I know the question seems pretty unclear, so let me try to explain it.

So I'm writing my first book and already have big plans. I don't aim to publish. It's just for me.

I want the book to be philosophical. I want it to contain all the ideas and experiences I made in life. For that matter, I chose to have a young man coming from an oasis in a desert going out on different adventures. Every adventure is like a short-story, but it's all linked together and at the end of each experience he made there will be something like a moral. At the book's end, he will be a wise person (maybe an old man by that time).

So to the central question: I want so set the story in the Arab world like it was about 1500 years ago. I already did much research on that. But on the other hand, I want it to have a surreal/fantasy feel, which allows me to let him meet a jinn for example, but still everything should feel realistic. I don't want it to be a fantasy book.

The Bible or the Qur'an could be good examples. (No I don't wish to be the next big prophet.) For someone who believes in it, everything seems real and indeed many of its Information contains real historic events, but for other people who don't believe in the respective religion, it's just a nice story with some real facts. Also Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist" is a excellent example of the feeling I'm talking about. I'm sure most of you read it.

So I want to draw a close line between reality and fantasy. I thought to let the story take place in form of a dream, but in the end I thought that's too simple. That takes the complexity and the sense of all the experiences of the protagonist away.

I think I explained enough since I don't want to bother you with unnecessary details. Maybe one of you creative writers out there has made experiences with that or can suggest some stylistic devices on how to handle that "problem".

I'm sure there isn't a definite answer and the question still seems very vague, but I'm grateful for every advice from you!


4 Answers 4


The term you are looking for is magical realism. This is when supernatural elements (magic, djinns, wishes, fae, dragons, elves, talking gargoyles, people with wings, meddling gods, spells, demons, and so forth) exist alongside what we consider the "real world," and everyone considers it normal.

If this takes place in a contemporary setting, it's often called urban fantasy, although this is not how you are describing your story.

The difference between magical realism and plain ol' fantasy is primarily the setting: if it's on some other world, a vaguely defined Dark or Middle Age Europe, pre-Saxon Britain, Ancient Greece/Rome, or any other culture from so long ago that historical records are scarce, that's generally just fantasy. If you research your time and place thoroughly, however, and write it so that it is accurate and realistic, it would be magical realism.

There is a difference between "fantasy" and "surreal," however. Fantasy, urban or classical, can be extremely straightforward and clear (see the works of CE Murphy and Mercedes Lackey respectively for examples). Surreal is when things are just slightly off, or everything is a bit weird and dreamlike. Narration tends to consist of a lot of run-on sentences, and events sound like a Dali painting. (The man walked by me, his face melting into feathers, blue to gold to orange to white to blue again in a ceaseless stream, the wind whipping them into flames, which fluttered off and became dancing leaves, glowing and gleaming and tumbling end-over-end like glittering fish in a rippling river of time unending. He tipped his smoldering hat to me as he passed.)

  • 1
    Describing the story as a Dali painting alongside with the example is very inspiring. Also thanks for the hint it's called magical realism. I'll do some research on that!
    – Lew Pérez
    Feb 29, 2016 at 20:50

Oh my! This is one of the coolest things I think you can do in writing!

How can we make our stories set in the real world be like a fantasy?

Paranormal event method

Well, when it comes down to it, use real events - but slightly change them according to the powers of your characters. For example, you might write as though it was in a history book - the real past. Then, you could make the jinn just have a trick up his sleeve which wouldn't happen in reality.

Make your writing sound as real as possible, and slowly build up paranormal events until the climax, is a really good method of writing alternate realities.

Alternate history method

I have to say, that I love these books so much, they are really enjoyable to read. To create an alternate history book, just take events that actually happened in history but change them. Make them more interesting! Make them exciting! There is just so many possibilities of what you could do with this, for example, writing about the christian crusades but maybe adding magic, or machinery.

A fantastic example of alternate history is the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. I really think you should read it if you take alternate history seriously as it is just written so well and really reflects on the events of WW1, but with it's own fantastic twist and mechanics.

