“It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise . . . to such an extreme that no-one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay. It was an intricate stew of truths and mirages that convulsed the ghost of José Arcadio Buendía with impatience and made him wander all through the house even in broad daylight.”

Gabriel García MárquezOne Hundred Years of Solitude

What Is Magical Realism?

Magical realism is an oft-confused genre. Agents and editors frequently say they want to find magical realistic stories, but what exactly does that mean?

It is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in literature in part because the genre/style is very specific while also being intentionally ambiguous. As Mexican literary critic Luis Leal said, “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.”

So what is magical realism, then? It isn’t straight fantasy, or even urban fantasy, which incorporates mythical creatures and magic systems into the contemporary world, but it’s not completely realistic either. It doesn’t fit neatly into any one category, which makes it hard to label. But as we all know, the publishing world loves to attach labels to books.

 

Essentially, magical realism is:

Real-world setting + fantastical elements = magical realism

 

In visual terms, think of it as a photo that’s blurred around the edges to give it an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. It has the feel of magic—that anything is possible.

Magical realism focuses on ordinary people going about the humdrum activities of daily life. Everything is normal—except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility, whether it be magic or fate or a physical connection with the earth and the creatures that inhabit it, but always in a way that celebrates the mundane.

 

Some general resources for writers to get you started:

Absolute Write Water Cooler
AgentQuery Connect
QueryTracker Forums

For children's writers and illustrators:

Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)
Previously known as the Verla Kay Blueboards, the SCBWI forum has tons of great info, much of which applies to writers in general, and not just for children's books. And no, you don't have to be a member of SCBWI to access most of the boards, although some forums are set aside for members only.

A Brief History

Despite the common misconception, magical realism didn’t originate in South America. Instead, German art critic Franz Roch coined the term “magical realism” in 1925 to describe the New Objectivity style of painting. A few years later, the concept of magical realism crossed the ocean to South America, where it was adopted and popularized by Latin American authors throughout the twentieth century as lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real. Notable writers include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende, among numerous others.

While Hispanic writers were—and still are—a major influence in modern magical realistic literature, the style is not limited to a specific time or place. In fact, writers from across the world have adopted and adapted magical realism to fit their own cultures and within their own frame of reference.

In general, magical realism is literary, in scope and tone and style. Many works of magical realism have a lyrical or ethereal quality to the writing. Even the way sentences are phrased adds to the mystical feel of the genre.

Writers of magical realism play upon the unexplainable events in peoples’ lives, making the extraordinary and fantastical almost believable. In the end, readers are never quite sure what’s real and what isn’t; they just know that it could be possible. It reveals the magic that is in the world around us.

When done well, magical realism convinces us of what we’ve always hoped: that magic exists, that wishes do come true, that beyond science exists a reality that defies rational explanation. We want magic to be real, and so we look for it in the most unassuming places, in the ordinary events of our day-to-day lives.

 

Image: Jackson Lake © 2007 Michelle Witte
For more about the photo see What Magical Realism Is To Me