How To Write Magical Realism

There’s something about magical realism that draws writers to its darkly enchanting spell. Perhaps it’s the way that magical realism, a writing style that marries magic with the everyday, subverts the mundane to showcase the strange and the unexplainable. Perhaps it’s the way that magical realism captures the reader’s imagination and makes them think about the world around them in a new way. Whatever the reason, magical realism is often a writer’s favorite genre to tackle. The trickiest part, as you might imagine, is how to write magical realism.


Know what works

Magical realism is all about creating an experience for the reader, and much of that experience is wrapped up in the way the different parts of the story interact with each other. So it’s important to know what works well for the genre, as well as being aware of literary trends. This way, you’ll be able to go on writing a powerful story from the beginning that’s also perfectly suited for the reader — and that will do well once you publish. At the same time, remember to challenge yourself. Magical realism has thrived due to its popularity, but it only does so because it stands out from other styles of writing, giving people a reason to pick up and engage with a new book. Whether that uniqueness is from the style, or the subject or setting, bring your own voice and interests to the table — we bet it will pay off in a big way.

Magic realism novels may use magical creatures and events to illustrate the themes and meaning of a story, and thrill the reader by leaping outside the bounds of the real world. Other times, magical realism can be used to more endearingly bring the reader in. In Peru, writer Mario Vargas Llosa used fantastic but relatable occurrences like levitating rabbits and miniature people to bring realism into magic through juxtaposition. If you’re writing magical realism, try using these contrasting elements to give the reader something to think about that transcends the story itself. This will add another dimension to your novel, and deepen the way your reader reacts, as opposed to just simply enjoying. It all comes down to your unique goals for your story.

Make sure your magic makes sense

There’s nothing worse than a magical narrative that doesn’t follow its own rules. So before you begin, make sure not only that you understand all the rules you’re intending to apply, but that you build up a cohesive and logical idea of your universe. Make sure all the instances of magic in your narrative can be explained by your rules, even recurring topics like ghosts, vampires, prophecies, or good vs. evil. There’s a reason fantasy and science fiction often interpret real world phenomena through a different lens. Otherwise, the universe runs the risk of leaving the audience unimpressed.

It’s one thing to know how magic works in the traditional sense. It’s a different story to apply that understanding into a character’s and event’s relationship to the universe. Magic can make the fantastical true, but not without consequences. It can ease the world, but not without cost. Magic can make people wiser, but not without causing discomfort to others. It teaches children to accept the world they don’t understand, but not without heavy indoctrination. It makes sense and doesn’t without prompting. Make a list of the type of magic at play in your setting. Then list some characters and events, and explain the worlds’ reactions to them — especially the ones that pull the narrative in completely different directions.

Ask “why?”

You don’t have to start writing a magical realism story right off the bat, but if you’re familiar with the genre, it can help you evaluate your ideas and perhaps inspire some original content. What is magical realism? You might be thinking of fantastical creatures and talking cucumbers. The setting could be a bizarre world with no pretense to realism, or perhaps it has a cynical tone, making it more of a satirical take on realism. But the real question you should be asking is “why?” Why is your story magical, and why is it realistic? Readers need to have a solid grasp on physical laws to enjoy your magical realism story. They also need to believe your characters. Are the magical elements essential to the plot, or are they just for funsies? And how realistic is the ‘realism’ part of your story? Point of view plays a huge part in how readers will approach your story, so ask yourself which you’re leaning towards. Will your story be told by an unreliable narrator? Will you play into plot devices like deus ex machina, red herrings, foreshadowing, or symbolism?

There are many ways to approach magical realism, so another important question is what perspective will ground the realism in the story. For example, if you’re writing crime fiction, how might an enchanted character fit into that reality? If your main characters are living in the real world alongside magic, how does their mundane life define the plot? What will make people want to read your magical realism novel?

Avoid exposition

In magical realism, the magical elements are intertwined with the everyday world, meaning that whatever style you choose to write in will be interwoven with the other style. Because of this, there is a strong tendency to lay the groundwork for the narrative in an expository manner. However, this reveal of the magical elements should take place naturally and subtly. Although the readers may be aware of the magical elements, they should never feel as though you are exposing them. This must be done with a delicate, tender hand. When done properly magical realism can create otherworldly experiences and reveal hidden messages that are only clear on a second reading of a given text.

In order to move through the introduction of the magical elements with finesse, you must learn to write realistically. Your skill as a narrator will determine how the readers meld with the fantastic because the stylistic puzzle is dependent on the way you write. Therefore, learn to characterize, dialogue, differentiate scenes properly, and explore the physical environments. You must create plausible scenarios and describe organic emotions so that your readers will be able to feel as though they are walking in the character’s shoes. Even if you are writing in a realistic style you need to pay attention to the other elements. This will ensure that your readers will understand both facets of the narrative. When your readers are invested in the story, the magical elements will have a grander influence on them and will take precedence over the natural. However, the natural elements also need to be defined otherwise the readers will become disillusioned. When done properly magical realism becomes an act of alchemy.

Plant visual clues

The unknown is unsettling, and that’s especially true for readers who are venturing into unfamiliar territory. What kind of criteria would you use to distinguish what is normal, and what is the stuff of mysticism, if all bets are off anyway? A good rule of thumb is that any time a reader is confused about whether or not a scene is meant to be realistic, whether they literally or figuratively put the book down and walk away from it, is a break in the narrative flow. Plant visual clues that validate the reality you are writing, and maintain a flow in and out of the supernatural. Also be careful not to be too blatant with your magical realism. If you’re writing something with elves and dwarves, it’s hard to slip into tweeness. If you’re writing about magic in a family unit struggling with its immigrant roots, something that is less obviously fantastical, be careful not to slip into cliche.

