Tag Archives: writing

Defining Magical Realism

I want to talk about magical realism, the genre that confounds so many authors and excites so many readers, publishers, and agents. What exactly is it, and equally important, what exactly is it not?

Perhaps the word “exact” is misleading, since “exact” is hard to pin down in this genre. The basic definition of magical realism is that it’s literary fiction grounded in reality – with elements of magic. But. There are conditions to that magic.

The magic in magical realism is characterized by the very real role it plays in the characters’ lives. Supernatural events are often so much a part of their world that they go unnoticed or unremarked. And if they are acknowledged, it is not with a sense of unfamiliar wonder or questioning, but rather an acceptance of this reality in life. A common example of this mystical-as-mundane phenomenon is in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Ghosts are a common and accepted presence in this saga of a family and a town whose story parallels that of the emergence of modern, independent Columbia. In other genres, the ghosts would be identified, investigated, discussed, possibly feared. But in 100 Years, the ghosts are simply accommodated without any fanfare.

In Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, Tita is born in a river of tears that literally floods the kitchen – a moment of extreme magic that is told with a perfectly straight face.

This distinction – that these mystical elements are a part of everyday life – is critical to understanding what the genre is and also what it is not.

Why do we care? Because of late, the publishing/writing community has allowed its definition to drift and encompass all realistic fiction laced with a dash of subtle magic. For example, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me definitely has magic. But the stunning story of Miranda, some mysterious letters, and the laughing man on her New York City street is not magical realism. The same with Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King. Astrid, who’s struggling to define herself on her own terms, sends love to the passengers in the planes that fly above her. But Astrid never realizes she occasionally creates magic in the passengers’ lives, and never examines these supernatural events.The reason this still isn’t magical realism? The magic isn’t happening to her or her community and isn’t a natural part of the perspective of her culture.

So why does this matter? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge that there are many ways to embrace the fantastic in our fiction?

It matters because in addition to its unique structure, magical realism has important cultural significance. The literary giants who shaped and breathed life into this genre were Latin American – Isabelle Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They wrote about surviving colonialism and a culture of oppression. Weaving magic through their stories accented their despair and was key to surviving and interpreting a world more destructive than nurturing.

The fact that magical realism is grounded in this history doesn’t exclude non-Latin cultures from writing it. But it’s vital we remember that the genre evolved as an art form that could explore and cope with oppression. Threading touches of magic or even outright in-your-face magic through a contemporary story about non-oppressed cultures is not magical realism.

I love this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez from an interview in the New York Times from 1982, when he was preparing his speech to accept the Nobel Prize: “It has to be a political speech presented as literature.” Pretty much sums it all up.

Want to read more modern magical realism? Try Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers or Nove Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

Putting It into Perspective: Multiple Points of View in MG

In a graduate writing program I did years ago, a highlight of each residency was the chance to pitch our manuscripts to attending agents. Once, I was nervously pitching my book to a Very Famous Agent. When I mentioned that it was written in three alternating viewpoints, Very Famous Agent interrupted and said, “Why’d you have to do that? Single perspective books are ALWAYS better, ALWAYS easier to sell!”

Umm, ouch…pitch session pretty much over! Afterwards I had a lot of doubt about my choice to show multiple viewpoints. But with the number of high-quality, successful multiple viewpoint MG novels available to readers—both then and now—I ultimately chalked up that pitch session to a lasting reminder that agents have individualized passions about books. Maybe a particular agent has sold more single viewpoint novels, but that certainly doesn’t mean singular POV is always better.

Like many elements of writing, the number of points of view you use to tell the story depends on the story you are trying to tell.

Certainly, writing a book in multiple viewpoints has some challenges you don’t experience with a single viewpoint:

  1. Each POV character must be made clear to the reader with every switch in perspective.
  2. Each POV character’s storyline must be memorable enough to the reader to “survive” the interruption of another viewpoint.
  3. Since your POV character is usually the one your reader gets to know most intimately through your careful character development, adding viewpoints tends to add characterization work for you.

