I’ve found that magical realism has become a literary term that for some has either faded into obscurity either by lack of use or overuse, and for others it’s just a head-scratcher. So, I’d like to provide some clarification, at least on my part, on what magical realism is.
- Not Escapist: I think this is probably the most universal theme prevalent in all magical realism. It is not meant to take readers away to a land of world building and mystic creations. Everything in magical realism exists or has existed to some degree. While the backdrops may contain fantastic creatures and beings, they are typically as real to the writer as the reader’s household cat or dog. An escapist fantasy writer knows the dragon in his or story isn’t real. I know the chupacabra in my story is real.
- Non-objective: Yes, I know it’s not the best or nicest term in the world but it does come close enough to conveying that magical realism is outside of what is typically considered normal or mainstream. It reveals cultures, traditions, and social themes that aren’t normally seen by the typical fantasy-reader.
- Earthbound: I stress this in that the settings for magical realism are very much this world we live in. They may be slightly askew or require the inventing of a place that doesn’t exist, but even these fake places are just stand-ins for real ones. My invented metropolis of Glass City is really just a stand-in for a mix of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Nantucket.
- Social Commentary: I found this one was truer for the more classical examples of magical realism, but I still think every approach to it, including modern ones that are brushing closer and closer to escapist fantasy, still do this. I agree that magical realism has to have a duty that takes precedence above the entertainment value of the piece (not to say that entertainment isn’t important as well). The story has to first reveal an important secret or truth about the society featured in the piece, and then it has to do this in an interesting and entertaining way, otherwise who would want to bother to read it. If all I wanted was the social commentary, I’d go to a guest lecture on the topic.
- Culture and Tradition: those elements that, for most of the readers, are fantasy elements are deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of the people in the story. In fact, I believe that culture has to be so omnipresent in the tale that not only is it like a character, but it becomes the main character. It’s not just another element in the development of the narrative, but the driving force behind every element of the piece. The magic system, the setting, the plot and character development, name selection, the underlying social themes, the “B” story between the girl and her mother, the humor and the melodrama… culture must be deeply embedded in all of these decisions and factors.
In the end, each of these factors are typically major goals I try to achieve in my writing endeavors. I even hope this blog article fits into this spectrum somehow. And while I know that when most readers finish one of my stories, they aren’t accepting the realism of the fantastic elements I included. That’s okay. I’m not asking them to take that leap with me, just to come along for the ride, hope they enjoy the sights, and that maybe they learn something and grow a tiny bit as people by the time they are finished.