Why I Write Magical Realism

Athol DicksonGuest Blogger: Athol Dickson

Several novels back I decided to begin including magical realism in my work. I started writing about fires that burn in spite of floods, mysterious cures, angelic interventions, and flying artists. My novels include magical realism because I want to write more realistically about this world, not because I want to escape it.

Consider this famous quote from The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”

Is Lewis describing the world as it actually is? Or is this merely a creative person’s whimsy, gross hyperbole with only a slight fraction of reality at the core?

I believe the quote is accurate, the way it’s accurate to say the sun is hot or rain is wet. And I’m certain Lewis intended it to be understood that way. So if I write a scene in which one character witnesses another’s transformation into something god-like or demonic, I’m not doing it because I want to create an escapist novel. I’m doing it because I want to describe life more accurately.

Fantasy stories convey truth without needing to be grounded in the reality of this world. They have holistic, logical systems and realities that affect every aspect of their separate universes. They can describe things that never were and never will be on the earth, without direct attachments to the readers’ everyday existence, while human and universal truths come through. On the other hand, magical realism by definition remains tethered to the “real” workings of this universe. I believe sometimes just a touch of the magical can make a story more applicable to a reader’s everyday existence than it would be otherwise.

One classic example is in my favorite novel of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes a village stricken by “the insomnia plague.” This mass sleeplessness eventually affects the peoples’ memories. One man realizes he will soon no longer be able to function without help. He puts signs on everything to remind him what they are. Others do it too, and soon the signs are everywhere.

After a while the people realize knowing what to call a thing does not mean one knows what to do with it. They begin to add instructions to the signs. A cow is for milking, and milk is for putting into coffee, and etcetera. At one end of their town, they even erect a sign which says, GOD EXISTS.

Finally into this “quicksand of forgetfulness” comes a gypsy with “a drink of a gentle color.” When that cure takes hold, one healed man’s “eyes became moist from weeping even before he noticed himself in an absurd living room where objects were labeled and before he was ashamed of the solemn nonsense written on the walls . . .”

None of this is technically impossible of course, therefore it is not “fantasy” in the literary sense. It is only highly, extremely, vastly improbable; so completely unlikely to happen that we must at least call it “magical.” Yet Garcia Marquez wrings so much common sense from it, one cannot help but wonder if this “insomnia plague” might be something he has actually witnessed in the world—something not merely magical, but somehow also real.

Perhaps Garcia Marquez (the world’s best known author of “magical realism”) has simply written about life as it really is for the millions who are driven to mass insanity by labor on the treadmill of materialism, exhausted to the point of forgetting why they started running in the first place, yet goaded to keep at it by the omnipresent advertisements which remind them they need this thing and that thing in order to continue to forget who they really are.

I write magical realism because some fires do burn in the midst of floods (think of hope when all seems lost), and all cures are essentially mysterious (I can’t explain aspirin), and angels do occasionally intervene (according to the beggars in Mother Theresa’s Calcutta), and there are moments in the midst of work when artists sometimes fly (just ask one if you don’t believe).

In other words, I write magical realism because most of us need to get a little distance from our lives to see them as they really are.


Opposite of ArtAthol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the DailyCristo website. His novels blend magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards. His latest story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and murder as a spiritual pursuit. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. […] science fiction and fantasy (which also depict the unnatural), Magical Realism offers gritty dispatches from the mundane. In Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Florentino woos Fermina – both of whom […]

  2. Karen Gaerlan on April 29, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    Thank you so much for this. I would like to ask suggestion of readings re:magical realism please? I am deeply disturbed and interested. This may be where the existence of the non-existent resides… Words I can fully grasp but could not explain simply.

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  11. Rachel Rigdon on September 21, 2011 at 10:17 PM

    Mr. Dickson,

    When I read your work, I always think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. You are right–magic realism is more true, not less true.

    I can’t wait to read The Opposite of Art. I’m a big fan.

