Magical Realism vs Contemporary Fantasy

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jonxihama

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I've read article after article and I'm still not sure what the difference is. From my understanding, magical realism and contemporary fantasy are both rooted in the real world with magical elements included in a matter-of-fact manner. From the novels I've read, magical realism tends to be to lean more literary and contemporary fantasy brings more of the standard genre elements (witches, wizards, vampires, etc.) into a modern setting.

Do I have it right or am I completely wrong?
 

Introversion

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I think most sub-genres are more about marketing than anything? Trying to target a perceived set of readers.

I’ve wrestled with these fantasy sub-genres a bit myself, because if I ever finish the WIP and try to query it, I probably need to bucket it for agents. (If a publisher ever buys it, they can decide to market it as something else.) I’ve settled on calling my WIP “alt-history fantasy” for now.

As I probably poorly understand it, the biggest difference between the two sub-genres you’re asking about is that a contemporary fantasy plot happens today, in our geography, etc. Dragons in NYC, etc. Whereas magical realism could be set in any time, and perhaps in a world that differs in substantial physical details from ours? Elves or mages in Victorian London, or alt-history victorious Nazi Germany, etc.

But, I could be wrong. Sub-genres are often squishily-defined.
 
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owlion

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I'm not sure how good my memory is, but I very vaguely remember reading something a while ago about how magical realism is something unusual made to seem usual and realistic, while contemporary fantasy can still have the unusual aspect be strange and is less realistic about it. That's not a distinction I feel confident about, though.
 
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Shirokirie

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Basically...

Magical Realism is the unexplained magic system in the 'real world' setting. For example, instead of whirling giant magnets around to generate electricity, societies in a story with magical realism get their power from gigantic magical geodes deep within the earth that contain 'cosmic energies'. It's more a literary mechanic than anything.

Contemporary Fantasy may not always include Magical Realism, and is basically modern society and its issues unfolding with fantastical races, mythological beings, talking rainbows, etc. It's a type of setting and set of conflicts that basically grounds a fantasy in the 'real world'/modern era/current year.

So, what are the differences?
MR is a mechanic you do in your story.
CF is a genre.
 
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Introversion

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So how is contemporary fantasy different from urban fantasy?
The adjectives? 😎

I mean, I suppose “urban” specifically implies a city, whereas “contemporary” just implies today?

Confession: I don’t read F as often as I read SF, so I’m probably answering way above my pay-grade in this thread. But one semi-recent urban fantasy I read was Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, set in contemporary London. I thought she cleverly used the idea that urban ordinances and requirements can have the weight of physical laws. Like, your magical adversary doesn’t have a token for the subway, so you’re safe if you can get past the turnstile before it reaches you, because all the signage says it Cannot follow you without paying the fare.
 
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Roxxsmom

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My understanding is magical realism is generally centered around the magic of real-world cultures and belief systems, often in indigenous or underrepresented/marginalized cultures and communities. Some of the classic works of magical realism are written by members of those cultures, or at least by people who are very, very well acquainted with them. Latin American writers spearheaded this type of story, though it's expanded over the years. It often involves a certain amount of political subversion.

Examples include work by writers like Isabel Allande, Laura Esquivel, Toni Morrison, Gabrial Garcia Marquez. It is supposed to be very true to and respectful of the belief system or history it embraces. It also tends to be very literary in its approach to storytelling.

Urban fantasy is fantasy in a modern (or sometimes historical) real-world setting, most often an urban one where the city setting is central to the story (though this definition has drifted over the years). It can certainly incorporate belief systems and mythology, but the author may also put their own spin on things or invent a magical system or mythology from whole cloth. It's a good idea, though, for writers to be respectful and cautious when borrowing elements from traditionally marginalized or colonized cultures. Typically, its primary purpose is entertainment, though it can certainly incorporate social or political messaging too.

I think the distinction between urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy has blurred somewhat over the years, but once upon a time UF was supposed to have a city setting that was so real and central to the story that the setting felt like a character in its own right. There's often a certain arc or feel to UF, where there's a central protagonist who straddles two worlds--the consensus reality and a secretive society of magical creatures or beings. They are often sort of hard bitten types who solve problems of varying sorts. Contemporary fantasy is a broader category that includes all types of fantasy stories set in the modern, real world.
 

jonxihama

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Very informative, thanks everyone!

I thought my WIP was a contemporary fantasy, but maybe it's just fiction with elements of magical realism. It's the real world with no stock fantasy races, but with magic from my (Caribbean) culture.
 
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Shirokirie

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So how is contemporary fantasy different from urban fantasy?
Contemporary Fantasy is fantasy in the modern era; it's a braod-term genre. Urban Fantasy is just that: Fantasy in your backyard, current year. The latter, Urban, is a sub-genre of Contemporary Fantasy.

Urban always features aspects of urban legends and myths and modern city/urban/rural folklore relevant to present-day Earth and its people, us. Whereas Contemporary could be considered anything with a present-day setting/feel/twist, but not be set specific to this time period/universe/dimension/[NIGHTMAREISH-SCIFANTASY-WRITER-JARGON-HERE].