Other methods

Above, I listed the two methods which my English teacher taught me when we studied this. However, I am sure there are an incredible amount of ways to write about something like this, and when it comes down to it, just practice. Write lots of different accounts of what you might want to happen in your story. This way, you might be able to experiment with different styles of writing, different mechanics you might want to include without actually completely starting the book. This will also give you a great outline of what characters you want.


Surreality is a massive part of this writing. Surreal means something is real, but kind of not real at the same time. Keep surprising your reader with more of these surreal events with the jinn, and keep making the world become slightly more paranormal until the climax. Make very subtle changes to make things seem real.

I hope this helped.

  • Thanks! I'll have closer look at Leviathan. The jinn is just one example, which already has a strong "fantasy feeling". Another example would be the protagonist meeting an old man that takes him on sort of a mindtrip, where they travel to the past and see the world from a passive point of view (no possible intractions), but I don't want to let the reader know if this really happened.. more like a dream, but with real consequences. I will keep in mind what you said.
    – Lew Pérez
    Feb 29, 2016 at 21:06

Word of advice: don't put Mohammed into your story, unless you want to spend the rest of your life in hiding from extremists. So I'd stay away his time period.

How about ancient Babylon instead? Then you can have Abraham, Job, jinns, magi, "god"-kings, various "gods", peasants, priests, craftsmen, traders, merchants, students, city folk in general, soldiers, fortified city-states only a few days' travel from each other, caravans, desert raiders, slavery, polygamy, concubines, etc. Or, ancient Persia, before Alexander the Great (and well before Mohammed). Most of the stuff would be roughly the same. You'd eliminate Abraham and Job, but would add monotheistic Jewish exiles. (Read the Biblical book of Ezekiel if you want an example of surrealism from Persia.) For either time period, you have a ready-made mythology and a lot of archaeology to give background, but the exact history is sketchy (except on a grand scale). A lot of the background research you've done would still apply. Side trips to the Indus valley could add Hindu and Buddhist ideas/experiences, depending on your time period.

Ideas to add surrealism: 1) Anachronisms. People/things from the wrong time period. Maybe extend that to anatopisms: people/things from the right time but wrong place. 2) Tragi-comic characters who strongly espouse some philosophy but are living refutations of their philosophy (Ex: satires of Voltaire, Moliere, Defoe; Don Quixote). 3) Situations where the reality is possible but suspect (Ex: The Life of Pi).

  • Thanks for the advice! I never intended to use real characters, I just want the setting from that time. Ancient Persia and Babylon are pretty exactly what I thought. Also I was already thinking about a trip on a ship somewhere, so your idea of Hindu and Buddhist experiences is great. I'm glad you got the idea! I think I'll add it somehow.
    – Lew Pérez
    Mar 2, 2016 at 21:50

I have a couple of ideas.

  1. Changes in scene and time. The simplest would be a geological event. In The Wizard of Oz, set in the Great Plains of the US, a tornado accomplished this. In your case, a sandstorm would suffice. Alternatively, you could enter a vortex in an otherwise normal setting such as in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series propelling her main characters back and forth 250 years.

  2. I actually like the idea of meeting Mohammed as long as this is for yourself. Talking with God, or his prophets or interceders, can be a dynamic philosophical discussion. For commercial purposes, it (including Mohammed) won't succeed on any level, but you stated this wasn't your intent. I don't remember when, where, or the title, but in high school, I read an amazing story between Joan of Arc and Mary (Jesus's mom) about the role of women in society written during the time of the Equal Rights Amendment in America.

  3. Surrealism. As previously mentioned, this is a great way to blend the line between fantasy and reality. A slightly more approachable term to Google search would be psychedelia. This term derives from the use of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s and beyond. There will be a large number of movies and books to help guide you in this genre. Confusion is the key element.

  4. Perceptual Disturbances. It won't take long, but you may benefit from looking at the definition of psychosis in medical terminology such as DSM-V. Understanding what really happens to the brain when you're talking about bordering on reality will make for a better story.

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