Tips & Tricks for Writing Magical Realism: Pt II

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This is one of a two part series on Magical Realism. This is Part II
Using Magical Realism in Your Writing.

I decided to write this series after I was invited to discuss the topic on the Firsts in Fiction podcast (itunes - YouTube - Google+). Check out the Magical Realism Episode!

A Quick Definition
For the full thing, see Part I, but for quick reference:
Magical Realism is the blending of reality and magic until the edges are blurred.

Okay, let's hop to!

What can Magical Realism do for your fiction?

  • Magical Realism can create a really unique mood and atmosphere. 
  • It can create a sense of wonder, magic, the bizarre, or a sense of the strange. 
  • It can be used to present ideas or story in a unique way.
  • It can take metaphor and symbolism one step further. 
  • It can beef up the story’s climax.
  • It can be used to convey theme. 
  • It can take an idea from the fantasy, supernatural, horror, or sci-fi genres and give it new life. 
  • It can be used to color an entire piece or to just emphasize the magnitude of a single moment. 
  • It can give an author the ability to really explore the possibilities of his or her imagination in a different way.
However, that doesn’t mean that Magical Realism should be included in any story or piece. If you are using Magical Realism, it needs to be purposeful. There should be reason and meaning behind it.

Magical Realism as a Genre, Technique, and Element.

Whether Magical Realism is a genre, a technique, or just an element of fiction depends on how you use it. 

Magical Realism is a genre but not a genre by itself because it is not regulated to a specific story or setting. By its nature, it must always be used in conjunction with another genre such as romance or historical. When magic is blended with reality in a seamless way and is prevalent throughout the story, it could be seen as being a part of the genre.

You can also use the techniques of Magical Realism as I did in A White Room, as Audrey Niffenegger did in The Time Traveler’s Wife, or in the way M. Night Shyamalan did in Signs. These works used the technique of blending speculative fiction with reality to a point of blurring the lines, creating some great work, but keep in mind that they are not technically Magical Realistic works. 

When Magical Realism technique is used in line with other conventions of Magical Realism then it can be used to color the entire work or create an element of Magical Realism in a piece.

An Element
If it's only used once in a very small way or if the conventions of another genre take precedent, then I would say that it could be seen as an element. 

For example in the film The Piano, there is only one single moment of Magical Realism when one character hears the voice of another character inside his head. This magic only happens once and in a very muted way, so I wouldn’t call The Piano a Magical Realism film, but rather a historical with a single Magical Realistic element. 

What are the important factors to keep in mind when writing Magical Realism?

Genre Conventions Based on the Type of Magical Realism
There are kind of two branches of Magical Realism, based on my experience of the genre. PT I of this series goes into more detail about these two types and their origins.

The first type, which for the purposes of this article, we shall call atmospheric Magical Realism, is where small magical elements or details are sprinkled throughout the story, in which case the magical elements color the story and atmosphere and may impact the characters and plot, but are not the main focus or even significant to the plot. With this type, characters usually do not acknowledge magic as out of the ordinary and there is generally no explanations. 

For example in The House of the Spirits there is a character that has prophetic visions and sees ghosts but no one really seems to think this is abnormal, it's not presented as fantastical, and it’s not the main focus of the plot, just a character trait.

The second type, which we shall call catalyst Magical Realism, where there is one major magical thing that serves as the catalyst for the story or for a story turning point or climax, such as turning invisible or a child turning into an adult overnight (Big), in which case the characters will react to this as abnormal, and it will effect the characters and plot in a significant way. Sometimes there are theories or suggested explanations but nothing substantial.

For example in The Green Mile, the characters respond to the miracles they experience as being abnormal. Yet, they still accept it without making a big thing about it. It’s still considered Magical Realism because in spite of this magical occurrence, the story continues to be grounded in reality. 

Avoid Explaining Why The Magic Happens 
This is a common convention of atmospheric Magical Realism. When I’m writing Magical Realism, I try to avoid explaining the magical elements. If there is too much explanation as to why the magic is happening, it changes its effect and may even take it out of the genre.

For example: The Time Traveler’s Wife is a story about a man who pops back and forth throughout time without a scientific time machine. The story is set in our reality and appears to not be sci-fi because there's no actual experiment or invention to cause his time traveling. Some might speculate that this is Magical Realism, but it is not because as the story progresses the characters learn his time traveling is a genetic anomaly akin to evolutionary mutation. This explanation makes it more sci-fi realism, and that's a term I just made up. 

Compare this to "Forget Me Not" my short story featured in Legacy: An Anthology. In this story magical things, like hearing whispers from the dead and knowing the day in which someone will die, are not even acknowledged by the characters or the narrator. There is no explanation. They just are . . .

Emotional Explanations
As far as my experience goes, emotional explanations are the only type of reasoning that works without breaking the genre, probably because it's not an explanation grounded in reality.

For example, there’s a book The Theory of Invisibility by Aimee Pita. In it, a woman haunted by the death of her husband and son slips into a state of invisibility. Her emotions are what cause the magic.

Theories or Suggested Explanations
I have seen characters have vague theories or assumptions about why something has happened, but they are not scientific. They are theories about religion, mysticism, and emotional magic. This is more common in catalyst Magical Realism.

For example, in The Green Mile by Steven King, the main character has vague theories as to why a prisoner on death row can heal people, but his theories are never assumed as truth or confirmed and even his discussion of them contains a sense of uncertainty or mystery.

To React or Not to React?
A common convention of the atmospheric Magical Realism is to have characters not react to the magical elements at all.

For example, in Sarah Addison Allen's works, a man leaves black dust on everything he touches. This was not seen as magical or even acknowledged as odd, but given as the reason why another character suspected his infidelity. 

In catalyst Magical Realism, characters react and their actions or choices are motivated or influenced by the experience.

Techniques for Incorporating Magical Realism into Your Fiction

Blend, Blend, Blend!
The key element that makes something Magical Realism instead of fantasy or horror is the blending. 

In fantasy, the magic is set apart from reality. In the Harry Potter series, the world of magic is hidden, a world apart. In vampire flicks like Twilight, the world of vampires is hidden right under the noses of the mortal world. It is a world apart. In ghost stories, ghosts exist somewhere else, in another world, but invade the mortal realm. Fantasy takes the reader into another world, whereas Magical Realism alters the world we already exist in, making it anew.

It's all about presentation. You can have the exact same elements as in the stories mentioned above (vampires, ghosts, etc.) but if presented using Magical Realism, it changes the reader experience.  

So how do you actually go about doing that?

Use an Atmosphere of Possibility or Foreshadowing
It's critical to create an atmosphere of possibility and or use foreshadowing, so that the magical elements don't seem out of place and pull your reader out of the story, which we never want unless writing meta-fiction.

Atmosphere of Possibility
Quick definitions: Atmosphere is also called mood, and it's experienced in the reader but created via the author's tone (also called attitude) or approach to something. 

Quick example, if an author approaches a setting like a woods and describes it as dark and oddly silent, the reader will experience an atmosphere of fear and expect something frightening to pop out, but if the author approaches the woods as sunny and twittering with birds, the reader will feel happy and expect happy things, like Bambi.

By approaching your writing with an attitude of wonder, mystery, awe, strangeness, or magic, you create corresponding atmospheres, which creates the expectation in the reader for something to happen that corresponds with the atmosphere.

Atmosphere is pretty critical for Magical Realism and is used in both atmospheric and catalyst types.

Quick Definition: Hints that something will happen in a subtle way so the reader doesn't even realize there was a hint in the first place.

Foreshadowing can be accomplished through atmosphere or through a brief mention of something. 

In The Piano, the main character mentions something about her former lover having the ability to hear her voice even though she was a mute. It's not clear if she means this literally or figuratively, and it's so brief, we don't focus on it, but then later when another character here's her voice in his head despite her inability to speak . . . ahhhhh. It doesn't seem so random and out of place because there was an earlier hint or foreshadowing.

Add a Little Magic to Other Writing Techniques
Whenever you write fiction you use techniques for characterization, plot, setting, atmosphere, dialogue, description, etc.

When you write Magical Realism, you can approach your techniques knowing that you can take it into the realm of magic. As you go about the usual process in your mind, you ask yourself how you can incorporate the impossible into those areas. What's really neat is that your magical additions will still achieve your goals.

For example, let us look at characterization. You need character traits, quirks, appearances, flaws, etc. Lets say you have a character who has long bony fingers. Instead of describing them as such, you could say whenever he touched a piece of porcelain his fingers transformed it into bone. The magic actually kind of creates the description you wanted. 

Another example, for setting, you could describe a house as creaking and old or you could have your characters actually hear things like, you're too thin, you should eat more, when they step on a loose floorboard. 

Just remember to blend by avoiding character reaction and explanation when it comes to small details like this. 

Metaphor, Simile, & Symbolism Can Come to Life
Another great way to work Magical Realism into fiction is to take a time when you might use a metaphor or symbol, but instead of it being a comparison, make it actually happen. 

For example: the death of a child might be symbolized by the appearance of dead jellyfish on a beach or it could be stated, without explanation, that the death caused it to happen.

Another example: One could say a cushion was as soft as a rose or that the cushion had been weaved out of living rose petals.

Don't Restrict Yourself
Magical Realism is a tradition of thinking outside of the box. Even though conventions have arisen, that doesn't mean you can't explore and evolve the genre, which other writers are doing even as you read this.

Remember the Goal 
The goal is to blend reality and magic so thoroughly that it isn’t even a question in the readers’ minds that it is a part of reality and in some cases can almost make the reader forget such things aren’t real. If you can do that, then you've done a good job. 

Potential pitfalls to avoid when writing Magical Realism.

Don't Forget about the Reality
Don’t let the use of magic lead to creating too much of an abnormal reality. You need to have the reality in order for it to be realism. If you're going nuts with the magical elements, and it doesn't blend with reality, then it will turn into fantasy.

The Plot Doesn't Have to Be About the Magic
Don’t think that the plot needs to be about the magical elements. In Practical Magic the story is about how two sisters (who happen to be witches) try to cover up an accidental murder of an abusive boyfriend. Magic characterizes the story, creates the atmosphere, is involved with characterization and plot, but it's not what the story is about. 

Even with catalyst Magical Realism, the magical element is not generally the focus of the plot but rather an element that causes a major turning point. With the movie Big, a boy is turned into an adult man overnight. This is a magical catalyst for the rest of the story, but the rest of the story isn't about him trying to figure out why the magic happened. It's about a child grappling with the very real issues of adulthood.

When Using Magical Realism in Conjunction with Other Speculative Fiction

You can take science fiction or fantasy themes and apply magical realism, but if you want your work to be seen as Magical Realism and not the other genre, you cannot let the conventions of the other speculative genre outweigh the Magical Realism. If so, your work will be seen as fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, etc. 

Don't use Magical Realism as an Easy Out or a Gimmick 
You can’t just throw Magical Realism in a James Bond film and say it works because it’s Magical Realism. Don’t try to use Magical Realism as an easy device or fix when you can’t figure out what to do in a story. Always use it with purpose and intention.

Just because some stories play it straight and have only one actual moment of Magical Realism (The Piano, Magnolia, The Secret Garden) doesn’t mean the entire piece wasn’t hinting in that direction the entire time, so that the reader could accept it once it took place.

Use foreshadowing, tone, atmosphere (like a sense of mystery or peculiarity), and genre to prepare your readers for the use of Magical Realism

Don’t try to use Magical Realism without reading others who do it well
Read up! Watch films. Magical Realism is really something you have to feel out to get down and reading and yes watching the work you want to emulate is always a must in fiction. 

I hope this was helpful and that you go out there and weave some magic!

Help Me Out! What Are Your Tips and Tricks for Writing Magical Realism?

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