Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing get answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber. If you have questions for our expert, you can submit them to [email protected]

What is magical realism? How is it different than fantasy?

In magical realism the world appears much like our own, but also includes an element of the extraordinary. In Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find he has turned into a giant insect. In Stacey Richter’s “The Cavemen in the Hedges,” cavemen scurry in backyards, rummage through trash, and adore shiny objects. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” Pelayo finds an angel with “huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked” in his courtyard after a rainstorm. Still, the extraordinary is firmly rooted in the ordinary. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is populated with human characters, such as Pelayo’s feverish newborn and the local priest, Father Gonzaga. And the story is anchored in details the reader recognizes from her own reality: rain, sea and sky, a chicken coop.

In The Fragrance of Guava, Garcia Marquez argues that strictly realistic literature can be “too static and exclusive a vision of reality.” Though it stretches the bounds of reality, magical realism acknowledges that magic is inherent in our day-to-day life. For example, in Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Mauricio Babilonia is always followed by a fluttering of yellow butterflies. This is a fantastic detail, yet it is based in reality. In an interview with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Garcia Marquez shares this anecdote:

When I was about five, one day an electrician came to our house in Aracataca to change the meter . . . On one of these occasions, I found my grandmother trying to shoo away a butterfly with a duster, saying, 'Whenever this man comes to the house, that yellow butterfly follows him.' That was Mauricio Babilonia in embryo.

Garcia Marquez exaggerates this occurrence in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but he’s also highlighting the very real kind of magic that exists in our daily lives.

Fantasy is very different. While magical realism situates readers in a predominantly realistic world, fantasy takes place in an unreal world with unreal characters. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a popular example of fantasy. The trilogy’s characters include Hobbits, who are little people with big feet, as well as Elves, Dwarves, Fairies, Ents, and Wizards. It also features a ring that bestows power but corrupts those who possess it. Fantasy creates different places and species, ones that exist outside of our world. While magical realism stays grounded in our own reality, fantasy breaks free of it.