What is Magical Realism? Find the Fantastical in the Familiar

Abi Wurdeman
March 8, 2024

Life is a string of marvelous occurrences. From the wonder of holding a newborn child to the shock of witnessing a cruel injustice, our existence is full of experiences that shake us up or transform us so profoundly that their effects seem to defy the physical laws of the world we know.

That is to say, life can feel pretty darn magical sometimes. And that’s exactly why the magical realism movement that came out of Latin America in the 1960s continues to resonate with readers around the globe. 

This literally fantastic genre illuminates profound truths and confronts the very real struggles of a broken world. It blurs the lines between truth and fantasy, between the quantifiable and the unexplainable, all the while asking if we ever needed those lines anyway.

It’s a beautiful, complex writing style with a rich history, and you’re about to learn all about it. We’ll answer the question “What is magical realism?” and explore some of the biggest questions this genre raises, like:

  • Why don’t we just call this fantasy?
  • What’s the point of blending reality with magic?
  • How do you write magical realism?
  • What should you read to get to know the genre better?

If you’re ready to question the limits of reality, you’ve come to the right place. 

What is Magical Realism?

A person sits cross-legged and levitates in front of a wall with angel's wings painted on it.

Let’s start with what Realism is. 

Realism began as a 19th-century visual art movement in which artists presented reality exactly as it was. That meant refusing to hide imperfections for the sake of a pretty picture. The grimace of a child, the rotten patch on a piece of fruit, the dirt under the fingernails—if it was in real life, it was going in the painting.

In literature, Realism does the same thing, offering an accurate depiction of the ordinary, everyday lives of common folk.

Magical realism takes that bald-faced reality and weaves magical elements into it. Unlike fantasy novels, which present extraordinary beings in enchanting worlds, magical realism is rooted firmly in the universe we know with characters whose lives look much like our own.

So what’s the point of bringing supernatural elements into a story that’s supposed to be about reality?

All that fun magic enhances the emotional and thematic aspects of the story, often through an extended metaphor.

Say, for example, you’re writing a magical realism story about an overburdened parent who—between working long hours to make ends meet and trying to be emotionally present for their kids—feels like they’re slowly drowning in a thousand daily demands they can never meet. 

Their sink is constantly full of dirty dishes—a mundane and relatable image, right? But then every time they do the dishes, their whole house floods with another inch of dirty dishwater. It’s a physical representation of that “slowly drowning” feeling and a metaphor for the futility of trying to build a better life without enough time or resources.

If this all sounds a little artsy-fartsy, that’s because it totally is. Magical realism is categorized as a subgenre of literary fiction, not fantasy, and many consider this style of storytelling a bit experimental. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s inherently complicated or inaccessible. In fact, countless magical realism stories have seen widespread commercial success, from One Hundred Years of Solitude to Life of Pi to Jane the Virgin

Key Elements of Magical Realism

So that’s the overview, but what is magical realism exactly? Like, how do you know it when you see it?

Here are some telltale characteristics of this subgenre:

Reality dominates the story - Sometimes the magic exists only to deepen the emotional experience of the story. Other times, it’s actually part of the plot. Either way, the setting, characters, and central conflict are grounded in everyday life.

Everybody rolls with it - Characters might be disturbed or in awe when a supernatural event occurs, but they don’t fuss too much over how the heck this happened. In many cases, they respond as if it’s totally normal.

The magic means something - In magical realism, the fantastical elements serve a deeper purpose. A magical event might serve as a metaphor for an emotional experience, thematic concept, internal conflict, or even social issues.  

It might incorporate mythology or folk tales - Latin American writers in particular are famous for weaving the supernatural elements of traditional Indigenous stories into modern, everyday reality.

The Fantastic History of the Magical Realism Genre

Silhouette of a person standing in front of a window, reading a book between two library bookshelves.

To fully appreciate magical realism, you must get familiar with the genre’s roots in Latin American literature.

The term “magic realism” was first coined by German art critic Franz Roh in 1924. He used the term to describe visual art that realistically depicted ordinary objects and situations while incorporating fantastical elements.

In 1955, a literary critic named Angel Flores coined the term “magical realism,” specifically referencing Jorge Luis Borges’ short story collection A Universal History of Infamy. In fact, Borges and Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez are now celebrated as the fathers of magical realism. 

