Writing Magical Realism vs Paranormal/Fantasy

Magical Realism in YA: Writing the Familiar with a Fantastical Twist

by author Nova Ren Suma

I like strange things. So it’s probably not surprising that I’m here today to talk about writing strange things. In other words: ignoring the confines of genre and skirting the line between contemporary realistic and paranormal or fantasy.

Maybe you want to push your limits and expand the events of your story in a way that can’t be tied down to ground. But you don’t want to write a paranormal novel about angels or zombies or even unicorns. You don’t want to write high fantasy or urban fantasy or anything that would involve a lot of world-building. The story you want to tell is set in the here and now—in this world, with the people who live in it—and yet you’re still itching to go further.

You want it both ways.

If you do, you might want to try a little magical realism.

I’ve noticed that my first young adult novel, Imaginary Girls, hasn’t been easy to label by readers and reviewers. I tend to describe it as “contemporary with a fantastical twist”—as, to my mind, I’ve written a contemporary realistic YA novel in which questionable and often very odd events occur. But I’ve seen the novel called straight-up contemporary with an unreliable narrator. Or full-on paranormal. Or supernatural—a ghost story. I’ve heard it simply called a mystery. And in bookstores I’ve sometimes seen it shelved in the fantasy section. The word most often used to describe it has been “surreal.”

I won’t take anything away from what a reader decides after reading the last page—as a reader myself, I love ambiguity—but I will tell you this: When I was writing Imaginary Girls I wanted to write a story that was not entirely confined to this reality.

I was inspired by magical realism. And this is the label I connect to most of all.

Do we really have to define magical realism?

I don’t want to write a whole post on which novels are—or aren’t—magical realism. That can, and has been, debated.

Some say that only Latin American fiction can truly be called magical realism. As someone who devoured Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude with the rest of the reading world, I can’t fathom connecting my own work to his, even if I admit to you that it’s a great inspiration. The first novel of magical realism I ever read was probably The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, and I didn’t care what kind of novel it was or where I might find it on bookstore shelves—I just knew I loved it. I also hold, very close to my heart, the novel Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo as one of my favorite books of all time. These are three classics of Latin American fiction cited again and again as perfect examples of magical realism.

But if we all agree to not argue over what can and cannot be considered true magical realism, if we don’t confine ourselves to place of origin or time period, and instead open our minds to the possibilities these kinds of stories give us as writers… we come away with some great opportunities for our own stories.

Why can’t I write magical realism from my favorite café in New York City right now, today?

Besides, there’s undeniable magical realism in YA fiction, too. Think of Francesca Lia Block’s blazingly brilliant Weetzie Bat, or the eerie Skellig by David Almond. Think of the magical and post-apocalyptic Green Angel by Alice Hoffman. Think, also, of the surreal twists found in novels like Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall or Bennett Madison’s The Blonde of the Joke. Think even of a small taste, like in the dreams found in Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road. Magical realism is all around us, in different places and to different degrees, and the possibilities are endless.

A common thread in most of these novels I mentioned—no matter if the “fantastical twist” is ghostly or dreamlike in nature—is that the reader is grounded in the familiar first.

These novels are about real people. In real places.

Only once we have our footing does something otherworldly happen.

Want to write magical realism? Five tips to get started.

If all this intrigues you and you’re thinking of slipping some magical realism into your own novel, here are some ways to do it:

1. Establish the familiar, then lift the veil.

Some of the magic of magical realism is how well-threaded the impossible events of the story will be into an otherwise completely recognizable reality. To do this, start your story in a familiar place readers understand without too much question. The time could be today, and the place could be right down the street. The people are ones like you and me. Be authentic and true, just as if you’re writing a contemporary realistic story, and then throw the fantastical twist in.

My novel Imaginary Girls begins with a fateful swim across a local reservoir at a drunken party in the middle of the night. On page 1, this is all you know, and it may seem familiar, even ordinary. It’s not until four chapters into the story that a physically impossible turn of events occurs—only after the reader has been grounded in the here and now and wasn’t necessarily expecting it.

There certainly can be actual magic in magical realism—it’s part of the name, after all—but here is a big difference from fantasy. The magic often sneaks up on the reader instead of being out in the open from the start. You can lay clues, and hide keys, but these hints will only be illuminated later… as the full scope of the story begins to be revealed.

2. Make your real world REAL.

So much of writing magical realism centers on a vivid use of place and the world in which your story occurs. There’s Weetzie Bat’s heightened view of modern Los Angeles. Before I Fall’s archetypal American high school and The Blonde of the Joke’s archetypal American shopping mall. World-building and creating a mythos, as you would when writing fantasy and much paranormal, isn’t needed as much here. With a fantastical story set in the here and now, you have the world around you at your disposal. And the way to make your story believable—to assure your reader of what’s real, so then the questions of what’s not real don’t seem so off-kilter—is to carve out a perfectly detailed and strongly visualized sense of place.

In this way, novels of magical realism often have a great focus on setting. Sometimes it’s even the place itself that informs the fantastical events of the story, much as the surreal elements of Weetzie Bat grow organically from within its colorful vision of Los Angeles.

To write magical realism, you want a solid place. You want to know that place like no other, and be able to bring it to life on the page.

Soon, the magic is so much a part of the real world, it can’t be separated.

3. Push yourself over the edge.

Sometimes the idea of adding an element of magical realism to your story—or slipping in your “fantastical twist,” whatever you choose to call it—can seem daunting for an otherwise realistic novel. I’ve often found myself slinking around the edge, letting my characters only imagine what-if scenarios instead of actually letting them dive in. I was afraid to let go. It wasn’t until Imaginary Girls that I took the leap, and once the floodgates were opened, the whole plot grew and changed from there.

Asking “What if?”—and actually going there to find out—might be the breath of life your story wants. And needs.

Don’t shy away from the extraordinary. Know that magical realism can offer the opportunity to speak to universal truths in a way that could seem forced or even melodramatic in another kind of story. David Almond’s Skellig is about a boy who finds a strange winged man in the garage of his family’s new house. It’s also about so much more: life and death and love and family. All of it is intrinsically connected.

Sometimes the use of a single mystical element can communicate the true heart of your story in a way nothing else can.

4. Suspend disbelief, and believe what you write.

A hallmark of magical realism is how characters face the unexplainable things happening around them—often without batting an eye. The strange and unusual must be just as believable as the everyday, given equal weight as all else. In Alice Hoffman’s Green Angel, the narrator describes her family’s garden and the magical influence she has in getting it to grow. This isn’t a big reveal full of awe for the reader. Rather, it’s a given. It’s a part of the world Hoffman has created within our own world in this novel. The reader goes along with it and is never given any reason to doubt.

It is a difficult balance, to be sure, to waver between the real and not-real without losing your footing. But when you mix the fantastical with the real, and the real with the fantastical, without skimping on one or the other, it lets the reader know that you are meant to trust in both.

Command your reader to believe what you’re telling by believing in it yourself. Write it just as you would something wholly real that you’ve witnessed through your own eyes. Then, when you describe an unbelievable event, your reader will be there with you all the way.

5. Don’t be afraid to leave the door open.

Not everything has to be tied up in a neat little bow by the end of the story. This isn’t laziness—or it shouldn’t be!—it’s one of the exciting traits of magical realism… that there’s no need to over-explain. The reader is often left to make his or her own decisions and interpretations.

If you’re writing magical realism, the “magic” in your novel does not necessarily need to be defined; the formula does not need to be handed out all around the room so everyone can check your answers. Often these kinds of stories leave us with questions we can only unravel ourselves. As we’re meant to.

And yet.

This does not mean one-upping yourself with stranger and stranger events and then calling it a day. Illuminate the way to the answers, even if not all of them are spelled out word for word by the end. If you’re writing in first-person, an unreliable narrator can be a great tool for this. And even if not, leaving a door open and threads hanging at the end of the story could be the most natural choice.

