Magical realism: when does it work and when does it not?

Happy Friday, friends! Today, I’m talking about magical realism.

Personally, I tend to really enjoy magical realism. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that there is some sort of magic in our world, we just don’t know it (or most of us don’t know it). But magical realism doesn’t always work for me. I’ve thought a bit about this and these are my thoughts on when it works and when it doesn’t.

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When does it work?

For me, magical realism works in two scenarios:

  1. when it’s the point of the book or when the book is marketed as magical realism, and
  2. when it’s somewhat believable.

You might be thinking “duh, obviously”, but hear me out and read the “when it doesn’t work” section.

One of my favourite books, for example, is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This book is 100% magical realism, and I knew that going in. I knew what to expect. When there was magic in the world, I wasn’t surprised and it didn’t seem out of place.

It also works when it’s still somewhat believable. Like, something magical happens but it could be explained by something rational, if that makes sense. For example, in A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, one of the characters talks with a ghost while she’s staying at a monastery. It was one of my favourite parts of the book. But I think it worked because it fit with the story. She was at a monastery, she was depressed and lonely, she wanted to talk to her dead grandfather (or uncle or whoever). The discussion could’ve very well been part of her imagination, or just something she was dreaming, or a metaphor in the book. It didn’t seem out of place. There’s also a crow in the book that is somewhat of a magical realism element, and I loved it, again because it was believable and fit with the story.

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When does it not work?

For me, magical realism doesn’t work when it’s out of place and doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. Back to A Tale for the Time Being, there were other magical realism elements that I didn’t enjoy as much. One of the characters has a dream where she talks with another character, and she actually talks to him and influences his real life. It seemed so out of place in an otherwise normal book. At another point, the same character is reading a diary and gets to the end and realizes there are no more words. The pages are blank. When she wakes up from the aforementioned dream, there are suddenly words. Why? Both of those situations were so random and out of place, and it made the story feel disjointed.

Another example is We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. I have mixed feelings about the magical realism elements of this book because on the one hand, it was super intriguing. On the other hand, I have so many questions. How did it work? Why didn’t the main characters’ family notice her talking to nothing? If they did, did they think she was just crazy? Why didn’t they do anything? So many questions, so few answers.

Another example is Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. This book is largely historical fiction and, until the second part, there are no magical realism elements whatsoever. Then, randomly, there are SO MANY magical elements. The main character can literally talk to spiders, she can’t see herself in mirrors, she can sometimes feel the history of an object by touching it. I wouldn’t have minded if it was explained, but none of it was.

I actually enjoyed the whole “feeling the history of an object by touching it” part. There’s a bit where the character wraps herself in a flag and feels what her mom felt when her mom did the same thing. I really enjoyed it and thought it was really cool. But, it only happened that one time. Also, crucially, it was something that could have been explained (ex. her mom once told her the story of that day, so when she wrapped herself in the flag, that’s what she was thinking about and felt). The other ones happened several times, and were never explained. They were just so out of place.

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For me, it comes down to this:

  • If you are expecting magical realism, then it’s good
  • If you are not expecting magical realism, there are somethings that need to happen for it to be good
    • It should be explainable by some other explanation, even if it’s intended to be “magical” (ex. the ghost or flag examples)
    • It should be something somewhat small that doesn’t really influence the plot but is still neat (ex. the crow)
    • It should be well explained
  • Times when it doesn’t work
    • It is not explained (ex. the rest of the examples from Boy, Snow, Bird)
    • It furthers the plot in an otherwise non-magical story (ex. the dream and discussion from A Tale for the Time Being)

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But those are just my thoughts! What about you? Are you a fan of magical realism? When does it work for you? When does it not work? Let me know!

Ally xx

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23 thoughts on “Magical realism: when does it work and when does it not?

  1. Omg I actually had the exact same idea for a post! I feel like I’m known as the magical realism hater but there are certain circumstances where it works for me… TO BE DISCUSSED in a post at a later date 👀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely agree with you on this! The type of book and whether you’re expecting it really does impact on how well it’s done. Magical realism is something that I don’t always enjoy reading so I’m usually quite picky about the books I pick up that have MR. Great post! 💙 Jen

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  3. Magical realism is good when it works, but usually it’s not quite magical enough for me. (The Night Circus is the most notable exception.) I prefer fantasy to contemporary fiction by a huge margin, so I would rather there was more magic and less realism. But to each their own! 🙂

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  4. You make some good points here. I myself really get annoyed when there are unanswered questions when I finish a story. As a writer, I try to make sure I look at my story from the readers’ points of view. I think about what questions may come up when they read about the magical or fantastical aspects in my book. I do my best to have an answer for any question that may pop up. It’s only natural for us as readers to want to thoroughly understand the world we are diving into so it’s important for writers to tie up all those loose ends!

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  5. I feel like a book needs to fully commit to the magical realism. Like the Night Circus where you know it from the beginning and its the same without. I hate when there are “unexplained” incidences that don’t seem to fit with the story. Your book has to accept magic and use it. Or don’t use it at all. So basically your second “it works” bullet doesn’t usually work for me unless it is really really well done. Great post! I never really thought about this before 🙂

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  6. I find magic realism to be very hit or miss, but when done well can really elevate a story. I’ve read two books with magic realism elements to them this year and both worked really well – The Fire Starters by Jan Carson and Flames by Robbie Arnott.

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  7. Great post, Ally! Magical realism is a HUGE hit or miss for me! Half the time I love it, and the other half of the time I wonder why I wasted hours reading a book in this genre. Oops. Lol! For me, magical realism works best whenever it’s weaved so well into the plot that it feels natural and believable. I also need it to be a nice extension of the plot, rather than a safety blanket of sorts, if that makes sense. And yes, I completely agree that it needs to be explained well! ❤

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  8. Unpopular opinion here, but I actually really enjoy random, unexplained magic in otherwise normal stories. I find it delightful. But I’m also a big fan of absurdism and surrealism.

    I can see why some people are put off by it, especially people who read stories to get really immersed in that world because something like that can really throw you back into “Oh yeah, this is a story” and it diminishes their enjoyment by shattering their suspended disbelief.

    But I tend to read more analytically, rather than immersively, so when something like that pops up, my reaction is “Oh my gosh, that’s so interesting! Why would the author do that? What does that mean?” It’s like going for a walk and stumbling onto street fair. I love it.

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    1. That’s totally fair! I don’t mind absurdism or surrealism if I know that’s what the book is going in, but I find it weird when it’s just thrown in.

      But I like how you say that, immersive vs. analytical reading. I feel like that’s definitely my issue. I can only suspend my disbelief for so many things, so if there’s something absurd thrown in, it’s just too much.

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