This is the third in a five-part series on Magical Realism. If you haven’t read the first two, I recommend starting with Part 1: What Is Magical Realism?
“I began to wonder whether anything truly existed, whether reality wasn’t an unformed and gelatinous substance only half-captured by the senses. There was no proof that everyone perceived it in the same way; maybe Zulema, Riad Halabi, and the others had a different impression of things; maybe they did not see the same colors or hear the same sounds as I did. If that were true, each of us was living in absolute isolation. . . . At times I felt that the universe fabricated from the power of the imagination had strong and more lasting contours than the blurred realm of the flesh-and-blood creatures living around me.”
–Isabel Allende, Eva Luna
ELEMENTS OF MAGICAL REALISM
“If you are interested in writing magical realism, you do not go out and find it by inventing it, by creating wild or amazing or ghosty things. Making things up is entirely too easy, and its cardboard building material is always finally in evidence.”
At its heart, Magical Realism is simple; it’s in the process of adding elements of Magic Realism to a story that things become a bit tricky.
To break it down a bit more, think of it as
Ordinary events with a touch of the extraordinary.
Stated another way, marvelous events are presented as normal, run-of-the-mill, everyday things happening to ordinary, everyday people. These are stories of people just like us going about the things we do every day—but with the addition of a slight hint of magic running along the edges.
That might sound like other genres, such as Fantasy, but what makes Magical Realism truly different is that these magical elements are presented as just as normal to characters in these stories as snow is to someone who comes from a cold-weather clime. But to someone who has never experienced snow or ice or winter—or never even heard of it—snow is something extraordinary, and in some ways even magical.
“If your view of the world includes miracles and angels, beast-men and women of unearthly beauty, gods walking among us and ceremonies that can end a drought, then all of these things are as ordinary to you as automobiles, desert streams, and ice in the tropics. At the same time, the whole world is enchanted, mysterious. Automobiles, desert streams, and ice are all as astonishing as angels. To convey this, magical realist writers write the ordinary as miraculous and the miraculous as ordinary.”
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Let’s unpack the term Magical Realism itself.
“‘Magical,’ in magical realism, as with its companion word in translation, ‘marvelous,’ implies an appreciation of the real, rather than a distortion or replacement of it.”
Here I will default to my ever-loyal companion, the dictionary. [pause to allow groaning to subside] I promise this won’t be a dry recitation of tedious definitions; I just want to point out a few enlightening phrases from the various definitions and sub-definitions of the word magic from our good friends Merriam and Webster.
to have supernatural power over natural forces
giving a feeling of enchantment
I’m sure we all have our own understanding and definition of what makes something magical, but at its core, magic is about the extraordinary, things that aren’t natural, that are more than man can accomplish by normal means. There is a sense of astonishment about magic that allows us to suspend our disbelief, even for just a moment, to consider whether something like that really truly could actually happen.
“In magical realism, the realism plays a bigger role. The primary plot will be about real things in the real world, but there is an undercurrent of magic. It’s so real in fact, that the author may imply that the characters themselves may not be reliable narrators, so as to not be too decisive about the existence of magic. In magical realism, the magic often sneaks up on you and you wonder whether or not you’re supposed to believe it’s really happening.”
Bliss makes an important distinction there—realism should play the biggest part in any story with Magical Realism, not the magic. Like I’ve mentioned previously, it’s real life with magic along the edges, i.e., just a little bit. That means a magically realistic book should be almost completely realistic—with one or two small fantastical elements feathered in. Think of it like painting: you need a solid base coat to set the foundation for the picture (reality), so you can then paint the fine details with lighter brushstrokes (magic). And then blur it around the edges so you aren’t sure what is real and what isn’t.
Magic + Realism
What happens when the two words are forced together can only be described as magical. (Is that meta enough for you?)
“The forced relationship of the irreconcilable terms, ‘magic’ and ‘real’, mirror a fundamental human question that has indelible appeal. Magical Realism seamlessly injects beliefs that are not practical or observable into a universe influenced by science and pragmatism. This leads to perspectives and modes otherwise inexplorable. It creates an irresistible combination for readers; and a powerful narrative form for writers.”
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The Basic Elements
Now let’s move on to discussing the individual elements that combine to make a story Magical Realism.