It’s also important to remember that the supernatural world you bring in isn’t just a thematic backdrop — it’s an active element that must be integrated properly into the story. Early magical realism was generally apolitical, but even when examining how society frames outsiders, it’s important to examine the ways it frames your main characters — to complicate a situation, bring in a person of color, or otherwise engineer a sympathy for your viewpoint. Sometimes this can open up further ambiguity on how to describe the book. Perhaps a female writer from Vietnam may want to label her work throughout as magical realist, but decide that her work is only specifically allegorical, due to the prejudice her book might encounter. If you’re writing quietly in a genre where this kind of ambiguity is less likely, you don’t necessarily need to consider it, but your book may need to face special scrutiny when you try to sell it as realist outside of the magical realist genre. This style may be accepted, if it’s specifically progeny, or face dismissal, if it tries to cul de-sac as realist flatly.

Judicial use of detail

Magical realism often uses symbolic language to describe real-world settings in an effort to make things feel more fantastic by presenting a deeper truth. When trying to create a feeling of magic, be careful to not overwhelm the scene with too many details. This can kill the reader’s suspension of disbelief, or make the fantastic world feel stiff, mechanical, and contrived. Detail is especially important in creating a believable setting. A basic rule of thumb is that your level of detail should stay consistent with the attention your reader gives the setting. For example, if you’re exhaustive in detailing your protagonist’s minimalist kitchen and only vaguely mention the rainforest growing in her living room, the reader will feel the omission more strongly than his connection to the more carefully detailed setting. Contrast this with a detailed description of the protagonist’s childhood room, where the details aren’t extraneous, but constitute the heart and personality of that room, and the reader will be immersed, and filled with the same warm nostalgia. This is how you can write about any setting and infuse it with a deeper meaning. You just have to divine what meaning is there, and bring it to life through care in your writing.

The same approach is true of character details. Bring them to life by giving only the details that you couldn’t possibly fail to consider — this way you’ll know who your character is. As you’re filling out the details of your cast, let yourself daydream about how details might change your cast’s character. If your protagonist is a slob, readers will tolerate that extra half-empty beer bottle in the corner, but if your main character is obsessive-compulsive, every item must be accounted for in that car or bedroom. See what rules you can establish within your cast’s spaces to be consistent with their personalities.

Objects have the ability to change their core essence

Writers working to develop magic obsessed characters who bend the rules of reality should give a lot of thought to their logic frameworks. The characters themselves shouldn’t just bend or break the rules, but the rules themselves need to serve a loosely defined purpose and make sense to the reader as well. This will be most effectively developed if the characters are aware of the rules but have expanded their knowledge to the point that those binding rules don’t work anymore. For example, when the story opens, one of the characters might break the law of gravity by flying which gives them the seeming power to alter the environment. Later, that same character might alter their perceptions enough to believe that, say, a chair will come to life, or that a carpet will feel what they are feeling. As the character develops, they will grow more confident, until fields of metaphysics become available and they can change things to their will. From then, it isn’t much of a stretch to go the whole way and become God.

Balance a fascination with the supernatural with logic. As you build your world, you’ll want to keep it believable — this can be hinted at through fantastical objects that hint at the existence of the principle. Later, you can have the character discover the field of metaphysics and they can bend the objects to their will but only to a point before it becomes absurd. For example, a supernatural object is needed to recognize that as important as the object is to the character, there is still logic that keeps the objects from too much peculiarity. Rather than having the carpet he has always sat on magically realizing that he doesn’t feel good to sit on, it might just be a blanket that he used in a beach at some point and likes the feel of the sand stuck in its fibers. Another practical way to keep the world from getting too much out of hand is to have the story take place in a limited one — a house, a town, a country. This keeps the object count down, and therefore the room for magical qualities becomes much more manageable.

Let your environment impact your writing

All writing is political. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly true when writing magical realism, a genre that blends elements of social commentary and political outrage in its familiar narratives of The City. At its core, magical realism is about narrating a story that deceptively normalizes the weirdness of the magical. However, while many magical realist novels are set in the familiar spaces of a city, not all have to be. Many magical realist writers have gone against the grain, telling inspirational tales of mojados or boy-goddesses in far flung places both real and esoteric. In doing so, they’ve not only created stories that took readers by surprise, they’ve created writing that took the political realities of the time and made them surreal, while also revering off their power.

No matter where you are in your magical realism story — whether you’re writing a short story or something more expansive — it’s important to know that magic exists in every city, that there is no place in the world where it could not creep in. As you chronicle your characters’ struggle against the everyday mundane of the world in which they live, remember that somewhere, someone, is trudging through the same bureaucracy. But as this style can open a variety of story worlds, it can also be difficult to organize and remember all the key details. To begin writing a magical realism piece, try to form the story premise as specifically as possible. What is the very essence of your story? Then, go through your notes, previous shorter works, or even a city planner, to find three or four magical elements and combine them into a main conflict for the story. This is what will give it the complexity readers want in their magical realist stories. If your idea is complex enough though, the work won’t be far behind.

Ultimately, the decision of what branches of magic realism you want to play with and how you want to push the boundaries of the genre is yours, the writer, to make. Just remember that your genre is ultimately about what you can get away with, which is to say, you should feel free to disregard any and all rules. It’s your world, after all! But whatever you choose, just have fun with it. In magical realism, anything can happen — and as the master of your words, you have the final say on what that anything is. Good luck!

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