If you’re writing a book and aren’t sure if it’s magical realism or something else, you’re in the right place. There are differences, and knowing the genre you’re writing in is one of the best ways to learn and grow in your writing skillsets.
Even if you want to write magical realism and just aren’t sure where to start with it, this guide will help you get a clear picture of what this genre is, and even more importantly, what it isn’t. Because differentiating your story and fulfilling genre expectations is a huge part of the art of the writing craft.
Here’s what you’ll learn about magical realism:
What is magical realism?
Magical realism is a genre where events only explainable by magic take place in a contemporary setting where magic is not the norm, with the purpose of showcasing truths about the real world we live in. The focus of magical realism isn’t on magic, but on the people and real world.
Basically, it’s where the author writes the magic as a major, abnormal occurrence in the everyday life of the characters and their world. It’s a core piece of the story, but the story isn’t about magic itself. Oftentimes, an author of magical realism makes the magic symbolize something in the real world, and the plot is then meant to show the audience a deeper truth about our experience in the real world.
This is specifically how magical realism is different from the fantasy genre itself.
Difference Between Magical Realism and Fantasy
The main difference between magical realism and fantasy is what the story is fully about. If it’s about the magic itself and is set in a magical world, it’s fantasy. If the magic is a part of an otherwise normal, contemporary world, then it’s likely magical realism.
Technically, magical realism would fall under the “fantasy” genre, and is therefore a specific subgenre that can be difficult to pinpoint.
It’s easier to make sense of with examples of magical realism contrasted with the common stories we know are fantasy—like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.
Examples of Magical Realism in Books
Sometimes differences can be so subtle that you really only understand them when given many examples. I learn this way, so I’ve included a list of examples of magical realism that can help make sense of an otherwise confusing definition.
1. The House on the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
This is arguably magical realism and not necessarily just fantasy. While yes, there’s magic and magical creatures who can do magical things, but the book is also about something incredibly ordinary in life and our world. The author beautifully illustrates certain themes and uses the magic as a container to do so.
That’s what makes it magical realism.
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece is a quintessential example of magical realism. Set in the fictional town of Macondo, the novel unfolds the multi-generational story of the Buendía family. From the levitating Remedios the Beauty to the mysterious gypsies who bring technological marvels, Marquez seamlessly integrates magical elements into the fabric of daily life, creating a world where the extraordinary is treated as ordinary.
3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie is another iconic example of work that skillfully employs magical realism. The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is born at the exact moment of India’s independence, imbuing him with supernatural powers. As Saleem navigates through the tumultuous events of post-colonial India, Rushdie utilizes both magic and reality, blurring the lines between history and mythology.
4. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende book is a Chilean novel that intertwines the personal and political sagas of the Trueba family. Allende seamlessly incorporates magical elements, such as clairvoyance and spirits, into the narrative. The result is a story that transcends the boundaries of time and reality, offering a captivating exploration of the mystical and the mundane.
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s novel, while often categorized as magical realism, also incorporates elements of the supernatural. Set in the post-Civil War era, it tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave haunted by the spirit of her deceased daughter. The novel uses the haunting as a metaphor for the lingering trauma of slavery.
Both the use of the supernatural (a form of magic) and the strong symbolism stick this example in the magical realism genre.
6. The Echo of Old Books by Barbara Davis
This story centers on Ashlyn, a rare book dealer with a magic ability to sense the lives of the books’ previous owners. She soon finds a volume that looks like it’s never been published, and discovers a love story she has to untangle. The ordinary part of this book is rooted in the book dealer, mundane lifestyle. Because the author gave her character a special ability, it allows this one to be held in the magical realism genre.
How to Use Magical Realism to Write Your Book
Remember that the order of these can change depending on your own creative process, but do make a point to focus on each of them, along with the standard steps for writing a quality novel, of course.
1. Choose a Realistic (and boring) Setting
Ground your story in a well-defined, realistic setting. Whether it’s a small town, a bustling city, or a historical period, create a vivid backdrop for your narrative. This sets the stage for the magical elements to stand out in contrast.
