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  • Heather Fowler

Magical Realism: Notes from the Field and a Prompt

I’m always excited to see new people play with Magical Realism as a genre, which differs from fantasy and other speculative genres in that Magical Realism, what I call MR for short, is really a fusion between literary fiction and one element of fantasy, magic, or suspended disbelief.

This seems a simple conceit, no? One aspect of magic—mundane world.

But, from my own experience talking about it, not everyone recognizes this genre as a household term until you pair it with names (Garcia Marquez, Link, Keret, Bender, Gogol, Carter, etc.), and many times I find that even accomplished writers have only a vague idea as to how it differs from more mainstream fantasy, horror genre fiction, slipstream, or surrealism, so my post today is both a note on craft and an invitation to would be authors to try your hand at writing a story in the practiced magical realism genre.

As the author of two published Magical Realist collections and one novel, I can say that good magical realism, for me, is usually defined by three cogent traits:

  1. One Magic--There is one magical element that impacts the plot, but the rest of the world is real (I.e. where the realism comes from). It’s better to avoid the use of multiple magics if staying true to the premise of the mundane world as setting. Here’s one extra note: There seems to be something in most readers' psyches that allows for one alteration in substance without their reading world view entering into a fantasy narrative—but the more magic you use, the more “magical balls” you juggle, the more likely the story will genre hop into fantasy.To make sure our stories stay in the Magical Realist realm, we can then call the “One Magic” concept here the story’s conceit, the singular device upon which the story is built. And here is one more tip: All magic has rules.You must make them up. Readers are comforted by rules and the story logic has clearer guidelines.

  2. Belief from the narrative participants—Other characters in the story flow with the magical element and don’t spend time calling out why it’s wrong or doesn’t exist. Call this a sort of alternate reality space

  3. Real Stakes—If not for these, the story can often fall flat. Just as the magic doesn’t take the place of a plot, it is more the catalyst, it also must be a premise that’s developed for a reason.

Close and more distant cousins of this genre (thought there are often genre-combines) are hyper-realism, speculative fiction, urban fantasy, myth, and fairy tales. Each has the potential to put the real world off-axis. This is how and why magical realism becomes such a fun genre to explore.

While many may discuss the uses of MR as political, as it has been for many Latin American and European authors, this political aspect, for me, is not the genre's only use. Sometimes, I affectionately refer to MR as Psyche Fiction. I think it can host a wild array of ideas and motivations. American Fabulism is a term that sometimes gets used interchangeably with MR, but I believe Magical Realism differs. Here's my thought on the distinction: While I wouldn’t consider my work American Fabulism, per say since I tend to ascribe “Fabulism” as work includes animals and elements of fables, in my stories (and novel), I often use MR as a social commentary mechanism, a mode of exploring the psychology of loving or overcoming, as I spoke about in a Southern California Magical Realism panel this year at AWP. In fact, I often consider what I do with MR “exploding the metaphor,” and many times my tales involve activism for women—an exploration of the elements that make love either last or fail, a place to explore the intricacies of human intimacy. But your work doesn’t have to do exactly what mine does—it can do what most moves you. If you’re interested in taking a shot at writing an MR story to try the genre, it’s as easy as deciding and doing.

As a few examples, to get you thinking on what matters in your fictive worlds, here are some story concepts that led to interesting titular story pieces from my first two collections (originally published in JMWW and A Capella Zoo--two journals that appreciate this kind of work). I’ll link the stories here, so you can read them if you wish, and then state the stories’ conceits:

“Suspended Heart”—a woman in heartbreak’s heart falls out at a public mall. She’s much happier without it, her depression lifting, her life clearer and better. The story conflict occurs when someone wants to give it back. She doesn’t want it back. What do you do with a woman who doesn’t want her heart?

“People with Holes”—a girl discovers her boyfriend has a hole near his elbow and agrees to attend a support group with him to help resolve the problem. The story conflict occurs when she discovers that not only does he never want to heal his hole, he instead mainly wants to inflict new holes on others.

My new novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, released in June of 2016, had a different conceit in that, with its protagonist Beautiful, I have created a female character with superhuman strength who’s resembled a monkey since birth. She tries to front as normal to fit in but has many struggles along the way. Here’s the book description from the publisher:

A rollicking ride of a magical realist, coming-of-age story that explores sex and gender in ways that will have you laughing out loud. Be prepared to travel light with a somewhat murderous female protagonist en route across the country - where it's so hard to be a strong, violent, little ape girl - looking in all the wrong places for forever kinds of love.

I relate this so we can talk about premise versus subtext. Sure, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby is about what happens in that description, on the surface. But what it’s really about is feeling lonely and “othered” in the world, seeking out people with whom to bond, and discovering how hard it is, as an adult, to find someone to trust. In addition, the novel is about the fluid nature of reality. We all create our own. Your stories can be layered with more than "plot." MR is often a philosophical, analytical place of departures.

For those interested in writing a piece of Magical Realist fiction, I now provide a prompt to help you take your magic deeper, to make your story resonate with both stakes and intent:

(Featured artwork by Kate Protage, created to pair with my feminist dystopia story "Three-Star Girl")

Write a story where the conceit is that one character has a magic hat (or hearing aid, or necktie, or garter), and when this object is worn, the thing most wanted by other characters arrives—whether this be a person or thing. Be playful. Consider both the folly of wanting and the joy of receipt.

What problems could receiving what a person most wants pose? Get writing.

*This post is part of the 2016 Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th - 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the links to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

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