In real life—the one not in novels—not everything is picked apart and explained. There are things we don’t know, can’t know. Maybe shouldn’t know. In this way, magical realism is utterly real.

Either way, and no matter how you decide to tell it, the extraordinary should feel organic to your story. The questions shouldn’t confound, but they should leave way for the best kind of feeling at the end of a novel:

Wonder.

In what ways will you twist your story now?

I hope these thoughts on writing a contemporary story with a fantastical twist have given you some ideas. And if you’re interested in exploring more books of magical realism beyond the very few I mentioned, maybe some other novels will be suggested in the comments!

All I know is that, for me, writing magical realism is writing with an open mind.

So try experimenting with being a little surreal next time you’re writing.

Mix in something strange. Off-kilter. Magical. Unexplainable. Downright weird. Even extraordinary.

And then let me know how it goes. Because I can’t wait to read it.

Nova Ren Suman (www.novaren.com) is the author of the YA novel IMAGINARY GIRLS (Dutton, 2011) and the middle-grade novel DANI NOIR (Aladdin, 2009). She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and a BA in writing & photography from Antioch College, and has been awarded fiction fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in New York City.

IMAGINARY GIRLS by Nova Ren Suma: Chloe’s older sister, Ruby, is the girl everyone looks to and longs for, who can’t be captured or caged. When a night with Ruby’s friends goes horribly wrong and Chloe discovers the dead body of her classmate London Hayes left floating in the reservoir, Chloe is sent away from town and away from Ruby.

But Ruby will do anything to get her sister back, and when Chloe returns to town two years later, deadly surprises await. As Chloe flirts with the truth that Ruby has hidden deeply away, the fragile line between life and death is redrawn by the complex bonds of sisterhood.

Are you ready for a bonus? Because Nova rocks, she’s giving away two signed Australian editions of Imaginary Girls to participants in the US. Leave a comment for a chance to win!
 
*You DO NOT have to donate to WriteOnCon to win this prize!
 
 

112 thoughts on “Writing Magical Realism vs Paranormal/Fantasy”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve written short stories that people insist on labeling paranormal or fantasy and they regard magic realism as just a mix of those two genres. It’s always nice to be reminded that magic realism is a wonderful and complex genre and it definitely needs more love (and writers!).

    P.S. Would you have any recommendations for books to read? Fiction and non-fiction are equally welcome. :)

  2. Wow, really interesting post. I’ve been wanting to read Imaginary Girls for months, since the first time I heard someone talk about how much they loved the ARC.
    Thanks for the insights (and the chance to win)!

  3. This is just the advice I’ve been looking for!!! Thank you! I’m trying to push myself over the edge with my MS and I haven’t quite figured it out…thanks for giving me permission to make a LEAP and get out of my comfort zone!

  4. Very interesting. This is a subtle way to sit between genres eh? One of my favorite authors of all time, Dean Koontz, likes to mix in a little of the “otherworldly”, even though he’s labeled “suspense”. I guess it’s a way of taking the reader by storm.

  5. I think magical realism is my favorite category. Besides, Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman is another favorite adult author who writes magical realism. I also loved Lisa Schroeder’s verse novel Far from You and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere.

    I had no idea Imaginary Girls had a magical twist. Now I’m even more interested in reading it. The cover is beautiful.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this! I’m working on a contemporary novel with paranormal elements right now. This is just the kind of motivation I need to finish the manuscript! :)

  7. Wow, Nova, that was a great post. I loved Imaginary Girls, and it was wonderful to have met you, albeit briefly, at SCBWI LA. Your post is so inspiring. My writing is like making soup – I use the same tried and true ingredients – but perhaps what’s been missing is adding that extra seasoning, and you may have just provided it! Thank you!

  8. Woohoo! This is exactly what I needed to think about for my next WIP. It will make things go askew–and in a great way! Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  9. Awesome advice and insight! I’m always asked what Magical Realism is, and now I think I might be able to answer! Thanks so much for the giveaway, too!

  10. Thank you for taking the time to be with us. I love walking the fine line between what is real and what is imaginary. It reminds me of what Kurt Vonnegut said, about being out on the edge.

    “I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

  11. Thanks so much for this post as I’m struggling with a magical realism WIP right now. Such helpful information!

  12. I really like this moniker because so many times I’ve tried to describe a book as contemporary … with mermaids. Or time travel. Or … you get the idea. I think a really great example of this is Michelle Hodkin’s forthcoming release, “The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer.” I totally thought it was contemporary with a heavy dose of psychology until the big twist near the end. Now I know what to call it!

    Thanks so much for this info!

  13. My next planned project could be considered magical realism. I needed the advice to jump in and not skirt around it. Thanks

  14. I’m one of those people who resist calling anything that doesn’t feel like Marquez with some metaphorical meaning as magical realism. It’s time I admit what I’m working on is magical realism. I’m struggling to bleed the magical into the ordinary and this was just what I needed. Thanks for the advice.

  15. Thank you for writing this! Francesca Lia Block is a favorite author of mine, and Imaginary Girls is one of my favorite books I’ve read in a long, long time. I’m not a big reader of fantasy, I’m much more apt to read contemporary, but magical realism falls somewhere between the two in the most wonderful way. I’d love to incorporate it into something of mine, and this has given me a lot to think about.

  16. I loved your point that every little thing that happens doesn’t need an essay of description. Thanks! And I reeealllly want to read Imaginary Girls.

  17. This is GREAT information. I have some magic in my memoir, which I know is nonfiction. But truth is, magic DOES happen in the real world. I like magic as an additional detail to realism. Thanks for posting this. And YAY for the giveaway!!!

  18. While I tend to lean towards a more established magical system, I think magical realism done right can add beautiful elements to a story.

  19. Thanks so much for this. I’m writing what would have to be described as a fantasy novel, due to its setting, but the story itself really is a sort of magical realism… it’s starts as subtle, surprising things as mentioned, and reminds me of the magic in things like Shannon Hale’s books, or like the hints of extraordinary in LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, for example.

  20. Thanks for the post! Magical realism isn’t something I’ve thought about trying. I’ve written fantasy and contemporary, but now I think I want to try your appoarch. Your advice will be helpful for my new adventure. Thanks again, and I am definitely adding your book to my to be read list!

  21. Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you! This literally speaks directly into my current WIP as if you’d been speaking to me personally.

    I can’t say “Thank you” enough times. For real.

    (And I’d LOVE one of your Aussie books – I’m in New Zealand…)

  22. Wonderful article, Nova. My WIP centers around a protagonist with a characteristic that makes him stand out from the crowd. Since it is something highly improbable, as well as the events that occur because of it, I guess my story would fall under the umbrella of magical realism. Thank you for the clarification. Looking forward to reading Imaginary Girls.

  23. Wow. This was so helpful. The definitive guide, perhaps. Thank you! I have read your novel IMAGINARY GIRLS, and I can see all of the elements you spoke about–so cool.
    I am currently writing a novel with magical realism, and just the one thing you said about setting has reminded me of this important element. Perhaps it is the setting that grounds the reader so that believability is not questioned but that element of wonder–that moment where you think this could happen–is put in place. So much inspiration!

  24. As a proud South-American, I have to say I love magical realism. Thanks for these wonderful tips on writing my favorite kind of fiction. And your books sounds amazing. Can’t wait to read it!

  25. I really appreciated this–and put a couple of the books you mention on hold at the library. (I write short stories for adults that have magical elements and also love reading YA.) I’ve been eyeing your book for weeks!

  26. Great post! I’m really interested in magical realism, Imaginary Girls was the first book I had read that used it :) Hope to read more, and write it in the future :)

  27. Thanks for sharing this! I’ve just started hearing the term “magical realism” and the way you described the genre, I think it pretty much sums up all my favorite books – and the stories I like to write! Thank you for the insight!

  28. Wow, thanks for the giveaway! I’ve been wanting to read Imaginary Girls since before it was released!! :)

  29. What a great description of a difficult-to-explain genre. I love the work of Francesca Lia Block and Alice Hoffman, precisely because of how they weave the extraordinary into the ordinary.
    Libba Bray’s Going Bovine strikes me as magical realism, as well as dark, dark comedy.
    I look forward to reading Imaginary Girls, even if I don’t win a copy. Thanks for the opportunity.

  30. Thanks so much for confirming what is happening in my WIP. I wasn’t sure how to classify it. Oh, and one of my favorite adult reads with magical realism is Mistress of Spices. Love it! I enjoyed hearing you at SCBWI.
    Thanks, Nova.

  31. Thanks – I’d never heard of magical realism. It was very informative and interesting. Like it!

  32. Thanks for your wonderful words. I’ve now figured out that my novel will be called contemporary with touches of magical realism. Unless an editor thinks otherwise, that is.

    Anyway…

    Three books I’ve read this past month fit the magical realism definition perfectly, and they’re all by the same author: Neil Gamon. The man’s a master of the art, let me tell you. The books were American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Coraline. I hope to read The Graveyard Book soon, too.

  33. Wow, now I’m thinking my novel may be magical realism. I definitely need to read the books you talked about to find out. Thanks so much for all the tips, they are all very pertinent to my story!

  34. Wonderful post! I love magical realism….it has to be one of my favorite genres, especially because I believe that strange and whimsical things really do happen in real life.

    Also, I’d love to win a copy!

    Thanks for the post :)

  35. Magical realism offers so many possibilities of where a writer can take a story. I love it! Thanks for your wonderful post. I’d love to read Imaginary Girls.

  36. Now I MUST go buy your book! Jumping to and from genres is sort of a problem for me, too.Great tips and thank you for sharing. The movie Big Fish (haven’t read the book) immediately stands out as magical realism.

  37. Nova, I am huge fan of your writing. HUGE. I can’t even begin to tell you the happy dances I would perform to win a copy of your fab book. I’ve already read IMAGINARY GIRLS and gave you RAVE reviews on my site: http://www.toriscottya.com/2011/07/22/book-review-imaginary-girls

    So…to win an autographed copy may push me over the edge and into crazy town. You may need to ask yourself if you’re really ready for that. ;)

    PS – Pick me! Pick me!

    PSS – Too eager?

  38. Thanks for sharing this. Sometimes I get confused about what magical realism is. You really cleared it up. Can’t wait to read your book.

  39. This is AWESOME. Although I think you left out a little bit that I think was SO important in IMAGINARY GIRLS: the aspect of atmosphere. Of course, it’s tied closely to setting and sense of place, but the atmosphere, the feel and texture of the setting, was in itself a HUGE seed towards the effed-up-ness that came later in IG. Because the beginning was so eerie, and because the story continued with an overall sense of unease, I EXPECTED all the magical realism that followed, and it made the magical realism seem natural. And, in fact, I think the skill with which you wove the atmosphere into the story is a big reason IG is such a favorite of mine.

  40. Thank you for this post. It has really given me more focused ideas. I’ve heard of magical realism but have never read or heard a discussion or presentation about it. I love this kind of writing though. Thanks again!

  41. I’ve seen the term ‘magical realism’ a couple of times in the last week (maybe it was when I visited your site/blog because I adore your first name ;) ), but I had no clue what it meant. This is so interesting. I also read the sample of Imaginary Girls on my Kindle app, and it definitely didn’t go the way I expected. :) Can’t wait to read more.
    Thanks for this post.

  42. Alice Hoffman is one of my favorite authors…her words are magic. :)

    I look forward to reading Imaginary Girls!

  43. This is definitely a genre I want to attempt in the future. Your tips are extremely helpful! Thanks so much.

  44. I LOVE magical realism. Most of my stories involve the “fantastical twists.” I think it is because I believe that not everything in our world can be explained with logic and reason. Plus, it’s fun to play around wtih the “what if?”

