Ideologies as Villains in Fantasy

“Ideology: (plural ideologies) a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy:

  • the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual”  Oxford English Dictionary

“To err is human, to persist in error is diabolical.” Georges Canguilhem, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences

Recently I posted about how systems are an excellent villain for modern works of Fantasy. Just as systems can become corrupt and run down over time, so can the ideologies underpinning them. In fact, the two generally go hand in hand. Today’s blog post is about the idea of using an ideology as a villain in a work of fantasy.

Ideologies have a life cycle. They start as theories, usually a gathering of ideas put together in a scholarly fashion. This theory describes some important part of social, political, or economic reality in a convincing manner. If properly ideological it predicts that following certain patterns and systems prescribed by the theory will result in a great leap forward or even a grand utopia (or the reverse: staving off Armageddon!  as is popular with modern ideologies, which like to be all cool and dark). Once the theory reaches a critical point it is disseminated to society as a whole. People encounter and accept the ideology and eventually either comes to power by being  popular or appealing to an elite group. The disciples of the ideology then try to apply the ideology to reality.

With most ideologies the initial application results in an improvement in some areas (new ideologies are often adopted as old ones fail, which makes the bar for improvement very low). This encourages the disciples to apply the ideology even more diligently, often in questionable ways. The heady mix of theory and power also starts to corrupt. At this starts running into cases where it is not the best solution. Ideologies are perfect on paper, but few complex prescriptive theories survive full contact with reality: no idea is perfect. These failures frighten certain types of adherents, who seek to blame anything but their beloved ideology for the failure, often lashing out with whatever power they have. Sometimes the ideology gets modified to meet reality, but often more fanatical disciples will prevail and attempt to apply the ideology more rigorously. This doubling down only creates more failures and starts to turn people against the ideology. As the systems that based on a particular ideology distort or fail more and more the underlying ideology suffers from an identity crisis.

Truly drastic measures like The Final Solution, The Three Bitter Years, The Inquisition, and so many others are often enacted as a result of a collapsing ideology. The ends justify the means in desperate times;  people tend to be more fanatical about ideas that they have really invested in. These ideologies in winter, with the true believers desperately groping for anything that can keep their beloved theory (and the position they have gained because of it) going, make excellent villains in any story.

I will use a favoured ideology from my own work Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale to illustrate.

The Theory

Descriptive: The Reckoning was a great cataclysm caused by the fallout of a devastating war between powerful magic-users called the Gifted. The Reckoning mucked up the world pretty bad and the remaining Gifted were forced to band together with the last remaining City, Krass, just to survive. The Gifted swore an oath to protect the city in exchange for shelter. When the storms finally broke, the survivors emerged to find a world greatly altered by tainted magic, full of hostility.

Prescriptive: Because magic caused the Reckoning, magic is dangerous. Because magic is dangerous the Gifted must be controlled.

Systems arising from the Theory

  • The Chosen: The strongest of the Gifted who survived the reckoning were called the Chosen. They were allowed to keep their magic, but had to swear an Oath to Protect the City and Upholds its laws. This was considered an imperfect solution at the time, but beat out mutual destruction. The Chosen were powerful to begin with, but the power of those who survived only grew. The oath still binds them, however.
  • The Deliberative: The Deliberative is a body that oversees and polices magic in the Domains. Among other things they administer a test to all children, to see if they will develop magic. Those that will are taken away to be trained. They can choose to become Vassals or Gladiators.
  • The Vassals: Gifted who are sundered from the destructive and dangerous aspects of their magic are called Vassals. They generally serve the State, the Chosen, or the Deliberative for a certain period before they are granted full citizenship in the Domains. This period of service is seen as recompense for their kind causing the Reckoning.
  • The Gladiators: Some Gifted don’t want to go through the sundering. Early on these were sworn to the legions or as the bodyguards of Chosen at war. Chosen frequently fell in battle and pragmatism dictated replacements were required. Duels were fought over who replaced a Chosen when they fell. These grew into the Gladiatorial games, which were seen as a way to train Gifted to use magic in combat, weed out the weak, and familiarize the people of the Domains with potential new Chosen.

Failures of the Theory

  • The Chosen are too Powerful: While the Oath binds the Chosen, it is open to interpretation, and creates an odd dynamic among them. The arena system eliminates potential rivals, ensuring the Chosen remain in power. Many Chosen attempt to manipulate the game in order to ensure that their favoured candidates win. The Chosen don’t grow old, so the only way to get rid of them is through violence. Their main rivals are other Chosen, the political institutions that they are sworn to uphold,  and outside enemies.
  • Segregation is bad: Separating the Gifted from the populace keeps them from understanding each other.
  • Waste of Useful Gifted: The early games were more lethal. The people hated the Gifted. The Chosen were harsher. Few Gladiators survived, which robbed the armies and agencies of the Domains of potential assets.
  • Heretics: Any Gifted who does not adhere to the ideas of the Domains regarding magic is branded a heretic. The Domains have historically Chosen to shoot first and ask questions later with Heretics. This was not much of a problem in the early, expansionist days of the Empire, but now creates problems when diplomacy is a better solution.
  • Family problems: Separating Gifted children from their families creates problems. In the days when the Reckoning was still memory and not legend, people saw the need. Now it is seen as cruel, and many rebel hiding their Gifted Children. This creates heretics within the Domains. Since the penalties for this are harsh, these people all become rebels.
  • Great Games: The Gladiatorial games have taken on a life of their own. Imagine if popular professional sports were to intermingle with politics and tradition. It is now the system that dominates all others in the Domains.

Ideology as an enemy in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale

Magic is power. Magic must be controlled. The Gift is now a curse of sorts. While the ideology of controlling the Gifted has made the Domains a safer place, the Gifted see it as unfair. The Great Games have become an obsession and have grown to such a stature that they drive the politics and the economy of the Domains in many ways. This is ugly for the Gifted who become Gladiators, but worse for the enemies of the Domains who become fodder for the tests and trials of of the arena. Vested interests make it hard to change the Great Games, and thus hard to re-integrate the Gifted with the people. The Chosen use the games for social control and to battle for influence.

This ideology is a villain in Bloodlust because it forces Gavin down the path of the Gladiator so that he can keep his magic. It prevents him from seeking knowledge and exploring  the wider world because he is seen as a danger: a living weapon of mass-destruction and not a human being.

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3 comments on “Ideologies as Villains in Fantasy

  1. First off I would like to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question in which
    I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Cheers!

  2. […] I can see that it is a bit of a running theme actually, including my review of Django unchained (link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5). The gist of the idea is that the system is the monolithic, monstrous […]

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