30 facets of Magical Realism

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter and Haruki Murakami are all said to Magical Realist authors. It started off in Latin America, and then moved to the UK and US. Alejandro Carpentier coined the term lo real maravilloso which means ‘the marvellous reality’ in The Kingdom of this World. A lot of these authors can be said to have elements of Postmodernism in their work too. But what separates Magical Realism from fantasy?

1. The fabulous as ordinary

Perhaps one of the key features of this genre is seeing the magical qualities in everyday life. This might be taken literally, such as seeing sprites made out light sitting in trees or perhaps make the jewelled chameleon have real jewels. Other elements may include glass palaces or cities, or any machinery creating magic. It could be anything from a tree which looks like a hand or strange lightning strikes.

2. Juxtaposition

This generally tends to mean taking two unlike things, such as nature and technology, and somehow bringing them to together to be compared and contrasted. We have the fantastic and the ordinary colliding and blurring together; we might see the ordinary in the marvellous and vice versa.

3. Binary oppositions

Again, this is similar to Juxtaposition. These can be thematic, characters, motifs or to do with the plot. Perhaps the most obvious is reality vs the fantastic, but plenty of others will be there too. Binary oppositions are important because we see multiple versions of reality colliding and blurring together.

4. Parallels to history and the non-fictional world

Not all Magical Realist fiction includes this, but there are certainly elements – E.T.A Hoffman in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, World War Two in Pan’s Labyrinth, Franz Kafka in Kafka on the Shore, or perhaps the novel is set in real places/ ones which parody and/or parallel real places. This could be a political critique, such anti-war, a particular person or social class.

5. Metaphors

Symbolism is important here, things stand for other things. Metaphors are often treated in a realistic way; for instance, the metaphor of a ghost might manifest as a real ghost, and would thus symbolize the past metaphorically haunting or lingering in the present, like in Garcia’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Descriptions such as ‘she was elfin’ allow a transcendant, mystic quality of the person being described. If a mad scientist like Doctor Hoffman was there, would he symbolize desire? Dreams? Magic? War? The emphasis is taken away from the actual Doctor and his desire creations, but to what he, Nebulous Time, and his schloss signify.

6. A day in the life of…

What makes this genre realistic is how they imagine a magical character or place to be, in a plausible way. We need to be able to see this person’s point-of-view and have them fleshed out as people, rather than two-dimensional symbols. What’s it like for Spiderman to have spider powers? Or what’s life like on Middle Earth? If we as authors give a country landmarks, races, geography, culture and gender norms similar to our on, the world of the novel becomes much more plausible. Imagine all the questions you might ask if you were interview the Wicked Queen; how did you learn magic? Why do you hate Snow White? What happened when you finally killed her?

7. A Process Too Complicated To Explain

How does Uri Geller receive strangely accurate visions of drawings? Why is it that you pray to God or a deity and your wish is mysteriously answered? The truth is, that in “rational” times, we believe that because there is no scientific or plausible explanation for something, it’s just our mind playing tricks on us or a distortion of reality. But, what if it’s simply that these processes are just too complicated to explain with science? After all, Geller hardly touches the spoon, holding it between two fingers instead of holding it with both hands like most illusionists, and his spoons have an upward curve rather than a downward one. In Magical Realist fiction, there won’t be much of an explanation being given, and it seems ludicrous. Some people believe that your intuition, or ‘gut feeling’ is using the whole part of one’s brain instead the usual fraction in order to know something or perform telekinesis is why people can bend a spoon.

8. Visions, hallucinations and dreams

Are visions divine or futuristic/occult revelations? Could the dream world be perceived as separate from the waking world? Is this all in our mind? You could draw on concepts such as the astral plane and how Mohammed received divine scrolls from Jibreel. Is history just another biased story? To what extent is reality in the physical world and fantasy in the mind? Is any of this real or surreal? And, what is their purpose for being there? Maybe we haven’t heard all sides of the story yet.