From these challenges, it might seem like multiple viewpoint novels are harder on both the reader and the writer!

But there’s no denying that some stories just wouldn’t be as effective without multiple viewpoints. Sometimes you need to show an event that your main character doesn’t attend or info he/she wouldn’t know. Sometimes it’s important to show more than one side of the story, to demonstrate the importance of differences in opinion. Sometimes you might want your reader to be the only one who knows everything, giving him or her the chance to solve a mystery or identify a villain first—always a reader thrill.

Many excellent MG novels serve as examples of multiple viewpoints, and I hope you’ll offer your favorites in the comments. These titles each employ multiple viewpoints for different uses:

Sharon Creech’s The Wanderer. The narrative is divided between two first-person storytellers, Sophie and Cody. On first meeting Sophie, the reader finds her to be a vivacious, lighthearted dreamer, immediately likable in her innocence and intent to sail the Atlantic with family members. But when Cody picks up the story and shares his thoughts about Sophie’s behavior, the reader realizes that Sophie is a much more complex character than first assumed—that, in fact, she’s a girl not ready to face a past tragedy. Because Sophie cannot let her internal conflict rise to the surface of her own mind for most of the book, a second point of view character is used to give the reader the clues and information they need to see all true sides of Sophie, even before she’s ready to see them herself.

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s. This book is a great study in tense as well as point of view. The book opens in main character Willow’s first person point of view, in present tense; consequently, we are already close to this very likable character on the afternoon she learns her parents have been killed. The author then uses past tense first-person to relay Willow’s backstory in the following chapters, but returns to present tense at the moment in the narrative that has led back to the accident, signified by a chapter appropriately titled “Back in the Now.” The really interesting thing, though, is that each of the other point-of-view characters who “chime” in to help tell parts of the story do so in third-person, and consistently in past tense. So even though each additional voice is clearly characterized and has a need to insert his or her part of the narrative at the given time, the reader remains closest to Willow and her first person immediacy. Each of those secondary voices confesses at various points the extent to which they care about Willow, in a slow build of compounded concern that ultimately parallels our own.

Rebecca Stead’s First Light.  In this example of multiple viewpoints, two characters alternate the telling of two seemingly distinct stories – they are in separate physical locations and don’t know each other. Peter and Thea each have their own concerns and conflicts, each trying to solve a set of mysterious circumstances. When finally the two meet—and their narratives align—about 2/3 of the way through the book, it’s a fulfilling thrill for the reader. The story ratchets up in intensity as the two begin a changed journey together.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. I think a lot of the genius of Wonder stands on its use of point of view. If we as readers had heard from no one but Auggie throughout the entire story, it would have been a beautiful and well-crafted book. But with the inclusion of other viewpoints – his sister Via and her new friend Justin, Auggie’s schoolmates Summer and Jack,  Via’s friend Miranda—the story is helped along by those around Auggie, some of whom have known him his whole life, others who meet him only once he takes the brave leap to attend school at Beecher Prep. The first time I read Wonder, I was so taken with Auggie’s voice that when it switched to Via in Part 2 I had a moment of “What? Wait! Go back to Auggie!” But as R.J. Palacio indicates on her website, we need to see inside those other viewpoints to truly understand the extent to which Auggie has left an impact on each of those characters.

Ultimately it may take a little more brainwork to write and to read a novel in multiple viewpoints, but the end result can be deeply fulfilling. After all, being able to understand and to follow more than one viewpoint on a topic helps to prep our kids for this challenging world in which we live. Once young readers understand that each character in a book sees plot events differently, it’s a quick connection to understanding that each of us in real life sees issues from a personal frame of reference. And comprehending one another’s viewpoints can be the first step toward acceptance, empathy, and kindness.

