Magical Realism: What Makes This Genre Unique?

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The goal is to add excitement to the ordinary circumstances that people experience and to make readers more familiar with the mystical.

Through the years, magical realism has been evident in different forms of art – especially in books. But, what is it, exactly? How is it different from other genres? Keep reading to find out.

Books in the magical realism genre contain stories where artists inject every day events with supernatural characters, situations, or elements. The goal is to add excitement to the ordinary circumstances that people experience and to make readers more familiar with the mystical and the magical.

When did authors start using magical realism?

The term magical realism was coined by a Cuban writer named Alejo Carpentier in the 1920s. During that time, the people in Europe and South America started exchanging artistic knowledge. Several individuals who traveled to and from these continents were able to develop surrealism, which served as an inspiration for the pioneer authors of magical realism. 

In the 1930s, magical realism began to find their ways into books and folklore, especially in South America. With the publication and translation of Franz Roh’s book entitled “After Expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the Newest European Painting," the foundation of a much-loved genre today was established.

The stories started out as simple. Authors wrote about how we are supposed to find magic in the day to day things. There were no mentions of the supernatural and magical, until the later years when authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende started to incorporate otherworldly things in their stories, while still depicting a real setting. It is this specific trait that makes magical realism unique. 


Magical Realism Vs Other Genres

A lot of people can get quite confused about the difference of magical realism and other stories that involve supernatural creatures – like wizards, faes and aliens. While they do share some similarities, it would be good to know what makes them different. We rounded up these up for you:


Fantasy vs Magical Realism


Fantasy books involve settings, characters, and events that are unrealistic. Most fantasy authors pattern their stories on the real world, but gives it a big, creative twist. As a result, the author comes up with a world that operates in a very different way than ours. Most of the characters, if not all, have supernatural powers.

The best example of a fantasy book would be J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This book is set in a place called the Middle Earth – a place where trees and giant birds can talk and sing songs. The characters include hobbits, wizards, fairies, trolls, orcs, and dragons. The main plot of the story involves a battle between good and evil, and both forces do whatever they can to win the war.

Books from the magical realism genre, on the other hand, are set in a time and place that is grounded in reality. The characters are mostly human beings who lead a normal life that is disturbed by a magical phenomenon.

Take Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis for example. It tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a salesman, who wakes up one morning and finds out that he has turned into a giant cockroach. Samsa then struggles to carry on with his life – he still tries to work his sales job to provide for his family - as a giant cockroach. 

Science Fiction vs Magical Realism


Books in the science fiction genre have a futuristic theme. In these stories, the lives of people and other creatures have become very different from ours because of outrageous technological advancements. The stories could take place in our planet or in the next galaxy, but everything that happens in stories of this genre can be explained by science. 

A good example of science fiction would be Frank Herbert’s The Dune. It features a setting where the characters can travel from one planet to another easily with the use of machines. Oh, and there are also giant sand worms that the main characters plan on studying with the use of - you guessed it - science!

In magical realism, you won’t have to geek out on the complicated details of science. Reality is simply distorted in some way, but the setting and characters remain familiar.

Haruki Murakami’s work The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the main character starts out with a predicament involving his lost cat and, after looking everywhere, his wife suggests using the powers of a clairvoyant, all-seeing individual to aid him in his search. This story is a fine example of how magic is incorporated into the simple act of looking for a house cat.

So, you see, you can really distinguish how space ships, laser beams, and beings from other planets differ from searching for a house cat with the help of a wise shaman. 


Read: Books to Satisfy Your Cravings for Magic Realism

Given the fact that you have read through this article, you must be itching to start your reading frenzy on books from the magical realism genre. Here are some titles that we recommend for you to read: 




Library of Babel (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges. This brilliant short story written by one of the fathers of magical realism tells the tale of the Library of Babel - a library with an infinite number of books – and the people who dwell in it. They want to find out the secret of the library and to do so, they must find the one book that holds the explanation. But, there is no cataloging system, and they must go through a lot of books both readable and incomprehensible. As you go along, you will see how the library is much like the Universe and the dwellers are much like the entire human race.





The House of the Spirits (2005) by Isabel Allende. The House of Spirits is a tale of three generations of a single family. Esteban, the father, is driven by his wild desires and passion for politics. He draws inspiration from his wife, Clara, a woman who can communicate with spirits. Both of them have a daughter named Blanca, who falls in love with a man that Esteban disapproves of. Blanca and the love of her life gives birth to Esteban’s loved granddaughter, Alba.  Growing up into a beautiful woman who is filled with ambition, Alba will light up the fires of revolution for her family and, ultimately, her country. It tells a story of love, magic, and will allow you to take a peek at the colorful history of Chile.





Kafka on the Shore (2006) by Haruki Murakami. This book follows the tale of two characters: Kafka Tamura, a boy who runs away from home in search for his missing family and Nakata, an aging war veteran who has never recovered from his war injuries. The old man is very fond of Kafka for reasons that Kafka does not understand. As the lives of the two characters slowly become intertwined, they find that their realities have been altered and embark on a mission to set the universe back the way it should be. As a reader, you will journey on a world that is familiar to you, but will surprise you with spirits that leave their bodies, talking cats and, weather-permitting, fish that rain down from the heavens.


Have you come across other notable books in the magical realism genre? Tell us all about it in the comments and let’s get more #awesomenerds to read it! 


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