Did Magical Realism Not Exist in Literature Before the Mid-20th Century?

It’s true that grounded stories that include a casual sprinkling of magical phenomena have existed across many cultures long before Latin America’s literary boom in the mid-20th century. For example, some might categorize Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis—which was published in 1915 and is about a dude who wakes up as a bug—as magical realism.

That said, it was the Latin American fiction authors of the mid-20th century who turned an experimental storytelling form into an entire literary movement incorporating history, politics, and mythology. 

For example, authors like Márquez and Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier used a blend of cold-hard truth and Indigenous folklore to confront the ugly realities of economic oppression, civil war, colonialism, and the ordinary grief that comes with being human. 

Between the specific ways in which South and Central American authors shaped the genre and the fact that the term “magical realism” was first used to describe a literary movement led by Latin American authors, the magical realism genre as we know it is considered to have been born in Latin America.

Not to mention, the authors who founded this literary genre would be the first to tell you that the fantastical elements in their stories are more than fun literary devices. They reflect the authors’ cultures—cultures that embrace fantasy and refuse to draw a hard line between the real and the supernatural. 

As Gabriel García Márquez once explained it, “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.”

Magical Realism on a Global Scale

Now you see authors all over the world embracing a similar style of storytelling, using their own culture’s folklore and history to tell grounded, contemporary stories. This includes authors like Mo Yan (China), Haruki Murakami (Japan), and Olga Tokarczuk (Poland).

Magical realism has also taken off in the United States, notably among Black authors like Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, and Ta-Nehisi Coates who have used folklore and fantastical elements to explore themes of oppression and empowerment in Black American history.

All this to say, the genre of magical realism has proven a universally powerful way to tell a story. And we all have Latin America to thank for it.

Magical Realism Examples

So I’ve just thrown a whole stack of definitions and dates and names at you. Hopefully, some of it clarified what magical realism is. But, as with all things literary, you’ll understand this genre best by reading it.

Here are some great places to start:

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

In his genre-defining novel, Márquez tells the story of the Buendía family, founders of the fictional town of Macondo. In the world of the Buendías, magical events are commonplace. There’s a magic carpet, a levitating priest, and a child born with a pig’s tail.

All the while, the events of the novel tell a larger story about colonialism and political unrest in Columbia. Márquez even works in storylines inspired by real-life events like the Thousand Days’ War and the Banana Massacre.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits follows the Trueba family through multiple generations, the personal conflicts of each generation mirroring and intertwining with the greater political conflicts of the time. Though Allende never names the country or real political figures, her novel blatantly tells the story of post-colonial political upheaval in Chile.

The magical elements in this novel appear primarily (though not exclusively) through the character of Clara. She’s clairvoyant, levitates, communes with spirits, and displays an attitude of calm and compassion that can almost feel supernatural given the devastation and injustice she’s witnessed. 

Even after death, she appears as a ghost to encourage her loved ones and offer redemption.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a woman who killed her own two-year-old daughter to spare her from a life of slavery. When the novel opens, Sethe lives with her teenage daughter in a home haunted by the ghost of the child she killed.

The hauntings finally end, but soon after, a woman who Sethe believes to be the reincarnation of her daughter arrives on her doorstep.

In this novel (as in much of her work) Morrison casts a glaring light on the traumatic legacy of slavery. In fact, the story itself was inspired by a real woman who made the same devastating decision Sethe did. 

Distinguishing Fantasy From (Magical) Reality

A pinecone levitates over a person's open palm.

At this point, you can probably understand why The Lord of the Rings and A Court of Thorns and Roses are categorized as fantasy, not magical realism. They take place in magical realms where magical creatures are magicking all over the place. Not a lot of everyday life going on there.

But of course, not all fantasy is high fantasy. So what about, say, an urban fantasy novel that features a realistic setting and a human protagonist? How are you supposed to know the difference between that and a literary fiction novel that uses magical realism?

Ask yourself the following four questions and you’ll probably find your answer.

What Role Do the Magical Elements Play in This Story?

As you know (because I keep repeating it), in magical realism, fantastical elements represent something greater. Maybe they symbolize an internal battle or offer a heightened visual expression of the protagonist’s emotional state. They can also draw attention to a theme or serve as metaphors for something greater than the story itself, like society or religion. 

