By Kasie Whitener
Columbia II Chapter Member
I hate magical realism. It’s deceptive. It uses modernisms like cars and airports and government incompetence to make you feel like the story is real.
Then a horse flies (Winter’s Tale). Or the main character leaps off a cliff and sprouts wings (Song of Solomon).
Magical realism gets to a point in the story where the reader believes all of this could happen and then says, “I’ve got some oceanfront property in Arizona, too.”
Wait, what? If I’m reading fantasy, I want to know as early as the first page. Do not trick me.
Trust between reader and writer is a fiction writing tenet. It’s one of the things the professors in MFA programs tell you
is sacrosanct. To betray a reader’s trust is to produce terrible fiction.
So what about historical fantasy? We accept that fantasy fiction will have mythical creatures like werewolves and witches and that historical fiction will have limited technology (horse-drawn carriages are ever present).
What are the conventions of historical fantasy when we know historical fiction should be accurate but fantasy fiction is more permissive?
In my current work in progress, my vampires are time travelers. Although the vampire narrator was born in California in the 1970’s, he’s been able to travel back in time to 1816 and earn Lord Byron’s friendship. What kinds of conventions must I observe in the telling of this cross-genre story?
I don’t want it to be magical realism. I don’t want to trick my readers into believing this is a historical fiction novel and then suddenly my narrator bites Mary Shelley.
So I’m honest about the character’s abilities and his purpose in 1816. But he’s not from that era; his values and expectations are more modern.
The biggest challenge has been managing the incongruities between modern vampires and the historical setting. In some ways, I have adapted my character to 1816. His narrator voice is a formal, Jane Austen-style voice. But he smokes cigarettes which did not exist in 1816.
Incongruities are a valuable story-telling tool. They are used to foreshadow (Why is the second story window open?) and to sow doubt (That traveling salesman doesn’t have any samples of his product?). Incongruity isn’t meant to trick or befuddle, it’s meant to provide that subtle nudge toward the writer’s vision.
While magical realism responds to a reader’s confusion with, “Because magic,” subtle incongruity can provide valuable contrasts between characters and create the very circumstances the protagonist must overcome.
Incongruities have proved troublesome for some of my beta readers. Time travel is a complex fantasy genre. It’s a type of uchronia, or a re-imagining of history. It requires suspension of disbelief. To avoid the arbitrariness of magical realism, historical fantasy must use its incongruities purposefully.
As I work through revision, I am mindful of the incongruities that indicate displaced persons. The hints I’m giving as to the characters’ adjustment in their environments should not be too distracting. It is not my intention to trick the reader.