Q&A

How Can I Respectfully Subvert the Magical Cure Trope?

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I had a question about the Magical Cure trope.

My main character (14yo girl) lost her left arm about six months before the novel begins.

Then, at summer camp, she’s chosen to participate in a secret magical contest between the fairy courts. She makes a pact with a mermaid and gains some water-related powers (breathing underwater, the ability to manipulate water to some degree, and an otter companion). Members of the winning team get a wish from the fairy queens.

She’s still adapting to becoming disabled, so the obvious direction is for her to plan to use the wish to get her arm back. Her arc in the first book is ultimately about learning to accept herself, and I try to telegraph to the reader early on that this is what she wants, not what she needs. But I’m worried disabled readers might be turned away by the Magical Cure, even if, by the time she actually gets it, she’s going to be happy with who she is and use it for something else.

Ultimately my question is this: Is it okay to deal in shades of gray with this trope? Or is it better to avoid it entirely, even if it risks making the book a little weaker overall?

-Brook

Brook,

Thanks for the question! This is a common challenge for storytellers who want to do a twist where they start by following an oppressive pattern and then go in the opposite direction at the end.

It’s very easy for readers who experience that oppression to be put off by the presence of the oppressive pattern when it first appears. The biggest thing you can do to address this is to start building trust with disabled readers as early as possible, ideally before it becomes clear that you are following this oppressive pattern. You build trust by showing readers that you understand ableism. A key aspect of this is having other disabled characters present in the story that are non-stereotypical, positive representations. This also comes out in the way that you represent ableism in the story. It should be clear from the framing of the scene that ableism is wrong and harmful.

However, even if you effectively build trust with disabled readers, know that focusing on the main character’s struggle with internalized ableism will still be hard. Dwelling on the pain of oppression is always going to be disproportionately painful for the people who struggle with it in their daily lives. In your case, this starts six months after she loses her arm, so she can be past the worst of it, which will help.

In addition to magical cures, there is another trope that it is important for you to be aware of here: treating disability as if it’s a bigger deal than anything else going on in the character’s life. One way this comes out is for a character to be reduced to their disability and not have anything else going on in their life. Happily, this doesn’t seem to be the case here! The other way that this can come out is treating disability as if it is worse than all of the character’s other struggles, no matter how intense or important those other struggles are.

In this case, the thing I notice is that an average fourteen-year-old girl struggling with self esteem should realistically have parts of that struggle that aren’t focused on her disability. For example, any fourteen year old girl in the US has a lot of toxic cultural messages about female beauty and worth to deal with.

When it comes to the wish, the first thing I think about is the question of what the parameters of the wish are. Honestly, if someone offered me a magic wish, the first thing I’d think of is trying to make the world a better place. Given that over half of youth regularly volunteer, making the world a better place is definitely something that would be on their minds. Because of this, I think that it’s important for the story to have parameters for the wish that would guide the protagonist away from options like being able to wish away climate change, exploitation, poverty, or disease.

Assuming that the wish is on more of a personal scale, I agree that it does make sense for her to think about using it on things she is struggling with, which can include her disability. However, it also makes sense for her to at least toy with the idea of using the wish for some of her other struggles or goals. Doing this will reinforce the idea that disability is one of the things going on in her life, but it isn’t the only thing.

Finally, I do want to say that creating a growth arc centered on a character’s marginalized identity is always tricky because it’s diving into the nuances of internalized oppression. It’s something that’s easiest to do if a writer is drawing on lived experience. In light of this and the other things discussed above, my recommendation would be to have the focus of the story be a more general self-acceptance arc that comes out in multiple areas of her life. This would make her struggles around disability be only one facet of her arc, rather than the focus of the story.

I hope that that helps!

Best wishes,

–Fay from Writing Alchemy

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    Here’s my two cents on choosing to avoid a magical cure even if one is available:
    Being near-sighted isn’t commonly thought of as a disability, even though it’s a physical impairment. You’re not pitied, discriminated against etc merely because you wear glasses or contact lenses. Most near-sighted people don’t think of this as some major issue they really suffer from. Some people pay money to have their eyes surgically corrected, but loads of people don’t, even if they could afford to.

