If you’re creating a real world with fictional powers or magic, when are you creating a low fantasy vs. a magical realism story? Both are in the real world. Where is the line between these types of fantasy?
Magical Realism is not simply a story set in a real-world setting in which some magical element exists. That can as well be urban fantasy or a bunch of other things. But whereas in fantasy; magic is magic; In magical realism, that magic is metaphorical. A form of symbolism. For example, if a character learns to fly in fantasy, it means the character can fly. In magical realism, if a character starts to fly, it could mean anything ranging from the person reaching a certain level of enlightenment to they having discovered a newfound freedom in an oppressive society. A dragon is a dragon in fantasy. In magical realism, if, let’s say, there’s a dragon living in a forest, it could mean there’s a guerilla revolution in the land or simply, it is a manifestation of forest fires (among other things). The magic in Magical Realism is more than magic. It is reality.
And that magic drips from the culture, society, practices, politics, and environment in which the story is set. As a writer, in magical realism, you don’t go looking for magical elements. You simply conceive a story and let the reality of things pour its magic into it.
The difference is the acceptance of fantastical elements
Both Magical Realism and Low Fantasy subgenres of a fantasy story occur in the real world. But the main characters’ awareness of the fantastical parts of the world draw the line between the two. Another way to say this from the perspective of the characters' interactions is; fantastical elements are the world in magical realism, but they are the story in low fantasy.
In a Low Fantasy story, the magical or fantastical parts of the world are unexpected or even shocking. The beginning chapters of Harry Potter start in the world of the “muggles,” who are shocked to see a cat reading the newspaper, or invitation letters flying in through the door. The reader does not yet see magic as a regular part of the world. Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom also fits a low fantasy subgenre with the action and adventure genre, as supernatural events unexpectedly manifest from the relics and artifacts he recovers. Child’s Play is another example, where a living doll is shocking rather than ordinary.
When the fantastical elements are well-known in the real world, this creates a Magical Realism story. The TV series The Munsters is a good example of magical realism, with supernatural and fantastical elements being a normal part of the family’s world. When Harry Potter travels to Hogwarts, the narrative shifts to high fantasy rather than magical realism because of Rawlings' vast world-building efforts and her proclivity to "explain" her magic. Compare A. M. Holmes' A Real Doll to Child's Play: Homes' living, talking Barbie doll is just a part of the story; Chucky is a doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer through an ancient ritual.
Magical Realism is occasionally lumped in with fantasy, but it is actually a relatively newly defined subgenre of fictional realism rather than fantasy, according to the Master Class writing staff. Low fantasy is, of course, within the fantasy genre.
A good side-by-side comparison would be a couple books with telekinesis in their worlds. Leon Whiteson’s Scanners features a future with telekinesis as a normal part of the world, and it becomes weaponized. as opposed to Carrie whose telekinetic abilities were a shocking discovery. Scanners is magical realism, Carrie is low fantasy. Both fit in to the horror genre as well.
Putting these to the Master Class reference definitions:
- Magical Realism happens in the real world, familiar to the reader. There are no bizarre alternate realities. No secret hidden cabals of vampires as an alternate explanation for real events. It can be in the past or the near-future, but the setting is as familiar to the reader as any book of fictional realism.
- The fantastical elements are just part of the world. Eddie Munster has a pet dragon named Spot. It's just in the world, and he plays with his dragon just as any boy would play with their pet dog. Grandpa Munster is several centuries old and a vampire. Again, the story treats it as normal.
- Fantastical elements have no explanation. This is where magical realism deviates from fantasy genres like urban fantasy. You will never find an answer to "how did they do that?" in magical realism, the author spends no time explaining fantastical elements. Scanners are just born with the ability, they were not created or some secret project. Thing in the Addams Family is just a disembodied hand, with no explanation.
- Unique plot structure: One final defining characteristic of magical realism is the absent narrative arc. The major and minor conflicts are not normally announced with rising tension, the story keeps the reader in constant suspense.
The common thread in Low Fantasy is the real world setting, and the existence of some magical or fantastical elements. However, a low fantasy narrative will showcase the magical element as "out of place" in their world. The Twilight series has a normal suburban high school, with werewolves and vampires running an ancient war behind the scenes. The fantastical creatures are the story, in essence, more than simply a part of the world. Contrasting Carrie again to Scanners, Carrie is in a normal American high school, and telekinetic powers are not known in her realistic world. Her unnatural abilities are the story rather than the world.
They are similar, the difference is basically in awareness of magic.
In Low Fantasy, we have magic in the pedestrian world; something like the "Dead Like Me". 99% of people don't know of magic or believe in magic, it is the normal world. But magic exists and works for the elite few. "Low Fantasy" is therefore missing all the trappings of High Fantasy stories, there are no castles, princesses, knights, etc. In "Dead Like Me", Ellen Muth is killed in the first episode and after death becomes a grim reaper of souls, with a day job in an insurance office, daily meetings with her fellow reapers in a coffee shop to get her reaping assignments (on post-it notes), apartment problems, dating problems, irritating coworker problems (both regular and reapers), even problems with her family grieving for her (magically they cannot recognize her as herself, and she is prevented from convincing them she is her former self), etc. Every episode she must reap souls. She is effectively immortal, she can be injured, it hurts, but she heals instantly. Stuff like that.
Magic Realism is similarly set in the real world, but everybody experiences the magical elements as part of everyday life. Dragons exist, but are unremarkable. Sure, you can employ wood elves and pay them in chocolate, but wood elves have a worker's union, there are rules you must obey. Don't think you can get away with cutting that chocolate with that manufactured crap, it's the Swiss method or nothing!
So unlike Low Fantasy, where most people don't know there is magic going on around them, the essence of Magic Realism is that everybody knows there is magic, it is just another fact of the world. e.g, some people are born with the ability to teleport. Good for you buddy. A guy standing in line at Starbucks engaged in a low-key argument with the (visible) ghost of his dead mother is nothing to get excited about.
In both Genres magic is real and set in the modern world. In Low Fantasy, it is under the radar and only the elite know about it, in Magic Realism, it is part of everyday life and everybody knows about it.