Place is a key component here. Stories with Magical Realism can reasonably take place in any real-world locale. Small towns and rural areas are common settings for these kinds of stories, though they can be set in big cities and urban landscapes, too. It is the sense of place, or rather the atmosphere and overtone of the location, that gives the setting a magical yet realistic feel.
- A small-town diner (Pushing Daisies)
- A remote logging town (Twin Peaks)
- A ranch in Mexico (Like Water for Chocolate)
- Paris (Amélie; Midnight in Paris)
- The rural South (Big Fish; Beloved)
- War-ravaged Spain (Pan’s Labyrinth)
- On a raft in the middle of the ocean (Life of Pi)
As you can see, there isn’t any one specific type of location that makes something Magical Realism, but there must be a few common elements within each setting to make it work. Perhaps the most essential of those are atmosphere and small-town feel. Granted, a story doesn’t necessarily have to take place in a small town for it to be Magical Realism, but it needs that feeling of community where everyone knows everyone else, whether it’s in a distinctive neighborhood in a large city like New York City or Paris, the swamps of the Louisiana bayou, or even the suburbs of middle America.
What kind of characters populate Magical Realistic stories? Ordinary, average, every-day Joe Schmoes (or Jane Schmanes). These are the people you pass on the street as you make your way to the bus stop, or the folks you encounter at the grocery store as you do your weekly grocery shopping. They are just people, plain and simple.
Now, I don’t mean that the characters should be bland cardboard cutouts. Characters in any book need distinct personalities, and in many stories with Magical Realism, the folks in the background very much are characters. (Think Gilmore Girls, with its plethora of oddball characters and quirky personalities. While that show isn’t Magical Realism, toss in a few fantastical elements and it totally could be.)
Still confused? Here are a few examples of characters that can be found in Magical Realism:
- A baker (The Girl Who Chased the Moon)
- School children (Bridge to Terabithia; The Tiger Rising)
- An overweight nerd (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)
- An IRS agent (Stranger Than Fiction)
- An innkeeper (The Peach Keeper)
- Juvenile delinquents (Holes)
- Escaped convicts (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
- A traveling salesman (Big Fish)
- An airplane pilot (The Little Prince)
- A spinster aunt (Like Water for Chocolate)
Basically, anyone. (Except kings and presidents and famous actors and such, as their lives are generally extraordinary rather than ordinary.)
“Fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report.”
It seems almost unnecessary to say that Magical Realism incorporates fantastic elements in the story, whether through time or place or in the characters themselves, but it should still be mentioned, as it is one of the key components. Without this, a story would be realistic, sans magic, and both are necessary for it to be Magical Realism. (How’s that for stating the obvious?)
One example of fantastical elements in a character is Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird, in which [minor spoiler] a curse placed generations ago causes all of the male children in a family to have wings.
The key to Magical Realistic stories is that they depict everyday events in which extraordinary things happen. That’s not the same as big events, such as a momentous discovery or historical event that later shaped the world. If there is a special event, it’s more of a quieter happening that comes along regularly in the lives of your average person, like a town fair or community play.
In Big Fish, events are larger than life for a simple traveling salesman. All kinds of crazy things take place, but they all fit within his daily activities. The question throughout, though, is whether those things really did happen, or if the father’s tales of his life are just “big fish” stories that get grander with each retelling.
Speaking of time stopping and then starting up again . . . Time tends to be more fluid in Magical Realism. It doesn’t have to be linear, or necessarily flow in one direction. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, time flows backward for the main character as he ages opposite the rest of humanity—he is born an old man and dies a baby.
“Time does not always march forward in the magical realist world view. The distant past is present in every moment, and the future has already happened. Great shifts in the narrative’s time sequence reflect a reality that is almost outside of time. This accounts for ghosts, for premonitions, and the feeling that time is a great repetition rather than a progression.”
To continue with another example related to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the movie Midnight in Paris takes an American man back in time to the 1920s when he stands on a specific street corner in Paris at midnight, where he carouses with his literary heroes—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. Time travel itself is not necessarily Magical Realism, but it can be when done in a way that is somewhat mystical—as with this example, there’s no special reason why it happens or an explanation for how it does, it just is.
“In magical realism, time is often everything, but the clock is nothing. The minute hand is replaced by the breath, the hour hand by a rhythm of yawns.”