One way you can make your book very specific and niche, and therefore unique and more likely to sell, is to choose first a place, then a very odd but uninteresting job for your main character. Maybe they’re a custodian of an art museum (though the museum setting has been done many times before).
Think about how many random jobs there are in this world—some you don’t even know about—and try to use one of those. It’s always a bonus if you have experience in that field yourself or can talk to someone close to it.
Here are examples of odd, but very ordinary jobs to use as a setting backdrop:
- the person who puts labels on mixtures at the apothecary
- the person in charge of interior design and construction of new restaurants, bars, or coffee shops
- the cook at an assisted living facility
- the person who dyes yarn
- the driver for a celebrity car service
These are off the top of my head, but each would make your main character a very “ordinary” but interesting person and the setting of this average working world would be perfect for magical realism.
2. Give Us Average Elements
Populate your story with ordinary, relatable characters and situations. The mundane acts as a canvas upon which the magical can unfold, making the fantastical elements more impactful and surprising.
By ordinary and average, we just mean to not make your main character or their life “special”. They’re not really the chosen one. They’re not on a hero’s journey. They do a job, get their pay, and live their life. They’re likely a normal person with normal problems and desires.
The conflicts in this story can be realistic, like family dynamic challenges or workplace squabbles. Focus on these as the plot points and the magic will be a separate element.
3. Choose the Magical Element
Clearly define the magical element or elements you want to introduce. It could be a supernatural power, a mystical object, or a fantastical creature. Ensure that these elements have a symbolic or thematic connection to the broader narrative.
In the example of The House on the Cerulean Sea, the author wrote about a character who’s just an ordinary caseworker for orphanages. It just so happens that the orphanages here are for magical children.
The character, a caseworker = ordinary
The setting, orphanages = ordinary
The magical element = magical children for the orphanages
This is how that books works really well. TJ Klune chose a really interesting magical element to go with the average character and ordinary setting, which made all of it together even more special.
Here’s an examples of how to use those ordinary jobs in average settings and add a magical element that compliments it:
- The character: A person who dyes yarn
- The setting: A yarn factory
- Magical Element: A color-changing yarn that adjusts to a person’s inner feelings
- Premise: Rodrick dyes yarn in a factory for a living when one night, late for an order, he falls asleep and awakes with colored yarn that he doesn’t realize changes color to showcase a person’s mood.
- Theme: It’s beneficial and good for people to share how they’re feeling
Why it works: the magical element is directly related to the main character’s life and world. While a large factory is an ordinary setting, the colorful promise of dyed yarn and color-changing yarn is a fun and interesting contrast. The theme is also connected to the magic used, and developing our character further, we’ll likely find that he needs the lesson more than most.
4. Keep it Consistent
Establish rules for your magical elements and adhere to them consistently throughout the story. Whether it’s a specific logic governing the magical occurrences or a set of consequences, maintaining internal consistency helps create a more immersive and believable world.
If we use the example of the color-changing yarn (and therefore scarves, hats, sweaters, etc. that change color), then we have to establish certain rules for that. You never really have to state these in the story, but you have to know the rules and only write within them.
5. Highlight Symbolism and Themes
Use the magic in your story to explore deeper themes and symbolism within your story. Magical realism often serves as a metaphor or allegory, allowing you to convey complex ideas or emotions through fantastical elements.
Think of the magic in this genre as the symbol. It’s not often random, with the theme disconnected from the magic itself.
Even in The House on the Cerulean Sea the children who are magic symbolize real-life children in orphanages who are often very different and “odd” because of their history and life circumstances. In the example of the color-changing yarn, the symbolism is in what the magic does: shows a person’s inner feelings.
6. Use Cultural Context
If your story is set in a specific cultural or historical context, draw inspiration from the myths, folklore, and traditions of that culture. This not only adds authenticity but also enriches the narrative with cultural depth. Just make sure that you’re using research and facts to inform your story, and not assumptions and stereotypes.
You don’t want to insult people of these cultures.
This can give you a whole other way of choosing magical elements and setting, so this step may be beneficial to decide early-on in the process.
Magical realism can be a tricky genre to write in! But if you want to write a quality story, you need more than just a few tips to get it right. If you want to dive a bit deeper and plan out a great story, check out this one-hour class: