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.
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:
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.