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Fantastical Mundanity: How to Write a Magical Realism Story


Magical realism is a subgenre of fiction that is rooted in reality but contains magical or fantastical elements. Unlike the explicit magic and fantasy in contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy stories, the magical and supernatural elements in magical realism are often subtle and understated, and the lines between reality and fantasy are almost indistinguishable. Another key aspect that sets magical realism apart from other fantasy subgenres is that characters accept any magic or supernatural activity as normal, and the author or narrator does not explain the magic or give readers any insight about how (or why) the magical elements function. Writers have traditionally used magical realism to highlight important issues in society, since the supernatural can provide an exaggerated lens through which to examine a difficult issue.

Gabriel García Márquez was one of the most famous magical realists, and his most well-known novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a quintessential example of magical realism. García Márquez's characters accept any exaggerated or fantastical occurrences as normal, and as a result, readers also accept any fantastical elements as within the scope of reality. Consider the way García Márquez presents the supernatural in the following passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude: One day Amaranta's basket began to move by itself and made a complete turn about the room, to the consternation of Aureliano, who hurried to stop it. But his father did not get upset. He put the basket in its place and tied it to the leg of a table, convinced that the long-awaited event was imminent.

García Márquez's readers know that in reality, they would find it bizarre and unnerving if a basket started to move on its own and then moved and turned around a room. However, García Márquez's characters observe this strange occurrence with little concern and see it as an omen or prediction, so his readers are more likely to view it similarly. This is a critical aspect to remember when writing magical realism: Present the mystical or magical elements of your story so that even if they are bizarre and otherworldly, your readers will not balk because your characters took it in stride. Keep reading for six more tips on how to write magical realism.

Read news sites for stories that ignite your imagination

Once you start sifting through newspapers, police blotters, and your local news sites, look for headlines that pique your interest, and read stories that resonate with you. Take notes while you read and jot down ideas as they come to you. As you read articles, consider if you could add magic or supernatural elements to any aspect of a real-life story. If so, think about how you could use magic in this situation to help your readers see the world a little differently.

There are plenty of funny and bizarre news stories that might inspire you to write the next best-selling magical realism story. Don't worry if you don't land on your perfect idea the first day. As you keep reading and paying attention to the world around you, you will start to see more and more opportunities for magical realism.

Look for inspiration in your daily life

If you have children of your own or if you interact with children regularly, pay attention to the way kids see the world. Children basically embody magical realism: They live in the realistic world with the rest of us, but they aren't alarmed at the thought of a giant bunny giving out eggs and candy, and they have no trouble coloring turtles purple or drawing people sprouting wings on their feet. Look at kids' drawings or listen to their stories and see if they inspire you to see more magic in the world around you.

Dreams are another great source for inspiration, because they frequently take place in the mundane world but without the restrictions of reality. If you regularly remember your dreams, start keeping a dream journal or write down the dreams that keep resurfacing in your mind throughout the day. Even if you don't usually remember your dreams, start a dream journal. Simply setting the expectation that you will wake up, remember your dreams, and write them down will help you start remembering more of your dreams. If ideas don't come to you straight from your dreams, flip through your dream journal and look for recurring themes or concepts. Once you start paying attention to and documenting your nightly dreams, you might even start daydreaming more often. As long as daydreaming doesn't prevent you from getting work done, allowing your mind to wander is another great way to brainstorm ideas for magical realism.

Decide how magic or supernatural elements will function in your story

Remember, in magical realism, the magic doesn't have to be blatant or dominating; it can be subtle and implied. As magical realist Kate Bernheimer explained, The so-called magic may be the least magical thing in the story: survival or hope may be the most remarkable, astonishing thing. You could use magical elements to draw attention to a very real quality in one of your characters. You could also use magic to provide commentary about a particular issue that you are passionate about, or you could use supernatural elements to provide levity in the midst of darker themes. You could also use magic or the supernatural to help readers shift their worldview and see an issue from another perspective.

Create genuine, well-rounded characters who accept magic without questioning it

The main characters in a magical realism story are normal people in a normal setting who experience magical or mystical occurrences. For example, ghosts might appear to guide your characters or to offer predictions, but the ghosts will not have to explain to your characters how the afterlife works or that ghosts are "real." Your characters will simply accept that ghosts are a normal and natural part of life.

To create fully formed characters that readers relate to, base your characters on real people in your life. If you base your protagonist on your younger brother or your crazy uncle, you will be more likely to accurately portray his positive and negative character traits, so readers will see him as a well-rounded character and will understand what motivates him and what discourages him. To ensure that you don't create one-dimensional characters, make a list of characters and identify each character's assets and flaws. Brainstorm how these features will contribute to each character's storyline and how magical elements might fit naturally within each character's life.

Establish a realistic setting

Since magical realism takes place in the very same world that your readers navigate daily, you need to establish your setting in a place that feels familiar to readers. Consider setting your story in a fictionalized version of your hometown or in the place where you currently reside. You can also create a fictional but realistic setting by blending two or three different places together to create one realistic place that is unique to your story. Whether you create a location from an amalgamation of places or you base the location on your current town, sketch out a map so you know your way around the place. If the setting feels tangible and real to you, it will likely feel real to your readers.

Give yourself permission to play within the story

Magical realism is not a formulaic subgenre, so your plot lines do not have to follow a predictable arc. Allow yourself the flexibility to play with unconventional plot formats or to distort the story's sense of time. Similar to the other magical elements of your story, time elasticity can be subtle. For example, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez refers to a rainstorm that lasts four years, eleven months, and two days, which is absurd and exaggerated while also strangely specific. García Márquez also included a character who figured out how to make almond trees live forever, so the trees continue growing even after the surrounding human-made structures fall into disrepair. García Márquez exaggerated these time frames to emphasize his overall points about suffering, war, and death.

Magical realism is a popular and powerful subgenre of fiction that can also be a great tool for social or political commentary or for raising awareness about particular issues. If you follow these tips, you will be well on your way to writing your own magical realism story!

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