The 4 Pillars Of Magic Realism

The 4 Pillars Of Magic Realism

Have you ever wondered what magic realism is? In this post, we look at how the four pillars of magic realism can improve your storytelling in this genre.

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  12. The 4 Pillars Of Magic Realism

In this post, we will be exploring the four pillars of writing a magic realism story.

The 4 Pillars Of Magic Realism

At some point, you’ve heard literary folks throw around the phrase ‘Magic Realism’ about various narrative media. Let’s say they were talking about a novel by Haruki Murakami or the latest film by Guillermo Del Toro. No matter when and how you first heard the term, you may have been a bit confused about what it means.

I’m not surprised.

Magic Realism has proven difficult to define because there are so many theories about what its characteristics are.

Should we call it Magic Realism? Magical Realism? Marvellous Realism? Is there a crossover between the literary genre Magic Realism and the movement by the same name within the visual arts? Did Magic Realism start in Germany? Or did it begin in Central and South America? Can only folks from certain cultures be Magic Realist writers?

I was more overwhelmed than enlightened by the amount of scholarship available on the subject.

I won’t attempt to unravel any of that here; that’s for the academics. Instead, I’ll describe the most fundamental elements of the genre, as I have observed them in two representative works of Magic Realism.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Also, I’ll contrast and compare Magic Realism with two other genres often confused with it. Surrealism and Urban Fantasy. This should help clarify the nuances of Magic Realism.

What Is Magic Realism?

First off, let me give my own definition.

Magic Realism is a genre wherein one or more unexplainable, unprovoked magic things happen in the real, contemporary world.

Two Examples

Now, to summarise each of the exemplar stories. 

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

A young salesman, Gregor Samsa, wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a giant bug (a beetle). He tries his best to get to work without revealing his horrifying new form to his concerned, prying family. Eventually, though, they see his changed form and realise he can no longer work to support them. At first, the other family members pity Gregor and try to care for him, but they soon lose patience and see him as a nuisance. When Gregor realises this, he becomes so depressed that he stops eating and dies from starvation. After being freed from their ‘burden’, Gregor’s family lives happily ever after.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One day, a farmer notices a horrible smell on his property. Following the smell, he finds an ancient man with enormous wings, wallowing in filth. When the farmer tries to help the old man, he discovers he speaks an unintelligible dialect. Unsure of what else to do, the farmer locks the old man in a chicken coop. Miraculous things happen, like the farmer’s baby being healed from an illness. Because of the old man’s appearance and the miraculous healing, some believe he is an angel. The townspeople treat the old man like a cross between a holy man and a circus animal. They visit his cage, hoping to witness another miracle. Things continue this way until a woman transformed into a spider captures the townspeople’s attention, instead. Seizing his opportunity, the old man escapes, flying away.

The 4 Pillars Of Magic Realism

Pillar 1: Real, Contemporary Setting

Despite never stating it outright, each story contains subtle hints that they were set during their authors’ lifetimes. Kafka’s story was set in early 20th century Europe, and Marquez’s story was set in mid-20th century Colombia.

Setting fantastical elements in the real world lets Magic Realist authors lend their work credibility. This way, readers can buy into those fantastical elements.

So, when writing a Magic Realist tale, you don’t have to worry about complex worldbuilding! Set it in your own time and place. Phew!  

Contrast & Compare:

Magic Realism shares this first pillar with both Urban Fantasy and (most) Surrealism. It is also this commonality that causes these three genres to be confused with one another so often. As we explore the next three pillars, the differences will become clearer.

Pillar 2: Magical Phenomena & Creatures

The defining characteristic of Magic Realism, as its name implies, is that something unexplainable happens in otherwise realistic circumstances.

In The Metamorphosis, this is a phenomenon. Gregor transforms into a giant bug. In Marquez’s story, the unexplainable is the discovery of an apparently mythical creature. The farmer discovers an old man with enormous wings, or an angel—as some believe him to be.

Contrast and Compare:

Urban Fantasy and Magic Realism both share the first two pillars in common. They both share a real-world, contemporary setting, and fantastical creatures and phenomena. Yet, it is in this second pillar that Magic Realism and Surrealism are revealed as opposites.

While in a Magic Realism work the fantastical events are real, in a Surrealist work, the events result from a character’s altered perception. The character may hallucinate because of traumatic stress, or mental illness. They may even be experiencing drug-induced hallucinations. The appearance of the fantastical in a Surrealist piece might be the audience getting a glimpse into the character’s imagination or dreams.

If our exemplar stories were Surrealist, it would turn out that Gregor’s transformation and the old man’s enormous wings were imaginary. They would turn out to by-products of some character’s altered perceptions.

Pillar 3: Magic’s Unknown Origins & Lore

This, to me, is the Pillar that sets Magic Realism apart from other fantastical genres.

In Fantasy, high or low, with magic systems hard or soft, the author attempts to give some hints about the world’s lore on both its magic and creatures. Even if the author never shares the means and mechanisms underlying the fantastical happening, they will give the impetus for it. They will share what caused it.

In Magic Realism, this is never so. We are never offered an explanation.

Why did Gregor turn into a giant bug? We never find out. How did he turn into a giant bug? No clue.

What was the old man with enormous wings—an angel or mutant? Dunno. And where did he come from? Who knows? Were the miracles surrounding his appearance real? And—if so—did he have anything to do with them, or was the fact they coincided with his arrival happenstance?

Okay, you get the idea. In Magic Realism, Mum’s the word on such subjects.

Contrast and Compare:

Alright, so this is one Pillar where Magic Realism and Urban Fantasy part ways. In the Urban Fantasy version of Marquez’s story, the old man might be a literal angel.

He arrived to warn the villagers of the coming end times. Something hurt him. He was performing miracles to assure them of his noble intentions. Unfortunately, they couldn’t understand him because he spoke a heavenly tongue beyond human comprehension. While this might also be an interesting story, we know too much about it to be a work of Magic Realism.

Sidebar.

I have a theory about why the fantastical is unexplained in Magic Realism. I wonder if Magic Realists intend these fantastical circumstances as literalized metaphors to explore the truth of emotional experience.

Yes. A story wherein someone loses their job because of a physical handicap and is thus alienated from family until they commit suicide illustrates how a person can feel like a mere bug. A nuisance. But this is not only less dramatically compelling, it’s also a bit on the nose in its didacticism.

C.S. Lewis said of Fairy tales, ‘… paradoxically enough, [Fairy tales] strengthen our relish for real life. The excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.’ *

I would suggest something similar for Magic Realism. An excursion into literalized emotional metaphors leaves us with a fresh perspective on them.

Pillar 4: Realistic Presentation

In both of our exemplar stories, the emphasis is not on the fantastical event itself. Nor is the emphasis on the possibilities these events open.

Rather, it is on how the characters try to navigate the mundane consequences of the fantastical event. We don’t find Gregor and his family exploring the implications of spontaneous human transformation—how it could be monetised and weaponised. Nor is the small Colombian community interested in unravelling the mystery of the angels’ origins.

In both stories, the characters accept the fantastic event and try to get on with their lives.

Contrast and Compare

We already discussed, implicitly, how Magic Realism differs from Urban Fantasy—after all, Fantasy is all about exploring possibilities. So, we won’t get into that much here.

The difference between Magic Realism and Surrealism seems obvious in this category, as well. Surrealism is about getting as far as possible from an accurate representation of life as lived and into the life of the mind.

Here, the ideal genre to contrast with is Literary Realism. As Literary Realism looks for the magic in the mundane, so Magic Realism finds the mundane in the magical.

The Final Word

Now, armed with these pillars, get out there and try your hand at writing some uncanny Magic Realism!

*On Stories, by C. S. Lewis

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 by Oliver Fox.

More Posts From Oliver:

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  7. Writers Talk 3 | Star Wars
  8. 3 Takeaways For Writers From David Foster Wallace

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 8th February 2022
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2 thoughts on “The 4 Pillars Of Magic Realism”

  1. Thank you! I do work mostly with magical realism in my scripts… but have wondered if that is really what I am doing. So thank you for the clarity!

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