Fantasy vs. Magical Realism

In the quest to define the genre of my novel, The Heart Stone Chronicles – The Swamp Fairy, I stumbled across a definition of a genre I had not previously explored. It is called magical realism.

Although I have categorized my novel into the fantasy realm, after further reflection, I do believe it falls more into the magical realism category.

“Fantasy is defined as a work of fiction where magic is the main plot element, theme, or setting. Many fantasy novels take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common.” Wikipedia. in her post, “Magical Realism, What is it?” defines magical realism with the following traits:

“Real World Setting:
Magical realism is almost always rooted in a real place, though like in Wizard of the Crow or One Hundred Years of Solitude, it can often be a made-up city or town within the real world that is treated as if it had always been there. For me, this is what distinguishes the genre more than anything from fantasy, where the entire world is usually completely made-up.

Myth and Folktale:
This can be used in various ways, whether it is by referring to myths and folktales that already exist, or by writing in such a way that folktales might be told. This is one of my favorite aspects of the genre because it gets to the core of storytelling – when it used to be told by word of mouth! I often keep this attribute in mind when writing my magical realist novel to play with narration.

Fantastical Attributes:
The most extensive aspect of the genre, magical realism incorporates what might be deemed superstitious or mythological and makes it real, though oftentimes consumers of the story are left wondering whether things actually exist, they are just metaphors, or if it’s all psychological. However, whatever it appears to be, it is treated as an everyday occurrence. Various examples include Toru, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, sitting at the bottom of a well for days on end or Riggan flying around Manhattan as Birdman in Birdman. It is this aspect of the genre that I believe makes it hard for it to translate to other modes of storytelling. In literature, there is lots of wordplay at hand and nearly everything exists in the reader’s mind. Because of this, there is more room for mysticism. In the other mediums, however, this mysticism becomes more difficult because the story is being presented to someone visually so that anything mystical is either taken to be fact or fiction on the spot. Despite this, films like Birdman and Pan’s Labyrinth achieve this well by honing in on one character psychologically and therefore so can you!

The mystery in magical realism, though central to the conflict, often is not highlighted to such a degree as it might be in a mystery novel. Additionally, at times many mysteries may not have an answer at all, like insomnia in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Whatever the mystery is, however, it often is what sets the character on their journey and hints at something missing in the character’s life. However, compared to the Hero’s Journey, their journey is far more passive and given to waiting and wandering. Haruki Murakami does this very well in all of his books, with many of his characters roaming about for pages on end in search of answers they just happen upon in a dream or in a strange woman at a bar. Their mysteries often hint at the void in their life – it’s usually a female connection for Murakami – and by the end of the book the mystery is resolved, oftentimes filling the void they have felt for the story, though this is not necessary, just like resolving the mystery is not necessary so long as there is one.

When you look up magical realism traits, you will not find this trait listed and it is by no means a scholarly or literary assessment, but it is a trait I see in every piece all the same. Now, of course, I don’t mean literally, as there are stories like Beloved that are dark and tragic but still fit the magical realism genre. What I mean is that when I am engaged with a magical realist story, everything is vivid. Things may be upsetting, yet they remain bright in their realizations until the very end, be it via description, dialogue, or the colors of the piece itself in the case of film. It is not to say everyone is constrained to one way of telling this aspect of the story in magical realism, but that there is always lots of life in the piece. Even when characters are doing absolutely nothing, the world around them should be fully realized, and that is because when writing magical realism, you work with the real-world as a backdrop, and all the abnormalities are able to really flourish. Try to keep this in mind when telling your own magical realism stories – every new detail that makes your world magical should bring it life and color.”

The difference between the two genres is that magical realism uses elements of fantasy which are rooted in our sense of reality, while fantasy creates a new reality.

When using magical realism you tell stories from the viewpoint of people who live in the natural world and experience a different kind of reality. If there is a fairy in a magical realism story, as there is in my story, the fairy is not really a fantasy element because the fairy is an indicator of this person’s reality and belief in fairies. Magical realism gives us a glimpse into a reality that is unlike our own reality, viewed through the eyes of someone else.

The real difference between fantasy and magical realism is that the reader is left with the understanding that this reality is true and that people really do live in a world where fairy nymphs protect certain areas of the earth. It also leaves the reader with the feeling that this viewpoint is true and correct. Whereas a fantasy novel is distinguished by the knowledge that the fantasy reality is a figment of the author’s imagination.

There are three ways to define magical realism as a specific viewpoint. In a magical realism reality, time is not linear, everything that happens must have a cause and are linked by more than just chance, and it must convey the idea that the magical and the commonplace exist at the same time and are in reality the same thing. This causes a blending of time and space where the past and future exist on the same plane.

