This is second in a five-part series on Magical Realism. If you haven’t read Part 1: What Is Magical Realism?, I’d recommend starting there.
“Eddie had come to understand that what a man saw and what actually existed in the natural world often were contradictory. The human eye was not capable of true sight, for it was constrained by its own humanness, clouded by regret, and opinion, and faith. Whatever was witnessed in the real world was unknowable in real time. It was the eye of the camera that captured the world as it truly was.”
Before we dive into what makes a story magically realistic, let’s discuss what it isn’t. With such a vague concept, it might be easier to understand by seeing what remains after other genres and tropes are eliminated. Think of it as chiseling away the excess rock until only the sculpture is left.
First off, take a look at this fantastic, fascinating, and gorgeous timeline of the History of Science Fiction by artist Ward Shelley. Don’t let the title fool you; it charts the histories of both science fiction and fantasy, plus related offshoots and subgenres, from the time that man first began telling stories.
I’m including this chart because it might help some writers—especially those who think visually—understand what isn’t Magical Realism. (Besides, it’s just cool. And looks a bit like Cthulhu.)* But how, you might ask, is this helpful? Because every genre/subgenre mentioned on that chart is NOT Magical Realism. Let’s break it down a little bit more.
What Magical Realism is NOT:
- If the story takes place in a world other than our own, it is fantasy.
- If the story starts in the real world but the characters enter a new one in the story, that is called a Portal Fantasy.
- If there is a magic system with rules and explanations, it’s not Magical Realism, which is intentionally vague; people aren’t sure why or how the magic works, it just does.
- Does not include “chosen ones” or prophesies. Magical Realism is about ordinary people living ordinary lives.
“Magical realism differs from pure fantasy primarily because it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society.”
- Similar to Fantasy, but set in an actual historical period, with fantasy elements.
- Arthurian retellings, for example, are generally considered Historical Fantasy (or myth, depending) because there is a lot of magic, so the events aren’t anywhere near believable.
- However, Historical Fiction can be Magical Realism if it fits other criteria (to be discussed in the third installment of this series).
Fairytales & Folklore
- Fairytales and Folklore are not magical realism, even though they share some common elements and can have a similar tone.
- The key is this: The fantastic in Magical Realism must seem almost plausible, just this side of believable.
“Magical realism is also the stuff of fairy tales; but in magical realism, the impossibility is more real—it is reframed, rather, as possibility pushed to new boundaries on the edge of understanding.”
- Myths aren’t Magical Realism either, especially if the story involves gods or goddesses or other similar supernatural beings, Greek and Roman mythology being a prime example. There is a very specific magic (aka religious) system that is now considered largely impossible.
- At one time, however, some of those myths might have seemed realistic to the people who believed them—albeit a mysterious and magical force that propels and influences their lives.
- Urban Myths or Legends, on the other hand, are very much based in the real world and can be considered Magical Realism. Many people believe these legends and local lore are real; the fact that the stories keep being passed from one generation to the next makes them all the more believable (and hence, Magically Realistic).
- For example, a local legend of a monster or ghost that prowls a specific wood can be Magical Realism, as in Sarah Addison Allen’s The Girl Who Chased the Moon.
- If the story is set in the real world but there is a hidden underworld of magical and or mythical beings, it is most likely Urban Fantasy.
- Those stories aren’t Magical Realism because the magic is too concrete and has a specific magic system it is based upon.
- If you’re unfamiliar with the term “magic system,” Brandon Sanderson has a great series of blog posts about magic systems. (Keep in mind that everything he discusses is the exact opposite of Magical Realism, but what we’re doing in this whole post is describing what Magical Realism isn’t in order to understand what it is.)
- Harry Potter’s world is closer to Urban Fantasy, though it’s usually not called that, because there are rules and reasons and explanations on how and why the various types of magic work the way they do.
- Similarly, if it involves students at a school where people learn magical or mystical or otherworldly things, it is not Magical Realism. It would be, however, if a grandmother or aunt is teaching the youngest generation about a legacy passed down through the family, à la Practical Magic.
- Since Magical Realism involves mundane or everyday things, most fast-paced adventure stories or thrillers would not qualify.
- If there is a secret organization—whether good or bad—that deals with magical/mystical people or things, it is most likely not Magical Realism.
- While some Magical Realistic storylines involving witches and magic, they are usually of the natural, earthy, Wiccan variety, not the cackling old biddies who brew spells and eat children for breakfast.
- Any overt magic with a specific structure or method for how it works is not Magical Realism. Or any magic system that is clearly defined and has a prevalent place within the story. Magical Realism is subtle, simply a part of characters’ lives, not the driving force of the story.
- A family curse can be Magical Realistic if it is passed down through the generations, and no one living understands what it really is or knows how it began.
- Stories involving life after death are usually not Magical Realism, especially those taking place in some version of the afterlife, as they are not totally realistic.
- Magical Realism can, however, include stories in which spirits or ghosts appear, but it depends on how it is presented. (See Horror, below, for more on that.)
- If the main character is a) a mythical creature or monster, b) descended from one, or c) dating one, the book is likely a paranormal romance, not magical realism. Sorry, but paranormal paramours are not allowed.