  12. Sonia G Medeiros on September 21, 2011 at 12:14 AM

    Wow! So very well put. Lovely post!!!

  13. Chazley Dotson on September 20, 2011 at 5:29 PM

    I was awed by One Hundred Years of Solitude, and you’re completely right about the magic of it. I’ve always wanted to write magical realism, and I still haven’t, but I’m newly motivated — though I might need an entourage of butterflies like Mauricio to keep me inspired.

    I also enjoyed your post about why your book wouldn’t sell, and I immediately thought, I have to read that!

  14. Selina J.H. on September 19, 2011 at 9:30 PM

    When Jesus healed the sick and made the blind able to see, it must have been thought by some as being magic. In its very nature magic is usually meant to describe something which occurs without understanding how it happened. Not many people like to attribute the description, “supernatural”, to our risen Lord, but in most ways it certainly is beyond what we know in this natural material world. I like to call it heightened awareness.

    Isn’t love usually magical? When it happens, we don’t always know why, just that it did. And its real to the two people experiencing it.

    • Athol on September 19, 2011 at 10:05 PM

      Selina, I agree completely. There’s a thin line between the idea of a “miracle” and “magic,” when the terms apply to how mere humans see the world. On the purely human level, magical realism might easily be thought of as “miraculous realism.” The reason “miraculous” wasn’t used, I suppose, is because the term was coined in the general fiction market, not the Christian market.

      That said, it’s good to keep in mind that magic and miracles are two different things when it comes to how we interact with God.

      Miracles are all God, all from God, and all about God. He alone decides how to intervene miraculously. On the other hand, magic is the deeply mistaken assumption that we can somehow cause supernatural effects through our actions…an obvious mistake which is closely related to idolatry.

      But while it’s good to keep those ideas rigorously separate in theology, we’re talking fiction here, so I have no problem using the general fiction term “magical realism” in this context. It has absolutely nothing to do with the heretical notion that we can somehow cause God to do something through our actions.

  15. Heather Gilbert on September 19, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    Also read your post on Novel Rocket about why your “The Opposite of Art” wouldn’t sell, and enjoyed it immensely. Magical realism, fantasy, whatever…I would just love to have these things more readily available in the Christian market. Not everyone thrives on Christian romance.

  16. Tahlia Newland on September 19, 2011 at 7:42 PM

    I write urban fantasy that illuminates reality (my tag line) Now I wonder if it’s magical realism, because everything fantastic in my writing is analogy. eg the demons are a physical representation of our negative emotions. The subtle layer of reality (where a lot of the action takes place in Lethal Inheritance) is an analogy for those who see deeper than the normal person.
    What does it sound like to you. You can read ch 1 on my website, if you’re interested to let me know.

    • Athol on September 19, 2011 at 9:55 PM

      Tahlia, what you’ve described here could be magical realism, or it could be horror. It’s hard to tell from just this description. Is your novel somthing like Frank Peretti’s THIS PRESENT DARKNESS? If so, I think that’s probably more akin to horror than to magical realism. Like fantasy, horror is different from magical realism, yet they have some things in common. While I think the main difference between magical realism and fantasy has to do with setting (MR in this world versus Fantasy in another), I think the main difference in horror is the intention to frighten the reader, which you do not typically find in novels that incorporate magical realism. In that case, the goal has more to do with intriguing readers than with scaring them. Hope this helps.

      • Tahlia Newland on September 20, 2011 at 1:11 AM

        Wow, did I make it sound like horror? No way. It is definitely not horror – it’s ya and has quite an up feeling over all. The demon things are pretty creepy, but so is anger. It’s a lovely hazy fence, isn’t it?

        Urban fantasy is also set in the real world, so setting isn’t the only primary difference, maybe it’s more the reason for the magical/fantastical elements that makes the difference. My demons aren’t there as supernatural characters. They are there to allow us to see our relationship to negative emotions in a new light. So could we say the difference is that the magical elements in magical realism are symbolic in nature whereas in urban fantasy they are what they appear to be? Or something like that.

