Tales of the fantastic have long had a special place in readers’ hearts—the idea that something extraordinary might be waiting just around the corner, or simmering beneath our day-to-day lives. When the poet W. B. Yeats said “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,” he was talking about magical realism.
But what is magical realism, where does it come from, and how can you embrace this literary genre in your own storytelling? Let’s dive into everything you need to know about this timeless, bestselling genre.
What is magical realism in literature?
In literature, magical realism (sometimes called magic realism or marvelous realism) refers to a story with fantastical elements that are firmly rooted in the world we know. These magical aspects are accepted as part of the fabric of everyday life, rather than something shocking or “Other.”
Sometimes, the magic in magical realism will be left to the reader’s interpretation: was the mother really under a curse, or was it a manifestation of mental illness? Did the boy really influence people’s dreams with his emotions, or were they caused by the subconscious trying to make sense of a difficult situation?
Often the magic and the ordinary will be so closely intertwined that you can’t quite tell where one ends and the other begins.
Unlike fantasy and science fiction, magical realism uses fantastical elements solely as a tool to highlight deep characterization and theme. We’ll talk more about the difference between magical realism and fantasy below.
A quick history of magical realism
Magical realism as a literary movement is often associated with the narratives and folklore of Latin American literature, though in reality these types of stories are much older.
The term “magic realism” was first used by the German art critic Franz Rouh in 1925. It was originally used to describe an art movement and visual aesthetic (and some might argue that magical realism is still really about the “vibes” today), but quickly became embraced as a literary trend by writers from Latin America like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Jorge Luis Borges.
In their work, aspects of traditional folklore and speculative elements appeared seamlessly beside real-world experiences.
In 1955, the literary critic Angel Flores first used the term “magical realism” to describe the work of writers like these ones. Since then, their European counterparts, as well as many other writers and filmmakers worldwide, have embraced Latin American magical realism and its trend of gently bringing the extraordinary into the ordinary in order to explore rich, universal themes.
Literary scholars have also looked to much earlier work to try and find the root of the magical realist genre, pointing to novels like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as having magical realist elements.
Magical realism vs. fantasy
So if magical realism is characterized by its magical elements, how does it differ from true fantasy?
Fantasy brings the ordinary into the extraordinary
Previously we talked about how magical realism brings the “extraordinary into the ordinary.” Fantasy literature is more about bringing the ordinary into the extraordinary.
What do we mean by that? Most fantasy novels will bring us—the reader, and often the protagonist—into a world different from our own. Harry Potter is a classic example. You might think it could be considered magical realism because there are driveways and briefcases and all these other frightfully dull things we recognize from our own world. What makes it fantasy genre fiction is that it hinges on a world different from the one we know.
Harry Potter, a very ordinary boy from a very ordinary if psychologically abusive home, is thrown into an extraordinary magical world where everything is different. If it were a magical realism story, that magic would have been a part of our world the whole time.
Fantasy is driven by plot
Fantasy is almost always high stakes, filled with life-changing events and irrevocable choices. The protagonist has a concrete, magical goal: finding an ancient amulet, destroying an artifact of great power, embracing a supernatural legacy in order to defeat a tyrannical warlord.
Magic realism, on the other hand, is driven by two primary story elements: character and theme.
The magical elements of these stories will always be in support of powerful messages and explorations into the human psyche. For example, a physical transformation from human to animal might be a metaphor for an intense personal transformation. These supernatural elements will be more subtle than in fantasy, because they’re only being used as props to hold up the real story.
Remember: if you can remove the fantastical elements without changing very much about the heart of the story, it’s probably magical realism. If you remove the fantastical elements and the story falls apart, it’s fantasy. In The Chronicles of Narnia, what happens if you remove Narnia from the story? You get The Chronicles of Some Moth-Eaten Old Coats.
Elements of magical realism stories
While magical realism books can span a wide range of ideas, time periods, and supernatural influences, they do have a few things in common that identify them as part of the magical realism genre. Let’s take a closer look at the essential elements all magical realist literature should have.
Magical realism uses supernatural or otherworldly elements to explore different aspects of human nature. This means rich, engaging, and clearly drawn characters need to be at the forefront of your magic realist narrative.
You can use fantasy elements in magical realism to explore growth, discovery, or psychological weaknesses like addiction or mental illness through the lens of magic. Showing deep, complex issues in a magical realist style allows you the freedom to explore facets of character in a new way.
Your characters might be human or they might be something slightly more, but they should have human aspects that we recognize from within ourselves. This places them firmly in a literary realism narrative while highlighting underlying themes in a new way.
A realistic setting is integral to magical realism books. It might be the world you see outside your window every day, or it might be an unfamiliar culture from a distant country, but it should be a setting you know to be true that is considered normal in the world you know.
The most effective magic realism stories bring magical events into mundane life. This means your setting should provide a juxtaposition of normalcy against the supernatural beings or unexpected occurrences of the plot.
