So last time I talked about magic in a world that’s otherwise ours, and how it’s extremely difficult to make work. Today I’ll tackle a similarly difficult thing:
“It’s not that the book is sexist, it’s just the character is.”
So, how can you do this?
I think the best method here is to make Harry’s sexism out of step with current sexism. As a corollary, current sexism should still be present, just alien to Harry. Failing the second half gives you a story acting as if only the archaic cartoon version counts as sexism.
It’s not impossible to have a first person narrator without the narration endorsing the character’s views, but it’s pretty close to it when it’s supposed to be a minor quirk rather than the focus and it’s a common viewpoint. Harry’s sexism will be noticeable to the reader because it’s now not in line with how anyone these days thinks, while current sexism is made noticeable because it’s noticeable to Harry.
How should we start? Well, the first thing to come to mind is Harry needs a bigger stick up his ass about prostitution.
Right now we have a much friendlier view of it, but it’s an entirely selfish view – Harry’s actions seem to run on the basis he’s okay with tapping that himself and who even cares enough about prostitutes to work up the energy to disapprove. So let’s invert it. Instead of not caring overmuch about the unwed sex but also not caring much about the prostitutes’ very lives, Harry is really uptight about interacting with them but sincerely concerned about their wellbeing. Instead of the narrative saying that prostitutes are sad orgasm junkies, have Harry assume they must be secretly miserable and act like this while the women in question aren’t.
It’s sort of like how Rorschach said sexist shit, but he also went after rapists and not prostitutes, which is why he was a good character while Harry would hem and haw about how he guessed that rape was bad maybe if it actually happened and also it could’ve been an honest mistake you know, why there was this one time he just happened to have magic roofies out and…
We end up with a Harry who’s really patronizing but sincerely well-meaning. The main problem with this is usually that the average person should get this worn away by exposure to other people, but Harry’s social skills are a lot like a swimming sloth – the motions are very broadly the right ones, and maybe it’ll get somewhere one day. Non-sloth-metaphorically, Harry spent a lot of his teenage years isolated and spent the next few years on the fringes of normal society. (I’m thinking he also picked up a nice *ism sprinkle from his post-apprentice time spending a year or so living in ultra cheap housing surrounded by angry old men who weren’t married and for good reason.) And having this be blatant and stated outright rather than constant bubbling subtext through Harry’s head allows other characters to react to it and challenge it.
I’m thinking wizards and witches have separate traditions – I don’t generally like that idea much, but it seems like the best fit here for how Harry says all sorts of bullshit about witches, doesn’t seem to know anything about them, and repeatedly says wizards as a group don’t have much experience with women. I also like it better than that women are second-class magic users who are so rare and inconsequential we’re otherwise ignored in this story. We can explain the fact his teacher had a female student too as anything from the two groups occasionally raising each other’s newbies (if magic user population is low enough, you might not always have someone from your group who can handle a newbie, OR the groups may have divided up territory so that entire states belong to one or the other, and they’re then responsible for training newbies until they’re adults and can leave for the other group) to the teacher going against tradition, since the guy also apparently did evil magic so I don’t think he cared much about rules. There’s also the possibility apprenticing is practiced pretty much always as a predatory thing – in fine wizard tradition, sometimes old guys pick up impressionable teenage girls to live in their homes and learn their mystic wisdom for exactly the same reason as old guys always do, and Harry’s knowledge of “witches” is stories about the ones who make it out alive, usually burning everything behind them. I’m not really a fan of things always sucking for women, so let’s just assume female magic users do the same sort of thing to young men and pass around stories about warlocks. Both groups assume the other one is a bunch of oath-breaking teacher-murdering nutjobs and so don’t have anything to do with each other.
This sort of backstory changes a lot about Harry’s assumption that heartsplosion = witch. If the two magic user groups don’t touch each other’s people, that could cut out the problem early on of Harry never thinking it’s weird a wizard would do this despite knowing it’ll get Morgan to plunge all his naked steel through the guy’s vulnerable body. The council could theoretically go after a witch, but only in self-defense, they’re not going to touch her for breaking their laws and no one’s going to get concerned about evil magic because witches are all black magic hatemonsters and the council is happy so long as they just leave the wizards alone and don’t blow up anything obvious.