  17. Michael Seese on September 19, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    I’m glad you wrote this, since I now know what to call my in-progress (though barely in-progress) series of novels in which my hero has to fight a monster created by his own dreams, or learns to see “through time” and discovers that there are beings living there.

    Thank you.

  18. Kristin Laughtin on September 19, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    This is one of the best posts about why to write fantasy/magical realism that I’ve encountered yet! I fully agree that getting a little distance from the real world through the use of magic can help us see what really is more clearly. Magic can also serve as a metaphor, again giving a little distance that in the end helps bring things into perspective. Thanks!

  19. Rachelle Christensen on September 19, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    This is an excellent post! Thanks, Anthol for your beautiful interpretation of magical realism. I have a novel I’m polishing which features magical realism and at the time I first wrote it (2 yrs ago) I didn’t know quite how to describe it–it wasn’t magic–it was real life with a touch of wonder, miracles, and inspiration that changes my characters lives. It’s something that doesn’t fit perfectly into the defined genre box and I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading books with magical realism.

    • Athol on September 19, 2011 at 9:45 PM

      “…real life with a touch of wonder, miracles, and inspiration…”

      That’s as good a definition of magical realism as I’ve heard, Rachelle.

  20. Leah on September 19, 2011 at 4:47 PM

    “I write magical realism because some fires do burn in the midst of floods (think of hope when all seems lost), and all cures are essentially mysterious (I can’t explain aspirin), and angels do occasionally intervene (according to the beggars in Mother Theresa’s Calcutta), and there are moments in the midst of work when artists sometimes fly (just ask one if you don’t believe).”

    Honestly, I thought this was one of the most beautiful paragraphs I’ve read in ages. I can’t explain aspirin, either, nor can I explain why I’m writing about zombies as a way to explore humanity…but they both exist. And make sense, in their own way.

    Thank you for posting.

  21. Katherine Bolger Hyde on September 19, 2011 at 3:10 PM

    I love this explanation of what magical realism is and why one man writes it. I also see the world as full of miracle and mystery and try to convey that in my writing. My favorite novel of that genre is Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. Marquez is brilliant but a bit too scatological for my taste.

  22. J.L. Mbewe on September 19, 2011 at 3:09 PM

    Thanks for the interesting blog post. It had me thinking. At first, it had me wondering where this post was going and I had to reread it a few times and the following comments to gain a more objective point of view to filter out the filter. 🙂

    I have always wondered what someone meant by “magical realism”. As I have researched agents and publishers trying to decide where best my current manuscript would fit, I have found some representing certain sub-categories of fantasy like urban, dark, etc, and I have seen magical realism listed, but I was unsure of what it meant. I think this post clarifies that for me. And the key sentence is: “Fantasy stories convey truth without needing to be grounded in the reality of this world.” Whereas magical realism is a story set in our world with a hint of the fantastical rather than being immersed in a fantastical world. I do agree with you, Athol, that we “need to get a little distance from our lives to see them as they really are.” And as Arlee Bird mentioned earlier, if the story is unbelievable then we have lost and failed the reader. Of course, as readers, we have our preferences and that might play apart in a story being believable or not for us and whether or not we enjoy it.

  23. […] what I can gather from a post I recently read, called Why I Write Magical Realism, my best guess is that “magical realism” is fantasy for folks who don’t want to be considered […]

  24. Serenity Bohon on September 19, 2011 at 12:54 PM

    Really love this post. What a beautiful description of what you do! I have a magical realism idea brewing, and this was such great affirmation to pursue it. There is magic everywhere – the universe is more spiritual than not…these are the ideas I feel your post affirms.

    • Athol on September 19, 2011 at 1:06 PM

      “The universe is more spiritual than not…” Yes, that’s it exactly, Serenity. With magical realism, we have a chance to weave that spirituality into our stories organically, without resorting to writing ABOUT it, if you see what I mean.

