Understanding the Meaning Magical Realism: What It Is and How to Find It

Updated: Aug 12

Magical Realism has become a buzz word in High School English class. This shouldn’t come to many as a surprise as it one of the most popular genres in literature today. This is second only to Romance or Urban Fantasy. If you play your cards right, you can even find books that straddle all three of these genres! Confusing the ever-loving-minds out of English teachers everywhere… Let’s look at the meaning of Magical Realism.


Why is Magical Realism so popular right now?


Because it’s fun! In Magical Realism, there is a whole lot of real life with a little bits of the extraordinary! Who doesn’t want to find the literal end of the rainbow? Who wouldn’t want to make friends with a friendly giant? But, Magical Realism is not quite as easy to define as it may seem. See the “definition”, or meaning of Magical Realism is: a story that has fantastical elements woven into the text. But it can’t be Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction, Dystopian, or Horror. So, zombies, witches, or aliens… probably not Magical Realism (but it could be). It’s difficult to determine what Magical Realism is. Why? Because, you must determine the situational awareness of these elements to the characters. It’s less about the magical or extraordinary things being in the story. It’s more about how the characters react to these things. Tricky huh?


Student 411


If you’re a student in English class figuring out what Magical Realism is, you may find yourself very frustrated… Well, don’t worry, most people get a little confused when looking at Magical Realism for the first time. Here’s a little something that may help.

You’ll also want to check out “The Main Rules of Magical Realism” below. Reading these rules will help give you a better understanding of Magical Realism. Sometimes it help to hear it, write it down, and see it. This will keep the meaning of Magical Realism stuck in your mind.



The Main Rules of Magical Realism:

The above images shows elements of what people may find will help you define the meaning of Magical Realism.


  1. Magical Realism takes place in CURRENT times– This may get a little confusing when you’re reading a passage or story that was written sixty years ago. Today it is considered the past, but it still falls into Magical Realism. Why? because when it was written it was the “realistic current time”. So, if a story takes place way back in the ancient times it is NOT Magical Realism. Also, if it takes place far off in the future it is NOT Magical Realism either. This can get confusing as some stories were written long ago about the future that has already passed us today. Think George Orwell’s 1984. This was a work of Science Fiction NOT Magical Realism.

  2. Magical Realism takes place in OUR world- Pay attention to the names of the places in the story. Magical Realism must take place on Earth, in a real place. Any story that takes place in a made up world or in a different realm is Fantasy or Science Fiction.

  3. Does NOT have to have magic in it– Even though the name of the genre is “Magical” Realism, it does not actually mean magic as in witches, wizards and wand waving. It is a general term that indicates that unusual things will happen in the story. I like to use the word Fantastical when referring the elements of Magical Realism. We are looking for things that may appear out of place because they are “fantastical”. Things such as a giant character or a man who never ages. Maybe we see a nameless angel, or a person who cries literal rivers of tears.

  4. The general population of characters does not find the “fantastical” strange– One very important key aspect of Magical Realism is that the characters in the story accept the fantastical elements in the story without too much alarm. This does not mean that characters don’t question the giant in the room. Or, that they don’t find the river of tears alarming in itself. What happens in these stories is they accept that a woman CAN cry rivers of tears. Men CAN grow to be giants.

Reclassification of genres continues to make it confusing


These are the first main things you can look at to determine if a story is in fact Magical Realism. Since the creation of the genre in the mid 20th century, many authors have added their own spin. They’ve added elements that challenge the rules of Magical Realism. So much so, that an entirely new genre was created in the late 20th century, call Urban Fantasy. This genre holds stories such as Harry Potter, The Mortal Instruments, and Twilight. These books previously fell into the genre of Magical Realism. But, not fitting quite well enough for English nerds to be happy with the classification. This is why it’s best to use the guidelines above. This will help you determine if what you are reading is in fact, Magical Realism. It will also help you understand the meaning of Magical Realism.

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