Recently, I've been getting into magical realism, and in this article, I’ll share what I've learned about how to write it, for those who are curious.
We’ll delve into the history of the style, what constitutes it, developing interesting characters and settings, and how to go about layering magical elements onto a realistic story.
By the end, you should have everything you need to create your own epic (or, I guess, not so epic) tale within the genre.
- What magical realism is, and isn’t
- The history and evolution of the style
- How to write magical realism
Table of contents
- What is Magical Realism?
- The History of Magical Realism
- Is Magical Realism the Same as Fantasy?
- What Makes a Good Magical Realism Story
- How to Write Magical Realism
- Examples of Magical Realism Books
- Examples of Magical Realism in Film
- Next Steps
What is Magical Realism?
Magical realism is a genre that incorporates fantastical or mythical elements into an otherwise realistic setting. The magical elements are treated as though they are perfectly normal by both the narrator and the characters.
Everything in the world seems to be perfectly ordinary, but with magical undercurrent to it. The key difference is that this magic is not explained, and it is subtle. It is simply a part of the world that the narrator and characters are dealing with.
Some key characteristics of magical realism include:
- Realistic setting grounded in the real world
- Matter-of-fact inclusion of magical or impossible elements
- Magic is accepted as normal by characters
- Blending of different genres like fantasy, folklore, and mythology
- Focus on ordinary characters and everyday life
- Symbolism and imagery convey a sense of magic
- Understated and subtle approach to magic
- Often explores political or social issues
Magic is just a part of everyday life within a magical realist story. The magic flows from the source, not as something strange, much less dangerous. And that is one of the primary purposes of magical realism, to merge the magical with the realistic in a way that makes readers sit back and go, “I hadn’t thought of it like that before.”
The History of Magical Realism
The term “magical realism” was first used in 1925 by German art critic Franz Roh to describe a style of painting that depicted the magical within the ordinary. Writers in Latin America expanded on this idea in the 1940s and 50s to describe a type of fiction that incorporated mythical elements into realistic narratives.
Magical realism has its roots in Latin American literature, where key authors pioneered the style starting in the mid-20th century. Some forerunners who helped develop the genre include:
- Alejo Carpentier (Cuba): Coined the term “lo real maravilloso” (the marvelous real) to describe the uniqueness of Latin American culture and used magical elements to explore subjects like slavery and political repression.
- Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina): Blended fantasy, dreams, and philosophy in short stories like “The Aleph” and examined themes of time, labyrinths, and imagination.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia): His novel One Hundred Years of Solitude brought magical realism widespread acclaim. Marquez used magical elements to portray the paradoxes of Latin American history and life.
- Isabel Allende (Chile): Novels like The House of the Spirits incorporated historical events with magical elements and explored themes of feminism.
The early Latin American authors influenced later authors of all types across the world. Although the genre bloomed in Latin America, it quickly spread worldwide in the latter half of the 20th century and continues to develop today.
Is Magical Realism the Same as Fantasy?
Magical realism is often confused with fantasy fiction, but they are distinct genres.
In fantasy stories, magic is something extraordinary. It operates outside the bounds of normal physics, and the characters are amazed when they encounter it.
In magical realism, magic is normal. Characters simply accept it as a part of reality.
Some other key differences between the genres include:
- Usually set in an entirely fictional world
- Magic is the norm and central to the story
- Magic has obvious effects on characters/world
- Characters are often archetypes like heroes, wizards, elves
- Plot driven by conflict between good vs evil
- Set in the real, contemporary world
- Magic is subtle and downplayed
- Focus is on ordinary people and everyday life
- Characters are complex and realistic
- Explores social issues and human experiences
While both incorporate magic, fantasy creates an alternate world detached from reality. Magical realism weaves magic into the fabric of reality through a poetic, metaphorical lens. It gently asks the reader to open their minds to the extraordinary possibilities hidden within ordinary life.
What Makes a Good Magical Realism Story
Magical realism looks effortless, but crafting a seamless interweaving of realism and fantasy requires thoughtful attention and skill. I've identified several elements that make for compelling magical realist fiction:
The setting needs to feel like the real world, whether it's a specific time and place like Latin America in the 1960s or a more vague modern city. Rich sensory details are important to ground the story in reality. The setting should reflect cultural influences and real social conditions.
Myths, legends, and folklore specific to the setting's culture add an authentic magical touch, like Mexican folk healing rituals in a story set in Mexico. This gives the magic layers of symbolic meaning.
The magic needs to be downplayed so it blends seamlessly into the realism. Don't try to explain it or have characters react with shock. Understatement makes it more believable.
Magical realism often uses the subtle magic as a metaphor to criticize social conditions. The magic highlights injustice or provides hope.
