Way With Worlds: It Comes Apart – The Persecution Rests

fence barbed wire

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

Last column I covered bias and bigotry in the settings you’re developing. Not a pleasant subject, but one that’s important because believable characters have their biases and often their bigotries – just as we do.

To summarize my handy rules-to-remember on the subject:

  1. Everyone has Opinions.
  2. When opinions “solidify” they become Biases.
  3. When Biases become part of our identity they become Bigotries, sort of black holes of ideals that suck other things in.

Now when bigotries seize control of an individual, a group, a nation, or a galactic confederation, that can lead to outright campaigns against various people. Attempts to extermiate, subjugate, control, or drive out an entire identifiable group. In short, persecutions.

Which is the unpleasant subject of today’s column.

Persecution is a common theme in many works, as it is (sadly) part of the human experience and human regrets. However persecution is also a word and an idea thrown around too easily, so we don’t often think about persecutions in detail when worldbuilding. It’s easy to genericize it, to stereotype it, asopposed to dealing with it as what it is – an unpleasant but near-living thing.

Let me note, again, I am discussing the behavior of humans and human-alike creatures. So other races you create may behavie differently – maybe the Dwarves of Lavabarrow* have a semi-hive mind that makes them integrate with any society or something.  That’s up to you.

With that being said, let’s ask just what is persecution in a setting?

When We Talk Persecution

I’ve found the following traits define persecution within a culture (again of humans). Think of it as a handy checklist to make sure you’ve got the atrocities in your world right.

Persecutors Feel It’s Justified

Humans don’t seem inclined to engage in long-term pogroms against each other. We’ve got better stuff to do. But at many, many points we decided to up and exterminate part of the human race. There had to be a reason.

And that’s one of the first things to deal with in persecution – it’s seen as justified. Very, very decent people throughout human history have done awful things literally because “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” They did these things because they thought there was good reason too.  Horrible, yes, but a good reminder in worldbuilding.

When you write about persecution in your world remember, literally “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” In fact, how many potential “heroes” in your setting are behaving like the worst villains just due to one belief?

Or how many heroes seem justified to you, but when you step back . . .

Someone Benefits

“Follow the money” is advice we often hear in regard to politics, but I’d actually say “follow the power” is more accurate. In the case of persecutions, ask who benefits because of the next horrible campaign or solar-system destroying atrocity? Who has something to gain?

These gains may not be rational. Maybe the next galactic war is because a a soul-crushing society led to pent up aggressions that are now unstoppably released. Maybe someone thinks they’ll make a lot of money selling magical spy-eyes to control the orcs, not realizing the war against them will destroy the entire economy. We can be short-sighted and wrong-headed, and our characters and cultures in our worlds may be the same way – moreso when blinded by righteous anger or bigoted rage.

But someone benefits. Or thinks they do. Otherwise why spend all this time engaged in the campaign to wipe out the Cybermorphs of Eridani**?

It’s Got A System

Wiping out a lot of people, enslaving a race, takes some organization to do. It may be spontaneous, half-thought out, and poorly done, but if people don’t get organized they can’t commit atrocities. It takes a real sense of structure to ruin your moral authority for a generation.

A core element of Persecution is that it’s been made into a system. It has become part of a culture or a subculture, an identifiable part (at least from the outside) that gears part of the population towards attacking a specific group. If you don’t have some kind of organization you end up with a mob going in different directions, but no real, large-scale odious activity.

Again, that organization may not be particularly good, smart, or well-done. It’s just enough so persecution can actually get accomplished.

Persecution may not scale depending on level of organization. The corruption in a small town doesn’t envelop a state. Local biases are hard to take national. Simply, a group may just not get it together enough to be much of a danger in proportion to their numbers.

Not that it matters to the victims.

Persecution Has A Life Of It’s Own

The flipside of persecution needing a some organized systems to actually be persecution is that it self-perpetuates. Any good organization keeps itself running even if that organization itself is not good. Persecution needs some institutionalization as well as a system just to keep going.

That means persecution can take on a life of its own.

