Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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Magical Realism's Incredibles

THE POPULAR return of comic books, animé's well-established fandom in the film world and the season's latest superhero film, The Incredibles, inspire a discussion about magical realism as it pertains to superhuman characters and extraordinary human conditions.

Magical realist writers have written their own "Incredibles" over the years, but they are not the typically glamorous, heroic figures in capes that Marvel Comics presents as superheroes. Magical realist "Incredibles" are far less notorious within their own populations. Their lives are lived in an almost entirely ordinary fashion, except in those ways that set these characters apart.

There are two clear categories of superhumans in magical realist literature: those characters with amazing endowments and those with superhuman abilities.


In "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," Gabriel García Márquez introduces an infallibly human character who just happens to have additional parts which aren't human: wings. An extended variation on this theme is the total reconfiguring of the human body (and its condition). In Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, the majority of the characters are authentic members of a traveling freak show: Arturo the Aqua-Boy with flippers for extremities, the hunchback narrator Olympia Binewski, her Siamese twin sisters, her daughter Miranda the "norm" (who still has a tail) and Chick the telekinetic, who circus parents Al and Lil almost abandonded for being too physically normal otherwise. These characters, just like Mary Shelley's monster in Frankenstein, are purposeful creations and not just the result of random genetic misordering.

But sometimes genetics run afoul. The hands of the twin sisters in Aimee Bender's story, "Fire and Ice," are unusually endowed with the ability to freeze or burn other things, but when they come together, they cancel out each other's magic. And there are several stories about the loss of a body part and the consequential resurrection of its own life. Consider Gogol's "The Nose," Alfonso Reyes's "Major Aranda's Hand" or Katherine Vaz's "Journey of the Eyeball."


Beyond these obvious physical traits are those hidden human abilities that take on superhuman status. What about Oskar, the boy in The Tin Drum who willed himself to stop growing? He did it in response to the despairing conditions of his war-torn world. Richard Cody's "The Homely Child" is so ugly that he eventually vanishes (or "is vanished" by his own family). The pain of ostracism within the smaller construct of family as society is at the heart of the narrative. And Ian Wild's hilarious "The Woman Who Swallowed the Book of Kells" expresses a delicious commentary about the ongoing conflict in ideologies between Catholics and Protestants.

Sometimes an extraordinary ability comes across as something completely ordinary for the person claiming it. In José Saramago's Blindness, only one woman in an entire nation stricken by an epidemic of contagious blindness retains her ability to see, giving her a superhuman quality. The lost boy in The Bone People may not be able to utter a single word, but he can read the auras of the people who find him. Mary Overton's contemporary "Mother, Machine" shows the development of a woman's ability to communicate with machinery from early experiences in childhood after her mother dies and leaves only a tape recording of her voice to remember her by. A woman in a coma has enough white light to heal the rest of the world, even if she can't heal herself, in "Cecelia". And Paulo da Costa's story, "The Scent of a Lie," is the story of a girl's ability to detect when someone lies; her response is to sneeze uncontrollably.

Sometimes these abilities take on monumental significance. Bernard Malamud's baseball story, "The Natural," captures the mythos of America's favorite pasttime. American tall tales fit this bill, especially stories like Paul Bunyan and John Henry, where ordinary working men are born with amazing strengths. Gabriel García Márquez's "Innocent Erendira" is not only the story of a legendary prostitute but metaphoric of a spoiled Latin America; her impossible purity remains believable even after she escapes her horrible fate. There are, of course, tales of ladykillers—literally, in the story of "The Deadly Kiss"; marketing agents try to capitalize on one man's involuntary ability to slay women with a single smooch. And there are the remarkable feats of one super-matronly soul in "Mother's Milk", whose lactating breasts can nurse an entire universe.

Finally, there are those characters who have amazing abilities that their communities don't, in fact, value or recognize. The main character in Mary Overton's "The Wine of Astonishment" is discouraged from developing her skill in flying because "there isn't any money in it"; in Marcia Douglas's excerpt, "The Language of Snails", women who need a break from the back-breaking labor of laundry chores simply shape-change into snails along the side of the road, where time slows down and they catch their breath. When a scientist captures such a "transitional" snail and takes it to a faraway lab, the woman-snail must devise a way to regain her womanly shape despite the sad truth that she is likely more valued as a snail to the larger world than she is as a working woman.

How can a writer go about writing their own magical realist "Incredibles?"

1. Add a body part, or multiple body parts, to a character. Try out an unexpected part, something inhuman but relevant to that character's story or personality.

2. Modify a body part so that it offers both benefits and liabilities for the character. Make sure the challenges the character faces are related to this alteration, and don't make him a hero when his or her body part succeeds.

3. Remove a body part entirely and give it its own normal life. Think about the significance of that body part to the body, and how it might "cope" on its own.

4. Create physically unnatural characters with normal lives. They don't have to be gothic or freaky. Their unnatural traits might be hidden, vulgar, something to be embarrassed about. Or they could be beautiful traits which offer some hope, but which also require real physical or emotional or social risk. Place these characters in ordinary situations, and see how their "specialness" helps or hinders them. Try not to focus as much on how they are perceived as much as how they function on a day-to-day level.

5. Give a character an unusual ability that does not mirror the abilities of comic book superheroes. How about a man who can grow a beard in five minutes? Or a woman who can make infants fall asleep instantly with the touch of a finger?

6. Consider extra-sensory abilities. Not just psychic abilities, but heightened senses—a child who can hear dog whistles, a man who can smell cancer cells, a woman who can tell by eating fish what sea it came from. Imagine ways in which these abilities could be useful or problematic.

7. Work up your own contemporary tall tale—the fastest painter alive, the soldier who can outrun missiles. Tall tales are the classic American form of myth, and a great deal of fun to write.

8. Give a character a superhero-like ability, but don't glamorize it. For instance, a character who can see for miles might have problems reading, so his community might cast him out because he is illiterate.

Some general rules for creating magical realist "Incredibles" that remain different from their Superfriends counterparts:

  • be matter-of-fact in your narrative; ground the fantastic elements of the story in mundane details

  • do not account for external surprise within the community; instead, demonstrate the community's acceptance of and/or blasé response to your character's anomalies

  • avoid re-using the ideas of other writers; there are plenty of body parts that haven't yet been explored!

  • make sure you use an internal logic when crafting your story…there has to be a reason for things to be incredible…

  • BUT, do not attempt to logically explain the incredibility of your character; if you do this, you risk losing the magic and fun that makes the story of a magical realist "Incredible" so appealing!

    Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of Margin.
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