      Imagination is also a big part of it.

      Magical realism tends to blur the line between our thought life and “real” life in storytelling. To me that’s actually a more realistic way of writing about life, because our thought life IS a huge part of real life. Rather than writing a character’s thoughts like monologue (which is sort of “telling”), it’s so much more fun to show them as if they’re actually happening (more like “showing”).

  25. TC Avey on September 19, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    so glad I read your post, I’m looking forward to reading your book!

  26. Jill on September 19, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    Purely from a publishing standpoint, is magical realism a viable genre to write in? Meaning, could I say in a query that my novel is magical realism? The terms seem a little slippery to me–but I had thought “supernatural” or “paranormal” or “urban fantasy” were more common terms nowadays. Magical realism is a little different, I understand, and I appreciate the difference enough to hope this is still a viable genre.

  27. Megan Willome on September 19, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    This is so good! You’ve described why I’ve always loved stories just a little south of reality.

    And my stupid library does not carry “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The horror!

  28. Brianna on September 19, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    Great post. We can all use a little distance from the reality of life. I think there’s a big difference between fantasy and magical realism, and citing 100 Years is a great example.

  29. Julie Daines on September 19, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    Beautiful post and I couldn’t agree more. Mr. Dickson speaks with knowledge and eloquence. Magical Realism is my favorite “genre” as well, for all the reasons he mentioned.

    I really don’t understand how some are interpreting this post as negative or anti-fantasy. I think it’s genius.

  30. John G. Hartness on September 19, 2011 at 11:10 AM

    I was trying very hard not to buy any books this week. Just to see if I could make it a week. I lasted all the way to 10:08 AM. Thanks.

  31. Joe Pote on September 19, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    Love your post, as well as another recent post I read on why your book won’t be a commercial success!

    I also like your references to other favorite authors, such as C.S Lewis.

    I have not even read your book, yet am already impressed with your writing!

    You’re either an amazing writer or an amazing publicist…likely both.

    Either way, you’ve got my attention enough that I plan to read your book, and if you’re as good a novelist as you are a blogger, I expect to read more of your work.

  32. Wendy on September 19, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    Fantastic…”In other words, I write magical realism because most of us need to get a little distance from our lives to see them as they really are.”

    And flying really is the best word for it.
    ~ Wendy

  33. Glynn on September 19, 2011 at 8:11 AM

    When I first read “100 Years of Solitude,” I didn’t read it as “magical realism,” although I knew that’s how it was described. I read it as personal family history, because the stories and “magic” it contained were much like the family I grew up in New Orleans (which, to be honest, may be more like Garcia Marquez’s Colombia than America). I now understand why I enjoy reading Athol Dickson’s novels, and why they seem so familiar. (And I literally just started “The Opposite of Art.”)

  34. Sherri on September 19, 2011 at 7:10 AM

    At the end of my novel there is a physical manifestation of angels as protectors and rescuers, though they are only seen by the antagonist. Others in the story are left to surmise their appearance based on the results of an encounter and the response of the villain. Is this an example of magical realism?

    I do think this helps us to look at and evaluate life because it takes it to a place that is safe and non-threatening which allows us to let down our guards a little and “get there” in our own time.

  35. Juliette on September 19, 2011 at 7:01 AM

    All fantasy needs a grounding in the real world or it would be meaningless. I must confess, I’m surprised to see someone quote CS Lewis but then go on to speak in such a derogatory fashion about other-world fantasy. Both Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy worlds are firmly grounded in elements of our world, and in Tolkien’s case, of our history.

    Magical realism is a sub-genre of fantasy, just like urban fantasy is. Both take place in our world rather than a fully realised fantasy world and both tend to avoid certain elements like swords and wizards but both are still fantasy.

    The continuing massive snobbery against the oldest genre in the world (the Epic of Gilgamesh and both Homer’s poems are fantasy – yes, including the Iliad, it has a talking horse in it) is incredibly depressing.

    • Rachelle Gardner on September 19, 2011 at 10:21 AM

      I confess I’m shocked that people are interpreting post as derogatory towards fantasy. We included the wording about fantasy just to try and distinguish it from magical realism, which are two genres with blurry lines and are often difficult to categorize. Neither Athol nor I have anything agains the genre of fantasy! I apologize if it appears that way.

    • Athol on September 19, 2011 at 12:59 PM

      Juliette, I have absolutely nothing against fantasy novels, therefore I wrote absolutely nothing against fantasy novels here. Whoever you’re responding to with this comment, it’s not me. I simply described the differences between a typical fantasy novel and magical realism, as best I could. If you have a problem with that, then I suggest you try to explain the difference as you see it. But please don’t read a lot of negativity into what I wrote which is not there.

      • Juliette on September 19, 2011 at 1:19 PM

        Perhaps we fantasy fans tend to get a little over defensive on this subject, for which I apologise. It was the suggestion that other-world fantasy is without attachment to readers’ everyday existence that particularly rankled – just because it doesn’t have real places or petrol cars in it, doesn’t make it divorced from everyday experience – everyday experience includes how people relate to each other emotionally as well, and all fantasy deals with that.

        • Tahlia Newland on September 19, 2011 at 7:52 PM

          I think that the best fantasy illuminates reality and highlights truth. I even wrote a post on this.

          Perhaps this is the sort of thing that makes the difference between the two genres.

        • Athol on September 19, 2011 at 10:29 PM

          Yes, Juliette, good fantasy novels do deal with human emotions. You’re absolutely right. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a perfect example of that. Who could read it without experiencing almost every emotion there is, right alongside Frodo?

          And you’ve touched on something here that’s important for all authors to remember, regardless of genre.

          If a story does NOT deal with the human condition in some authentic way, then it will fail. Period. Even the most superficial pulp fiction at least inspires a reader’s curiosity. (Mystery novels make us wonder “Who done it?” and suspense novels make us wonder “Will the hero survive?” which is why we must keep reading, even if we don’t really care much about the characters, or relate to them as people.) This requirement that the readers must become emotionally involved applies equally to every genre.

          So when I wrote that fantasy authors “can describe things that never were and never will be on the earth, without direct attachments to the readers’ everyday existence” I had in mind the readers’ EXTERNAL existence. There are no giant sand worms on earth, for example, therefore the novel DUNE is a fantasy, not magical realism.

          In short, I was talking about setting. That’s why I included the language “on the earth” and “real workings of this universe.”

          Sorry for the confusion. I should have been more specific.

  36. Dee Krull on September 19, 2011 at 3:43 AM

    This article really made me think. My book, Dreams and Vampires is partly based on fact, that is the fact being hypnotherapy. In part it’s science fiction as in parallel worlds. I classified it is partly fantasy, however my characters are real sentient beings and things that happen in their world are based on things that happen in society today.

    If I understand Mr. Dickson right, Then my book could also be called mystical realism. I don’t think he’s hiding behind this phrase, I think he’s trying to explain the difference between flights of fancy (Something an author just makes up) and myths about the past(Actual stories from The past.)

    The word myth, According to Wikipedia means a true story that has been changed over time and is no longer factual as it was in the beginning. I like that because that means mythical creatures could actually have existed. Something to think about.

    Thank you Mr. Dickson for sharing that.

    • Tahlia Newland on September 19, 2011 at 7:46 PM

      Mystical realism, now there’s another interesting name for a genre – where the magical is actually mystical. I like it.

  37. Ellen Gregory on September 19, 2011 at 3:06 AM

    Sigh. I find it disappointing that people feel the need to defend what they write or read as “not fantasy”. Fantasy has many guises, and it’s not all dragons and unicorns. (In fact, very little is thse days.)

