Since my 1000 words for “Among the Rubble” on Friday, I’ve been a busy word-weasel. I put down another 3,140 words for The Apprentice, and spent a lot of time thinking about how it’s structured and if that needs to change.
First of all, I decided I’ve given the primary antagonist organization short shrift. There’s a lot of potential there for plot awesomeness, so I am going to rewrite that portion. Their point of view character’s arrival on the scene will remain the same, but I think I’ll delay the introduction of the second character, and have some story take place on their home turf.
I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast. It’s just about perfect for me. It’s short, so I can fit it in wherever, and it’s about writing more than it’s about books. It also features a comic writer and a novelist that I like. They recently had Maurice Broaddus on, and the focus was on “writing the other.” I paid special attention here because as my main character is a woman, so I’m writing the Other already. One of the tropes that got discussed was the “Magical Negro” character. This is a minority character (usually black) whose sole purpose is to act as a mentor and help the (usually white) protagonist solve her problems. It’s a lazy way to write, and it tends to play on cultural stereotypes. This character is frequently the only minority in an all white cast. After he imparts his knowledge to the protagonist, he disappears (or dies messily). Similar concepts are the Noble Savage who teaches the character about the strength of native or primitive ways, and the font of Ancient Oriental Wisdom.
Huh. My main character has a Chinese mentor. He’s the only major Asian character I have planned at this time. Crap, have I created a Magical Asian to hold my white girl’s hand?
I don’t like that idea. For one thing, the mentor character was originally the main character when this story idea started to form. I have more invested in him, mentally, than a convenient mouthpiece. He may come back later as a main character of his own story – but that’s not going to help much if I make a crappy mistake in this one, is it?
A bit of background: when I started laying out how I wanted magic to work, I realized that my idea on the gathering and direction of magical energy was similar to qi manipulation concepts I’d been taught during taijiquan and qigong instruction by several people. So, what better than a Chinese protagonist that learned these exact lessons, but knew what they were really for! But then I decided I liked the idea of a “babe in the woods” sort of character better (after a stop in a Kurasawa-esque telling of a story about the Master Mage from the POV of his apprentice). Wei Chi had already taken on a serious life as a skilled mage in my mind, plus I wanted him to be old and have some ties into the historical difficulties of the Unequal Treaties, the Opium Wars, etc. But I didn’t want to write a historical novel on my first trip out of the gate. And someone in his sphere of influence would have too much ready-to-go support structure for what I was envisioning. But I like the character, his attitude, and his background, so I decided to leave him in the place of the master mage in the cast.
So, had I haphazardly relegated this character of which I’d grown so fond to the position of Magical Asian Helper? I did some more digging around to be sure I understood the trope, and took a good hard look at my planned storyline.
- Magical Minority Characters (MMC) are happy to help the main character because it’s right, or nice, or out of obligation – Well, I am safe on this one. Wei Chi isn’t a bad sort, and when he realizes that the victim he saved from a horrible murder had more damage done to her than being cut up a little, he’ll offer to help out a little. Basically, a trinket that will keep hostiles from realizing she has magical potential so she can live her life. But in order to take her as an apprentice, he’ll have to be convinced, and he’ll expect something in return.
- MMCs have no agenda of their own beyond helping the protagonist – This one’s my primary concern. Wei Chi has plenty of objectives of his own, but I’m not sure how feasible it is to bring them into the story. They don’t intersect with the protagonist’s agenda much at all, beyond the ones tied into her apprenticeship. On the other hand, the vehicle of the apprenticeship can be used to give some insight into what Wei Chi is up to when he’s not helping Our Heroine.
- MMCs disappear when their service to the protagonist is done – Definitely not a problem. I think he and the main character will come to like one another enough that their mentor/mentee relationship will continue beyond the initial “here’s what you need to not kill yourself or those around you” stage. He’s also an active presence in the Twin Cities magical subculture, such as it is. His involvement won’t be huge, because as a much more skilled practitioner, it would be too easy for him to take center stage and deal with Zoe’s problems for her. I have some ideas for other books in this setting, and his involvement in those would be larger, either as a part of the primary cast or as the main character.
- MMCs are frequently the only minority character in an all-white cast – He’s not the only minority, though at the time I started looking into this he was the only Chinese character I had planned. But I have thought of a few more ways to take care of that issue, if I feel it needs it.
- MMCs are frequently built of out racial stereotypes – I think the fact that Wei Chi started his life as a protagonist and has a detailed background makes this less of a pitfall for me. I wasn’t interested in writing a pack of stereotypes, or even classic tropes, so I have a good list of quirks, personality traits and the like for him. He does own an Asian import store, which made me think of the inscrutable guy from Gremlins even as I was writing it. It’s in keeping with his history and it’s practical for his present needs, so I’ve decided to leave it.
In the end, I think I’m doing okay. I’ll be running it past other people once I have it written, so they can sanity check me as well. I definitely created a situation where I could have fallen into that trap if I didn’t take the time to think about it.
Fellow writers, have you ever found yourself stumbling into this trope? What did you do to avoid it?
Fellow readers, what are some examples of this trope that you love to hate, or that work in spite of themselves?