9. Defamiliarization

In the same way that the magical can be realistic, it can also work the other way around. What might seem as ordinary becomes bizarre, spooky or fabulous. The tree branches might look like clawed hands and have horrific faces like in Disney’s Snow White, or demons might be shadow-like. We’ve all seen horror movies and Scooby-Doo with the haunted house and how we don’t know if it’s our mind playing tricks on us or not. Likewise, beauty could be present in nature; we might see clouds which look like angels or flowers might have an ethereal glow.

10. The ordinary as extraordinary, or ‘everyday magic’

Would you know how a TV worked if it wasn’t for science? What about potions seen as a form of chemistry, or how the world was created? Creation myths and old culture used magic as a way of explaining otherwise inexplicable phenomena, such as the stork or Adm and Eve. Or, there is the everyday miracles that might occur, such as being mysteriously saved or surviving from an otherwise fatal influence. Fairly Odd Parents explains that, on Friday 13th, bad things happen because of invisible anti-fairies that can only be seen with special glasses, and the anti-fairy is the exact opposite of an ordinary fairy. I’m not saying this programme is Magical Realism, but it expresses the point in a similar fashion.

11. The difference between Magical Realism and Fantasy

Whereas Fantasy is usually set in another world (or at least contains characters from there), Magical Realism is set on Earth, not Middle Earth. There should be some familiar or familiar-sounding locations in magical Realism, based on real people and places, but shown in a different light. In Fantasy, you create something completely different which has little resemblance to the real world.

12. Seeing the world from several perceptions

We might see native people, various countries and races, shifting perspectives or history re-interpreted. The whole point of Magical Realism is to see the magical or mundane elements already on Earth, and viewpoints will probably conflict or contradict one another. You can still do this with a first person narrative, especially if you have a false protagonist.

13. Parallels with Postmodernism

Asides from this genre appearing in the Postmodern era, there are quite a few traits that Magical Realism shares with Postmodernism. A few of them include: metafiction, collapse of metanarratives, temporal distortion (because of the shift from country to country or from past to present), multiple narrative threads and rejection of the omniscient narrator. Both of them want to retaliate against the conventional, objective style of Realist writers, and also of the idealized, rose-tinted view of Romanticism.

14. Not ‘fiction for the masses’

this isn’t genre fiction. Magical Realism is a serious genre, which often blends into other genres, and is largely concerned with representing the world. If there is magic or some kind of mystical element in the story, it won’t be obvious or pointed out; the reader has to piece the puzzle together on their own. Traditionally, characters and dialogue tell us everything we need to know, but this isn’t this case with Magical Realism. There might be parallels or references to pop culture in the story, but the story will no be presented in the same form or style as pop fiction.

15. Real world setting

This story will not only be set on Earth, but there will be familiar cities and countries, but this doesn’t mean that it has to resemble this country per se. Let’s say this story is set in New York; maybe it’s different 40 years ago or in the future. Or, you could even create a new, fictional town with elements of one or more towns. Your characters will have jobs, clothes, religions, culture and a language.

16. Hybridity

This can by combining genres to mingle in with other genres such as speculative, romance, historical, sci-fi or horror. It can also mean the dream world combined with the waking, the rural with the urban, the gothic with paradisiacal. We might even have hybrid characters,such as ethnicity or even having subtle hints of magic themselves.

17. The marvellous

This marvellous is not romanticized, complacent or pleasant, but extraordinary, bizarre, strange and excellent. The marvellous is both familiar and unfamiliar; it might take a familiar form but have unfamiliar qualities, or be in an unfamiliar/familiar place. America, for instance, is a very big continent; we have desert, forest, beach, plains, snow and mountains all within the same land mass.

18. Lack of authorial intrusion

We depart from conventional Realist techniques, and the reader must decide for themselves and make meaning of what is going on; there will be no infodumping or David Copperfield life stories. As the characters learn and encounter new people/places, so the do the readers and everything is new yet familiar.

