I struggled through for a few years, forcing myself to write only realistic fiction. It didn’t go well. I had some decent stories, but it always felt like something was missing. I felt like I wasn’t being true to what I loved.
Three or four years passed, and I went back to college. That’s when I found Magical Realism. In one of my classes we read Kevin Brockmeier’s “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets” and Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish.” I was amazed by how both tackled the complexities of the human condition, but with fantastical elements that just made the stories pop.
It was like a breath of fresh air.
Ever since, I’ve been a writer and proponent of Magical Realism. Many of my short stories and my novella, The Memory Thieves, rest snugly within the genre. Writing Magical Realism is the most enjoyable exercise I know, and yet, there’s still a hesitation when I suggest to fellow writers that they dip their toes in and see what happens.
So, for any reluctant writers out there, here are a few reasons you should give Magical Realism a try.
- Magical realism enhances plot and unfetters the almighty “What if.”
Most plots originate from two simple words: “What If.” When you’re coming up with realistic ideas, you’re limited to what is both possible and plausible. Losing the reader’s suspension of disbelief is realistic fiction’s worst enemy.
Let’s say your deaf female main character in the garden needs to catch her trophy husband cheating in the den. Reality says she can’t overhear anything and is too far removed to see anything. Through the Magical Realism lens, that all changes. What if in this story-world people who lose one sense gain strength in another. She can’t hear anymore, but what if she can smell the sweat and pheromones wafting through the walls, wriggling toward her like Pepe Le Pew’s stink trail?
Magical Realism allows you to bend reality to fit the needs of the plot. Instead of that necessary, somewhat obvious scene where the wife goes in for a glass of water and spies the affair through the French doors, you can skip that middleman scene and get straight to the conflict.
- Magical Realism allows for quick and dirty world-building.
World-building can be a blast when you’re coming up with something totally new. Unfortunately, it can also be time-consuming and complex. There’s a reason most fantasy novels are thick as a brick. When it comes to short stories in particular, it’s almost impossible to include much world-building without boring the reader to death or slowing down the pace.
Magical Realism is a fantastic way to include world-building elements, because when it’s done right, you never stray too far from reality. The writer is able to rely on the basic framework of everyday life as a base. You can write a story about an accountant who’s a Were-Pig with an addition to hard-to-find truffles. Sure, the readers will need some basic world-building to explain his full-moon lifestyle, but most will have a basic understanding of an accountant’s life.
It’s a world just a step left of our own, and each one is unique, straight from the writer’s imagination.
- Magical realism highlights the mundane through the magical.
Let’s say you want to write a short story about a dysfunctional couple hiding the fact they just had a miscarriage during a friend’s baby shower. There are a lot of plot threads there you could follow as a writer. Maybe the husband is sad while the wife is secretly happy, or vice versa. Maybe they’re both happy about it, but are afraid to voice their feelings. Who knows?
These possibilities, (while certainly interesting if done well), are still relatively mundane. Most of the action will present itself through conversation, or a limited viewpoint.
Now, imagine that in this story-world, everyone can read minds, so long as they maintain eye contact. It seems a bit silly just laid out like that, but written well, it opens up all kinds of doors. A simple glance changes from an innocent act to a direct intrusion. The social niceties become a logistical nightmare as the couple struggles to get through the event without causing a scene.
What was a quiet, subtle affair is now filled with suspense and danger. Readers stay engaged. The conflict remains the same, but the available depth of exploration is advanced tenfold.
- Magical Realism opens doors typically closed to genre fiction.
This one is fairly self-explanatory. If you were to write a story taking place on planet Alpha-Zeta-Prime where aliens have developed trees for fingers and thus the main character is afraid to light the ceremonial flurgle-fire…well, there are only a few places you’re going to be able to submit that for publication.
Change the location to earth and the alien to a guy named Alan who’s down on his luck. Have him wake up one morning with paper hands, a mysterious ailment that’s been spreading through the general population. Follow him as he finally gets to take his kids camping one last time before his ex-wife cuts off visitation rights. He hides his paper hands from the ex, afraid she won’t let the kids go with him. All the kids have talked about for months is lighting a bonfire with him and making s’mores. He feels like he has to light that bonfire, or disappoint his kids forever.
The kicker is, if he does, he knows he’ll lose his hands.
This is admittedly still very weird, but if the focus is kept on the internal struggle of a failed father (and not Alan’s disposable digits), it could work. Written well, it would be much more likely to be accepted by more literary-minded publications, and draw in a wider audience. Keep the conflict real and grounded, delve into the human psyche, and readers and publishers will be apt to look past the oddity.
Now, I humbly suggest you do yourself a favor and go read some Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Sherman Alexie, or (my personal favorite) Italo Calvino. Next, check out some of the books featured on Zoe Brooks’ Magical Realism site. After that if you’re feeling adventurous, you might even check out my Magical Realism noir novella, The Memory Thieves.
Then once you’ve read your fill, try writing some of your own. Don’t skimp on the fantastic. Use it as a tool and it’ll pay off.
I guarantee you won’t regret it.