Magical Realism and Urban Fantasy

So I recently came up with an idea for a story: a urban fantasy where a boy finds out that his world (identical to present-day America) is actually a magically constructed illusion created by wizards in a high fantasy world to enslave our race. The only way to get there is by magically interacting with a book (similar to how a landline takes you out of the Matrix). A little weird, but no story idea is too weird.

Speaking of weird, we break for a random (but funny) meme:

Anyway, where was I?

Ah, yes. So I shared the idea with my dad (because I’m that kind of guy) and he thought it was okay. My one problem with it was that the story would probably be classified as “Urban Fantasy”…and I have a history with Urban Fantasy. So I started explaining to my dad the difficulties of making a quality Urban Fantasy.

Several days ago I found out what Magical Realism is. The two turn out to be very similar, and they’re both hard to write for the same reasons. So, when I was younger, my first books were Urban Fantasy: all about the adventures of Kevin Roegen and his adventures in a fantastical land with dragons and orcs and telepathic griffons. Of course, that sounds great at surface level, but I was unprepared for the difficulty that comes with writing Urban Fantasy.

Now, before you say, “but Titus, anything is easy to write badly” and devolve into a string of whining and complaining, we don’t breed half-writers here. You write something to the best of your ability and you don’t give it anything less than your all. Whenever I say something’s hard to write, I mean it’s hard to write well. There’s a difference.

So, that said, Urban Fantasy is a very popular subgenre of fantasy, sired by none other than C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, the original Urban Fantasy. I don’t really enjoy Urban Fantasy (henceforth UF) because it’s hardly ever well-written (enter Percy Jackson), but of course I enjoy Narnia. If you enjoy UF and you want to write it, I’ll give you everything that I can suggest from my blunders and personal knowledge.

First of all, it’s important to understand the distinction between UF and Magical Realism. UF involves whole fantastical worlds, magic systems, and mythical beasts from beyond our realm in our world. The magic is far more prevalent and important in the grand scheme of things than MR, which only has one or two main tie-offs to fantasy while mostly dealing in the real world.

If I were to create a ratio for you, the conflict as driven by magic or realism in UF is a heavy 7:3 or at best 5:5. The conflict ratio for MR is on the lighter side of 7:3 or 8:2. So UF has much more (and usually much darker or mature) fantasy influence than MR does, but both include having at least some of the conflict driven by realism.

A common example of UF is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. While it does take place mostly in the “real world”, magic is heavily prevalent and important to the plot. In the grand scheme of things, fantastical influences are incredibly important to the plot, characters, and world.

Examples of MR would be something like 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson or the Five Children and It trilogy by Edith Nesbit. While magic (a catch-all word for fantasy influences) in these books is important to some of the characters and plot of said characters, it’s pretty irrelevant as far as the world is concerned (at least, for the most part). The Story Thieves by James Riley is a bit of a mix between MR and UF. In some places magic seems irrelevant to the world at large and its influences are largely absent, but at other times the story goes buck wild with supernatural influences. All interesting reads that are worth trying out.

But yes, the question of the evening: what’s so hard about UF and MR? They’re so easy to get wrong. Making a UF or MR without a child main character is basically impossible, and making one with a child is cliché. Making one with a teenager is usually cringe and is becoming cliché as well. The same tropes are shamefully overused, but in a mundane setting where such things easily become boring.

What’s worse is that some of these clichés are just flawed at their core. Maintaining verisimilitude is way tougher in UF or MR because you have to explain away every inconsistency between our world and the fantasy one. Often these differences are left unexplained or given unsatisfying explanations–which, I think, is at the core of why so many Urban Fantasies are just bad.

Of course, I’ve never been just a doomsayer, right? (well, I’ve had my bad moments) So I’m gonna give you a few tips on how to avoid UF and MR’s worst mistakes. Most of them need to be avoided altogether, but there are a few that can be improved on instead of scrapping altogether.

First of all: do your research. To prevent your UF from becoming a carbon-copy of someone else’s UF or MR, get a feel for what’s already on the market. Deliberately take UF into another realm: explore new ideas with your story. Go where the other stories do not. We don’t need another common or garden UF.

Explain why and how this other universe exists apart from ours. Missing this is fatal. And since you’re explaining the why’s and how’s of this other world, give us a good fantasy history. Trying to explain how a supernatural universe sprouted from something in our world is a bad idea.

Another problem with child (or, for that matter, even adolescent) protagonists un UF and MR is that they can’t be the hero until they’ve got a good bit of development under their belt. If you try to launch the hero into the action before you’re 2-3 books deep, you’re short selling the audience. A lot of UF books move the protagonist straight into the action before they get enough time to prepare and train for their challenges; as a result, logically unprepared characters end up meeting challenges that they overcome while logically lacking the skills to do so. TL;DR: Protagonists of UF or MR novels often become Mary Sues or Gary Stus. You need to watch out for this and give the protagonist ample training or preparation to tackle unknown and never-before-seen dangers.

Okay, that was a bit of a firehose, but if you want the skinny, I would suggest three things: do your research on popular UF, avoid common tropes involving adolescent or child behavior, and know that you’re going to have to explain a crap ton of things to the reader. UF is tricky (MR is less so, but still), but if you can pull it off, I don’t see why you can’t create an immensely respectable work.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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