Fantasy, Paranormal, Magic Realism, Which is it?: Writing Tips and Tricks

Tropic of OrangeNo matter what kind of writing you enjoy, it is relatively easy to slip something a little out of the ordinary into the storyline. The only difference seems to be the genre label you slap on it. When you’ve added something extra to your story, do you call it fantasy, paranormal, or maybe magical realism?

If you feel a little confused about these labels, take comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone. Even the experts aren’t always sure how they should characterize a particular work.

For example, a book I read in grad school for a literature class was Tropic of Orangeby Karen Tei Yamashita. It is described by Janet Kaye of The New York Times Book Review as a “fiercely satirical, semifantastical novel. [It] features an Asian-American television news executive, Emi, and a Latino newspaper reporter, Gabriel, who are so focused on chasing stories they almost don’t notice that the world is falling apart all around them.”

In genre terms, it is considered a strong example of magical realism.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, magical realism is “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.”

So how is this different from urban fantasy, for example, in which events take place in a modern world but there is a touch of magic in the air, or paranormal in which the characters themselves are something other than human?

Reading through Tropic of Orange, a great deal of the story is very commonplace – regular people going through their regular days without anything all that abnormal happening. But there’s this twist in the story. Something is just a little off.

That little something off tilts everything else so that there is something just a little off about the regular routine of the character’s lives. They begin to notice it as the tilt becomes more pronounced, things start to happen that reflect that shift. They are things we don’t see happening in our world – they defy what we understand of the laws of physics. Thus, the magic realism.

Would you describe this as paranormal? There is certainly something going on that is out of the ordinary human experience. But it can’t really be attributed to purposeful magic, as is usually a prerequisite for fantasy definitions, nor is it a case of extra-human biology affecting the world around that character.

So the genre definitions seem to be more a matter of degrees. It becomes a question of where you draw the line between reality and fiction, coincidence or purposeful action, strictly human or something more.

So I’m curious. When looking at literary terms such as paranormal versus magic realism versus straight fantasy, do you see a difference and does it play a role in your decision to pick up the book?

Wendy Strain

My entire life is full of writing and creativity. Whether copywriting for exciting new projects, crafting web content for creative companies, ghostwriting, editing, coaching, or exploring my own imagination as a fiction writer, I am constantly engaged in stretching boundaries and exploring possibilities.

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8 thoughts on “Fantasy, Paranormal, Magic Realism, Which is it?: Writing Tips and Tricks

  1. Good question. I’m still questioning to what genre my books, “The Lost King” and “The King’s Ransom,” belong. They’ve been described as being about “issues fresh as today’s headlines–but with sea monsters.” So, fantasy? Or general fiction, but with dragons?

  2. I agree with the matter of degrees. I think it’s also about the size of the world that’s been built. I remember reading The Hobbit for the first time…a completely different world. But then there’s Practical Magic where the paranormal operatives within a “normal” universe. But IMHO – it’s all good.
    Great question and discussion.

    1. Good point about the size of the world that’s created. That certainly does factor into our impressions of how to classify the story, doesn’t it? Thanks for mentioning it!

  3. Yes, indeed a good question. For instance I’d put Charles De Lint’s books strongly into the Urban Fantasy category (sorry if I’ve mentioned him before – he’s kind of my benchmark for that genre). I don’t think “paranormal” when reading his works.
    The short stories in Mercedes Lackey’s book “Fiddler Fair” I think wander closer to the paranormal category as they deal with ghosts and magic that “just happens to be there” rather than coming from some “source” (if *that* makes any sense!)

  4. Essentially, it’s a subjective matter of opinion based on loosely drawn on general guidelines of type/source of magic and trends – is that what you mean? My next question, of course, is how do you know when you’re genre-bending in this climate?

  5. Hmmm…Well the nice thing is that the urban fantasy and paranormal genres can cover so much ground. Would a story set in the Old West where our occultist protagonist helps a town dealing with the angry souls of the dead elders of the local Indian tribe be bending the Western genre or the paranormal genre?
    I had never thought before that if one is genre bending, do you need a “base” genre to work from and then bring in others or just throw it all in a pot and stir?
    Anne McCaffery loved her sci-fi/fantasy/romance stories (as did her fans!); though I think for her stories I’d say they are sci-fi/fantasy with some romance thrown in, not the other way around.

    1. Discussions in my various writing groups have had me thinking about this a lot lately. On the one hand, nothing ever seems to fit entirely into one genre – Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy, but also has romantic elements. On the other hand, you need to be able to focus your marketing efforts so that the appropriate people can find you – now more than ever.

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