In the fantasy genre, supernatural events can and do serve as metaphors for deeper themes. But most of the magic you see in this genre is simply there because it’s part of the world. The author promised you supernatural adventures, so that’s what you’re getting. 

Who’s Running the Show—Fantasy or Reality?

If the story revolves around ordinary subjects and a (mostly) grounded narrative, it’s magical realism.

Even in The Metamorphosis where a guy’s just gotta be a bug for the entire story, he’s still dealing with the unremarkable dilemmas of ordinary life. He doesn’t set off on a quest to find the witch who can break the spell. He hangs out at home, trying to navigate the awkward new dynamic between himself and his family.

In fantasy stories, magical circumstances move characters to make extraordinary choices that send them on grand adventures and ultimately reveal them to be heroes

What are the Laws of Magic?

If you can answer this question at all, it’s fantasy.

As any fantasy writer will tell you, establishing a magic system is a crucial aspect of worldbuilding in this genre. Even if a specific novel doesn’t go in-depth about where the magic comes from and why it works, there are at least some basic rules.

Who is capable of harnessing what kind of magic? When can they use it? What can’t they do? That sort of thing.

These details help the reader accept supernatural occurrences as a familiar, physical reality of the fantasy setting. They also create tension and intrigue. A broken wand wouldn’t do much to heighten suspense if you didn’t know its owner was powerless without it.

In magical realism, you don’t get that kind of insight because, once again, the magic itself isn’t really the point. It’s what the magic represents. 

What’s Going on With the Plot Structure?

Little heads-up: the answer to this question will not definitively tell you whether you’re reading fantasy or magical realism. When it comes to plot structure, there are outliers in both genres. But generally speaking, answering this question can give you a decent hint. 

Fantasy novels fall under the heading of commercial fiction, which means they’re written to be easy for most people to consume and enjoy. 

Simply put, most fantasies stick to a super familiar story structure like the Hero’s Journey or the three-act structure

The protagonist leaves their normal world to pursue a goal under extraordinary circumstances. They face increasingly difficult obstacles, culminating in a nail-biting climax that leaves them and their world forever changed, hopefully (but not always) for the better.

Sometimes magical realism also follows traditional story structure. But it is literary fiction—the genre where authors are most likely to go rogue when it comes to plot development. 

If the beginning, middle, and end are kind of muddled together and there’s not an obvious, steady build to a climactic moment, it might be magical realism.

Magical Realism in Contemporary Storytelling

A person's reflection appears on wet asphalt but only a pair of empty shoes are actually there.

One thing we say all the time here in DabbleU is that you need to know what’s currently going on in your genre. We’ve already gone over the history of magical realism and taken a quick look at some classic examples. But how do authors weave the ordinary and magical elements together here in the 21st century?

Well, actually, a lot of modern magical realism follows the standards set by authors during the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s. 

In the U.S., authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nghi Vo, and Colson Whitehead use magical elements to explore American social justice issues and the nation’s legacy of racism. And there continues to be an abundance of brilliant magical realism from authors of Latin American heritage, like Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Carmen Maria Machado, and Rudy Ruiz.

At the same time, you can now find those fantastical flourishes in stories that don’t explore major social or political issues. And not all modern magical realism incorporates mythology and beliefs straight from the author’s own cultural tradition.

In other words, magical realism has a pretty wide application these days. Let’s explore a few examples, shall we? 

Contemporary Works That Rock Magical Realism

Once you start looking for examples of magical realism in modern storytelling, you’ll realize it’s everywhere. Not only have countless contemporary authors gotten in on adding a dash of the supernatural to their otherwise grounded stories, but film and television have gone magic-happy, too.

You can see magical realism in Amélie. And Encanto. And Groundhog Day, Edward Scissorhands, Midnight in Paris, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, My Neighbor Totoro, Stranger Than Fiction, and half a million other shows and movies.

The point is, whether you realized it at the time or not, you’ve probably already seen and/or read a lot of magical realism. Here are some examples of what the genre can look like in the current age:

The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez by Rudy Ruiz

Fulgencio’s story is one most people can relate to. His own insecurities and obsession with the future prevent him from connecting in the present moment with the woman he loves. This failing destroys his chances with her, and it’s not until her husband dies years later that Fulgencio has an opportunity to go back and make things right.

That’s the realism part. As for the magic, Fulgencio’s self-destructive shortcomings are the result of a family curse—one he can only overcome with the guidance of spirits.