Rather than grand, sweeping elven landscapes, your story might take place in a post office, a dirt road behind the supermarket, or a music festival—the familiar settings of everyday life.
Symbolism and metaphor are some of the most important elements of magical realism. These narratives are used to communicate a broader theme, which means the plot of the story usually serves as an extended metaphor for the real message.
For example, maybe your character wakes up one day and notices that their shadow is missing. You, the author, know that you’re not really writing about a shadow—what is it? The character’s sense of direction and purpose? Their creative inspiration? Their bodily autonomy? As your character deals with the repercussions of a shadowless life and moves through the story trying to get it back, what they’re really doing is searching for something else.
By using symbolism and hidden meanings, you can illustrate complex character journeys with magical elements.
Why are magical realism stories effective?
The magic realism literary style has exploded in recent years and shows no sign of slowing down. But why has this combination of fantasy and literary fiction become so popular? Let’s look at a few reasons readers (and writers!) resonate so strongly with magical realism.
They help process trauma
The filter of fiction, especially magical realism, can be an excellent lens through which to view and process sensitive subjects.
For example, maybe you’re turning to writing in order to understand sexual assault, but you’re finding it too challenging to tackle head on. Instead, you could approach the overall shape from a different direction. You might write about a woman who, after an intimate encounter, finds something has been taken from her—her voice, her name, her happiest childhood memory. Or maybe she undergoes a physical transformation, an allegory of the way society views these victims.
Magical realism can give writers a sort of back door to tough topics that allow you to look around, settle in, and figure out how you feel about them. That’s how these stories become powerful forces for healing, for both the writer and the reader.
They communicate social commentary
In the same way that speculative and fabulist elements can offer a new approach to sensitive content, they can also offer magical realists a new approach to politics and observations about a given culture.
If you want to explore an issue the world is facing today, but you fear it might be too inflammatory or contentious, try approaching it through magical realism.
For example, you could write a story about a town where family photo albums are beginning to disappear, and the fallout of people losing touch with their heritage and family stories, as a way of challenging the violent censorship facing the literary community.
By using magical realism, political topics can become less frightening and more approachable and you can help people understand them in a new way.
They highlight new perspectives
You’ll often hear hard genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi being called “escapist literature.” Magical realism is the opposite; rather than “escaping” reality, it tackles it head on. This style of story is designed to make people think about their world a little differently, or consider perspectives on social or cultural topics that they hadn’t before.
Magical realism is all about taking ordinary occurrences and tilting them just slightly off center. It’s these fresh looks into everyday life that bring societal issues to the forefront and help affect real change in the world.
Examples of magical realism in literature
To see how these themes and ideas look in practice, let’s review a few examples of bestselling magical realism authors that epitomize this literary genre.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
A classic pioneer in magical realism literature, this novel follows seven generations of a family in Latin America. Incorporating fabulism and folklore, Gabriel Garcia Márquez writes of the triumphs and tragedies of a legacy beginning with a man who dreams a city of mirrors into being. Ghosts, curses, and the spirit world are commonplace in this city, accepted as a natural part of living. A fluidity of time heightens the feeling of surrealism and displacement as reality and the unknown blur together.
Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen
Sarah Addison Allen’s magical realism family saga sees each member of the Waverley family born with a special talent. One can manipulate others with food, one can give people a fresh start in life by giving them a new hairstyle, one always knows exactly what people will need just before they need it. And although the Waverleys are gifted with magic, other families in town have certain quirks—such as the one with an unnaturally strong man born once every generation. This novel brings fantasy elements gently into the world we know as if they’d always been one and the same.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
In this magical realism story, a man returns to his hometown after many years away and slowly uncovers repressed memories about an experience from his childhood. This novel—thought to be the author’s most autobiographical—unravels what it is to be a child in a world where everything is so much bigger and scarier than you. Neil Gaiman presents a version of the world we know where enchanting and terrifying primordial wonder is lying just on the other side of the field.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
Returning to the age-old enchantment of food, this magical realism novel follows a young girl with the power to sense people’s emotions from the food they’ve made. A lemon cake made by a happy, carefree housewife turns out to be not so happy and carefree after all, and suddenly everyone’s deepest secrets are opened with a touch of the tongue. Aimee Bender’s story explores the gap between the face we present to the world and the struggles and secrets lying underneath.
Bringing magical realism into your own writing
To bring magical realism into your novel or short story, remember that magical realism is all about big, thematic ideas. Think about the message you’re trying to send through your writing (you can check out our article on theme for ideas!), and ask yourself if there’s another way to present its core story shape.
Instead of bringing in lots of supernatural elements, ask yourself what the real world would be like if just one thing was different.
If someone’s loss self-actualized as physical emptiness, if taking a photograph allowed us to see someone else’s memories, if shadows could feel envy and love. What else would change as a result of this one small thing, and how would it affect our ability to process times of emotional upheaval? These questions form the core of your story.
As W. B. Yeats wisely observed, magic is around us all the time—especially for writers. Our job is to find it, sculpt it into stories, and then use it to help others heal and grow.