- The exception would be someone born with traits similar to those of paranormal creatures, such as in Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird, but not an actual mythical beast.
- If the main character is being chased and possibly eaten by a werewolf or other kind of monster, that generally falls somewhere in Paranormal, Supernatural, and Horror. There can be exceptions, but it is not as common, in part because it is not about ordinary people simply living their lives.
- In most cases, ghost stories would be defined as Supernatural or Horror, especially haunting or horror-type ghost stories.
- The same goes for stories about a monster trying to eat people, or the people who set out to hunt it.
- But refer to the Mythology entry above for exceptions to this based on local lore or urban legend.
“If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have ‘real’ experiences of ghosts. Magical realist fiction depicts the real world of people whose reality is different from ours.”
- Magical realism is not futuristic, nor does it take place is space or on alien planets.
- It’s not magical realism if the magic is later explained with science. That’s Science Fiction, even though it might seem like Fantasy at first glance.
- If time travel involves using a machine or some pseudo-scientific premise, it is not Magical Realism. However, time travel can be Magical Realism in stories in which a character travels through time without understanding how or why, such as Midnight in Paris.
- Alternate realities or parallel worlds and timelines would be treated the same as time travel, above. If any kind of sciency stuff is involved, it’s Science Fiction. There are numerous examples of this in the show Fringe. (Really. I’ve never seen a show with so many alternate timelines/realities/worlds in it.)
- Those stories could possibly be Magical Realism if the alternate timelines or realities are inexplicable and the tone of the overall story is somewhat magical, but it would have to be very subtle.
- Steampunk is generally classified as a subgenre of science fiction. The stories are set in unrealistic versions of the past. To some extent, they could be considered alternate realities or parallel timelines.
- This subgenre is based on the premise that technology and science evolved around steam engines, so instead of technology being motorized, it is steam-powered instead. Hence the name.
- Clockpunk is often grouped with Steampunk as they share many characteristics, such as time (Victorian Era) and place (England and/or America) and general tone of the stories (some are gritty and industrial with others more fanciful and almost surreal). Gears and clockwork mechanisms drive technology in Clockpunk instead of steam, though many stories blend the two to the point where they’re indistinguishable and are simply labeled Steampunk.
- Because there are specific rules and technologies involved in each Steampunk world, with the entire structure based upon scientific principles, these stories are most definitely not Magical Realism.
These genres/subgenres are similar to Magical Realism in many ways and are often mislabeled as Magical Realism because they have so many common traits. I won’t argue the point if some of them get grouped together under the overall umbrella of Magical Realism, though, as the lines separating these subgenres are blurred due to the inherently hazy definition of Magical Realism itself. I won’t spend a lot of time on these; just know that they exist. If you’re interested in the topic, you can always use the Google machine to do more research on your own.
In the early to mid-twentieth century—and to some extent even today—magical realism had a strong connection to surrealism, as they share a dream-like quality. They are distinct, however, in that surrealism focuses on the cerebral and psychological while magical realism centers on fantastic objects in the real world.
“Surrealism is about objects, magical realism is about people. Surrealism often, in fact, turns people into objects, while magical realism assumes some kind of a life in objects.”
The best visual examples of Surrealism come from painter Salvador Dalí, like his “Metamorphosis of Narcissus,” below.
Slipstream is the fiction of strangeness, or as another definition terms it, “unexplained strangeness.” Consider Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which a man wakes up one day as a giant bug. The film Groundhog Day is another example of Slipstream, as are many of David Lynch’s films and television shows, with Twin Peaks leading the pack. A more recent example of Slipstream in literature is China Miéville’s The City and the City.
Fabulism emphasises “the extraordinary over the ordinary, and the unusual over the usual,” which, as we’ve learned, is the opposite of Magical Realism, which focuses on the normal and mundane. Fabulist stories read like fables or parables, and are often set in times and places that seem historical but aren’t quite really. Italo Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist are two prime examples.
Metafiction is essentially what you think of when you hear the rather popular designation of “meta”: It is often called “fiction about fiction” because of its self-references. For example, in the film Stranger Than Fiction, a man hears his life being narrated by the author of the book in which he’s the protagonist as he goes about his normal life.**
Is a story Magical Realism if the main characters . . .
. . . practice magic by waving wands and saying Latin-sounding words?
. . . fight evil witches flying on broomsticks who are trying to eat their souls?
. . . use magic found in the natural world or in a Wiccan tradition?
. . . do extraordinary things without realizing it or knowing why.
*The artist, Ward Shelley, sells prints of The History of Science Fiction on his website. Imagine how inspiring it would be to have on the wall of your writing nook.
**Stranger than Fiction is one of my all-time favorite movies and something every writer should watch. Don’t let the fact that Will Ferrell stars deter you; he does an incredible job here that is so unlike pretty much everything else he’s ever done.
***See Part 3: Basic Elements of Magical Realism for more information on how to make a story magically realistic.
Part 1: What Is Magical Realism?
Part 2: What Magical Realism ISN’T
Part 3: Basic Elements of Magical Realism
Part 4: What Magical Realism Is for Me
Part 5: Magical Realism in Book and Film