On Designing & Writing Oppressive Governments In Your Fiction

Whether you're writing an evil empire or just a single rotten country, whether the whole thing is oppressed or whether it's just a few marginalized groups, here's some information to help you write a sufficiently plausible and terrible oppressive government.

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How oppressive governments usually think

If you're going to write a plausible oppressive government, you first need to know how they typically think and rationalize.

The actions and policies of oppressive governments are typically based in faulty assumptions, many of which are rooted in bigotry of some kind. And the essence of bigotry is the assumption that one's own culture, race, class, beliefs, etc., are nobler, smarter, more refined, more enlightened, and so on. Bigots often use themselves as a yardstick to measure others against: how civilized or "advanced" others are, in their eyes, depends on how similar to themselves they are. Those who do not belong or conform to to their own group's ways may be seen as childish or animalistic. In cases where they are perceived as childish, the oppressing group may see it as their duty to educate and civilize them for their own good, whether or not they want it. It may be seen as necessary to order them around and manage their life choices for them because they can't be trusted to make responsible decisions on their own. Any sort of resistance on the part of the oppressed may be perceived as childish petulance that must be punished out of them; any expression of a desire for more may be seen as immature selfishness or envy. In cases where they are perceived as animalistic, the oppressing group may see it as necessary to manage them like animals to keep them from getting out of hand and making trouble - essentially herding them, corralling them, or even culling them if they become too "unmanageable." And because they are seen as subhuman, it's often perceived as no great wrong to enslave or exploit them.

It also happens that habits, customs, and inventions of different groups perceived as childish or animalistic are written off as inherently crude or inferior simply because they come from these different groups, and for no other real reason. Thus, expressions of these idiosyncrasies can be seen as proof of inferiority or even as a sign of disrespect.

Oppressive governments also frequently operate on the belief that service to the state is the highest good. There's an assumption that if everyone dutifully serves the government and does as it asks, then the government will be able to ensure peace and justice for all. Any failure on the government's part to provide this is often seen as the fault of the people who are supposed to serve it, rather than a fault of the government itself. In their eyes, the way to correct any sort of problem is not to criticize or try to change it, but to work ever harder for it (and failure to do whatever labor the government demands can be seen as treasonous). Discontentment is seen as a sign of selfishness or as an unwarranted sense of entitlement, not as a reaction to being treated unfairly. Any sort of anti-government sentiment is seen as harmful, even dangerous. Even simply admitting or letting it be known that things are actually not going all that well can be seen as something that could encourage anti-government sentiment by damaging the people's faith in the government, so it may be considered necessary to keep the true state of things hidden from the people as much as possible.

Exactly what the oppressive government in your setting ought to be getting up to will depend on what type of oppressive government you're writing. The examples of bigotry are a good fit for a colonialist empire; the focus on service to the state is what you'd want to emphasize if you're aiming to write about a fascist state. And of course, you can blend the two in any combination as necessary per what sort of oppressive government you're trying to aim for in your story/setting.

Those who are on the top in an oppressive system or society are often very disconnected from reality

Because they very often have no real exposure to the life and hardships of the oppressed, the people who are at the top are often completely ignorant of the hardships and struggles the oppressed face. As a result, if any of them are actually asked to do something about the discontent or mistreatment of the oppressed classes, they'll often as not end up coming up with "solutions" that at best do nothing to address the real problems and are at worst are tyrannical and cruel.

For example, those who are marginalized in an oppressive system or society may find it very difficult, if not impossible to access the same resources and quality of education that is readily available to non-marginalized members. As a result, it's extremely difficult for them to make something of themselves and become as successful as non-marginalized people typically are. So they end up being poorer, living in worse neighborhoods, and committing more crimes because they are driven to desperation by a lack of viable alternatives.

The result? Those in charge often take these failures to thrive as proof of the marginalized group's inherent inferiority and as proof of need for harsher punishments and tighter restrictions placed upon them. How these people are supposed to thrive and succeed in a system that doesn't actually give them any real ability to doesn't even cross their mind. They might not even realize that the system is actually this bad. It might not occur to them how difficult it is for them to access certain resources that they can access instantly - sure, it's easy to get to a library when one is just a short walk away and you're the kind of person that nobody thinks twice about, but when you're a poor laborer who lives miles away from the nearest library with no form of quick transportation and you risk getting arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison just because the city guards don't like the look of you, it's another story.

