Writing diversity: avoiding the Magical Negro

I don’t know that we’ve ever discussed the concept of the Magical Negro here before, or its equivalent in American storytelling with Asian and Native American characters, and I think we need to. With Tu’s emphasis on protagonists being characters of color, I don’t get as many submissions nowadays using this old stereotype/trope, but it’s one that I’ve seen a lot of in past years because it’s so common, an easy way to add diversity that has a subtle racism in it because of the way it privileges the white main character over the person of color who is helping him (and it’s usually a him).

I just ran into this great post by Nnedi Okorafor from 2004—that you should go read in its entirety—that sums up the trope quite nicely:

  1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

Think about even some recent movies and you’ll see this trope at work. (Movies are easy comparisons for me as shortcuts, because they tend to be easier touchstones for a larger audience.)  Cowboys and Aliens, anyone? I was enjoying the complicated character interactions of C&A right up until the end when (SPOILER ALERT) a certain important character dies, which ruined the entire movie for me. Not quite a Magical Negro in that situation, but related to it. American martial arts movies from the 80s and 90s had plenty of Magical Asians teaching young white kids karate or kung fu (yes, Karate Kid,  awesome as it is, falls into this).

Sometimes the trope is fairly benign. So let’s look at Karate Kid. After quite a bit of focus on Daniel, eventually there’s a bridging of the cultural gap between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel—eventually Daniel learns about Mr. Miyagi’s past and we come to understand Mr. Miyagi as a person, which deepens the character development and I think changes the dynamic from one in which his existence in the plot is only to help the main character. Daniel has at least a tiny bit to offer Mr. Miyagi as well, in the form of friendship to a lonely old man. The balance is still in Daniel’s favor, but not as severely as in other stories that use this trope.

In Okorafor’s post, she examines Stephen King’s use of this trope, and she also notes that

King is not a racist. The Talisman, The Stand, The Shining, and The Green Mile are superb novels and I do think that there was good intent behind the making of the characters I’ve mentioned. Nevertheless, these characters are what they are and King does benefit from that fact. Magical Negroes are always interesting, being magical and mysterious, and they make things happen. When a Magical Negro pops up, the story crackles and pops.

The trope is a trope because it can make a story work. Yet just because it’s something that works doesn’t mean it’s something we shouldn’t try to avoid when we can, especially because the trope can be pretty caustic, too—think about, especially, storytelling about Native Americans. Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Wolves are pretty good examples of When Tropes Go Bad: the Native Americans almost always die to leave the land to their white inheritors, and the power dynamic is always tipped in favor of the white protagonist as inheritor of the virtues of the Native Americans. “Native Americans don’t live here anymore” seems to an underlying message from stories like this. The controversial book Touching Spirit Bear comes closer to home for those of us in the YA community.

(Okorafor’s post over on Strange Horizons covers a lot of interesting and important territory on this subject, so go read the whole post.)

How to avoid the Magical Negro trope, or at least the worst version of it? As I think about it, the Magical Negro is kind of a subtype of the Guru character who comes to help the protagonist on his journey. In fantasy, Gandalf is the perfect example of the Guru character. Especially in The Hobbit, Gandalf exists to help, teach, and guide. We don’t know much about him—he’s just this mysterious magical being who helps Bilbo set off on his quest. Gandalf’s role in The Lord of the Rings is expanded a little, and his relationship with Sauron and their backstory more important, but Gandalf is still very much in the role of helper to the main characters, the one who dies so that others can live (getting away from the Balrog)—he just happens to be powerful enough to come back as Gandalf the White, and then AGAIN help the main characters win by bringing reinforcements to Helm’s Deep, among other feats.

But when the Wizard becomes the Magical Negro, we add a racial dynamic to a relatively tired old trope (after all, even if it works for Gandalf, it’s been done so many times) that, especially when the older POC is teaching a young white kid, implies a symbolic inheritance/transference of wisdom and power—especially, as we already talked about, when it comes to stories involving Native Americans in the 1800s.

