Characteristics (Fiction)

Jackie Craven, ‘Introduction to Magical Realism’,

‘Magical realism, or magic realism, is an approach to literature that weaves fantasy and myth into everyday life. What’s real? What’s imaginary? In the world of magical realism, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and the magical becomes commonplace … Also known as “marvelous realism,” or “fantastic realism,” magical realism is not a style or a genre so much as a way of questioning the nature of reality. In books, stories, poetry, plays, and film, factual narrative and far-flung fantasies combine to reveal insights about society and human nature. The term “magic realism” is also associated with realistic and figurative artworks — paintings, drawings, and sculpture — that suggest hidden meanings …’

‘It’s easy to confuse magical realism with similar forms of imaginative writing. However, fairy tales are not magical realism. Neither are horror stories, ghost stories, science fiction, dystopian fiction, paranormal fiction, absurdist literature, and sword and sorcery fantasy. To fall within the tradition of magical realism, the writing must have most, if not all, of these six characteristics:

1. Situations and Events That Defy Logic: In Laura Esquivel’s lighthearted novel “Like Water for Chocolate,” a woman forbidden to marry pours magic into food. In “Beloved,” American author Toni Morrison spins a darker tale: An escaped slave moves into a house haunted by the ghost of an infant who died long ago. These stories are very different, yet both are set in a world where truly anything can happen.

2. Myths and Legends: Much of the strangeness in magic realism derives from folklore, religious parables, allegories, and superstitions. An abiku — a West African spirit child — narrates “The Famished Road” by Ben Okri. Often, legends from divergent places and times are juxtaposed to create startling anachronisms and dense, complex stories. In “A Man Was Going Down The Road,” Georgian author Otar Chiladze merges an ancient Greek myth with the devastating events and tumultuous history of his Eurasian homeland near the Black Sea.

3. Historic Context and Societal Concerns: Real-world political events and social movements entwine with fantasy to explore issues such as racism, sexism, intolerance, and other human failings. “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdieis the saga of a man born at the moment of India’s independence. Rushdie’s character is telepathically linked with a thousand magical children born at the same hour and his life mirrors key events of his country.

4. Distorted Time and Sequence: In magical realism, characters may move backward, leap forward, or zigzag between the past and the future. Notice how Gabriel García Márquez treats time in his 1967 novel, “Cien Años de Soledad” (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”). Sudden shifts in narrative and the omnipresence of ghosts and premonitions leave the reader with the sense that events cycle through an endless loop.

5. Real-World Settings: Magic realism is not about space explorers or wizards; “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” are not examples of the approach. Writing for “The Telegraph,” Salman Rushdie noted that “the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real.” Despite the extraordinary events in their lives, the characters are ordinary people who live in recognizable places.

6. Matter-of-Fact Tone: The most characteristic feature of magical realism is the dispassionate narrative voice. Bizarre events are described in an offhand manner. Characters do not question the surreal situations they find themselves in. For example, in the short book “Our Lives Became Unmanageable,” a narrator plays down the drama of her husband’s vanishing: “…the Gifford who stood before me, palms outstretched, was no more than a ripple in the atmosphere, a mirage in a gray suit and striped silk tie, and when I reached again, the suit evaporated, leaving only the purple sheen of his lungs and the pink, pulsing thing I’d mistaken for a rose. It was, of course, only his heart.” ‘

Traits (Fiction)

E. M. Welsh, Magical Realism – What is It?

1. Real World Setting: Magical realism is almost always rooted in a real place, though like in Wizard of the Crow or One Hundred Years of Solitude, it can often be a made-up city or town within the real world that is treated as if it had always been there. 

2. Myth and Folktale: This can be used in various ways, whether it is by referring to myths and folktales that already exist, or by writing in such a way that folktales might be told. 

3. Fantastical Attributes: Magical realism incorporates what might be deemed superstitious or mythological and makes it real, though oftentimes consumers of the story are left wondering whether things actually exist, they are just metaphors, or if its all psychological. However, whatever it appears to be, it is treated as an everyday occurrence. 

4. Mystery: The mystery in magical realism, though central to the conflict, often is not highlighted to such a degree as it might be in a mystery novel. Additionally, at times many mysteries may not have an answer at all, like the insomnia in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Whatever the mystery is, however, it often is what sets the character on their journey and hints at something missing in the character’s life. 

5. Color: You will not find this trait listed and it is by no means a scholarly or literary assessment, but it is a trait I see in every piece all the same. Now of course, I don’t mean literally, as there are stories like Beloved that are dark and tragic but still fit the magical realism genre. What I mean is that when I am engaged with a magical realist story, everything is vivid. Things may be upsetting, yet they remain bright in their realizations till the very end, be it via description, dialogue, or the colors of the piece itself in the case of film.

Distinguished from Fantasy: Magical realism takes elements of fantasy and makes them rooted in our sense of reality, whereas fantasy creates an entirely new reality.

Distinguished from Science Fiction: While both science fiction and magical realism are rooted in reality, science fiction usually presents itself as a version of our world in the future or some alternate universe completely, but it is never rooted in our current reality, always an altered one.

Distinguished from Surrealism: The biggest difference between the two genres is that surrealism is concerned with dreams and imagination, whereas magical realism focuses on playing with the physical realities of the world.