    Nor is fantasy always about wanting to “escape the real world”. Sure, fantasy stories don’t need grounding in the real world, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have it. And, while many fantasy stories deal with events dramatically outside of our everyday experience, that doesn’t mean they can’t explore emotions, moral/cultural issues etc that we do face in reality. I would argue this is a great way of getting “distance from our lives to see them as they really are”. (OK, quite a lot of distance…)

    I admit this is a pet topic of mine, since I write and read fantasy, a much maligned genre. I totally accept that it’s not for everyone, but justifying why magical realism isn’t fantasy is a little too much for me to bear. It may not be Tolkienesque or Game of Thrones, but it certainly requires some suspension of disbelief.

    I’m willing to admit that not all magical realism is necessarily fantasy as the industry defines it, but a lot is. Certainly you won’t usually find Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels in the genre SF/fantasy section of the bookshop, but you will find plenty of other magical realism novels residing there.

    And I take no issue with the professed reasons for writing magical realism — I completely agree with them! It’s just that I don’t understand why it’s so important to rationalise/explain/defend it as not fantasy.

    • lori lopez on September 19, 2011 at 7:29 AM

      The post made me think which is always a good thing, but I didn’t read it as defensive, or defending why he writes magical realism. I see your point about it being basically fantasy and I agree. My question would be, where does one end and the other begin?
      My current WIP is based in reality but the main character is touched by an angel. Does that make it fantasy/ magical realism/ or just spiritual in nature. Usually my fantasy novels are hard core dragons, elves, wizards and other creatures where just about anything is possible, but focus on the relationships and struggles between the characters.

    • Rachelle Gardner on September 19, 2011 at 10:18 AM

      Ellen, I realize we all read things through our own filters. But just to clarify, Athol’s not writing about fantasy in this post. He included it as a point of clarification for those who don’t know what magical realism; and also to highlight the fact that the lines between genres are often blurred. But this post has nothing to do with “defending” a genre and nothing to do with the genre of fantasy, really.

    • Ellen Gregory on September 19, 2011 at 8:17 PM

      Yes, sorry, I did get on my soapbox a bit. Apologies. However, I see that you have edited the post to remove what were perhaps misleading references to genre fantasy and I wouldn’t interpret it now as I did upon first reading it.

      In fact, anyone reading my comment now will probably wonder what on earth I was on about 😛

      Having said that, I see someone blogged on this with the heading: “magical realism: fantasy for snobs?”. I’ve had many discussions with genre authors on this very topic, so you can see from a genre fantasy perspective this can be a sensitive issue.

      Sorry for clouding the main theme of the post, which is something that definitely resonates with me.

  38. Arlee Bird on September 19, 2011 at 1:56 AM

    I like the stories I read to have at least one foot in the real world so I can better relate to the characters and the stories being told. When it gets too fantastical then I feel I have to suspend too much disbelief and I end up shaking my head in the utter nonsense of it all.

    At least magical realism gives us something that seems like maybe it could happen at some time in some place in the world. Butterflies are easier for me to fathom than dragons and unicorns.

    Tossing It Out

  39. Scooter Carlyle on September 19, 2011 at 12:51 AM

    In 1956, Howard Miner, a cultural anthropologist, presented a paper to his colleagues about the doings of a tribe called the Nacerima.

    He writes about a charm box that keeps things that cure all ills, usually located above a small font that produces water from the Water Temple. Every member of the family performs ablutions before the holy font.

    What he’s describing is the American bathroom. “Nacirema” is American spelled backwards.

    What’s hilarious is that the anthropology community took the entire paper seriously. Anthropology requires distance and careful observation that we usually aren’t able to focus on our own lives, as the tale of the Nacirema showed.

    I agree with Mr. Dickson. We need distance from our lives to understand them.

  40. Crafty Mama on September 19, 2011 at 12:29 AM

    Ahh, I read your post about why your book wouldn’t sell — loved it! 🙂 Great post here as well!