19. Metafiction

Fiction is just another plane of reality/unreality, traditionally having a fine line dividing these states. Think of The Neverending Story, where the reader becomes a part of the story. Arguably, most fiction is like this, but Magical Realism amplifies this. And, by drawing attention the fiction’s status as fiction, we blur the lines between artificial and real, reality and fantasy.

20. Rejection of the traditional narrative

Like I said, none of this David Copperfield verbosity. We might not have an omniscient narrator, chronological timeline or even conventional characters. Part of Magical Realism is experimentation, so being stereotypical or traditional does not depart from what have already heard.

21. The lashback against the mainstream

Like I said, Magical Realism is not genre fiction; it’s complicated, won’t bend for the reader and won’t be dumbed down (not that all genre fiction is like this, but that’s besides the point). The point is, Magical Realism uses magic as something almost scientific, rather than something trivial or fluffy e.g. ‘magical glittery rainbows in the sky with sunshine and lollipops’.

22. A lack of logic and rationality

These are elements of the traditional Realist narrative. Magical Realism will have symbolism and riddles whilst presenting the audience with rounded characters and an intelligible purpose. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every last thing must be abolished though; science might be represented with motifs of vials and nature might be a symbol of the Tree of Life (however obvious these might seem).

23.Breakdown of boundaries

Well, in some ways. If there is a thread of Science Fiction running through this story, then aliens and strange chemicals appear – or perhaps in magic as being a kind of quantum physics.

24. Myth and legend

Perhaps myth and legend could be given a fantastical yet realistic outlook. Naturally, it needs to retain some kind of magical element – otherwise it simply isn’t Magical Realism. However, the mythical creatures can be modernised to suit the 21st century, even if that isn’t the era you’re writing in. Think of how Marvel’s Avengers imagines the Norse gods as living in outer space, giving them an alien quality (apart from that they seem to live on another planet of course).

25. Primitive elements?

The tribal, pagan and native cultures are often ignored in favour of colonizing, Christian ones. This definition could stretch to mean: carnivals, Native Americans, African Tribespeople, Barbarians, hippies and nomads. Quite often, these people are at the heart of magic, mysticism and myth. Even if we don’t actually meet a tribe of travelling gypsies, we can have indicators that their culture has influenced the ‘main’ one and vice versa.

26. A lack of time and space

Clocks, perhaps representing time, might be replaced with the hours of daylight or the perception of time. Anything which can quantify or measure something is usually unflavoured in Magical Realist fiction, because it constricts the amount of creativity and freedom it can have.

27. Relatable characters

Even if we have Sages and flying dragons, we need them to be realistic. Do your research; just how are you going to make a four-legged reptile plausible to the audience? What would they eat and how might they move? Are there any clues to special talents they might have, along with a reasonable explanation for this? If we have a teenage girl who can read minds then how does the process work?

28. Heightened senses

You know how you meet people in real life who seem to have an extraordinary sense of sight? In literature, this could be extended to an almost magical ability. “What, like ESP?” I hear you shout. No, not quite. Whilst some characters may have supernatural senses actually stated, we as authors must make it seem as though the reader/characters have eyes as sharp as an eagle’s. Put another way, the sense of surroundings is great we may as well be picking up on some kind of psychic energy permeating the place.

29. Interpretive plotline

There is often a strong sense of mystery in Magical Realism; this is the most common theme in various writer’s styles e.g. Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter. Because of this, the story is open to interpretation and can have many different readings. The reader must throw conventional conclusions, closure and well-structured plotlines in the trash, so that their mind is open to subtle magical characters and situations.

30. Inversion

Think of it being like the mirrored world of Alice in Wonderland; things are often turned on their head in favour of the marvellous and bizarre. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Earth will turn upside down like it’s opposite day. Think of carnivals such as the Feast of Fools, where everything is quite loud and gaudy, and mythical creatures and strange people seem to parade everywhere. And as Mikhail Bahktin pointed out, we live in a carnival to some extent.

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