“This doesn’t seem real.”
I’ve heard this a lot over the pandemic. It’s not an uncommon phrase. People say it when they lose their loved ones. People say it on a wonderful first date.
In fact, “this doesn’t seem real,” is so common a phrase that one has to wonder—what sort of reality did everyone expect?
One of my favorite types of writing is magical realism. Others may have their definitions, but for me, magical realism is a style that highlights what is sublime about everyday living—then enhances it with a bit of magic or religion or even the stuff of nightmares.
With magical realism, we can give readers a story that can seem mythic, yet undeniably immediate and familiar—and that might allow us to see that our own realities have so many stories to tell.
Magical realism is not an oxymoron. In magical realism, the dichotomy is not “magic vs. real.” The dichotomy is magical realism vs. everyday realism—that is, comprehending the magic in one’s life vs. not comprehending it.
Magical realism at its best never presents scenarios that could not happen, or almost happen, right here right now. Magical realism is still realism.
The magical is not something one needs to leave our reality to see.
Magical realism works in the neighborhood you grew up in, with characters you could be.
You have everything you need.
But if we don’t need Gandalf the Maia, then what is magic?
Gosh, what isn’t?
You win the lottery by pure coincidence. You win the lottery because your daughter made a pact with the Faerie King. You win the lottery because God is rewarding you. You win the lottery because that is what happens in Universe Simulation 923q17-97.
Which one is true? Would you be able to tell?
Magic can be arcane, divine, psychic, even technological, if advanced enough. It can be big, small, loud, soft. It can taste like the tuna salad your grandma made. Your mother’s voice sounding in a dream.
In a sense, the everyday is harder to define. Is there anything that, with a different context, could not be considered magical?
For me, the everyday world is where the magics of life are so familiar that they cease to be noticed. The everyday is the complicity we have to the way things are. We don’t see oppression. We don’t see our potential. We don’t see what a great time we’d have if went to Iceland.
In this way, magic is the flip side of the everyday, existing wherever there is the possibility for change— magic can be thought of as the wonder or dread perceived after one is shaken from their expectations.
And from there, we can go anywhere.
When I use magical realism, I think hard about the world I want to create. If want an egalitarian world, great, magic must contribute to this—and it must still seem real.
In magical realism, magic is not a stand-in for honest character exploration. The universe does not owe you an answer. Magic doesn’t clean up human mess.
Some of the best fantasy stories—stories that may seem to have nothing to do with magical realism—draw readers because they seem paradoxically real.
A lightsaber with plot armor is theater. A lightsaber with consequences is a different thing entirely. Even if the setting is completely fantastic, when a wizard shoots a fireball, someone really dies—and stays dead. It seems more real.
And meeting the love of your life afterward, slowly bonding over shared loss?
In all cases, magical realism uses magic to remind readers of their own nobilities and fallibilities—not minimize them.
Otherwise, it would be wish fulfillment, or escapist fiction—and that is a different genre.
Magic may be omnipresent, but it is not infallible. Reality is not at your beck and call simply because your dad was Zeus, or you have a high midichlorian count.
If you die, you will not be reincarnated as an overpowered demon lord with a twice the power of any of your rivals and a harem of succubae that you are still too shy to touch.
Again, that is fantasy, not reality.
The world does not work that way.
But in magical realism, the world really does work that way. Or could if we just let it, see it, or write it.
All writers are all to some extent magical realists. To believe that words are magical and precious, every word written, every word spoken, is magical realism.
In magical realism, magic exists not as something outside of human experience—just as great poetry does not lie outside of language.
Yes, great story framed and crafted to the point where it seems otherworldly. But the point is concentrating the human experience—not obscuring it.
Lots of magical realism can be small magic—like in “Amélie” or “Like Water for Chocolate,” magic so small or so limited, the reader might wonder what the heck happened.
But magical realism can also be big magic. Think “Moana.” That movie features a demigod and a god. Yet it still works as magical realism because they, like poetry, concentrate all these magical feeling we may already have into a form the readers can experience viscerally, emotionally, spiritually.
I remember the magic I have kept, magic I have lost, and reality of being human in this world, right here, right now.
With magical realism, the question is not if can we use magic, but how much magic do we choose to experience? How much do we believe? How much are we willing to share?
Cover: Roby - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0 be, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=382397
*By tolkien-films.wikia.com, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58578637
**Michael Ocampo from United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons