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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On Magical Elders

Often the only way I manage to write blog posts is that I end up writing such lengthy comments on Facebook posts that I feel obligated to crosspost them here.

Mary Anne asked

I know Magical Negroes are bad. But how about magical old people (of the same South Asian race as my protagonist), who are not actually magical, but do show up partway through the story, dispense some much-needed wisdom, and then disappear into the crowd again? Can I get away with that?

To which I said:

There are a couple of issues here. One is how flat/archetypical/simple characters interact with structures of oppression. Not all characters can, or should be, round or have their own arcs; in parable-like stories sometimes no one has an arc or is more than an archetype, and even in other stories there's not room to give everyone the same degree of attention. The Magical Negro trope is about: (character has no arc of their own)+(character seems to exist to help protagonist)+(character is of, or reminiscent of, a real-world group which has less status, power, and access to being represented as having agency, than the protagonist's own), with often an optional serving of +(tragic thing happens to character in service of underlining protagonist's humanity, goals or resolve) [this is the Sacrificial Negro variant].

The real-world power relationship between elders and young adults is not as simple and linear as that of, say, white and black people. So the sting of Magical Elder is not quite as bad as that of Magical Negro. But I think it still does play into a real-world oppression, in the sense that one oppression old people are targeted with, is the message that their own lives are effectively over, that their needs and struggles are kind of embarassing lapses or signs of their decreasing humanity, and that their proper role is to support and empower those younger than they, the ones still in the game, who have real lives.

The second issue is sheer "tropiness". This is an esthetic, not a moral issue, and the relevant meme here is not Magical Negro, but Plot Coupon Dispenser. The wise elders who appear with advice are certainly a stock trope. How you deal with that depends on the tone of the story. In a certain kind of earnest archetypical fiction, use of a stock trope (especially if played against more surprising, fresher elements) can evoke a tradition powerfully, and provide comfort to the reader. Another approach is to breathe life into a stock trope by taking it seriously adding realism to it which is usually lacking. And a third (which is kind of the second taken even farther) is the deconstructionist impulse -- reimagining the stock trope in ways that challenge, invert, mock it, or expose its contradictions. So consider superheroes, say: the recent Marvel movies, particularly the Captain America one, mostly do the first variant, playing the tropes straight. The Avengers got a little into the second territory with Whedon's dialogue suggesting nuances to the characters' experience; or consider Dave Schwartz's Superpowers or Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, which (especially the latter) shade into the third strategy, which is also the strategy of, say, Watchmen.

Those are three successful ways to have Plot Coupon Dispensers in your story, but the risk, of course, is that they appear to the reader not as fully real -- that they break the vivid dream of the story by being obviously there for authorial convenience, or, if they don't break the dream, that they dull it, make it vaguer and hazier, because the reader simply inserts [Known Value] in that place in the book instead of being stimulated to imagine freshly. (In parable, myth, postmodern tale or deconstructionist jape, the vivid dream has a different quality -- it does not rest on an agreement to pretend that the story is not a story, on the contrary the reader reads with one foot in and one foot out of the story, and the awareness of the story as artifact is part of the pleasure of reading).

The last thing I would say is that making a character round does not necessarily require a lot of verbiage. Giving a character an arc doesn't necessarily mean narrating that arc -- an arc can be implied very concisely. If your smiling beneficent elders simply appear in order to give the protagonist what she needs, and seem to have no other life of their own, that does play into the stereotype. But if they are quarreling, and in a hurry because in the midst of their own struggles, and pause to help the protagonist but that's clearly a secondary concern, then they clearly have an arc of their own, and their own reality, even if we don't see it. No one ever mistakes Gandalf for a Magical Negro. That's not because Gandalf is powerful; it's because Gandalf is playing a big game with a lot at stake, and is not sure of the outcome -- he's not static. He's protagging on a grander scale than Bilbo or Frodo, it's just mostly offstage.

But I don't mean to say that Nosy Great Uncle's problems must be of Gandalfian scale; they can be as small-scale as his nagging wife, as long as we have the sense that his life is not static and there only to support the protagonist, but rather that he has his own quest, at whatever scale.