Cloud Atlas is one well-known story that bends and melds time in a dizzying pattern that somehow coalesces into a larger whole, but something of that scope is incredibly difficult to accomplish well. I, for one, will leave such things to brilliant literary minds like David Mitchell. It is, however, an excellent example of how time doesn’t necessarily behave itself in Magical Realism.
“Tone, so often, is everything. These are extraordinary stories invariably told in a normal manner. No exclamation points. The technique might be compared to understatement, when the matter is large, but is just as often overstatement, when the matter is small. The outcome is, then, regular, even as nothing ‘regular’ is being told.”
There is an air of mystery in Magical Realism, a desire to know what is real and what isn’t. You could think of it as a “quirky vibe that infuses the environment.”
Tone encompasses more than just the setting. It features heavily in the writing style and language used to convey the story, the words and phrases an author uses to describe the extraordinary everyday events that take place within the novel.
As Rios says, a big part of tone in Magical Realism is that of understatement. The same event, when written by two different authors, can produce extremely different results.
Similar to tone is atmosphere. The atmosphere or ambiance of a story can set the tone for the book overall. Setting is a big part of what creates that atmosphere.
To understand a bit better what I mean by atmosphere, consider fairytales, where forests are home to trees that move and animals that speak. There is an atmosphere present in these fairytale places that speaks of magical happenings without expressly stating it. In particular, these places are imbued with their own kind of magic while still being part of the real world in which we live. The major difference between fairytales and Magical Realism is that fairytales are too overt with their magic and don’t feel quite real enough for us to suspend our disbelief to the point where we think something like that might actually happen. (Unless you’re Guillermo del Toro, in which case all bets are off. That man can make pretty much anything seem almost plausible.)
Magical Realism is generally written in a literary style, one in which beautiful language is employed in such a way that it crafts its own magic in the story. The way a Magically Realistic story is told is what takes it from an average tale to something truly special. I won’t go into much detail here, as this is something better experienced than explained (Part 5 will offer numerous examples found in book and film). But even the little snippets from well-known works at the beginning of each post in this series offers a taste of the exquisite writing that characterizes Magical Realism.
While not all Magical Realistic stories are full-on literary in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie, they aren’t what you’d generally call “commercial,” either. The focus here is on language and style over plot. I’m a huge fan of Sarah Addison Allen’s work and fell in love almost immediately with her debut novel Garden Spells. Her work isn’t something I’d define as quote/unquote literary, but there is a deftness with which she crafts her sentences that offers a lyrical quality to the prose.
“The narrator does not provide explanations about the credibility of events described in the text. Further, the narrator is indifferent; the story proceeds with ‘logical precision’ as if nothing extraordinary took place.”
As Bliss said above (under realism), characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along. Authorial reticence is when an author withholds information from the reader to make circumstances intentionally vague so as to heighten the sense of the fantastic within the story. The characters—and thus readers—are kept in the dark so that there is an ever-present feel of mystery as events unfold.
This can be accomplished through the narration. It is easy to be ambiguous and vague with third-person narration. In third-person omniscient POV, readers see into the minds of multiple characters. Depending on how the author plays it, the narrator can either share things that are happening with various characters in the story, or as is common with third-person close or first person, keep strictly to one character’s perspective, so readers only know as much as the narrator does.
One literary device that Victorian authors loved to use to create unreliable narrators is through a frame story. A visitor to Wuthering Heights shares the fantastic events that transpire in Emily Brontë’s novel, which were told to him by a servant who had been with the family for many years. As with a game of telephone, events become distorted to the point where no one is quite sure what actually happened, imparting the story with a magical, otherworldly feel. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw employs a similar device, as the tale is shared at a party with guests gathered around a fire by a man who heard it from a friend. No one is sure whether there really were ghosts or if it was simply a governess’s steady descent into madness.*
While the magic is never clearly explained in Magical Realism, there must be some kind of internal logic that guides the mystical goings-on in the world that the characters inhabit. By its nature, magic isn’t logical, so when I say internal logic, I mean that even extraordinary things must work within the larger framework of the story and not contradict each other.
Take, for instance, a story in which characters are cursed to be like vampires,** so they can only come out at night because they’ll be burned by daylight. Except their skin also sparkles like diamonds in the sunlight, so they’re burning but sparkling at the same time. Those two things just won’t work together. (Or in some cases separately, ahem.)