Focus on the Ordinary
The story revolves around realistic characters living everyday lives. The emphasis should be on their relationships and inner growth, with magic an atmospheric background.
Imagery and Symbolism
Objects, dreams, colors, and sensory details take on symbolic meaning and create a sense of wonder in the ordinary.
Endings should maintain the blend of realism and magic, leaving some mystery about the role of the magical elements. Tie up personal plots but leave a touch of possibility.
With the right balance of magic and realism, your story can take readers into a world that feels comfortably familiar yet tantalizingly enchanted. The magic should enhance, not overwhelm, the gritty reality of your setting.
How to Write Magical Realism
The magical realism writers I most admire have distinctive voices while retaining the core spirit of the genre. Here are some techniques I would use if writing my own magical realism:
Understand the Genre
Read widely within magical realism to immerse yourself in the style. Note how authors incorporate subtle magic into realistic settings. Observe how they use magic as social commentary and symbolic imagery.
Draw Inspiration From the Illogical
Reflect on strange coincidences, unpredictable events, and imaginative dreams in your own life. Everyday mysteries can spark ideas for subtle magical touches.
Use Quirky News Items
Bizarre stories from the news often read like magical realism. Adapt real unexplained happenings into events in your fictional world.
Craft Complex Characters
Well-developed characters with rich inner lives anchor the magic in reality. Focus on characterization and emotional arcs.
Mix in elements from mythology, folklore, fairy tales or other genres to add deeper meaning to your magical details.
Craft Your Prose
Write with lush, descriptive language to add atmospheric depth. Use figurative language and sensory detail to convey magical moods.
Leave the magical events unexplained and have characters accept them as normal. Maintain mystery and possibility.
Infuse objects, dreams, colors, weather, animals, etc. with symbolic significance to create magical undertones.
Remember, the point of all this is not to force your magic on the reader, but to present it in such a way that they are filled with wonder and discovery.
Examples of Magical Realism Books
Here are some quintessential magical realist works I find myself returning to again and again for inspiration in my own writing:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – This epic depicts seven generations of the Buendía family and the fictional town Macondo with hallucinatory events like a plague of insomnia, ghost sightings, and a woman ascending to heaven. Márquez's prose feels both fantastical yet real.
- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel – A young woman expresses her emotions through magical food she cooks, leading to supernatural effects on those who eat it. The mystical cooking allegorically explores women's repression.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison – This haunting novel tackles trauma through a mother visited by the ghost of her young daughter she murdered to save her from slavery. The spectral haunting feels viscerally real.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – Surreal dream sequences, psychic projections, and talking cats appear matter-of-factly as a man searches Tokyo for his missing wife. The magical elements access a deeper reality.
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – A middle-aged man revisits his childhood memories of befriending a girl named Lettie who promises to protect him from supernatural menaces. The fantastical childhood perspectives feel believably childlike.
The easiest way to understand how magic realism works and what I’m talking about is to read. Just like learning any form of writing, you get a feel for it by seeing excellent authors do it well.
Examples of Magical Realism in Film
Magical realist cinema also provides valuable lessons on integrating magical elements into familiar real-world settings and stories:
- Pan's Labyrinth (2006) – A young girl escapes into a dark fairy tale world paralleling her harsh reality living under fascist rule in 1944 Spain. The historical context gives the fantasy deeper meaning.
- Like Water for Chocolate (1992) – Based on the Esquivel novel, this film brings the magical realism vividly to life with the protagonist's emotions materializing through magical food she cooks.
- The Green Mile (1999) – A condemned prisoner possesses miraculous magical healing powers that affect everyone around him at a 1930s Louisiana prison. The supernatural gift contrasts with the brutal reality.
Now that you know the basic goals behind magic and reality, we’ll look at your next steps to creating a magical realism book. Here are some pointers:
- Immerse yourself in examples from masters of the genre to internalize the style. Make a list of your favorite magical realism novels and stories and re-read them with a critical eye.
- Observe the world around you closely to find moments of underlying magic in everyday life. Keep a journal recording coincidences, dreams, curiosities and unexplained happenings that spark ideas.
- Outline some initial story ideas with magical realist potential and experiment writing a few short scenes. Get feedback from other magical realism fans on whether your magic blends well with the realism.
- Pick one idea that resonates and start developing the full story. Flesh out convincing characters and settings, keeping the magic subtle. Hone your descriptive prose to create a vivid mood.
- Join a writers group or online community focused on magical realism. Share excerpts and get feedback on maintaining the delicate balance of your story.
But, like anything artistic, it will take practice. That said, let the story grow on its own until it becomes something you can be proud of.