Take an Umbrella, It’s Raining – The Overarching Conflict in MG

Whether we’re reading, writing, or recommending a middle grade story, conflict typically comes in at or near the top of the Important Elements list. But with regard to the specifics of conflict in MG — Single conflict or layered? Internal or external? How much is too much? — there’s a lot of different advice out there. Click five results after Googling, and you’ll get five different takes on middle grade conflict. For example:

  • One source might recommend a single line of conflict with only minimal subplot problems; another will say middle grade audiences can absolutely handle “richly layered” multiple struggles.
  • Some in the publishing industry define middle grade by not only protagonist age and content, but also by the conflict, which (they say) should be external (outside things cause trouble with which the MG main character must deal). However, others say MG characters can certainly be roiled by internal conflicts appropriate to their age, and that these internal conflicts drive actions, thereby sparking the external conflict.
  • Depth of recommended conflict depends greatly on maturity of intended audience…and calendar age of a child doesn’t always match developmental age. So one fifth grader may have a high degree of comprehension for and interest in a classroom bully story, but may or may not be quite ready for a book set during the Holocaust, like her friend in the same class.

So…it’s probably safe to say that, as with many topics in middle grade literature, there is no formula, no simple categorization system. There’s just no easy answer on conflict, in other words.

To me, this is a beautiful thing. The MG writer is free to let his or her particular story vision grow and change through different styles and intensities of conflict. And the MG reader is free to enjoy an amazing variety of stories, made inherently different by their conflicts.

But for the purpose of writing, teaching, or sharing thoughts on a middle grade novel, another way to talk about the character’s struggles might be helpful: the overarching conflict.

The notion of overarching conflict helps me understand theme and purpose in MG books that I’ve taught, and has helped me through the latest revision of my middle grade historical. An overarching conflict is like an umbrella that covers all other conflicts in the book—big, little, internal, external, resolved, unresolved. They’re all under there because, in some connected way, every smaller problem turns out to be a part of the bigger overarching problem.

This idea of overarching conflict is easiest to see with some series. Harry’s overarching conflict with Voldemort carries through all seven novels that comprise his overall story. So while each book’s plot offers its own main conflict plus multiple sub-conflicts, we also see Harry’s escalating succession of wins and losses against his biggest enemy as series-long conflict building blocks, culminating in the final epic battle that resolves the overarching conflict.

You can apply this overarching conflict idea to a stand-alone MG work, too. There are many ways to state an overarching conflict for a book; this is what I came up with for a few examples:

The overarching conflict in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars: How can Annemarie help to keep her friend Ellen safe in situations of increasing danger? When the overarching conflict helps align the MC’s objectives scene to scene, it’s easier to see how the internal conflict (Annemarie’s struggle with bravery) and the external conflict (Nazi occupation and oppression of the Jews in Denmark) exist in a two-way, fluid relationship, each affecting the other (instead of one driving another). This overarching conflict also helps bring together other conflicts (the death of Annemarie’s sister; trusted adults lying) that might at first seem disconnected, but prove by the book’s conclusion to be important parts of Annemarie’s attempt to help her friend.

The overarching conflict in Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy: How can Bud find not just a home, but his home? In this excellent quest adventure, individual conflicts arise one after another as Bud makes his way toward the home he hopes will welcome him. His mini-conflicts (the Amos family, the mission, Hooverville, Lefty Lewis) are resolved each in turn as he proceeds, each in some way giving him a piece of knowledge or inspiration moving forward, until he finally has the chance to solve his overarching struggle.

The overarching conflict in Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak: How can Serafina learn more about her past while living hidden from the world? As the external conflict with the man in the Black Cloak and his evil crimes intensifies, Serafina seeks answers about her mother, her background, and her own mysterious talents. Disagreements with her father and her new friend Braedyn create additional conflict layers. The author skillfully brings together the resolutions of Serafina’s external, internal, and layered conflicts in an exciting battle scene, and all work together to supply an answer to the overarching conflict.

In these examples, articulating the overarching conflict can help connect all the struggles for the MG main character, and it can demonstrate his or her constant, steady objective through a sequence of other misadventures. Indeed, maybe the greatest benefits of the overarching conflict are the depth acquired in the story without muddying the plot, and the invisible cohesion it provides.

Thanks for reading! Glad to be a new part of this great group, and eager to hear your thoughts on conflict in MG.