This is often what we think of when we think of historical persecutions. We think of institutions that perpetuate the atrocities and campaigns and crusades. Persecution needs not just organization but endurance to be, well, persecution, otherwise it’s a short-term thing.

In turn, it helps to think of Persecutions and the cultural institutions that create them as having a life of their own, just like religions, governments, and more. Because in many ways, they do – they’re often part of those organizations.

Again, remember, someone benefits. A campaign against a given race or organization can live on far into the future because someone gets something out of it.  So, in your worlds, who is that . . .

It Usually Gets Out Of Control

Remember when I talked about how people can get out of balance, and their obsessions adsorb their beliefs so they easily commit horrors?  Persecutions, crusades, and the like, tend to do the same thing –  in fact they’re often a manifestation or a cause of those imbalances.

Think about it. You have an organized, institutionalized system of attacking group X, one that people benefit from. That’s not something prone re-analysis and thoughtful contemplation. That’s something that almost inevitably spins out of control, and perhaps creates its own downfall.

The echo chamber of the crusade, the persecution, the latest inquisition doesn’t sync up with reality. It doesn’t even sync up with the needs of its people. At some point it can implode spectacularly because the people carrying out the persecution just don’t see the implications of their actions.

It’s Not Always Visible

Remember, persecutions are part of the culture they exist in. The strands of need and power are already there. People may not be aware of the act of persecution, the institutions, and the culture behind it. Perhaps they don’t want to be or they’ll confront what they’ve done.

Now to those outside of the persecution and it’s social systems, it seems obvious as hell something is wrong. The real strands of power are more visible from the outside as well. But from the inside? It may not be seen.

Which probably explains why these things over extend themselves. Then people suddenly wonder why they’re hated, disliked, scorned, or arrested – they never saw, in short, what huge a-holes they were.

While outside, or in historical retrospect, many others did.

A Few Warnings

Now as you write your persecutions, I wanted to provide a few things to avoid.

Cackling Villains – Characters are characters. Having your villain have a Crusade of Evil because of being a villain is lame. Make sure things happen for reasons.

Not Seeing It – Remember what I said about persecutions being invisible to many carrying them out? Perhaps they exist in your world right now and you don’t see them. Just why are your characters engaged in that war anyway . . .

The Pity Me Hero – Writing characters as the victims of persecution is entirely understandable. Don’t try to milk sympathy or martyr them inappropriately, it’s artificial and contrived. Build a believable setting so people get what’s going on.

Bad Historical Analogies – For the love of Gutenberg, do not map historical happenings to your stories unless you know them really well. Historical happenings easily become tropes without much of a foundation, and when you say “this action is like that event” without doing real research it’s poor worldbuilding and often glaringly contrived and lazy. There’s enough good information on people being very horrible for you to do this right with a little research.

Personal Relations – “It happened to me” is a totally viable way to write persecution. However like any personal story you have to make sure people connect with your work – which means, again, a believable characters and world. Personal experience doesn’t go so far. Oh, and make sure you really have something to write on.

Going Too Far – Writing about atrocities and horrible things is part of worldbuilding, but it’s also easy to go to far. You don’t want to make some event more horrible than it should be to get a reaction; write it as part of your continuity. Taking things too far just puts your persecutions and crusades into the realm of the ridiculous and makes them less believable.

Not Going Far Enough – The flipside of going too far in writing about persecutions and programs is not going far enough. Human history is filled with some pretty vile actions, that stun and horrified people. Persecutions tend to get extreme and out of control – make sure you’re going far enough in the bloody horrors you may create.

Let’s Get Horrible

Persecutions are a near-inevitable result of bigotry, and we want to make sure we understand them when we worldbuild. These campaigns are part of a culture, of characters. They are dynamic and awful things. They are visible to some, invisible to others.

They’re also common themes in fiction and, sadly, human history.  So we need to know how to create them properly when we worldbuild.

Make sure you think them through when you design your world. You want’ them, as it were appropriately awful – and appropriate to your setting.


– Steven Savage

* Dwarves of Lavabarrow would be a great band name.
** The Cybermorphs’ favorite band? Dwarves of Lavabarrow.