18
$\begingroup$

It's a tale as old as literature; magic system is inborn, be it Harry Potter wizards, Tolkien's pretty elves, or the X-Men mutants, and you start to get people that think, "gee, it sure would be nice if we didn't have all these unpowered schmucks around". Basically, it seems like innate magic always fosters elitism. Either the people who can do magic think they're better than everyone else, or having magic sucks so bad everyone is glad they don't have it. Is there a middle ground? Is there a way to have it so some people have innate magic and others don't, without making one of them wildly superior?

$\endgroup$
10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you know about genius madness? A lot of geniuses like Beethoven and Van Gogh died from a deadly disease called syphilis, thanks to it they created unparalleled masterpieces but it is a gift or a curse? $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Feb 23 at 5:29
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ @user6760 How does syphilis help create masterpieces? $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Feb 23 at 22:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Checkout The Last Air Bender Series (either the original cartoon, or the current Netflix live action which has had a reasonable start - NOT the film). Characters can either 'bend' elements or not, however there is hardly ever any elitism hinted at as an inbuilt societal factor. More to the point: the worldbuilding doesn't lack verisimilitude as a result. $\endgroup$ Feb 24 at 2:35
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @LamarLatrell and i think that is actually very unrealistic. in reality, non benders would probably be little more than slaves to their bender masters. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Feb 24 at 13:11
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @LamarLatrell - I am at a loss how you came to this conclusion. There is significant elitism based on magic in the Airbender universe. It may not dominate everything about the societies, but benders definitely gain prestige and power based on their abilities even in the water tribes. This is why every nation is ruled by its most powerful benders. $\endgroup$ Feb 24 at 15:27

16 Answers 16

19
$\begingroup$

Why should magic be different than any other human talent in this respect?

You might think your elites would be strong or good at fighting. But even a crusading king who's spent their life on the battlefield probably has a champion that's even stronger and even more skilled at their side.

You might want your elites to be clever and learned. But even the wise prince consults with sages and factotums who know more and see more.

Leadership is about force of personality, and often a fair degree of social inertia. It's not a matter of rule by "the best", or even the most suitable, but about who can convince others to give them power. Some wizards might have what it takes to become elites in your society. Others probably don't.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Yes - unless a person's magic is so versatile and powerful that they no longer need to interact with anyone to satisfy their needs and desires, then they will still value people with other abilities / skill sets. Think about a neurosurgeon - they can help people survive and recover from conditions that would have been 100% fatal in the past and get respect and money accordingly, but they still need other people for everything from making their surgical instruments to putting food on their table and selling expensive holidays that they spend their well-earned money on. $\endgroup$ Feb 23 at 5:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 that is actually touched on really nicely in Mob Psycho 100, particularly in the 2nd season $\endgroup$
    – M S
    Feb 23 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ Good starting premise but troubled examples. Military command is not directly related to fighting ability. Obtaining a command position, in the context of crusades, ie. medieval, is not usually related to fighting ability or leadership. The power a prince can obtain is not most impacted by "force of personality". Altas, the general idea of magic being "just another talent" is good. Yet that also neglects and depends on what magic can do. $\endgroup$
    – Argyll
    Feb 23 at 20:50
17
$\begingroup$

innate magic always fosters elitism

That's not quite correct: power always fosters elitism.

Athletics, intelligence, politics... magic... it doesn't matter. People with power inevitably believe they're better than everyone else.1 How do you stop this? You're right that one way is to make the "benefit" undesirable. But that's undesirable.

What's the solution? Probably one you don't want. To quote from the movie The Incredibles...

Helen : Everyone's special, Dash.

Dash : [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

No matter what anyone suggests, if you have something that most everyone else doesn't, it takes a whomping creative psychology to not believe you're special. I find it very difficult to believe that such a psychology could exist across the breadth of society. "I have the power to do things you do not... but we're equal and united, brother!" That's been the ideal goal of human society since the ancient Greeks (if not the cave dwellers). But it's never once been achieved at a societal level.

So, the only option is to make the vast majority of your population innate magicians just as the vast majority of humanity naturally has both arms and both legs. The significant minority becomes an underclass that's politically valued but socially shunned (sound familiar?).

And if you just concluded that's just another form of elitism on a vast scale, you're right. The bulk of white people think they're better than black people. The bulk of men think they're better than women. The bulk of strongly religious people think they're better than all other religious people. The bulk of the French think they're better than everybody — or at least that's what everybody else thinks of the French.

For your reader to believe what you're pitching, you must allow everyone to be innately magical just as all humans can innately breathe. It needs to be something so common that nobody thinks to use it for elitism. Honestly, most athletes can breathe better than everybody else, but that's never the reason they feel superior to everyone else or why anyone is particularly jealous of them.

