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I’ve read a fair amount of fantasy in my day, enough to understand that the genre is split into sub-categories and sub-sub-sub-categories that look as different next to each other as a Western novel and a psychological thriller. The fact that Robert Jordan’s classic (if formulaic) Wheel of Time high fantasy series shares shelf space with Francesca Lia Block’s fractured, whimsical stories of fairies in L.A. boggles my mind.

Actually, what really boggles my mind is the fact that libraries and bookshelves continue to insist on combining science fiction and fantasy, as though they weren’t fundamentally opposite from each other, but that’s another story for another day.

What I’ve been thinking about lately, though, is the tissue paper barrier separating fantasy and magical realism. Some people, in fact, don’t think there’s any real distinction between the two at all (Terry Pratchett called magical realism a “polite way of saying you write fantasy”). I think there is a difference, though, and, just as importantly, a reasonably clear way to tell:

1. What is the character’s reaction to the magical event? In a fantasy novel, the introduction of a magical element is cause for immediate wonder or alarm. In magical realism, characters will take magic at face value, or treat it with no more emotion than something that is possible in the ‘real’ world.

2. Does the magical element seem to be a symbol? Magical realism often uses the supernatural in almost a poetic way–in one story I read, white moths flew out of the mouth of a dead grandmother when the granddaughter finished washing the body. In fantasy, for the most part, a dragon is a dragon.
Note: It is, of course, always possible to find metaphorical meaning in fantasy novels as well. The Harry Potter books alone have sparked countless interpretations. The distinction for me is that fantasy’s magic metaphors are often extremely clear (Aslan=Jesus) or extremely general (discovery of magic=discovery of self/coming of age), whereas magical realism often has moments that are both subtler and more precise (like the moths in the story I mentioned).

3. What does the magical element do for the plot? In fantasy, the magic is the catalyst to the plot, its lifeblood. Magical events or characters are inextricably tied to the story. In magical realism, you could theoretically strip the magic out and have a functioning story. Magic deepens and enriches certain moments, but doesn’t usually drive the plot forward.

So there you have it! These rules aren’t completely set in stone–I’m sure plenty of people can come up with exceptions–but these three guidelines can give you a pretty good sense of what you are reading.