A few months ago I wrote about my journey through uncharted waters and how I was completely planning on avoiding dangerous topics in my writing. This post referred to the most recent installment of the Mythical Menagerie series, in which I’ve made Amari Kerubo, a black woman, my main character. After completing this novelette, I patted myself on the back for successfully avoiding the quagmire of racism and sexism (although I’m still awaiting feedback from my beta readers) and I was quite pleased with how that story turned out.
However, while recently listening to a back list episode of the Writing Excuses podcast, the presenters were talking about story tropes and they mentioned one that immediately turned my veins to ice (much to Ambrose David’s amusement, no doubt). This particular trope is called the Magical Negro and refers to a person of colour appearing on the (often white and male) main character’s journey to give them some sage advice that will help them in their quest.
And I couldn’t help but wonder – was Amari a Magical Negro?
After all, she did come into Ambrose’s life when he was struggling to make ends meet and set his feet on the path that would eventually lead to fulfilling his quest (well, the quest for Part 1, it gets more complicated later on). Did I make the mistake of unwittingly writing a stereotype, when all I really wanted to do was to write inclusively, to create diverse characters? Have I internalised society’s view of black people to such an extent that I unsuspectingly made the same mistakes as my predecessors – all with the best intentions?
TV Tropes defines the Magical Negro as a character from a minority group, usually black, who “step[s] … into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character’s life.” This black character has spiritual wisdom and/or supernatural powers, and yet only acts in a guiding role, leaving the central character to save the day.
Wikipedia says this type of character exists because “most Hollywood screenwriters don’t know much about black people … [s]o instead of getting life histories or love interests, black characters get magical powers.” Furthermore, “[t]hese powers are used to save and transform dishevelled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation.” They continue: “[a]lthough from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, the character is still ultimately subordinate to whites.”
This worries me, because upon first glance, it does seem like I’ve stepped into this trap: Amari is a black woman with supernatural abilities who supports Ambrose, a white male, on his journey to redemption.
But I think I’ve delved a little deeper in Part 3.5, where she has become the protagonist. We see Amari struggle under white authority, but we also see her rise above it. We see her history, where she comes from, what it’s like for her as part of a diaspora, and how important her culture is to her. We see her affinity to nature, but we also see her use both magic and technology to achieve her goals. Above all, we see her as a leading lady who tackles her own quest head-on, while ultimately still supporting the journeys of the other characters around her.
Have I managed to rise above the stereotype? I don’t know, but I hope so, and with this new knowledge of this particular trope, I will definitely endeavour to do better next time.
Can you name an example of a character that an author wrote with the best of intentions, but that fell into the stereotype trap? How would you advise writers to steer clear of clichéd tropes to create characters that are truly diverse and inclusive?