Magical Realism, Part II

by Roseanne Wells, Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency

In last week’s post, we talked about the history of magical realism. The components of this slightly nebulous genreRosieRC can seem  daunting and intangible, which makes it hard to determine if your book actually fits in this style. These are elements that I have noticed in my reading, and it’s what I look for as an agent who wants to rep magical realism:

Set in this world: It has to be set in our current world, not just a realistic one. If it borrows elements from current times or historical eras like Medieval France or Colonial America to make something new, it’s not magical realism. I would consider this fantasy, like Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. If it moves between our world and another world, like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s fantasy (usually considered portal fantasy because it’s accessible through a physical landmark like the wardrobe).  If you make up a completely different world with it’s own languages, species, and history, then it’s high fantasy, like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

No magic system: In fantasy, magic has an equal and opposite reaction, it has rules and structures, it has consequences. There is always a price. You can learn magic, either from a teacher or school, and usually it’s a skill like athleticism or flexibility, something you can improve on with practice but have an innate ability to perform. There’s a spell, potion, or movement that activates the magic, and it takes energy and intent from the practitioner to complete the magic. Magical realism doesn’t have these structures. Not everyone in a magical realism novel encounters magic, but there is no delineation between those two practice magic and those who don’t. There are no rules to how the magic behaves. There is no magic and non-magic, there is only the story.

Not paranormal: There aren’t any vampires, werewolves, and other paranormal creatures in magical realism. Supernaturals like ghosts and witches might appear, but they probably won’t behave as they would in a paranormal book, with hauntings and moving objects and such.

Purpose of magic: In fantasy, I find that magic is an external resource, that characters use magic as a tool to get a result or change their circumstances. In magical realism, magic or fantastical things often happen as a reaction to the emotional arc of the story, as a counterpoint to the narrative arc, or interwoven into the plot to make it indistinguishable.

Critique: Magical realism is rooted in the ability to put two disparate entities together—reality as we know it, and fantasy as we imagine it. But it’s also widely recognized that part of magical realism is to merge conflicting identities in post-colonial settings, the conquerors and the conquered existing in tandem in the same space. The critique of political, social, or class structures can be in the uncoupling of distinctions between what is possible and impossible.

So looking at the list above, not every manuscript that has a realistic setting and has magic can be called magical realism. If you need a better description to describe your book, try:


Realistic/contemporary—no magic

Realistic with magical elements—our world with a system of magic

Magical realism—magic is realistic

Fantasy—set in a different world, system of magic

I like lots of different genres–including magical realism, high fantasy, contemporary, low fantasy–but please label it right, for (lemon) cake’s sake! See more of what I’m looking for here.


See a list of agents and editors wishing for Magical Realism

Roseanne Wells joined The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency as an associate agent in 2012. An avid reader, Roseanne  approaches agenting as a writer’s advocate, editor, and partner. She is a member of SCBWI, and you can find her on Twitter @RivetingRosie.

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