Set in a border town, this novel explores the question of what divides us personally and socially, as well as what it takes to bridge those divides.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates’s novel centers on Hiram, a boy born into slavery who loses both his mother and his memories of her. When he grows older and nearly drowns, he unwittingly unlocks a magical gift: the power to transport people over long distances.

This power is fueled by memories of his mother, and in order to master his extraordinary ability, he must recover his memories and reconstruct his past. Over the course of the story, Hiram becomes involved in the Underground Railroad, encountering real-life figures like Jarm Logue, Box Brown, and Harriet Tubman. 

By incorporating the protagonist’s memory-fueled superpower in a story grounded in antebellum history, Coates explores the essential role of truth and memory in creating a world that is truly free.

Jane the Virgin

Okay, it’s true: as an homage to telenovelas, the subplots of Jane the Virgin don’t exactly depict ordinary life. There are evil twins, bouts of amnesia, and a wicked long-lost mother with an eye patch and a hook. Oh! And the protagonist is a pregnant virgin, thanks to a mix-up at the gyno’s office.

But the fun of this show is that it juxtaposes soapy drama with an emotionally grounded story. While big drama whirls around Jane, her daily struggles are familiar. 

She fights to pursue her writing dreams and still make ends meet, argues with her mother, worries over her grandmother’s undocumented status, navigates the everyday challenges of romantic relationships, and tries to find her way as a mother in a world where a mother’s best is never good enough.

Magical realism adds yet another layer. Bus ads talk to Jane. Hearts literally glow with love. Her own characters appear before her in the middle of a writing session to tell her what she’s getting wrong. (Been there.)

Like the telenovela-ish aspects of Jane the Virgin, the magical realism is an engaging homage to Latin American storytelling. It’s also an effective tool for bringing Jane’s frustration, joy, and tenderness to life.

Tips for Crafting Magical Realism

A person with painted arms and a long green dress stands beside a forest stream.

Feeling inspired yet? Ready to start working some magical realism into your next novel?

I’ve got a few tips to help you find your perfect balance of reality and fantasy while also making sure your magical elements have a meaningful role to play.

Get Real

At this point in the article, you don’t need me to tell you that realism is a key element of magical realism. Nevertheless, I think it’s important we talk about what “real” means.

You can go the Ta-Nehisi Coates route and show a moment in history in all its unflinching ugliness. You can go the Jane the Virgin route and depict simple, everyday struggles like trying to communicate with a brooding co-parent.

Whether you zoom out to take an honest look at society or zoom in on the daily trials of being human, the key is to show the whole mess. Don’t make your heroes too heroic or your world too remarkable.

Think in Metaphors and Themes

The magic in this genre can be fun, but remember, it also has to serve a purpose. So start thinking in symbols.

One way to do this is to start with what you want to say. Is there a theme you really want to drive home? Or a character trait or emotional moment that should feel larger than life? 

Start imagining how you might pull that off with a supernatural metaphor. 

You can work backwards, too! Maybe you’ve already got a magical image in your mind. Maybe that image is the whole reason you’re looking into magical realism in the first place; you know it belongs in a story, you’re just not sure how.

Write out a list of things your already-imagined supernatural event might symbolize. Notice what feelings or thoughts immediately come to mind when you picture it. 

One of the most fascinating things about being a writer is that our minds are often cooking stuff up before we’re even aware of it. If you keep imagining a levitating grandmother in a senior living facility, something about that vision is speaking to you. Spend enough time looking at it, and you’ll probably find out what it is.

Don’t Bother Explaining

Remember that magical realism is not fantasy; you don’t have to explain your magical events to anyone. 

It’s fine if your characters have their own explanations. Maybe they believe in curses or know for a fact that the protagonist inherited their bizarre power from previous generations. 

The main thing is that you don’t have to worry about building a world that justifies the magic. You don’t have to explain who gets to have magical experiences, who doesn’t, and why. Your reader doesn’t need a breakdown of magical laws. Those details will only water down the nature of the fantastical events and make them feel more like worldbuilding.

Let Your Characters Roll With It

Often in magical realism, characters respond to bizarre happenings with sentiments like, “Dangit! My kid was born with a pig’s tail. That’s exactly what I was afraid of.”

Sometimes they express wonder or incredulity. They might even gossip with their neighbors about what they think caused the event, but the proposed explanations will usually be something personal. It was punishment for adultery or it’s just what happens when someone feels more love or grief than a mortal heart can hold.

You’ll even see instances where characters respond to magic the same way they’d respond to a particular personality trait or lifestyle. They might forbid their kids from talking to that levitating child or look for excuses to be near that person whose home is surrounded by springtime all year long.

So it’s not necessarily that your characters must be indifferent to the magic. It’s more that they coexist with it as a zany thing that comes with living where they live and knowing who they know.

No one goes on a mission to determine the true origin of the magic or learn how to wield its power for themselves. Magic is never at the heart of the conflict or the greatest complication in the protagonist’s life.

In other words, make sure the supernatural elements in your magical realism story heighten what’s going on in the narrative without becoming the defining feature.

Magical Realism Writing Exercises

A person sits on the floor by a couch, typing on a laptop and drinking coffee.

Need a little help weaving the magical and mundane together? The writing exercises below might help.

You can use these anytime you’re struggling to come up with ideas for marvelous occurrences, you’ve got the ideas but you’re not sure how to work them into a grounded narrative, or you just need help thinking like a magical realist.

Embellish the Mundane

To practice magical realism, start with a mundane moment from the last twenty-four hours of your life. Write the scene, allowing magic to work its way in somehow. You don’t have to worry about what the magic symbolizes just yet but try to keep it related to the present moment—to you, the setting, or the task.

For example, if you’re writing about mowing the lawn, maybe the ground splits open behind you as you mow or the lawnmower turns into a shopping cart or blades grow out of your feet. 

If a wizard appears out of nowhere to tell you that you’re needed for a mission in a magical realm, you’ve veered into fantasy territory where reality serves a supernatural narrative.

Once you’ve written your scene, look back and ask yourself what role the magic could be playing. What could the cracking earth symbolize? What might blades growing out of your feet indicate about your character or destiny?

It might feel like you’re working backwards, writing the magic before you’ve given it any meaning. But exercises like that can be useful, because sometimes we find what we’re trying to say by allowing our intuition to guide our writing.

If that doesn’t work for you, try this one: 

Play With Absurd Metaphors

Magical realism challenges us to bypass obvious metaphors and get really creative. Of course, this is something that takes practice.

Think of something in your own life that stirred major emotions in you. Maybe it was the birth of your child, the moment you knew you were in love, a time when you witnessed a terrible injustice, or a falling out with a friend.

Remember that experience, conjure those emotions, and then list ways to describe the feeling using magical imagery.

Did falling in love feel like rising up out of your shoes and landing gently on the branch of a silver maple? Did it feel like the ground beneath you disappeared and you were falling fast into the glittering unknown? Or like your heart left your body and settled permanently inside someone else’s?

You can skip your own experiences and do this exercise using scenes from your novel. But sometimes tapping into something personal helps you examine an experience with more specificity, making it easier to avoid clichés.  

Keep a Dream Journal

There is no bigger magical realism fan than the human subconscious. When we sleep, our brains combine everyday life's most mundane details with an absurd depiction of our deepest hopes and anxieties.

Write that madness down. It’s free material. You might not use the exact stories your brain feeds you, but you’ll have an ever-growing magical realism idea bank.

The tree growing out of the backseat or your car. Those moth wings you sprouted. The elevator that only goes down, defying all reason.

Any of it could inspire a scene in your next novel.

Find the Magic With Dabble

Magical realism is a celebration of imagination. It’s a style of storytelling that casts a glowing light on the fact that sometimes being human feels unreal. Absurd. Magical in all the best and worst ways.

To find your way in a literary genre like this one, you need lots of space to meander, explore, and let your imagination run wild.

With Dabble, you can do all of that while still keeping your thoughts in order.

Dabble is an all-in-one writing tool with super handy features guaranteed to keep you organized. Track every aspect of your story in the Plot Grid. Use Story Notes to sort your historical research, ideas for worldbuilding, symbols, and more. Stay on top of character development with customizable character profiles.

And those are just planning and plotting features. We haven’t even touched on drafting, revising, and formatting yet.

If you’d like to get to know Dabble, you can access every feature for free for 14 days by clicking this link. You don’t have to enter a credit card, so there’s no risk of accidental charges when the trial ends.

Give it a whirl and see what you think. I personally think it’s nothing short of magic.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.