If a member of a marginalized group does become successful, this may be taken as proof that they don't really have it as bad as some of them say they do - never mind the fact that this particular person had to fight uphill the whole way, or just ended up getting really, really lucky somewhere along the line. A few of them ending up successful may even be seen as a sign of infiltration on their part, as some sort of grand scheme to overthrow the current state of affairs and take over - which can potentially lead to an essential witch hunt.

Then there's the assumption that if marginalized people can come by a few nice things in their lives, then they really can't have it that bad. For example, some poor person might scrimp and save up the money for a nice outfit; then, when someone who is better off comes along and sees it, this person concludes that this person really can't have it that bad after all if this person can afford such niceties. Depending how hostile sentiments are, oppressed people having a few nice things might be taken as proof that they actually have it too easy and can clearly afford to have their wages lowered or their taxes increased.

Another common assumption is that if they ever have nice things, then they are reckless and irresponsible with their money. This is taken as proof that the real problem is them, not the government.

Oppressive governments might also charge people exorbitant taxes (whether these taxes take the form of cash or actual goods), or make them pay high prices for necessities, then turn around and blame their resultant poverty on their laziness. It's not uncommon for people who have it relatively well to assume that anyone can do anything if they "just work hard enough!" when they really have no idea of just what kind of hardships these people are up against.

Now, this is not to say that everyone who wields power in an oppressive government is simply just clueless and would be all better with a little education, because this is absolutely not true. Many of them are simply just bullies who don't care about anyone but themselves and their cronies and/or are walking garbage bags filled with hatred and spite and are just looking for someone to dump it all out on. And of course, plenty of people are both clueless and mean.

Factors that can lead to or exacerbate an oppressive system

Oppression doesn't just happen or escalate at random; there's always something (and multiple somethings, usually) going on that acts as a catalyst or fuel. Here are some examples:

An absolutist ideology. For example, a religion that is taught as absolute, ultimate truth and as the only way to live a just and productive life encourages people to demonize other people's beliefs and practices, which in turn encourages them to try to stamp them out. It also easily enables the government to frame its policies as the "will of God," which makes them a high and noble calling to follow and a sin to resist.

Xenophobia. A general fear or mistrust of anything strange or foreign. Xenophobes may perceive it as necessary to take oppressive measures against those who are different from them for their own safety, regardless of how much danger has actually been demonstrated and proven.

A thirst for vengeance. Perhaps Country A gave Country B a hard time in the past - attacking and pillaging it, for example. Or maybe it just didn't comply with Country A's demands at one point. Either way, Country B thinks that enslaving and marginalizing the people of Country A is delivering justice, so that's what it does.

Scapegoating. When bad things happen - poor harvests, sweeping illnesses, economic downturn, etc. - people tend to look for someone to blame. This tends to be whoever they trust and like the least. Scapegoated groups may be stripped of their rights, placed under heavy restriction or surveillance, given harsher sentences, exiled, or even murdered en masse.

Loss avoidance and/or profit. Should the upper class be in danger (or believe they are in danger) of losing their power, status, security or luxurious lifestyles, they may try to work the lower classes harder or cut their wages. Slave labor, prison labor, or indentured servitude may be intensified or introduced. A government short on funds might try to go and conquer someplace else so they can take whatever wealth they can acquire.

Egomania. Leaders who believe that they are automatically owed unquestioning loyalty and obedience tend to be more oppressive than otherwise, as they are more likely to punish those who disagree or fail to comply with them.

The unequal respect paradigm. In this paradigm, respect is treated as something that one is immediately owed from others, but that others have to earn from oneself. It's also treated as something that others show one through complete deference and obedience in everything, but that one shows others by withholding harm or harsh words.

A persecution complex. For example, perceiving any sort of criticism against one's culture or government as an unfair and unfounded attack that must be retaliated against, or seeing the expression of someone else's culture as a personal affront or insult to one's own.

Some ways a government can oppress its people

Depending on which mindsets and factors mentioned in the previous two sections are present, and depending on how prevalent they are, there are a number of things that governments might do to oppress its people - whether it's the entire population or a few select groups. Here are some examples:

Placing legal restrictions upon them. Oppressed groups may be outright legally prevented from education, from holding certain jobs, or from living or working in certain areas, or being out at certain times or without being accompanied.

Denying them legal rights. Such as protection under the law, due process, innocent until proven guilty, freedom of speech, the right to own land and property and not have it seized, etc.