  45. Magical realism fascinates me. I also love Garcia Marquez although I’ve only read CIen Anos de Soledad ( in Spanish). I’ve always thought of MR as the real world but not quite.

  46. I LOVED your post! I write futuristic cyperpunk with kick-ass female protagojnists. Yay girl geeks! Admit you watch Start Trek! Myself, I tend towards being light on the “sci” and heavy on the “fi.” I want to offer more sci for girls. I think it’s a potenital market. So, make the male geeks in the book really hot geeks! That’s my plan & I’m stickin’ to it.

  47. This is a gorgeous post, Nova. And I’m glad you’re feeling fine after your surgery yesterday. :)

    Also, if the book drawing is still going, put me in please.

  48. I like this magic realism! :) Makes me want to pick up Isabel Allende again! :) I hope I win a copy of your book!

  49. Great advice! I never knew about Magical Realism until now. Thank you for posting-and I can’t wait to read your novel, Imaginary Girls. It seems very mysterious and I’m madly in love with the cover! :D

  50. Well, I can see this is something I’m going to need to print out and re-read. Thanks for all the great tips!

  51. I am so drawn to magical realism, I find myself writing it without consciously thinking about it. Thank you so much for this wonderful post!

  52. Thanks for this post. I have long been describing my novel as “contemporary YA with paranormal elements”. Now I know what I can call it. The heart of my story is this paranormal twists but as I wrote it it became very contemporary. I’ve wondered how it would be recieved as such. This has been the perfect post at the perfect time.
    Thanks.

  53. Ah, something fresh and new. Something that helps prove how awesome WriteOnCon is.

    My current WIP started out as fantasy, but the more it grows and develops, the more I see the contemporary elements. They’ve taken over half the story. While the ‘magic’ in my novel may be more forthright and not-so make-you-think, I’m still glad that this genre is out there as it makes me feel more comfortable with my novel.

    I’ve eyed Imaginary Girls, but haven’t had the chance to buy it. The more I hear, the more I want it.

  54. I also LOVE Marquez, and I’ve been intrigued by the differences between magical realism and fantasy for some time. IMAGINARY GIRLS sounds amazing.

  55. I love love love your cover- I saw it a few weeks ago and wanted it, but now I’ll definately get it since I love magical realism. And realistic magic;) (A magical world that connects to the real world, I just made it up!) thanks for this great explanation.

  56. I like your advice to establish the familiar and then lift the veil. I’ve gotten feedback on my book that it should start later (and believe me, I know that’s often a perfectly valid suggestion, especially for first books) but I wanted to let people meet the character and get a sense of her before strange things start happening. Finally, an agent agreed with that strategy and I felt validated.

  57. Thank you for defining what it is I love! I hesitated to call my first complete novel paranormal, and now I know why. I can’t wait to read your book and I thank you for giving me words that help define my thoughts.

  58. Wow, Nova. This is really interesting and helpful. I tend to be such a grounded-in reality contemporary writer, but you’ve inspired me to stretch a bit and consider some alternatives. Thank you so much! (And I’m looking forward to reading your novel! Would love to win it, of course, but have it on my TBR list already.)

  59. Wow this is awesome. Did you ever read “Paint By Magic” or “Time Windows” by Kathryn Reiss? I loved those books, and they definitely could be considered magical realism.

  60. I write this stuff, whichever name we want to glomp onto it. But agents don’t want it. They tell me they don’t know how to sell it. They want zombies. SIGH.

    Hope I win your book!

  61. I wrote a few fantasy novels, first person journal, Victorian style for some, and the characters are always trying to figure out what book they are in. The 4th book in the series, they can’t decide if they are in Chocolat or Como Agua para Chocolate. And now, I am writing a Magical Realism novel, perhaps, Romance, perhaps, Mystery.With a title like The Timely Murder of María del Pilar, what else could it be? ;-) I found your comments about Magical Realism interesting. Thanks.

  62. Thanks for the exposition/definition. Slippery subject, Magical Realism. I like the mostly subtle ambiguity of the thing. Ambiguity is like bread, good at every meal.

    Delmar

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