    However, suppose I ended up in a really weird magical situation where my choice was only between a) status quo, and b) magically and with zero cost acquiring 20-20 vision. I can’t use a magical wish for anything else – it’s 20-20 or nothing.
    In this admittedly weird situation, I’d be like sure, I’d take 20-20 vision. Even though being near-sighted isn’t a big deal in our society, having 20-20 vision would make life a LITTLE easier, and if there’s a tiny benefit and zero cost, sure, I’d take it.

    For this reason, it can come off as a bit contrived to have a disabled character proudly reject a magic cure because she loves herself the way she is, if the magic cure is presented as “be cured, with zero cost, or not be cured”. Much better to have more options for how to use the wish, since in that case, it’s totally plausible that you wanna use it for something more important. Or else have a cost attached to the cure (similarly to how there’s a financial cost and also the trouble of going through surgery for fixing your eye-sight in real life) and have the character think it’s not worth it after all.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree.

      I’m pretty near-sighted myself and would definitely profit from a correction, but I’m not really wanting one. In a situation where I had that ‘either 20/20 sight or nothing’ choice, I would, naturally, take the 20/20. But if I have a free wish to use for a lot of different things, I might find a lot of things more important to me to use it on than perfect sight.

      If you wish to subvert the magical cure trope, I would suggest showing two possible choices for your MC, making her balance which one (a new arm or something else) is more important to her. If she’s come to term with the missing arm and the other thing is closer to her heart (and you’ve shown that before), then it would be logical for her to choose that other thing instead of the magical cure.

  2. Rosenkavalier

    One of the problems I’ve encountered in fiction where there’s an attempt to subvert a problematic trope is that the whole thing can easily come across as a contrivance set up to allow an author to demonstrate how clever they are in the subverting the trope, with the story itself ending up as little more than a framing device for this.

  3. Erynus

    I think it comes down to if the protagonist’s goal is to cure her disability or not.
    For the wording i get that she is chosen to participate and not part of her own agenda, so i see it as a nice bonus to have a wish granted.
    If she wanted to participate because the prize is a wish that could cure her, then all the story would revolve around the cure itself, and it would be a different story.

  4. CJ

    Hello, I’m a person with a deformed left arm, while at sometimes I am completely fine with it, there are times I wish it was just a normal left are (Some of my fingers don’t bend and my thumb doesn’t have an muscle tissue, so I can’t use it).
    My advice would be have a character, preferably the mentor, ask you protag “Is it worth trading your uniqueness? Do you really want to be like every other girl/person?” Or have a love interest show them just have unique and awesome they are.
    Plus, if you’re planning a sequel, having a disabled person as the main protag would be awesome, do you know the amount of cool spells you can make up for a stump of an arm? Just use your imagination.

    • CJ

      Lol, didn’t even realize your main character lost their left arm. Btw if you’re wondering how I type, I use both one and a half hands, using my ring finger on my right and pinky on my left.

  5. Tony

    It’d also help if the story has other disabled characters who explicitly don’t want to be cured.

  6. Brook

    So this is the OP. I can’t thank you enough for this response. I was actually walking away from this story (not because of this specific problem, although it was definitely a factor). But reading this made me realize that the obstacles I was looking at weren’t as big as I thought they were.

    One of the things I was struggling was that if she’s not going to wish for her arm back, she needs something just as big to ask for instead. I’m kicking myself for not thinking of the “Use her wish to make the world a better place” angle on things. In this case, I’m leaning towards her wanting to work with rescue animals, and using the wish to be able to communicate with them (she already has an empathic link with her otter companion, so it ties in nicely). It also adds another layer of depth to her, and while she was a pretty well fleshed out character, it’s hard to have too much depth.

    I’m probably going to rewrite the entire thing, as I’m dropping it from lower YA to upper MG, and you’ve given me a lot of things to think about as I do.

  7. Alex McGIlvery

    Reading the question and the answer, one of the things that came to mind is have your MC never intend to wish her arm back, but her family and friends do because ableism. That way her struggle is not with her disability, but with other people’s perception of it. Don’t know if that’s helpful, but I thought I’d add to the mix.

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