Or...

Or, you simply declare as a rule of your world that no one feels special for having innate magical powers and you don't explain it in any way. It's just a part of the way your society is. Period. It's the only way you can get away with this. Some (maybe even most) of your readers will find it unbelievable... but they'll suspend their disbelief to enjoy your story.

Sometimes it's a distinct negative to explain the details.


1There are exceptions to every rule. There are always a few in every category with natural humility who are absolutely amazing people... and they're incredibly rarely the best of the best because humans are naturally competitive people. It's likely a consequence of competitive evolution, but since you're writing for a human audience, they wouldn't relate to anything else. Unfortunately, the disclaimer doesn't change the basic point.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ And individuals tend to think they know what 'everyone thinks' which gives them a sense of self superiority/righteousness. $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Feb 23 at 17:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Questor Benjamin Franklin is famous for saying, "don't avoid church because there are hypocrites there, join them!" $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 24 at 2:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There are a great many highly-talented people in real life who are very humble about their talents, because they know that they are only talented in that one thing. And even if I can do everything better than anyone else can, that doesn't mean I should grow my own corn so that I can feed my own chickens so that I can cook my own breakfast. $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Feb 25 at 21:45
9
$\begingroup$

Doesn't need to be different than any other skill

There's people exceptionally good at martial arts, or drawing, coding, analysis. Do we see elitism between those? Not really. There's plenty of people with power (money) who have the physical power and intelligence of a shoe. Having a certain skill is power, but it might not be appreciated as such. Innate magic might be seen as no better than a great painter before they are discovered. Which is a waste of time and talent in many peoples eyes.

How can this be? We all know that magic will instantly transform these people to gods right? Which is just the problem of narrative. Magic is something we don't have, and media we consume has all these perspectives for elitism, persecution and all the other things. This does not have to be true at all.

We also see with racism and discrimination that merrits are often ignored for superficial comparisons. It doesn't matter that someone is better in every single attribute imaginable than you, because their skin is different you are better.

That means magic could potentially be relegated to no different than someone able to understand taxes. A nice skill to have, but doesn't necessarily give you an higher status.

It might seem far fetched for we do not read/see anything else in media, but it really doesn't need to be.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ First point is very true, "if you need to say you're the king, you ain't the king". The people pushing credentialism/gate keeping and elitism tend to be the biggest mediocrities, as it gives them a way to be in a position they would never achieve on their merit alone. It's very obvious on twitter -- PhD's who insist on being called Dr. are inevitably incredibly insecure people, while the dude with 2 noble prizes goes 'just call me bob.' $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Feb 23 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ It depends on the magic. If it really is as useful as "understanding taxes" - yes. If it lets you teleport, turn invisible, read minds, etc.. - no. Based on OP asking the question to begin with, I suspect we are closer to the latter case. $\endgroup$ Feb 26 at 10:26
5
$\begingroup$

Magic causes a (slight) inferiority complex

The inferiority complex is a mental disorder which makes you think you are inferior to all or most other people. The ability to use the force magic is caused by mediclorians something which also has the side effect to release certain chemicals in your brain which make you feel permanently inferior and inadequate.
Ofcourse there are some outliers of magic users not suffering the condition (there are always some people who think they are better than everyone else) but the vast majority of magic users suffer from a slight inferiority complex.

This can for example take form of magic users constantly comapring their non-magic abilities to those of the most competent non-magic people. For example they are not comparing their stamina to the stamina of carl the car salesman, but to the stamina of marx the marathon runner. This makes them feel worse than all those non-magic users despite having that very magic that those experts lack.

On a society level this will lead to magic users almost never taking leadership positions or to do politics. In their eyes there are far more competent people to do those jobs In their head this thought is common:

If I would take the lead and do the decision making I would fail miserably and then everybody would KNOW how inadequate I am. Better let Morgana muggle do that. She is always so confident and competent.

$\endgroup$
2
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Including some form of social media in the world would probably obviate the need for brain-altering midichlorians. $\endgroup$
    – jecado
    Feb 23 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ maybe even magic based social media. "WizardSpace" and "MageBook". That way only magic users are affected by the detrimental effects of it. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Feb 23 at 20:05
5
$\begingroup$

Make them depend on others or limit its usefulness

Option 1: Magic is fuelled by the Many (Symbiosis)

You can make magic users dependent on others and let those people be aware of the fact. Magic users can wield the energies, but other people have to provide those energies willingly. For example, a magic user alone might be able to make something glow dimmly, but for any meaningful effect, others need to let them drain their engery, which they could not use otherwise.

This still makes magic users somewhat of an elite, but as long as people cannot be tricked or forced into giving them their "mana". Peer pressure or external threats might still work, but magic users themselves will have to heavily rely on their society's acceptance.

Option 2: Magic has limited usefulness

There are actually multiple possible limitiations (some of the other answers also go for this approach)

  • The energy spent is about the same as doing it manually (good for doing something you do not have the skills, but hurling fireballs is out of question)
  • It can only be used during certain periods, like once per day (advantageous, but not life-changing)
  • It helps in some cases, but there are better alternatives (you can close a small wound, but cannot mend a broken leg, so modern medicine beats magic)
$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Collectivism is the way

Collectivism means that the whole culture prioritizes the society — group, tribe, city, nation, population of the whole planet, you name it — over an individual. Everyone has to see themselves as part of something larger, something more important than themselves.

As @JBH pointed out, power always fosters elitism, and the only way to eliminate elitism on an individual level is to surrender power to something else. People have to drop their individual goals that serve their egos, and they have to value unity. They have to drop the idea that they have exceptional skills that makes them better or more important than others; they only have skills that serve the whole.

At one extreme this means fascism where everyone surrenders themselves to the authorities (and trusts the authorities to genuinely be in service of what they believe in), and the other extreme is anarchy where there are no authorities (and everyone trusts each other to take responsibility on their own).

In order to make this work you have to learn to raise children according to these principles without backlashes, and it probably takes generations to achieve — and tons of trial and error and failures and temporary successes. In essence, there is no recipe to this that humankind has already found and perfected.

But, there is still a gotcha

People seem to have something of an innate drive towards elitism. If you are not careful, elitism on an individual level is exchanged into elitism on a group level. This can be mitigated to some extent, but perhaps not entirely: humans are so fallible.

The bigger thing they serve has to be bigger than their society, and they have to serve it in an extremely wise manner. This means that people have to be somewhat enlightened, not just raised to believe in the bigger thing. The end does not justify the means. You don't want to give birth to righteous crusades. (Or you may want if your story needs it.)

Reality, however...

People seem to resist large-scale collectivism. It is possible that these ideas only work with groups smaller than Dunbar's number. Maybe people have to know each other well enough to trust the group. When the group grows large enough, it tends to split in two, and now the two groups have to find a way to cooperate, adding another level to the problem.

So, these are just ideals. Even if there was a speck of realism in them, achieving them is still hard, and the process could resemble Achilles chasing the tortoise. In the end, there is probably some sort of constant struggle between individuals, subgroups, beliefs and individual worldviews that is an inevitable consequence of people having their individual, separate brains that can never achieve perfect synchronicity, making perfect unity approachable but never accomplishable. Unless they are clones...

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Make it non-hereditary.

Magic in books is often hereditary. It's effectively a stand-in for noble blood. In Harry Potter the Malfoy family comes from a long line of full-blooded magicians and blah-blah-blah and that's why they think they're superior. They hate Hermione for being a commoner. Magic power never comes into it. And of course with hereditary magic you want to arrange marriage to a high-magic family -- again, magical ability is a stand-in for having a strong royal blood-line. Same with mutants. Hereditary magic-users are the elite of society since they're just stepping into the role of nobles.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Cyberpunk / Sci-fi

I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who said that advanced technology and magic eventually become indistinguishable.

So you levitate things with your mind. So what? I have an RPG launcher as part of my anatomy!

Video games such as X-Com 2 and the Mass Effect series come to mind. In both of those universes some characters have innate telekinesis and telepathy, while most others don't. Yet they live in relative harmony with their non-magical peers, because the devs spent a really long time balancing classes.

Sacrifice your life in exchange for magic

Or it may be that in order to use your magic, you need to spend a lifetime learning the basics. This is basically every male wizard in Dungeons and Dragons (for some reason all media derived from it requires female spellcasters to be young and scantily clad). Dude had to spend sixty years of his life studying like an asian just to cast magic missiles, which is why human wizards tend to look like Gandalf cosplays at level one. Until you are even able to cast that level one spell, no one cares whether you are a mage or not.

Of course, this all went to hell in the third edition when sorcerers were introduced. As long as you don't have those in your world, you should be fine.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

How powerful is your magic?

The magicians and mutants you discuss are immensely powerful. If the use of magic is indeed useful, but not more than other techniques that can be used for the same purposes, it's merely a trade-off of skills. Then there will be power conflicts as antibiotics and healing magic are competing for the same slice of the economy.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Magic comes at a cost and or is otherwise limited in its effects.