Occasionally I hear white writers, especially, say things like, “How can I add diversity to my stories, then? It seems like you can’t win. When I do add diversity, I get accused of playing to stereotypes”—the Magical Negro being one, the Black Guy Dies First being another.

I think part of of the solution is seeing past the main character as the most important character to the exclusion of other characters. “Helper” characters need to be fleshed out as independent beings in their own right, with their own concerns that don’t always match up to the priorities of the main character, even if the fate of the world is at stake.

I’m currently catching up on Supernatural Season 6, and there was a really great episode about Bobby, the down-to-earth friend of the family who is always getting Sam and Dean out of scrapes both big and small. (SPOILERS AHEAD) At the end of Season 5, Bobby sold his soul to a demon to accomplish some goal that I’ve now forgotten, the end result of which was to ensure that Satan went back in his cage and didn’t destroy the world. Now in the 5th season, Bobby has to deal with the consequences of that deal. Meantime, Dean has some suspicions about Sam being not quite right and wants to air his worries/grievances to his normal confidant, Bobby. But Bobby now has bigger fish to fry. He has to worry about his OWN soul, literally. Yet Dean’s worries are justified and he really does need help, so Dean has to help Bobby so Bobby has the space to help Sam and Dean.

I think that kind of complication of character motivations makes all the difference. Bobby is sort of Sam and Dean’s Gandalf. He’s always sending them off on quests, or in Supernatural parlance, “jobs.” There isn’t a racial dynamic, but Bobby is a “helper” character most of the time. Yet Bobby is a fully-fleshed-out real person, too, who is just as important as anyone else. He’s not lower in social stature, he’s not obliged to help Sam and Dean out of any other motivation other than friendship/a sense of family. He doesn’t simply exist to serve Sam and Dean and then disappear.

ETA: I know this is already long, but Okorafor has a great point in that same post that sums up what I’m getting at quite nicely:

Part of my point was that Magical Negroes have power that, if harnessed for personal intent, would change the story greatly. What would The Green Mile be if Coffey had been more concerned with escaping than helping? What would The Talisman have been if Speedy hadn’t been there for Jack because he was trying to save the talisman himself, because he thought he himself was capable, too? What would have happened in The Stand if Mother Abigail had been more concerned with helping her own folks make it to a better place than the ragtag group that came along? What would all these stories have been if these characters’ destinies weren’t so tied to someone outside of themselves? If they hadn’t been written that way? The answer: the stories would have been more complex, the characters more human, less lapdog.

Making secondary characters more fleshed-out, real people with their own priorities and individual worth, and less a cardboard cutout, won’t automatically prevent them from still being representative of a trope, but I think it can help mitigate the dynamic. And, of course, more stories starring POC as heroes of their own tales is another solution to this problem. Let’s talk about it some more. What do you think?

**By the way, this post was inspired because I followed a link from Nnedi Okorafor’s post on her bust of Lovecraft, the symbol of her World Fantasy Award, which explores Lovecraft’s racism and the legacy of racism we must confront in fantasy. Go read that as well.


15 thoughts on “Writing diversity: avoiding the Magical Negro

  1. Movies DO make it easier to see the trope in action…

    To my mind, the casting choices for THE HUNGER GAMES come perilously close to creating a situation wherein a character who was important for the impact she had on the attitude of the protag simply becomes The One That Serves And Disappears…

  2. This is timely for me. I’m thinking about race in my WIP where everybody is mixed, but isn’t aware of it (set in future). I’m struggling with how to communicate that my mc looks pretty much asian indian, without using those words. I’m afraid the default of readers might be to picture the characters as white, even if I give details of coloring. I suppose I can hope for good cover art.

    1. In my opinion, I’d love to have some hints about the race of the characters. Maybe not anything that would outright state the characters are Asian Indian, but something that mentions they are definitely not white. I recently finished up Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth series, and I was constantly asking myself, “So NO black/Asian/other than white people survive the zombie apocalypse?” The only racial identifier that I can remember is blonde hair/pal skin. Never dark skin (that I can recall). How absurd. But other than that, fantastic series. 🙂 Good luck with your WIP!

      1. I agree with Jessica. There are ways of indicating this (without resorting to the character-looks-in-the-mirror stereotype). I’d suggest reading a wide variety of books that feature characters of color and see how they do it, which could inspire you in a way that might work for you.

  3. I have a series in mind which will play to some of those magical stereotypes. But the majority of characters in it are “minority”. And I sort of need a long history of mysticism in a culture for the story to work – so random, white American is just not going to work.

    1. Notice the definition of a Magical Negro, though–it’s a person of color who teaches a white kid. Or are you saying that there is no mysticism in white America, and you need something “exotic”? Because that’s part of the problem, that black people are exotic, the Other, so therefore magical. You’ll notice that in Supernatural there are plenty of white-bread Midwestern American mystic things happening, so that’s not really a great excuse, not to mention the long history of mystical things in Celtic and British culture, upon which our entire fantasy genre is built. What I’m saying is that there is a dynamic of racial power happening in the Magical Negro trope that we need to examine. Why do we, as a culture, assume that only the Other is magical, and if we’re white that means that black people and Asians are Other? It’s something that we need to unpack, I think.

  4. Secondary characters or sidekicks are generally “flatter” than the main characters. Which is to say that they are not as well rounded as the heroine/hero. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio is not as interesting as the flawed hero of the play. This kind of characterization has been standard practice for a very long time. However, things appear to be changing. Are we now to believe that a sidekick cannot be a black person or some other racial minority? We risk clamping our plot development into a certain rigid racial orthodoxy where certain plot practices are not permitted because they are supposedly racist. In other words, NO BLACK SIDEKICKS! OR ELSE!

    I’ll admit that you’ll have a muc hless conventionar plot if the hero is black and the sidekick is white. But the natural temptation will be to leave any and all black characters out of your story to avoid criticism of the type seen above. This will unfortunately create unemployment among black actors. Will they be grateful? Would you be grateful?

    When political correctness is enforced in the arts, an unhappy sameness tends to creep in. I’m thinking of Stalin’s “Socialist Realism” type of art with endless scenes of heroic tractor drivers. Attempts to censor art in any way have always had a bad effect.

    If a certain plot trope is overused and boring, that can and should be fixed. But please, people, let’s not invent some kind of a racist conspiracy theory. All we need to do is keep in mind that Black people don’t have a monopoly on magic. So we can have magical gypsies, magical Tibetans, magical Tunisians, or magical Zen monks. Or even a magical space jellyfish with tentacles.

    Maybe Gandalf really was Black! I’ll have to watch the movies again and take a very close look at that guy — I always suspected that Samwise was Black because he told such good jokes — But we really do need to change Sauron from Black to white, don’t we? Because Black is good, but white is evil and imperialist and really horrible — Best wishes from H.A.

    1. And this comment is a perfect example of someone who needs to listen more and perhaps check their white privilege again. This comment was made in defensiveness, not listening to the concerns of those people who are expressing them about this stereotype.

      1. And he seems to think that changing a hero or sidekick from one “color” to another amounts to no more than changing his or her skin tone.

        Writing about PoC and the cultures they bring with them (and it does not even have to be a foreign culture, i.e. I’m thinking of the Mexican-American culture of the border community I grew up in) naturally brings in conflicts and plot structures beyond the hero-sidekick archetype that we find so often in Western literature.

        And speaking of rigid orthodoxy – Why do we have to follow this rule that says “all sidekicks are flat”? I’m thinking of HALF A YELLOW SUN, which portrays the Biafran war through the eyes of three different protagonists, none of which serves as a mere sidekick to the others. And what about THINGS FALL APART, in which our hero is so toxic to himself and others that no one seems to want to stand close enough to him to be considered a “sidekick”.

        He needs not only to check his privilege and defensiveness at the door, but also think a little more deeply about plot structure, IMO.

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