What is magical realism? Imagine a woman discovers she can cry fabric (instead of water), so she starts a clothing business where she knots her tears into dresses.
This odd blending of the magical and the mundane constitutes the elements of magical realism, a wonderful genre for writers of all paths. Magical realism authors populate many of today’s fiction journals, and magical realism books have recently won Pulitzer, Nobel, and Booker Prizes.
Yet, because the genre is growing in popularity, many writers have a sense of what magical realism means but apply it incorrectly. (For example, the Harry Potter series would not be considered a set of magical realism books. I’ll explain why later!)
But if those books don’t count, then what is magical realism in literature? Let’s unpack this genre step-by-step, starting with the basic components of magical realism stories and ending with tips for writing the genre yourself.
What is Magical Realism in Literature?
In short, “magical realism” describes a work of fiction where fantasy slips into everyday life. However, the focus isn’t on the fantastical elements of the story, so much as on what those elements mean for the characters. Fantasy often acts as an extended metaphor, externalizing some sort of internal conflict or moral quandary in the protagonist’s life.
Magical realism definition: a genre in which fantasy slips into everyday life.
Some great magical realism examples show up in Carmen Maria Machados’ collection Her Body and Other Parties. Stories include: a detective connects a string of assaults in New York City to a wave of spiritual turbulence; two women have a baby without a father; and, a man wonders about the ribbon connecting his wife’s head to her body. In all of these examples, the plot starts with a dash of fantasy, but the story isn’t concerned with the logic of magic, just its aftermath.
Other magical realism authors include Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and Aimee Bender. While their plots and writing styles differ, these pioneers of the genre included the following elements in their magical realism stories:
- Brief exposition based on the occurrence of something magical or supernatural.
- A focus on the real world implications of that brief magical phenomenon; in other words, a “literary fiction” style of writing, without any traditional plot structure.
- The use of fantasy as an extended metaphor, often representing something internal to the protagonist.
What is magical realism? It’s literary fiction with just a dash of fantasy.
Another way to put it: magical realism is literary fiction with just a dash of fantasy. This is why works of fiction like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus wouldn’t be considered magical realism: though these novels often occupy real world settings, their plots require fantastical creatures and places to keep the story going. This is also why Harry Potter doesn’t count: though the castles and Department of Magic are both vaguely “muggle-esque,” the books require too much world building for the series to be anything other than fantasy.
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A Brief History of Magical Realism
Charting the history of any genre is tricky. While historians can track when a term was first used, deciding when a genre began is a wholly different matter. For example, some writers argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel. If that were the case, then Voltaire’s Micromegas would just be a fever dream, not an advanced work about interplanetary travel.
Magical realism shares much the same conundrum. The genre certainly began in Latin America: much of the folklore and storytelling in South and Central America relies on the elements that today’s magical realism stories use.
Much of the folklore and storytelling in South and Central America relies on elements that today’s magical realism stories use.
It makes sense, then, for the genre’s pioneers to hail from Latin America, and many historians credit Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende for popularizing magical realism. Allende’s stories blend elements of Chilean folklore with modern twists, while Marquez’s stories dwell on utopia and the freedom of love. Importantly, many magical realism authors used the genre with subtle political intent, criticizing or subverting the political unrest that many South American nations endured in the 20th century.
Although magical realism is a distinctly Latin American invention, works of fiction that far predate the genre still uphold its basic requirements. For instance, many Greek and Roman myths could be considered magical realism examples. The story of Icarus uses magical wings as a metaphor for hubris—the same metaphor which later inspired Micromegas. Likewise, the tragedy of Medusa also relies on just a sprinkle of fantasy: once Athena turns Medusa into a snake-haired monster, there is no further need for magical intervention, we must merely observe Medusa’s estrangement from society and eventual slaughter at the hands of Perseus.
All of this to say: modern writers can find inspiration throughout history. The use of fantasy to tell stories is as old as storytelling itself—perhaps fantasy is even innate to the human experience.
How to Write Magical Realism
Where does one begin writing magical realism stories? First, you want to be sure that your story adheres to the elements of magical realism. Those three elements, as we’ve discussed, are 1) Magical exposition, 2) Storytelling through the conventions of literary fiction, and 3) The use of fantasy as an extended metaphor.
Let’s use a short story for comparison. Carmen Maria Machado’s “Especially Heinous” is a longer read, but I’ll summarize how the story works as magical realism without any spoilers, as I highly encourage you to read it if you’re interested in how to write magical realism.
“Especially Heinous” does the following:
- Exposition: “Especially Heinous” pushes boundaries by having two fantasy plots interweave through the story. One element involves the dark drum of Manhattan’s spirits; the other involves unexplained doppelgangers whose job performance exceeds that of the protagonists.
- Storytelling: Despite these impossible plot lines, the story largely explores how Stabler and Benson investigate their surreal experiences, with many “episodes” devoted entirely to a character’s internal life. Contemporary fiction often seeks to expand the boundaries of form, and this story’s narrative construction certainly expands those boundaries, using episode summaries in lieu of paragraphs.
- Extended metaphor: In brief, the irate spirits of Manhattan’s voiceless women represent a kind of rejection of sexism and rape culture. Many of the girls with bells for eyes were underage victims of murder and male violence, and though the story was written before the #MeToo movement, it captures much of the western feminist zeitgeist. As for the doppelgangers, perhaps they represent an idealized version of the protagonists—versions of themselves without the weight of past trauma.
Take this reading like a writer approach yourself and try to map how the following stories adhere to these three qualities.
Magical Realism Examples
You might find inspiration for your own work in these magical realism examples, which all come from published works of literature. Pay attention to how magical elements are interwoven into everyday life, and how those elements act as metaphors or symbols.
- “The Autumn of the Patriarch” by Gabriel García Márquez
- “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” by Haruki Murakami
- “The Daughters of the Moon” by Italo Calvino
- “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges
- “The Rememberer” by Aimee Bender
- “The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link
- “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell
- “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel García Márquez
- “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
- “Headlights” by Samanta Schweblin
- “If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think” by Helen Oyeyemi
- “The Journey of the Eyeball” by Katherine Vaz
Finding Inspiration for Magical Realism Stories
Where can you turn to find inspiration for your next magical realism stories? Because this genre is both exciting and contemporary, the digital literary world has come to love it. For example, this magical realism bot on twitter posts the kind of zany, out-of-the-box plots that the genre is known for. Starting with the plots on this twitter account could jumpstart something new and magical in your own writing life.
Of course, the inspiration for a book can come from other novels, too. Any of the titles on this list of 100 magical realism books should satisfy your curiosity—while fueling the urge to write fiction.
However, the best stories are inspired by everyday life. Speaking on Especially Heinous, Carmen Maria Machado admits that the inspiration came from a days-long binge of Law & Order while suffering through a fever. If an author can find magic in NBC reruns, where else might there be magic?
Try combining two things: a facet of mundane life and a certain interest or hyperfixation.
Try it yourself. To start your next magical realism story, try combining two things: a facet of mundane life and a certain interest or hyperfixation. The two should meld together with ease, like how, in “Samsa in Love,” Haruki Murakami blends everyday romance with a keen fixation on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Then, flesh out the idea by outlining the story’s exposition, storytelling, and extended metaphor. With any luck, this outlining will catapult you directly into the story’s first line.
Finally, as you write your story, you’ll encounter many opportunities to expand the meaning of your extended metaphor and push the limits of fantasy. Lean into these moments; allow your story its zaniness.
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What will your next magical realism stories be about? Whether an American woman starts sweating Euros or a stockbroker embodies the concept of zero, take the plunge on your writing—we look forward to reading it!