You have lots of options. Magic users are common place but for the most part any single magic user has only limited power to effect the world around them. This means that in order to achieve great magical works or effects lots of magicians have to co-operate and forge spells together. (Like a team of engineers working together to design and build a new aircraft or building.) When not working on some big project together? Casters have minor talent that's 'nice' to have but hard to make a great living with - along the lines of having musical talent.

Alternately magic costs or otherwise imposes risks on the caster. The more powerful the spell the greater strain it imposes. Perhaps there's a physical cost in terms of chemical or 'phychic' energy the caster has to bear and using too much to quickly risks causing permanent harm to the caster.

Or it could be that simply doing great and powerful magic takes time and concentration and risks attracting 'things from beyond' to the caster with dire results.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

One more suggestion, just because it's been used in Fantasy literature multiple times and I didn't see it in the answers so far:

Have Magic Use Tied to Membership in an Ascetic Society

If skill in magic requires years, even decades of training by experts, and the way to get this training is to join an ascetic, monastic service order (like the Benedictines or various Buddhist monasteries), then any elitism will be extremely limited. That is, magic users might personally believe that they are superior, but as ascetic monks they're not in a position to lord it over anyone else. If the order has a history of service to society, even better.

If performing magic requires Buddhist-style (or Gnostic-style, if you like) detachment from materialism, that further inhibits any elitist behavior.

You may notice that this sounds a lot like a fairly specific magical order from some very popular movies. Yeah, guess who was figuring out the same setting problem?

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

You could oppress them

The magic users could be moderately (but not insanely) powerful, but because of this, non-magic people fear and/or hate them (maybe even religiously, witch-hunt style). But the magic users are powerful/useful enough to force coexistence, and their skills are greatly appreciated by the industrial and military sectors.

My favourite example of this type is the Grisha from Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse (Shadow and Bone).

$\endgroup$
3
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sounds also like the X-Men mutants, one of the OP's examples of "trope to be avoided". I think the goal is to avoid an overt social/political divide. $\endgroup$
    – jecado
    Feb 23 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ Final Fantasy XVI takes this approach (partially); as most magic users can only perform simple tasks, they are branded and kept as sub-human slaves. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Jones
    Feb 23 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ @jecado Unlike X-Men mutants, Grisha are powerful but still in check (much of what they can do would be possible with industrial-era technology) and their relevance has decreased exactly due to that (military Grisha are less valuable now than before due to guns). They aren't "avoided" but just discriminated against, which is suitable as OP was looking to avoid racism by the magic users, not against. $\endgroup$
    – TheMadHau5
    Feb 23 at 19:40
1
$\begingroup$

One way out of this trap: magic users are sterile, either mules or sterilized by their own use of magic. Sure, they build up wealth and power during their lives, but in the end they bequeath it to non-magical kin. The recessive genes for magic are common enough that any family can give birth to a magic user, and most families can at least potentially give birth to a STRONG magic user.

You never know where a mage will pop up, so this will also promote a more egalitarian society overall, as you really don't want this generation's one super-mage born into an abused minority group.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

I don’t think you can if the magic is useful/powerful enough to be relevant.

Even if everyone has innate magic, the people that learn to control it will be the Elite.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Lots of people have already mentioned how talents and skills in general have this problem and how it's pretty difficult to avoid for this super-talent, so I won't mention more there; but I did have a bit of a weird idea that could help with your problem.

Magical talent could exist in any percentage of the population, but perhaps due to how the magic works feelings of elitism actually suppress magic, talent or no. This could have to do with the users subconscious keeping them from drawing on what they need to to properly use their powers or maybe "magic" itself is tired of being used as a status symbol and refuses to be used by those who don't show appropriate humility.

If you can find a justification that you like then you can let having magic be desirable to prevent the elitism on the side of those without while the magic removes itself on the side of those with should it become a problem. This also potentially adds interesting tension if someone is able to become more powerful as that might make the temptation of elitism that much more difficult to wrangle as the power differential grows, making high degrees of power difficult to maintain :)

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Autism.

Some autists can become quite good in things what they really like, although do not think on superpowers. Many genies had autistic symptoms as well. However, being an autist is not funny. It is a mental derangement and the advantages only rarely compare to its disadvantages, beside that its disadvantages are hardly bearable (consider that, for example, that women tend to strongly dislike autistic men).

Wizardry might be quite similar. There would be only little advantage of being telepathic in a society where everyone has a mobile phone (ok, if you also can hear the toughts of others, another story). But, if in exchange, you are also crazy... it does not worth. Also having some telekinetic power does not worth if everyone has a personal drone doing the same on command.

$\endgroup$

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .