Genre Breakdown: Magical Realism

Welcome to the first post in the genre breakdown series. One of the biggest steps in the submission process is determining which genre your book falls under. It’s important in both worlds of self publishing or the traditional route. You need to know your genre in order to target the audience most likely to be interested, whether it be readers or agents or editors.

I’ve seen a lot of incorrectly classified submissions, but I’ve noticed the genre authors tend to get the most mixed up is magical realism.

Birds of America – At the Beach – Kevin Sloan

As an agent that represents both fantasy and magical realism, I find a lot of fantasy authors will submit under the genre magical realism, believing, falsely, it gives their fantasy novel more literary cred or makes it more unique. Or, they simply do not understand what magical realism actually is. I don’t blame them. Search the term, and a plethora of definitions pop up that don’t exactly make it clear. As Webster’s Dictionary puts it, “A literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” So does that mean Twilight is magical realism? No. Urban and paranormal still fall under the fantasy umbrella because even though they are set in modern time the reader is brought into a world that is indeed different than our own.

The Sun Sets Sail – Rob Gonsalves

What you do need to know is magical realism has a rich and varied history and is a separate genre from fantasy. If you’re not sure which genre your project falls under, than it is most likely fantasy. A boy from our world who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school to have all kinds of magical adventures, that’s fantasy. A boy from our world who believes he’s a wizard but whose story takes place in reality, that is potentially magical realism. Notice I said “potentially.” Magical realism is an elusive genre, not for the inexperienced or crowd-pleaser. The best way to get familiar with the genre is to read some of the classics, Like Water For ChocolateOne Hundred Years of SolitudeMidnight’s Children, and House of Spirits. You’ll find that even though there is a touch of magic, a bit of the fantastic, a sprinkling of the otherworld, these books are completely grounded in reality and the culture they stem from. Magical realism treats magic as if it were rational, just another aspect of our world, not as something otherworldly. Once you understand it, it will become obvious.

Self Portrait With Necklace of Thorns – Frida Kahlo

Why is this important? Because the average fantasy reader is different than the average magical realism reader. The audience is different, thus the people you submit to will be different, the shelf in the bookstore will be different, the Amazon Bestseller category will be different.

I hope this post has helped a little to understand that difference.


  • Jonathan

    August 8, 2016 at 11:42 am Reply

    Can magical realism be even more elusive than you suggest? For example, in my novel Henry Saw Fairies, (after a failed suicide attempt) a cancer stricken professor suddenly sees lights floating around every single person in the Twin Cities. He later uses the term fairy to describe them. However, the reader constantly questions whether the fairies are real, or whether they are the result of his brain tumor. The fairies play a pivotal role in the plot and character development of Henry, but I’m just not sure how to label the story, genre wise. Any suggestions?

    • Mary C. Moore

      August 12, 2016 at 9:27 pm Reply

      If the fairies turn out to not be real, i.e. figments of Henry’s imagination/results of the brain tumor, then it would be contemporary or general fiction. If they are real then it’s fantasy. It might stray into magical realism depending on how it’s written.

      • Jonathan Porter

        August 14, 2016 at 11:59 am Reply

        Thanks, Mary! That makes sense. I suppose it is more general fiction that, as you put, it strays into magical realism. You’ve given me something to think about.

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