women naturally took it for granted that they couldn't. Had their characters behaved differently, the unnatural attitude would have stuck out like a sore thumb and ruined the story.

Authors had no problem with this though, because to them this situation really was normal.

Read anything by Dickens or H.G. Wells or Defoe or Shakespeare or … . The rare times that anything resembling "women's rights" could ever appear in their works would be if the authors intentionally put it there for a very specific purpose.

When writing, point of view is so important.
When you are writing about the 17th century, it had better sound like you are part of that time, not an observer from hundreds of years in the future.

I'd like the reader to like Nathan despite the fact that he is still a slaver.

Then don't depict him as "a slaver". Depict him as a typical citizen of his time, doing the things typical citizens did, saying the things typical citizens said, etc.

In fact, what you want Nathan to do is actually quite illegal and anti-social. It's going to be very difficult to get away with it (both for him and for you). He will appear deplorable, but that's because he wants to break the laws of society, not because he follows them.

But whatever you do, know that inserting anachronistic editorial comments into a story will ruin it.

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    You seem to be saying that before the start of 20th century, men naturally took it for granted that they could vote and own property, and women naturally took it for granted that they couldn't. That's... not the case around the world. For instance, in Austria-Hungary, universal vote for men was only granted in 1907 (after lots of struggle, mostly on the part of factory workers). Ironically this meant that a small number of women lost a vote - up to that point, women could be voters if they owned enough land. No legal limit on women owning property. Just saying, careful with generalizations.
    – Divizna
    Jan 3 at 9:48
  • @Divizna, that was only an example that in other times and cultures, the things we see as deplorable now were considered completely normal then. Unless it's specifically part of the plot, all of your characters should behave as if they consider their world to be completely normal. If they don't, rather than being in the world of the story, the readers will be interrupted by hearing the author writing. ¶ Imagine Sherlock Holmes pausing and thinking, "If only we had cell phones, …". Unless it's a comedy, the story would be completely disrupted. Ditto for thinking that slavery is bad. Jan 3 at 15:02
  • @RayButterworth "Unless it's specifically part of the plot, all of your characters should behave as if they consider their world to be completely normal..." Because just like today, everyone in whatever given era agreed about how things ought to be, and nobody sought to reform or change anything? /s Sure, historical context should be considered, but people have always had conflicts and variance of opinion around how things ought to be.
    – Jedediah
    Jan 6 at 15:38
  • @Jedediah, note that I said "Unless it's specifically part of the plot". People that blatantly opposed the norm were relatively rare, so introducing such a character and then not doing anything with it would be an example of Chekhov's gun, something that should be avoided when writing. Jan 6 at 15:54
  • I would consider uniformity of opinion on questions to be unrealistic, whether the question was central to the plot or not.
    – Jedediah
    Jan 6 at 15:59

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