Refusing to provide decent services and assistance. The oppressed might be outright barred from using decent services like schools or hospitals. Alternatively, they might just not be built where these people live at all, or if they are, they may be severely underfunded or be staffed with underqualified workers. Oppressors might also simply refuse to lend any substantial assistance in the event of disaster.

Denying them critical goods. Such as denying them access to food, medicine, tools, building supplies, etc. This can be done by banning them from areas where they can be acquired, or by making sure they are never shipped out to their areas at all.

Forced assimilation. For example, forcing them (and particularly their children) to attend schools where they are taught the ways of the oppressor's culture. It can also include banning expressions of their own culture and traditions - such as speaking their own language, practicing their religious traditions, playing their own musical instruments, or wearing their traditional clothing. It can also include destroying written materials and executing teachers and scholars.

Exploiting them for labor. IE, forcing them to work without pay or treatment/compensation for work-related injuries. An oppressed group might be treated as disposable labor for harsh and difficult jobs that no one else wants.

Extorting them. Such as by forcing them to pay taxes so high that they can barely afford to live themselves, or by charging exorbitantly high fees for services or assistance.

Inflicting harsh punishments upon them. Extreme and inhumane punishments, even for small infractions, are common in oppressive governments.

Manipulating perceptions of them. Governments hostile to particular groups might deliberately manipulate people's views of them by creating or commissioning propaganda that paints them in a negative light, or by banning positive or sympathetic depictions of them in media. This in turn makes it easier to get others to agree with and enforce their oppressive regime.

Pitting them against each other. Many oppressive governments have successfully used divide and conquer strategies throughout the years. For example, a government might hire members of one marginalized group to police and beat down members of a second marginalized group. They'll usually treat the first group slightly better as a reward, and thus create an illusion of personal empowerment and social mobility. Alternatively, the government might use one marginalized group as a scapegoat for its own sins to keep another scapegoat from realizing that that the government is the true source of everyone's problems - for example, by blaming the actions of a racial minority or the youth for a bad economy, when in reality the government has simply made a series of bad choices over the years that put the economy in its present state.

Expulsion. IE, forcing them off of their land and out of their homes, whether they are expected to go and live in less hospitable areas or to leave the country altogether.

Extermination. Simply killing them, whether in part or in whole.

Areas of history you might wish to study for reference

History is full of oppression, and there's no shortage to draw from. A few you might look into include the history of American slavery and segregation, how colonists in the US, Canada, and Australia have treated indigenous peoples, oppression of the Jewish people throughout Europe and especially in Nazi Germany, the treatment of the Ainu people in Japan, and the oppression of Ireland by the English, communist Russia, and the current state of affairs in North Korea. This list is of course by no means comprehensive, but they're all worth looking into.

And a few more tips!

As with all villains and villainous organizations, put yourself into their shoes and ask if what you plan to have them do makes any sense from their point of view. What do they stand to gain from it, or think they stand to gain? What made them decide that these measures are necessary and worth the effort? Is there any risk analysis that they should be doing? Are there any obvious risk factors they should be minimizing? Whatever they do, their actions should make sense in context; you don't want to end up with villains who do everything mentioned in the lists above simply because it's something that oppressive people can do.

Make sure its history/development makes sense. For example, many writers have some sinister group pop pretty much out of nowhere and take over the world in a span of less than ten years. In reality, any major socio-political shift can easily take a lifetime to run, and ten years is far too quick for anything like that to happen. Sometimes writers have some despot or other take over a country so quickly and easily that the only way it could have happened is if everyone just rolled over and surrendered after the first defeat or so, which is just not what happens in real life. To avoid this problem, stop and think about how they got to where they are now one step at a time. Think about who all would have gone up against them. Put yourself into their shoes and ask yourself what all they could and would do to oppose it.

Never forget that no matter how oppressive they're supposed to be, there's got to be somebody they're treating just good enough to convince to actually work for them. One trick oppressive governments might use is to treat one group of people slightly less bad in order to get them to help them enforce their oppression on another group. Despite the fact that both groups are still technically being abused, it does often work.

Villain Tips: Of Conquest, Minions, Progress, & Planning has more on all of these topics, so be sure to check it out if you haven't already.

In summary!

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

Factors That Contribute To Abusive & Dysfunctional Systems/Institutions
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations

Tips To Write & Create Better & More Believable Futures
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings
Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon

A Few Things To Know When Writing Rebellions & Coups
How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters

Points To Remember When Worldbuilding

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