noun; A literary technique in which realistic narration is interwoven with elements of magic, fantasy, or surrealism.
Prudencio Aguilar did not go away, nor did José Arcadio Buendía dare throw the spear. He never slept well after that. He was tormented by the immense desolation with which the dead man had looked at him through the rain, his deep nostalgia as he yearned for living people, the anxiety with which he searched through the house looking for some water with which to soak his esparto plug. “He must be suffering a great deal,” he said to Úrsula. “You can see that he’s so very lonely.” She was so moved that the next time she saw the dead man uncovering the pots on the stove she understood what he was looking for, and from then on she placed water jugs all about the house.
–One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Màrquez
Pros vs Cons
This is a great technique if you’re looking to add surrealism or fantasy without placing your characters in a make-believe world. I.e., you’re trying to set your character in the real world while still incorporating a little magic. You’re not interested in creating a whole new world, society,etc. You just want something out of the ordinary. Culturally, this technique is prominent in Latin American and Caribbean literature where voodoo, curses, zombies, and lengthy sleeping sicknesses are interwoven into everyday routines and consciousnesses.
A drawback to this technique is that if not done properly, you could set up your character or story to be unreliable or too far fetched. (Of course, this is only a problem if you’re not intending to intimate that your character or story is unreliable or crazy.)
Magical realism takes a subtle hand. You can’t blow pixie dust in the face of your reader. You need to slowly incorporate it into their food until they build a tolerance and accept your magic. A great way to get your reader to accept your magic as ordinary, is to have your characters accept it. Gabriel García Màrquez is a master at this magical subtly. His characters accept magic and surrealism as part of their everyday. No one questions that a certain cousin was born with a pig’s tail. No one freaks out that the ghost of murdered cockfighter comes to haunt them. No one finds the plagues of insomnia an unexplainable medical condition. Everything is taken as a fact of life.
Another good example is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In which the protagonist ages backwards (i.e., as an infant he looks like an old man, and as an old man he looks like an infant). The story is written so convincingly that the search term “Benjamin Button Disease Real?” pops up automatically in Google. Write so convincingly that your readers will need Google to discern facts from fiction.
The best way to learn anything is to study those who have perfected the skill. If you’re looking for inspiration or guidance, pick up one of these for your next read:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude; Gabriel García Màrquez
- Wide Sargasso Sea; Jean Rhys
- The Kingdom of this World; Alejo Carpentier
- Winter’s Tale; Mark Helprin
- Beloved; Toni Morrison
- Chocolat; Joanne Harris
- St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves; Karen Russell