Posted by benrosen at August 14, 2012 11:15 AM | Up to blog

Hm. I would have added that the Magic Negro problem was that the Magic Negro is not-quite-human, which (even when that not-quite-human-ness is super- rather than sub-) feeds into our (White Anglophone) racial history and racial present far too disturbingly. As the elderly wisdom dispenser is not magical, there's less risk of the underlying idea that the old aren't really people within the meaning of the act.


Posted by: Vardibidian at August 14, 2012 01:23 PM

Good point, V, though I think actually being magic is only the narrowest and most specific usage of the term "Magical Negro". It is very often (cf. the TV Tropes entry) used for any character whose wisdom, prowess, or abilities are at the service of the protagonist, when racism is what makes it never occur to us to question why that character would privilege the protagonist's goals over their own.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 14, 2012 01:30 PM

A good point. I tend to make a distinction between the ones that involve actual magic and the one where it's just a matter of inspiration or wisdom or something, but the trope really is broader than that. I would, however, for my part, talk about the humanity of the coupon-dispensing character rather than the roundedness and the arc. The offense is that the character is not properly human and therefore taints other similar characters (Negroes, the elderly, Jews, children, women--there are examples of all of these playing that same role) with the inhumanity.

The lack of proper humanity may derive, as you say, from not the character having proper goals and interests, not being rounded. But unless that is very different from other characters, I doubt that it would come off as offensive. It's a storytelling choice at that point, how much work/words/distraction/whatever to put into it, I suppose. As a reader, not a writer, I can't really speak to that; I can never tell whether the bits that don't work for me, even the bits that tip the whole book into not working for me, are the result of cut corners or of finely thought out and judicious decisions.


Posted by: Vardibidian at August 14, 2012 05:49 PM

Point taken, I'm probably using "round/flat" as shorthand for a lot of other things, and yes, the underlying issue is humanity. On the other hand, "this character feels human" is a subjective end-effect, and the direction "make them fully human" doesn't give you much specificity as to how. Lack of agency, goals, interests, conflict, their own agenda, is objectively easier to determine by looking at the words on the page, so these things serve as helpful guidelines when in doubt. Is it possible to depict a character whose own goals, interests, emotions, and agenda are invisible or opaque to the reader, and who nonetheless reads as fully human? I expect it is. I expect it would be a result of masterful line-level writing? I'm not coming up with an immediate example, though.

Not every minor character who doesn't merit full description is going to read as an example of illegitimate exploitation. If the butler who announces the detective and gets one line in the whole book does not have his own visible-to-the-reader life struggle, I don't think it's going to grate on anyone. But your typical Magical Negro is much more foregrounded than that. They are salient; the Message they convey is part of the book's Message; their trust in the Hero solidifies our trust in him, and their unjust demise at the hands of the cruel Baddie is calculated to arouse our outrage. If the character is bearing that much weight in the book, then the fact that their own agency, struggles, subjectivity, goals, etc. are unknown to us -- or treated perfunctorily -- is noteworthy, and will tend to dehumanize them.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 14, 2012 06:12 PM

I feel like this somehow relates to this Genevieve Valentine film column on girl wonders that Amal linked to, though I'm not sure how.

It also occurs to me that it ought to be entirely possible to have a Magical Negro even with a black protagonist (or structural equivalent), if the black protagonist is presented as alienated from whatever aspect of black culture the Magical Negro's providing, and in need of just a touch of traditional wisdom or whatever to get through this plot gate. I think it's most common with Native American characters.

Posted by: David Moles at August 15, 2012 07:08 PM

David: I don't think of Magical Negroes as having much to do with black culture; I think of them as just dispensing Wise Advice (and other selfless aid). It doesn't even have to be traditional wisdom; iIrc, Bagger Vance provided Mystical Wise Golfing Advice.

(My goodness--I just learned that the plot of _Bagger Vance_ was very loosely derived from the Bhagavad Gita. Fascinating.)

Anyway, yeah, there are a bunch of variants that don't involve black characters. Sometimes it's wise Native Americans, as you noted, or wise Asians, or whatever. (That TV Tropes page has links to various variants.) But there again, I think the actual advice doesn't usually derive so much from real-world cultures. For example, I think it was Karen who used to refer to Holy Simple Native Folk, who often show up in sf stories without being based on any kind of real-world culture; they're just generic wisdom-givers and aid-givers.

Posted by: Jed at August 22, 2012 07:27 PM
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