Tags: always read the fae print, fantasy, marginalized groups, thinky thoughts, writing
Taking a short break from line editing (page 235 of 356!) to jot down a couple of thoughts I had, spurred on by reading N.K. Jemisin’s fabulous post at Orbit, Power and Privilege in Fantasy.
One thing struck me in particular: her point about special protagonists in fantasy often being special due to their heritage, rather than skill. This is particularly relevant to me right now since I’m neck-deep in edits on Always Read the Fae Print, which, as some of you will know, features an utterly non-magical character as the lead. Her parents, and much of her extended family, have powers of various sorts. She doesn’t. At all. And it’s not easy on her.
For one, it means that her quest to save her dad depends on madd improvisation skillz and a really ugly bracelet, not any particular gift of hers. It doesn’t make it easy.
For another, it means she has a number of serious issues relating to the world she grew up in and her own identity.
Most of our identity, we’re born into. Our ethnicity, our sexuality, our gender, and often, our physical/mental ability. All of these are unique in their own way; most people are raised among others of their own ethnicity. (Note: I say ‘most’, because there are obvious complications here in terms of mixed-race families and adoption.) With sexuality and ability, it becomes more complicated, as that’s something you’re born into, but you’re not necessarily raised among people who share that identity.
Often, magic abilities fall into one of those categories: either it’s inherited, or it’s something they’re simply born with – even if the character doesn’t discover their abilities until a later age.
Rarely, they acquire it later. Similar to, say, acquired disabilities, a character may be bitten by a werewolf or vampire, or be cursed/blessed with abilities, or simply work hard and hone a particular skill.
I find all these differences fascinating. I drew a lot from my own experiences in the hopes of making my protagonist’s feelings regarding these issues realistic. Why, as a child, she wanted nothing more than to be like her parents. Why she later rejected that aspect of her life to live as what she is: human. Why she recoiled every time her mother wanted to help her with a spell. As a human, she has clear disadvantages to various magical family members – but human is what she is, and no matter her struggles, she accepts that and, eventually, is proud of it. It’s just as much a part of her as being American is, or Venezuelan, or German, or female, or straight, and nobody would expect her to change – or want to change – those things, even if they have drawbacks.
Her family just doesn’t always get that. (Which sounds awfully familiar to a lot of those other identities.)
How we identify is such a huge part of our lives that I’d love to see fantasy taking advantage of these similarities more often.
A related issue that likely doesn’t deserve its own post:
What I can’t help but wonder is where the line is drawn. When does something go from “learned skill” to “magical ability”? To use one example, in Always Read the Fae Print is a character, Merel, who works her ass off to become a witch, and succeeds because she simply has the talent. Others who worked just as hard and did the exact same things wouldn’t necessarily succeed. Is that inborn magical ability? Or is that hard work? Which of those would make her character ‘special’? What about Lillian, who has no magical abilities, but spent her lifetime learning as much as humanly possible about magic, and thrives in that world despite her eventual distaste for it?
Is it about drive, not ability? What about those of us who have the drive, but not necessarily ability? And vice versa? Or if you have both but something else holds you back? If someone is a fabulously skilled artist without putting any effort into their work, are they more or less of an artist than someone who works at it day in, day out, and produces work of a similar quality? When do we admire the person’s efforts and struggles and drive and when is the end result relevant?
Olympic athletes spend their lifetimes becoming the best at what they do, but if hard work alone gets you to the top, they wouldn’t be as special. No doubt hard work makes up 90% of it, but there must be talent involved, otherwise every random schmuck of the streets could be the next Michelangelo or Joe DiMaggio or Michael Jackson. Does talent make it unfair to other people who work just as hard? Why are magical abilities any different from our own random talents? If magical ability enables someone to, say, participate in the Olympics, would that be unethical? Why would that be different than some wildly talented – but not magical – athlete participating?
There’s so much overlap here and added complications and differences that this post could be another ten pages long, I’m sure, but in the end, I don’t have any particularly fascinating insight to offer. I just think these are intriguing issues that can be explored endlessly, especially in fantasy fiction, and I needed to get them out of my mind and on paper somewhere. Or on the screen, as it is.
On that note, if any of you have any recommendations for (speculative) books that deal with the above issues, do let me know.