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?
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!
–Fay from Writing Alchemy