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Magic + real life = ?

Magical realism is a genre which everyone and no one is writing.

Everyone says their book has elements of magical realism, but hardly anyone actually knows what that means. Hey, I don't even know what it means - I'm just writing this because it's my turn to post.

In all seriousness, you guys - magical realism is weird. Its very definition defies logic. The magical + the actual. Illusion + cold hard reality. Enchantment + disenchantment. It's a paradox. Which is precisely what makes this genre so interesting.

In a nutshell, magical realism is a very subtle genre which adds elements the surreal to a character's everyday life. There is usually no explanation for these magical ingredients; there is no world-building; there is only a dose of strangeness to interrupt what would otherwise be a completely contemporary, realistic story. According to critic Luis Leal, "If you can explain it, then it's not magical realism."

Because it's such a slippery genre, it's hard to create a novel that falls under the category of "magical realism;" but it is possible, and it's a great way to add some life to a tired story. If your characters and your plot feel worn out, maybe you should think about adding a dose of magic to shake them up. Luckily you don't have to be a master writer of fairies and dragon to inject some surrealism into your WIP; you just have to do something unexpected.

Some good examples of magical realism:

Love Medicine
"A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"
I Am The Messenger
The Graveyard Book
The Pricker Boy
Jellicoe Road

...and a whole lot more.

Good luck marrying the magical and the real.
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  1. Love The Graveyard Book! Also recommend the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. Gorgeous reading.

  2. The first book I read with magical realism was 100 Years of Solitude. It was interesting to say the least. And I must add that all of Louis Sachar's work has some magical realism in it.

  3. Love magical realism! My favorite (non-YA) magical realist work is Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits.

  4. I wonder if Inception would fall into that genre...

  5. Great list! And I was glad to see that I've read a number of them! (Just reread The Graveyard Book. Gotta love Neil Gaiman.)

  6. I love magical realism...sometimes My favorite is when it's some natural element (especially the weather) that is "magical", or has something weird about it. Tangerine by Edward Bloor has been one of my favorites since high school but I just couldn't get into Jellicoe Road. I have no idea why, since everyone else seems to love it, it just didn't work for me. Thank you for the link to the long list: now I have a bunch more to check out!

  7. While reading this, Mary Poppins came to mind. Does that fall into the genre?

  8. Ha, I was just explaining magical realism to my husband and my definition was nearly identical to yours.

    "Why don't they just call it surrealist fiction, then?" my husband asked. I just kind of shrugged at that. :)

  9. What a great definition Luis Leal has! It's so hard to think of many books that fit the description (though Jellicoe Road and The Graveyard Book came to mind instantly), but I know it when I read it.

  10. It's such a subtle genre that ppl claim to be writing it when they're actually writing fantasy. The difference is that magical realism could almost exist. It's like the difference between a unicorn and a horse with a strange birth defect that looks like a horn.

  11. PS, It would probably be an awesome genre to write MG. Kids imaginations are so eager to run away, and it's always on the verge of being magical.

  12. magical realism is my FAVORITE genre, methinks.

    for me, i think Harry Potter is dangerously close to magical realism. and we all know how awesome HP is.

    in movie form, the example i frequently use is Pan's Labyrinth. so much of Del Toro's films and stories are that blend. they are also awesome. :)

  13. The Night Circus coming out this fall is a good example of magic realism. I love this genre, but you don't see a lot of it in YA market at all. I think a lot of people who would have written magic realism ended up writing what is called Weird Fiction, which is just not as accessible. Great post.

  14. Sigh. Laini Taylor in LIPS TOUCH. It's so perfectly perfect. The magic feels so down to earth, like it's always been in the corner of your eye but you just didn't look until now.

  15. Thanks for the helpful examples! We've tried to pin down the difference between magical realism and fantasy a few times in our crit group, but have never settled on a consensus.

  16. Magic definitely works as a spice for modern fiction. And I agree 100% about the lack of worldbuilding in a lot of the magic realism stories. It would often seem if magic existed, even in small doses, then the world around us would react accordingly.

    For example, there would be laws regarding magic (no using telepathy OR phones while driving), social customs (only the Deacon can use magic on Sunday) or even changes to art (Cinderella's Fairy Godmother seems less enchanting if there's a couple granny mages in every town).

    These wouldn't be the driving force of the story, as the aforementioned cell phone laws aren't driving forces in our own lives, but sprinkling in some world building might be fun to try along with that dash of magic.

  17. You know what book immediately came to mind? (Well, you probably don't, actually, so I'll share.)
    13 to Life by Shannon Delaney. The werewolves are explained scientifically, but really? How scientific can you get when you're dealing with werewolves?
    Very interesting post! I've never heard of this genre before.

  18. @ Morpho Melinda: is there really a subgenre called Weird Fiction? Is it similar to Abusurdist? That kind of crosses the line for me from quirky/funny to OUT THERE, although I'm sure some people appreciate it.

  19. ^ sorry that should be Absurdist.


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