For example: Addressing trans rights for a multiracial coalition in Middle Earth post its industrial revolution, while it also counts as High Fantasy, overlaps into Contemporary Fantasy.

Your typical vampire romance happening at FSU over the summer while a pandemic strikes Florida in the middle of Hurricane Wrecc-Mai-Azz-Bob is purely the Urban-prong of Contemporary Fantasy.
 

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My understanding of magical realism was that it's more of a literary bent, where you're never entirely sure if the magic is really magic. Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress and Paprika always struck me as excellent examples of what I believed it to be. Is it magic, reality, a dream, or an unreliable narrator? You're never entirely sure. There is magic, but is it really magic? It's fantastical, but you're never really sure if it's real.

What I know for sure about magical realism is that it's very hard to nail down as a genre.
 

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Magical realism has a cultural connection to South American culture. The classic example is 100 Years of Solitude and the speculative element is tonal rather than specific (eg spilt blood mysteriously running in a certain direction). It's unlikely you are writing MR and I'd be extremely wary of claiming that tag.

Urban fantasy is usually set specifically in the city; contemporary fantasy doesn't have to be. Urban fantasy has evolved--it used to be stuff like American Gods, but now has an association with pulp vampires which is unfairly narrow.

If you write outside of pulp, and/or your setting is broader than a city, you'll be put into contemporary fantasy. That said, a lot of authors and agents are pitching what would have once been standard UF as contemporary fantasy, because the label has such a stigma attached to it at the moment.

If you are writing urban or contemporary fantasy where the speculative element is not the focus and/or the story has a literary or mainstream bent, you'll be classed as speculative fiction, literary, or mainstream, depending on the specifics of the book and how your publisher chooses to position you.


Source: contemporary fantasy is my genre and positioning discussions have been happening all year. Fwiw I'm being positioned as "mainstream speculative fiction" because there is a strong mainstream tilt (thriller structure) to the story, and the speculative element is out of focus.

TBE is set in the real world, a slightly alternate 90s Britain. There is no magic, or magic systems, or wider fantasy elements, just some slightly supernatural people who eat books and a lot of tonal references to fairytales.
 

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This thread may be useful reading:

To recap some of the points from that discussion, if your magic is not systematised (i.e. the things that happen are kinda random and don't involve people actually casting spells) and could be seen as much as metaphor as literal happening - and deliberately blurs that line - then your story may be magic realism. Otherwise you are more likely to be writing within some branch of fantasy.

A couple of posters mentioned above the special connection between South American cultures and magic realism. I've read that in some cases, the "magic" in those books acts as a euphemism for political topics it would be too sensitive to discuss in literal terms; magical vanishings may cover political prisoners being "disappeared", etc. Doesn't necessarily influence your analysis of genre markings, but it's an interesting take. I wish I could remember where I'd read it...
 

jonxihama

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To recap some of the points from that discussion, if your magic is not systematised (i.e. the things that happen are kinda random and don't involve people actually casting spells) and could be seen as much as metaphor as literal happening - and deliberately blurs that line - then your story may be magic realism. Otherwise you are more likely to be writing within some branch of fantasy.
This is the most straight forward definition.
Magical realism has a cultural connection to South American culture.
This has gotten me down the Hispanic Origin Theory. Artists like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende come to mind. My novel doesn't come close to magical realism by any definition so I'll avoid the term.
 

JJNotAbrams

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I once read about a pretty good explanation on magical realism. It goes like "a talking dog takes you on a quest and then you go on an adventure. The adventure is the most important part of the story, not the talking dog."

That, to me, explains magical realism as unexplained mystical aspects in a story that's otherwise grounded. A lot of folk tales have this. Taking otherwise supernatural elements and putting them in a contemporary to help with the story but the elements themselves are never explicitly brought attention to.
 

Roxxsmom

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With trade publishing, placement within a genre tends to reflect which readers the agents, editors etc. think are most likely to want to buy the work (and which of those potential demographics is most lucrative). But other considerations, such as what is currently fashionable, will play a role too.

This explains why some definitions, particularly for books classified as literary, upmarket, or even mainstream fiction (but with strong elements of SF and fantasy) can be so confusing. Why is Amy Tan's work never shelved with fantasy, even though there's generally quite a bit of magic? I think it's because many of the folks who buy it tend to be people who don't consider themselves fans of fantasy and are more attracted to the contemporary themes regarding feminism, cultural identity, and connecting with family history for modern Chinese American women (and for others who relate to this experience).

Some writers straddle the line too, such as Atwood who can be cross-classified as literary, mainstream, and speculative fiction.

I suspect nailing and marketing your subgenre and target audience is one of the many challenges in self publishing. The standard advice of simply qualifying it as contemporary fantasy or fantasy and letting the agent and/or publishers figure out where it fits obviously doesn't apply to people marketing and promoting their own work.
 

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