In magical realism, there isn’t such a thing as coincidence; it’s all tied together in an intricate pattern that comes full circle by the end of the story. It’s not quite fate, but not unlike it either. It is perhaps better described by Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist: “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
It’s essentially the main thread that winds throughout a story, that ties all of the actors and events together in one continuous line. Events from the past influence the present and future, and sometimes, actions in the present or future can affect the past.
Part of that is because everything in interconnected. Even the small, insignificant details have meaning as part of the greater whole. What this means as far as writing Magical Realism is that problems can’t be solved with deus ex machina or some resolution that comes out of nowhere. Hints must be left throughout the story and interwoven with the narrative so that there’s somewhat of an “ahhh” moment, when readers realize where the story had been going all along even though they didn’t recognize it before. It all just makes sense.
Food is a common theme in many stories of Magical Realism. Eating is a mundane task we must do day in and day out, day after day until we die, but as anyone who has tasted something truly exquisite knows, eating can be an experience unto itself. Take that experience, add some fantastic elements such as a woman whose emotions at the moment she’s cooking are transferred to the food, making the people who eat her dishes happy or sad or myriad other emotions, and you have Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.
Nature is another theme that often crops up in Magical Realism. One reason that these stories frequently take place in less populated areas is that Magical Realism often involves nature or the natural world, whether that be in the woods out behind your house or the ocean down the path from your front porch. It is people’s connection to the land and the world around them.
While there can be an overarching theme of destiny or fate within Magical Realism, it must work organically within the story. If too much focus is placed on prophesies and chosen ones, for example, the story begins to veer into the realm of Fantasy rather than Magical Realism.
Many of the Latinx writers of magical realism during the genre’s heyday in the late twentieth century incorporated elements of dissidence and challenging authority, whether it be at home against a strict patriarchal society—a variety of books by Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, for example—or an authoritarian government or church—Gabriel Garcia Marquez used this theme in various ways throughout his work. Similarly, writers from farther north wrote of dissidence against cultural oppression, such as Toni Morrison, whose work often touches on race relations and prejudice in the United States.
There is often a sense of meaning or greater importance in Magical Realist stories. Not quite inspirational, though they can be inspiring in their own way, it is more that the world is connected with invisible ties that bind all of humanity and existence together. There is a purpose to that existence, not in a spiritual way so much as it is a reason for life in the first place.
Don’t hit too hard on symbolism, though, as that takes away from the quieter magical aspects of the story. But as mentioned above with Coincidence, events and things have a deeper meaning than what is simply on the surface.
“Magical realism is a much quieter thing on the page than one might suspect, and much louder in the heart than one can predict.”
Perhaps one of the most important elements of Magical Realism is subtlety. No grand explanations are needed for why the world works the way it does; it just is. Let readers find the magic on their own. Don’t slap readers in the face with symbolism and meaning. Instead, layer it in gently with the rest of the story.
As Paulo Coelho writes in The Alchemist, “The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.”
“Magical realism is, more than anything else, an attitude toward reality that can be expressed in popular or cultured forms, in elaborate or rustic styles in closed or open structures. In magical realism the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts. The principal thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances. In magical realism key events have no logical or psychological explanation. The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality or to wound it but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.”
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Now it’s time for a quiz:
Does it take place on Earth in a real location and time?
If yes, then…
Does the story revolve around ordinary people leading ordinary lives?
If yes, then…
Are there fantastical elements?
If yes, then…
Do these elements feel like a natural part of characters’ lives?
If yes, then…
Are the fantastical or magical elements unexplained by logic or science?
If yes, then…
Are these elements subtle and/or easily overlooked if you don’t know they are there?
If yes, then…
Is there doubt in readers’ minds about whether the fantastic elements are real or not?
If yes, then…
Is the tone of the story slightly magical?
If yes, then…
Does the writing style have a literary bent?
If yes, then… Congrats! Your book is Magical Realism.
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, your book is probably not Magical Realism.***
*While both of these books were written well before the concept of Magical Realism was developed, I would argue that they’re both excellent examples of the style. Just think of the dark, sinister atmosphere that permeates Cathy’s moor and you’ll know what I mean.
**Please note that I said cursed to be like vampires in that they can’t come out during the day, not that the characters actually are vampires, because when characters are mythical beings, the story becomes Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance rather than Magical Realism, as discussed in Part 2 of this series.
*** . . . though it might be. Yes, I’m being intentionally vague.
Part 3: Elements of Magical Realism