(Ooh, here’s an idea – of Harry’s supporters for his self-defense, a lot of them assume that his teacher was corrupted by trying to teach a woman. Having that sort of thing as your friends’ views would do a lot to mess up Harry, even if he believed that in this particular case, she was corrupted by her teacher going corrupt. Perhaps Harry even views himself as super progressive because he doesn’t think women are innately evil, he just thinks they’re delicate and weak willed and easy prey for evil to corrupt and none of them can safely do magic, but it’s really not their fault, it’s just their nature to need strong men to keep them away from all this scary magic business. And maybe this is where the traditions about magic murder being okay in self-defense really come from, you get the occasional new wizard running to the council after murdering his witch teacher, and there’s prejudice against woman’s magic so they have someone follow him around a while to make sure he’s not doing evil womanly arts. The reason everyone’s so leery at Harry is that he killed a wizard, and the rule wasn’t actually meant for that.)
However, this is urban fantasy, so it’s supposed to relate to the real world, and the real world has sexism. So we could also say that magic ability is gender-neutral, but the only wizard body is male. This isn’t compatible with the setting we have, because even if wizards are sexist there’s still the fact a witch is objectively better than a muggle, but it is very compatible with the setting I outlined in the previous post, where magic swings in and out. During the magic periods, magic users become the ruling class and magic/nonmagic is the major division. But during the non-magic periods, the people best able to survive and pass on their knowledge, as well as have the resources needed to pull off the few spells that still work, are the rich white dudes.
If you’re marginalized, you don’t have basic protections against people lynching you on the basis of a feeling. You don’t have a giant castle to hide your magic paraphernalia. You definitely lack an easy way of hiding the bodies should you try any sort of blood magic. And perhaps most importantly, because you’re in a situation where you actually need magic, you’re going to use it and end up caught, while the baron over there is just doing it as a hobby, probably not getting any noticeable benefit, and can always stop any time people are sniffing around.
Real world history tells us that helping people with your magic absolutely wouldn’t save you. If the baron’s men show up and order you to heal him, and you do, next week the church officials show up and the fact the baron isn’t dead proves you’re a witch. Refuse to help? Witch. Did something and he died? Witch. Only people who were in the castles and employing the guys with pointy metal are going to survive.
So our wizard council that seems to be primarily European flavored with a dash of Wicca? It’s because the only surviving wizard traditions were ones passed along rich and powerful lines there. There’s presumably a few other lines surviving in other parts of the world, but the whole colony business did a lot to stamp them out. Everybody else for the past couple hundred/thousand years has been freakishly talented peasants and women stealing scraps of knowledge from their betters and often doing a good deal of damage (it’s like they had some sort of grudge or something) before being stamped out.
The reason the main division is wizard/witch and not white guy/black guy is simply that a majority of wizards aren’t gay and keep having sex with women so the women have opportunities to learn bits about magic and suddenly witches, while it’s easier to not make friends with non-white people.
Despite this view, they also don’t like to actually do anything with non-affiliated members, because in past ages you had to be freakishly talented to get anywhere without teaching and so the policy is to just give them a wide berth and hope whatever violent end they come to doesn’t damage any of your stuff.
(Which brings up another point: Harry should also be racist, both because it’s not fair only women suffer and also because the book already kind of is. Having the villain be a black guy would obviously be a horrible idea, and most other ones still have bad connotations when it’s a guy trying to get wealthy via illegal means, but it might be fun to have him be, say, Chinese, and Harry completely registers the fact the husband fits the profile of talented amateur but is sure it can’t be him because everyone knows the yellow race are an indolent, dying breed incapable of innovation, and then when he expresses his surprise later Murphy just stares at him for ten minutes because what the hell Harry could you at least be racist in a way that makes sense?)
Anyway, Harry has no interest in going to the council because he figures they know but they’ll just say witches are outside their jurisdiction and if she wants to blow up two people, whatever. It’s only when Morgan shows up to accuse him and he’s all “wtf hello IT WAS A WITCH” that he learns there’s no known witches around (and boy does the council keep track of that) and whoever did it is someone unofficial. Morgan then insists it was Harry as Harry works for the police and the victims were a mobster’s bodyguard and a vampire’s prostitute.
Huh? says Harry.
I have no idea how modern society works but all those things have some sort of connection so I’m assuming you did it, Morgan explains. Also, everyone knows new witches cause a range of chaos instead of just one heartsplosion because magic is powered by emotion and women are crazy emotional creatures with no self-control.
Oh right, says Harry, and they brofist or whatever over how rational they are.
