Writing Tips: Magical Realism
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
For a month that ends with Halloween, what could be a more fitting topic than the use of magic in fiction? Of course, you can dive straight into fantasy, where magical creatures and principles govern your story world. But as Joan Schweighardt explains below, appreciation for the supernatural can raise your writing to a new level, even if your tale has no place for spells and sorcery. All you need are a light touch and a vivid imagination.
Magical Realism: A Balanced Seesaw
by Joan Schweighardt
Magical realism is a balanced seesaw. It requires fantastical events to be treated as though they are a natural part of the story’s environment. You tip too much one way, you’ve crossed over into fantasy. You tip too much the other way, and you never really got there at all.
In her most recent novel The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell’s character Lucrezia sticks her arm into a wild tiger’s cage, and the tiger, recognizing Lucrezia as a kindred spirit, allows the girl to fondle her. Most everything else in the novel is realistic—with a few magically subtle exceptions—and it is set in a world we recognize from a history (the Renaissance) we know; in fact, Lucrezia de Medici was a real person. The beauty of the incident with the tiger is that it shifts the seesaw into that sweet spot; it elevates our expectations that the story will deliver something extraordinary.
But what exactly is it that magical realism delivers?
Reading a good story, psychological research confirms, releases the chemical dopamine. And dopamine lights up the part of the brain that celebrates pleasure. My guess is that magical realism makes the dopamine thing happen just a bit faster than does a great story that excludes magical elements, perhaps because it takes us back to the fairy tales read to so many of us in our formative years. Once upon a time was a spellbinding phrase when we were kids, wasn’t it? It all but promised enchantment to follow.
Diane Setterfield’s Once upon A River makes that promise right in the title. In the first pages, in a crowded inn on the Thames River in the late 1800s, a door bursts open, and in rushes a blast of freezing air followed by a bleeding stranger carrying a dead child. But wait! By the end of the chapter the child is alive, mute and unable to tell us her story but breathing. Talk about dopamine release! This “miracle,” like its less daring counterpart in O’Farrell’s book, lifts us directly into the promise of an extraordinary story. (And Setterfield, like O’Farrell, delivers.)
I love reading magical realism because I prefer to believe that what I know about reality is only a drop in the bucket, that the world is not, as it sometimes seems, a place where nothing and nowhere is truly unique. Yet for the most part, I’ve avoided using it in my own writing. Part of this is, I think, because I fear not being able to hit that sweet spot, of tipping too far, into fantasy or paranormal. I totally respect both genres, mind you, and I enjoy reading them. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable setting out to write in either; I would likely find my way in okay but then get muddled in the middle and never find my way out. I am a realist by nature, one who believes that magic is a component of reality.
Some years ago, I read a magazine story about a little girl who received gifts from crows. Apparently she unwittingly began feeding them at the age of four, when she would drop snack crumbs from her lap whenever she got out of her mom’s car in the driveway. Later she fed the crows on purpose, scattering crumbs from her packed lunch on her way back from the school bus. When she graduated to putting crumbs out on a feeding tray, the crows began to thank her by leaving her gifts—shiny stones, pieces of broken jewelry, a crab claw once—on the same tray.
This is an amazing event. If you came across it in a novel, you might very well identify it as an example of magical realism. Bird magic is rampant in literature. According to the storyteller who might be considered the king of magical realism (Homer), Greek mythology’s Aedon planned to kill one of her sister-in-law’s kids but accidentally killed one of her own. When Zeus saw how much she was suffering, he changed her into a nightingale, so she could express her grief in song. Zeus himself would shapeshift into an eagle when it suited him.
Moving forward, Ruth Ozeki uses birds to great effect in her latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. In the first chapter, the white feathers of chickens float down from a truck to cover the body of a dead man in the gutter. In another, crows gather together over the dead man’s widow, who has fallen down the outside steps in a rainstorm and can’t get up. By spreading their wings, they are able to create an avian umbrella over her body. These instances of magical realism work because the context in which they occur does not question or contradict them. They are a natural part of the literary landscape in which they occur.
The Last Wife of Attila the Hun is the title of a novel I wrote some years back. It is based in part on Nordic legends and in part on the history of the Roman, Germanic, and Hun tribes that lived during the reign of Attila the Hun. While the historical elements in the novel are, by virtue of their very existence after all this time, sacrosanct, the elements from the legends feature a dragon, a dragon slayer, and a magical sword. I stepped back from endorsing these (and other) magical elements for fear of losing the historical aspect of the book to fantasy. Instead of showing the dragon, I let the characters describe their vivid encounters with him, leaving leery readers the choice of whether to accept him as real or not. Nor did I ever say the sword in the story was magical, though several of the characters would swear by it. This was me dipping my toes into the waters of magical realism. But I didn’t quite get there, because I failed to create an environment in which the magic appeared natural in the context of this particular story. In a sense, I asked my characters to defend beliefs I myself turned my nose up at.
There are two ghosts in The Accidental Art Thief, a humorous contemporary novel I wrote. They keep a low profile and don’t involve themselves too much in the characters’ lives. But there are other magical things going on too, mostly subtle. Like the true story of the crow gifts, some events could be construed as magical, or they could be regarded as components of amazing reality. A few reviewers described the book as having a thread of magical realism running through it. That pleased me.
For a month that ends with Halloween, what could be a more fitting topic than the use of magic in fiction? Of course, you can dive straight into fantasy, where magical creatures and principles govern your story world. But as Joan Schweighardt explains below, appreciation for the supernatural can raise your writing to a new level, even if your tale has no place for spells and sorcery. I plan to drop the first magical event within the first twenty pages to seal my commitment to my vision of the project and to let readers know what to expect. Since the character inspiring me lived her entire life in a state of wonderment, I think it will work.
If you’re thinking of writing magical realism yourself, I encourage you to do so. In hard times especially, the genre offers readers a new way of looking at the world. Like fantasy, it celebrates escapism, but only to a point. The new ideas the writer brings to the story will seem acceptable, not impossible.