This is what I hope I have achieved in The Heart Stone Chronicles. I wish for my readers to become enmeshed in a reality that they too can experience if they believe. I have no idea how I wrote a novel using a genre I had never heard of. Maybe magical realism has become my reality.

Thanks for stopping by,

44 thoughts on “Fantasy vs. Magical Realism”

  1. Thank you for clarifying the difference between fantasy and magic realism. I’ve been thinking of my last book and the one I’m working on as fantasy, but having read your definitions I can see that magic realism is a more accurate description.

    • Of course, I am not an authority on this genre so I recommend further study. I understand magical realism is more a form of literary fiction. For marketing purposes I think we would still fall under fantasy. I thought the distinction for my book was the fact that the occurrences happen in the real world and have more to do with real live events. I will have to do more research myself to fully understand. It is quite fascinating, though, isn’t it? Best of luck on your book! Hugs. <3

    • Thank you, Viva. It was definitely a chance encounter. I was searching through Pinterest and came upon the article I quoted in my post. I almost fell over. I felt like my series was in that category for sure. Of course, I still will market the book as fantasy, but I think it is amazing that I wrote something like that without even knowing the genre. My nymphs have always stressed they want their story told! I must read some of the novels in this genre. <3

  2. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    Here’s a useful article on a meaningful distinction. I’ve started pitching my work in progress, The Drowned Man, as magical realism. It certainly isn’t fantasy. Yet I’m not so sure it meets this definition either. What’s your definition of magical realism? Share your favorite examples!

  3. Interesting article. I think the first book I read in the magical realism genre was Isabelle Allende’s House of the Spirits. I loved it, I think, because it is grounded in the real world.

  4. Hi Colleen: I’m a big fan of magic realism (I read a lot of it when I was younger as it was very common especially among central and South American writers writing in Spanish. Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Gabriel García Márquez A Hundred Years of Solitude are among my favorite books ever) and not having read your book I can’t comment, although I’d say if a big part of the story (the core of the story) is based on something that is not part of real life to most people that probably would push it more towards fantasy than towards magic realism (also, as a genre, in general terms I think fantasy does better with sales, as magic realism fits in more with literary fiction that’s quite difficult to market). But genres are very much a matter of personal opinion, although I’d definitely recommend that you read some of the classic magic realist texts if you haven’t, as they’re wonderful.
    Best of luck!

    • Hi, Olga. Sorry it took so long for me to respond. I find the entire subject of magic realism fascinating. I have read that it was popular in South American and with Spanish writers. I do need to do more research and will certainly read some of the books you mentioned in that genre. My book is about elemental beings or fairies. I have incorporated the myths of the Greek nymphs into the story and the series. I am still editing and as always my writing is a journey. I have always loved literary fiction and really enjoyed my writing and english classes in college. There is an amazing community of people who believe in fairies/elemental beings and studies are being conducted within the scientific community concerning plants and their feelings. You always are a great wealth of knowledge and propel me towards more learning. Thanks for that. If I could have been a professional college student, I would have! LOL! Thank you again. Hugs to you for your wonderful support! <3

  5. I think a good example of this would be things like Harry Potter or Arthurian Legend. Where they are set in real places with fantastical settings.

    An interesting choice for your own novel. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (the novel; I don’t know about the movie as I haven’t seen it and have heard some less than stellar things about it) is one of the best examples of magical realism I’ve ever seen. In fact whenever I hear that term it’s the first story I think of taking place in what I’ve dubbed mythopoetic New York. I think your definition of the concept is more than sound and I am more than curious in your novel 🙂

    There’s a fine line between fantasy and magical realism and authors who can walk it create truly magical works indeed.

    • I will have to read that novel. This is all new to me. I stumbled upon a post on Pinterest and was shocked to realize I had written magical realism. I knew it was’t true fantasy but had no idea how to classify it. Now, I will become a student and learn all I can. I am still in the editing stage so will quiz my beta readers. Thanks for the information. Much appreciated! ❤️

      • Certainly! I stumbled upon that novel randomly in a used bookstore. The cover had a horse constellation in a wintry sky. I read the blurb and became hooked. I’ll warn you Helprin apparently has some odd politics that leak into his stories, but I enjoyed the book immensely. I want to read it again and eventually deal with the movie. It may just be odd to people who haven’t read the book, which is a bit odd itself.

  7. I’ve been leaning toward Magical Realism as my genre too. What fun! I love magic in all of its forms.

    Did you see all of the posts for #MagicRealism2016 Blog Hop? It was just this weekend. 🙂


Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: