Writers in the Storm

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December 23, 2022

Tips For Writing Magical Realism

by Ellen Buikema

Magical Realism portrays the real world with a hint of fantasy. By not recognizing the magical aspects as supernatural, these elements become normal. For the characters, there’s nothing surprising about it.

The Beginnings of Magical Realism

Some say that the genre began in 1920s Germany in painting such as Beach of Dangast with Flying Boat by artist Franz Radziwill. Others suggest that Magical Realism began far earlier.

Author Gabriel García Márquez explained that Magical Realism arose from tales told to children by the Grandmothers as if the events really happened, because the Grandmothers believed they did.

Márquez was raised by his maternal grandparents in Colombia. His grandmother’s belief in magic, superstition, and spirits carries on in his stories.

“The narrator doesn’t get upset when out-of-this-world things happen, nor does he dismiss them or try to explain them. That would be considered disrespectful to the Grandmothers. Instead, he allows the reader to inhabit the expansive possibilities but doesn’t directly state his beliefs about it. It can feel like those dreams where you think: “I knew I could fly,” and the mornings after in which you might be inclined to try. And perhaps, like the supposed rapturous, levitating nuns, you can.” GG Márquez

Writing a successful Magical Realism story requires an understanding of the difference between Magical Realism and fantasy.

Fantasy VS Magical Realism

  • Fantasy stories are set in fictional worlds, whereas Magical Realism stories are set in our world.
  • Magical Realism stories focus on more everyday issues and concerns. Fantasy often involve a hero’s journey to save the world or special someone from a great evil.
  • Fantasy stories often rely on supernatural elements. Magical Realism use some of these elements, woven together so well that they're considered normal by the characters.

Include Subtle Magical Elements

Subtle supernatural happenings add to many parts of the story. This includes the development of the characters, narrative, and creation of conflict.

Deciding how these supernatural elements weave into your story is important. You’ll need to figure out why they occur in your story.

Magical elements should be purposeful. Figuring out how and why they belong helps with their role in the plot.

Magical Realism in fiction

When you think of Magical Realism, consider Latin American writers like Isabel Allende. American authors Aimee Bender, Paul Yoon, and Alice Hoffman, or Japanese magical realist Haruki Murakami may come to mind.

Gabriel García Márquez is credited with reinvigorating Latin American writing. In his novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, he stated that “he was just writing the world as he saw it, that he wasn’t trying to embellish.” In this story, ghosts are seamlessly worked into the everyday world as well as odd details like a rain that lasts almost five years.

As a foodie, I very much enjoy the magical realism that reflect the emotions of the characters in Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate . The protagonist cooks meals that cause those who eat them to feel what she feels. When she is sad, they are sad. When she is feeling amorous while cooking, it’s a love fest for all.

In Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, she stated, “the main character develops a ‘power’ to taste the emotional life of the cook in the food she’s eating.”

You can steep your story with these types of reflective events.

Other examples of the genre in fiction are:

Elements Common in Magical Realism

These include:

  • Focus on the everyday: Magical realism often focuses on day-to-day life and issues. This grounds the story in reality and makes the magical elements surprising to the reader when introduced.
  • Use a realistic setting: The setting is often based on an actual location, or modeled on one, with buildings and people you might see anywhere.
  • Sense of the unsettling: Magical Realism frequently uses elements that are strange. This can be done through descriptions of otherworldly creatures or abilities.
  • Blended use: A creature may have both human and animal characteristics. An object can have mundane as well as magical uses.
  • Use a non-linear structure: The story may not carry on in a linear fashion, and may be experienced on repeat, or twisted like a Mobius strip. Think an Escher staircase, but as a timeline. There can be great shifts.
    • A moment can be made to feel like 100 years, or vice versa.
    • The story can progress without the use of flashbacks or flash forwards.

With these elements in mind, you can write a Magical Realism story that will hook and enthrall your readers.

What stories do you enjoy that use Magical Realism? If you were to write in this genre, which magical elements would you chose and why?

* * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Image by ThePixelman from Pixabay

26 comments on “Tips For Writing Magical Realism”

  1. Another genre writer (women's fiction) who's known for magical realism is Sarah Addison Allen. Love her stories

  2. This couldn't have come at a better time! I've been trying to figure out where my stories fit and how to create better keywords. Now I get it. I write magical realism. This succinct description was perfect. Thank you!

    1. Hi Candace,

      I'm glad the article is a help!

      My hubby, the grammar police, read over the piece and we ended up having a rather existential discussion.

      What element (s) of magic are you using in your story?

      1. Ellen, my stories have always been contemporary romance, but I've been calling them PNR. When you drill down to the essence, they really aren't paranormal, though. My magical peeps have ordinary lives in regular towns, using their gifts sparingly and only as needed, but not to move the plot along. My current series features wizards and witches who coexist with non-magical Ordinaries. One character is an eight-year-old emerging wizard who is mute. He annoys his mother to no end by moving things around by just pointing at them. Like the time he was angry with the school principal (an Ordinary) and lifted his chair with him in it and let him hover. Needless to say, the child had to change schools.

  3. Thanks for your clear description. With your permission I'll quote you in a facebook about "What is Magical Realism?" I would do that with the photo of 3 of my books that I believe fit this classification. They are called change of Luck.

    The stories are based upon a $100 bill that continually returns to the one who possess it. Wouldn't you like to have a bill that you can spend over and over again?

    The characters in these stories discover the reaction of friends or vendors who find they don't have the money that was given to them. They express their displeasure sometimes in painful ways. Because the holder of the bill received it from someone else it is possible to pass it on to another, but how? (A touch of mystery and suspense.)

  4. Thank you for this post, Ellen. I had not thought about writing magical realism, but an idea brewing in my mind might lend itself to such.
    But first, I must read some of the books you mention. 😊

    1. Wonderful!
      I'm happy that this post is useful.
      You'll have to let us know what you write next.

  5. Hi Ellen,

    I am a fan of magical realism. Like Water for Chocolate is a great example.
    I also read The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which was a historical with Magical Realism. A fun read for sure.

    Thanks for this literary journey and examples of this style that can be confusing.

    1. I hear you about the confusion, Kris. We had an interesting, spirited discussion at home on this topic.

      I'll have a look at The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I am a big fan of historical fiction, so the combination sounds irresistible.

  6. Excellent post, Ellen! And thank you for the clearest distinction I've seen for the difference between magical realism and fantasy. And it made me want to go back & reread Bradbury.

      1. Hi, Ellen - sorry this reply took so long. I've been AFK with holidays. No, I don't have a particular Bradbury favorite. I remember hearing him speak at a class taught by Harlan Ellison. Harlan made him promise not to read his whale poetry; Bradbury promised and then did it anyway.

    1. Hi Denise,

      Magical Realism isn't everyone's cup of tea. I'm glad that you found some take-aways.

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