While magical realist stories from around the world can vary greatly in tone, context and content, they share some common elements. Identifying these features can help you differentiate between magical realism and other kinds of imaginative writing.
Take a look at some of the characteristics below. You may be surprised to learn that you've already read magical realism without even realizing it!
- Elements of the magical and the mundane are interwoven seamlessly, making it impossible to determine where reality ends and the extraordinary begins.
- The story is set in an otherwise ordinary world, with familiar historical and/or cultural realities. Story events are not always explained by universal laws or familiar logic.
- The ordinary aspects of the story are what produce the greatest magic.
- Objects and settings within the story may take on lives of their own in a way that is ordinary to the characters in the story.
- Constructs of time do not follow typical Western conventions. For instance, stories may be told in spiraling shapes rather than in straight lines.
- The story, as it unfolds, gives the reader a sense of being inside a puzzle or maze.
- Contradictions, inconsistencies and ambiguities color the point of view, making you question what you understand about the world at large, as well as what happens inside the story.
- A metamorphosis takes place in the story. It's treated not as a miracle, but as an everyday event.
- The story bears the influences of oral tradition: fables, myths, tall tales, urban legends, a charmed storytelling narrator (who may or may not be reliable).
- The magical elements in the story may enhance a subversive message or personalized point of view. Often the point of view is revealed through voices, ideas, and places which exist outside the mainstream or majority perspective.
- Magic occurs without using devices typical to the fantasy genre unless the devices (i.e. ghosts, angels) are employed in a context that makes them ordinary. Ghosts or angels may exist in a magical realist story, for instance, but not in a way that is surprising or unusual to the characters in the book.