It’s only after this Harry even bothers trying to do the math himself, because he was previously handwaving the amount of power to heartsplode as a witch thing, but if Morgan’s right and it was a wizard, he’s not sure how that’d even be possible as wizard magic (which is actually identical to witch magic, but Harry assumes otherwise because it involves math and stuff). When he gets back that it’s impossible, we get the book’s bit of him being muddled and having no idea what to do next, because he feels he’s ruled out a witch being around but also ruled out a wizard being able to do it. The idea of multiple people doing the spell doesn’t occur to him until he reports to Murphy and she asks about how to get this much power, because he’s been assuming that either way it has to be an amateur so they shouldn’t know other people. No one realizes it’s possible to use muggles to help power spells because pre-magic-return, it basically wasn’t.
Hm. Oh, also maybe the reason Morgan blames him for the demon is that he thinks Harry summoned it precisely because he was trying to look like a victim, especially since it comes right after Morgan says he’s onto Harry.
I mean, the idea he summoned and lost control of it has a lot of flaws. But the idea he set up this situation to look like he was vulnerable, just happening to be attacked while someone else was over (Morgan’s stalking likely has him well aware this doesn’t happen often) who just happened to accidentally get poisoned and collapse helpless and needing Harry to save her, was visibly defenseless what with being naked, and just happened to be chased outside so it’d be easy to see only to suddenly figure out how to stop the demon…it still requires a determination to assume Harry’s evil, but it doesn’t require you ignore any other part.
If we assume black magic = witch, as well as Harry’s general situation of murdering a wizard being something more usually done by female apprentices, then you could do something where the council views Harry as kind of effeminate and he gets hit by those stereotypes about being evil and tricky. (Maybe naked and chased by demons is considered a common cliche for witches pretending to be innocent, even. I’d definitely expect some gay panic among the wizards given how they view women, so perhaps there’s a defined male subtype of the general female tempress.) This could then feed into how Harry keeps trying to assert himself as alpha male – the most obnoxious part of that currently is how he seems the only one playing the game. If the other wizards put him down as not a real man, I could see him developing a complex from that and then trying to assert himself toward everyone.
Anyway. All this is different enough from standard prejudices that it’s easy to keep from endorsing it in the narration, and it’s also different enough to be less unpleasant to read. It even gives Harry actual chivalry and not his I OPEN DOORS FOR YOU BECAUSE I KNOW YOU HATE IT bullshit.
Oh yeah and Bob the Rapist Skull is inherited from the wizard and always wants terrible things. Harry the actual magic geek writes down every spell the skull tells him and does his best to try to work things out on his own, and usually barters for a week to get a new potion recipe when he wants one until he’s talked the skull down to Shades of Grey style stuff. The love potion still happens (all bad things with Bob happen when Harry needs something and Bob knows it), but Harry is actually disgusted rather than mildly disapproving of the effort, and Bob spends the next couple days trying to tempt him into using it or selling it for cash. Harry also doesn’t leave it out – but Bob directs Rodriguez to it when she comes down looking for the escape potion.
This alone would show Harry is a basically decent person surrounded by terrible influences.
Also, maybe play up the stakes Harry lets Bob out over – like, Bob demands a week, Harry says twelve hours, Bob says Harry’s got to agree or Harry and his girlfriend die horribly, Harry says he knows what Bob could do with a week and he’d rather just two people die.
Hm. And maybe Morgan fits into this as well. Morgan thinks Harry’s scum just for keeping the skull…refusing to consider the position Harry’s in as an untrained wizard with no other source for magic. Refusing to consider just why witches so inevitably turn on whatever man teaches them. (And everyone knows they’re so manipulative, and listening to Eve was Adam’s mistake. Morgan is proud to go years at a time without hearing a woman speak.) Refusing to consider how, in general, the way the council’s set up isn’t about stopping black magic but preserving the existing power structure. Morgan really does care about the abuses of black magic, he really does want to help people, but the things he believes are true don’t match the world, so he finds himself stalking an innocent person and threatening them with death every few minutes, all while Harry actually helps people.
But maybe that’s who Morgan used to be. If Harry keeps trying to fit in with the few friendly wizards, keeps salving his pride by thinking how magic means he’s just so much better than other people, gives up on trying to fit into the mundane world and focuses on issues the council cares about… Right now what keeps him from completely accepting the council’s ideas is his resentment over how they treated him. But he seems to accept their rules are basically right, and he certainly wants to prove himself to them enough that they don’t kill him, and doing stuff like putting his name in the phonebook seem more like teenage rebellion than a real rejection of what they stand for. There’s different kinds of temptations. The skull is easy to see. It’s the other stuff that’s the real danger.