Magical Mondays: Non-Powered Worldbuilding

A lot of media in speculative fiction has characters with magical powers, and those characters are often introduced in opposition to characters with no magical powers whatsoever. Think of the X-Men, whose powers are an allegory for discrimination and prejudice in the real world. When a universe has both powered and non-powered people, the story should, at some point, discuss the implications of a world where one side has an inherent ability to do something that the other side will never be able to do. Unfortunately, many stories never venture into the conflict between powered and non-powered people, and the ones that do don’t manage it very well.

Who's to say that Muggles couldn't have helped out in the war?

Who’s to say that Muggles couldn’t have helped out in the war?

The Harry Potter series has a very obvious conflict between wizards and Muggles. Good old Voldemort wages a war of blood purity against Muggles and anyone he perceives as “not pure-blood”; this includes Muggleborns, Squibs, half-bloods, and anyone in between. Many of the groups which Voldemort deems “unworthy” are capable of magic, and they succeed in their fight against him—the main trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione was even made up of a half-blood, a pure-blood, and a Muggleborn, in deliberate defiance of Voldemort’s ideals. However, throughout all seven books, we fail to engage in any significant way with the non-magical Muggles. The wizarding world hides itself from Muggles with the International Statute of Secrecy, and even wizards who are interested in Muggles, like Arthur Weasley, are shown to be wrong about what they do know of Muggles (while being ridiculed for their interest). Even the Squibs, non-magical people born to magical families, don’t get a fair shake. Mrs. Figg serves as Dumbledore’s babysitter for Harry; Argus Filch, another Squib, is a Hogwarts janitor who’s ashamed of his own Squib nature. It seems that people can only play a consequential role in the wizarding war if they can do magic, regardless of parentage.

Our primary Muggle representation.

Our primary Muggle representation.

Following that, we never meet any good Muggles. Harry’s aunt, uncle, and cousin, of course, are Muggles, and not nice ones, at that. They exist to give Harry a place to escape from at the end of each summer, and Harry’s certain psychological trauma from growing up in that environment is never covered. Dumbledore’s sister, Ariana, was attacked by cruel Muggles and lost control of her magic. Fairly neutral Muggles, like the family who runs the campground used for the Quidditch World Cup, are controlled by Obliviate spells and later tortured by Death Eaters. Fudge tells his Muggle counterpart, the U.K. Prime Minister, about the goings-on of the wizarding world, but does so in a condescending manner and leaves out important explanations; possibly because of this lack of knowledge, the Prime Minister is unable to understand the breadth and depth of the wizarding war. The Muggle world is constantly painted as backward by wizarding society, and even though Voldemort also wants to conquer the Muggle world, we don’t see a Muggle character who wants to fight back (aside from perhaps the old gardener for the Riddles, who stumbles into Voldemort more than attacks him). We don’t get to see if or how Muggle technology would work against Voldemort and the Death Eaters, we don’t meet any competent or even nice Muggles, and we never get to see that Muggle culture and history is relevant, important, and shouldn’t be destroyed. Perhaps because the Harry Potter audience is comprised of Muggles, author J.K. Rowling thought this would be evident, but seeing wizards in the books learn and change their minds about Muggles would have been a more effective way of making her point.

Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, build a world made up of benders, who can bend, or manipulate, one of four elements, and non-benders, who can’t manipulate any. (The Avatar can manipulate all four elements and is tasked with keeping balance in the world.) In Avatar Aang’s cycle, we saw firebenders invade the Earth Kingdom and divide populations by benders and non-benders; non-benders were easily subjugated and benders were kept away from elements they could control. However, there never seemed to be any real conflict between benders and non-benders, and each could be formidable. Both sides of the Hundred Year War have their own non-benders. Sokka and the Kyoshi Warriors, on Aang’s side, can’t bend, but they’re gifted fighters and Sokka is a talented strategist. On the Fire Nation’s side, Mai and Ty Lee are handpicked to help Princess Azula hunt down her brother and uncle, despite the fact that Mai is a bored noble and Ty Lee is a circus performer.

amonIt’s in Avatar Korra’s cycle that things really become heated. When Korra makes it to Republic City in Season 1 of her story, she finds a supposed non-bender named Amon leading an anti-bending revolution, claiming that benders only oppress and hurt innocent people. When the head of Republic City’s Amon-hunting force, Tarrlok, starts infringing on non-benders’ rights out of suspicion that any of them could be Amon, a non-bender lady tells Korra, “Please, help us! You’re our Avatar too!” Korra quickly steps in, and just as quickly, the show undermines its own conflict. Amon is revealed to be a waterbender with the rare ability of bloodbending, not a non-bender at all. He does want equality, but decided the best way to get there would be to sell himself as a non-bender whose family was killed by benders. He also claimed, falsely, that his ability of removing bending came from the spirits, who were on his side in the whole equality fight. Because it was so clear that Amon was lying, the rest of his concerns also seem like lies. After Amon is defeated, Republic City just dissolves its bender council and elects a non-bender president, all without any explanation of why. Korra’s cycle is a time of great technological innovation, and many non-bending fighters start to equip themselves with giant mecha suits so that they can stand toe-to-toe with benders. Benders clearly have unfair advantages over non-benders, and yet The Legend of Korra just glosses over all that in order to provide a neat, done-and-dusted ending. The idea of non-bender rights is never brought up again.

In Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy, it’s the non-powered people who have something of a legal advantage over the powered people. Curse workers can work, or manipulate, people’s physical or mental traits by touching your bare skin—dream workers can manipulate dreams, physical workers can manipulate health, etc. However, working was outlawed in laws similar to Prohibition; unlike our America, the prohibition wasn’t ever repealed, and working remains illegal, forcing Curse Workers’s protagonist, Cassel Sharpe, into a life of crime.

Cover model looked the part, though Cassel is supposed to be a person of color.

Cover model looked the part, though Cassel is meant to be a person of color. (Tsk tsk.)

Perhaps because of the difference in power—since working is illegal, anyone who does attempt to use their powers is automatically committing a crime, whether they’re using that power for good or bad—Curse Workers does a pretty good job with its non-worker characters. Sam Yu, Cassel’s roommate, is hoping to become a special effects artist, and eagerly assists Cassel in his various cons. Mrs. Wasserman, the mother of one of Cassel’s friends, is a lawyer who fights for worker rights, and helps Cassel out of several tight spots. More importantly, the story fully engages in the conflict between workers and non-workers. The more numerous non-workers banned working, and now everyone wears gloves to ward off skin-to-skin contact, and people often buy amulets said to protect against workings. Many workers don’t want to be criminals, but the only way they can use their powers is illegally, creating a vast criminal underclass that the FBI can manipulate to their own gain. The workers’ powers are limited, and even when using them, they can’t do anything like destroy the world, so it’s easier to delve into the issue of how powered and non-powered people can coexist.

By discussing these examples, I don’t mean to say that they’re bad stories for ignoring an integral piece of worldbuilding—in fact, all three series listed here are among my all-time favorites. What I do mean to say is, if a story does have powered and non-powered people in its universe, it’s inherently creating a kind of conflict, even if the author or creative team doesn’t realize it. If you don’t develop the implications of a world where everyone is used to there being powered and non-powered people, then it’s poor worldbuilding. Harry Potter introduces an amazing hidden world and serves as a meaningful coming-of-age story for Harry, and both series of the Avatar universe are visually compelling masterpieces. However, if they’d taken the time to delve into the conflicts between their powered and non-powered people, they would have been even better.

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7 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Non-Powered Worldbuilding

  1. I gave up on Harry Potter because of this worldbuilding flaw. Especially as the main conflict was explicitly set up to be magic-supremancist vs. non-magical people so the magical but not pure-enough protagonists were just collateral damage… so why are they the protagonists again? And I so hoped the author won’t fall into this trap after she introduced the well-meaning but misguided House Elf Liberation thing.

    I also found it odd that the magical realm had apparently several intelligent magical creatures, some even with grudges against wizardkind (GOBLIN WARS), so why on Earth weren’t there more political machinations? OK. I know, children’s book, keep it simple. But given the “let’s keep them in dark” Wizard-Muggle relationship, non-magical humanity would make such convenient pawns, but nope, never considered.

    That series had just so much wasted potential, that’s what I’m saying. :/

    • Absolutely — I still love Harry Potter, but JKR could have done so much better. I was really hoping that Dudley would come around and be a Muggle who helped out, or Hermione’s parents, but I guess that wasn’t a consideration. And I know that the books were from Harry’s point of view, but despite JKR attempting to give some depth to the goblins in the seventh book, it didn’t quite work for me.

  2. In terms of what good diplomatic relations might look like between Wizards and Muggles, I’d like to recommend a brilliant femslash fic titled, appropriately enough, “Diplomatic Relations.”

    This fic is about 4,500 (wonderful) words speculating on what would happen if Hermione Granger, “President of the League of Magical Persons and Creatures” had a “wizards exist” meeting with newly elected U.S. president Leslie Knope. It’s pure magic.

  3. I completely agree about Legend of Korra. There was so much to explore in the bender/non-bender dynamic (even the fact that non-benders are literally defined by their lack of bending!) that they could have spent the entire series exploring it, but it was all swept under the rug in the final act of Season 1. Amon had the potential to be an absolutely fantastic villain, since there’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who has a point. But no, instead they copped out and turned him into another megalomaniac with daddy issues and no one learned anything.

    • “Another megalomaniac with daddy issues” is a GREAT description of Amon. I also wish they’d spent the whole series talking about benders vs non-benders — imagine a true non-bending revolution, where non-benders were allowed to define themselves in terms of their own abilities, or imagine if Asami had been given Amon’s role, or Varrick’s as a warmongerer — what depth that would have added to the Korrasami relationship! The show just had so much potential, and almost all of it wasted.

  4. Pingback: In Brightest Day: Disability in the Avatar Universe | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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