The 1980 movie The Blues Brothers is set in Chicago in the 1970s. You wouldn’t call it fantasy, but fantastic elements keep entering.
Any musical has one fantastic premise: that crowds of strangers sometimes suddenly coalesce into synchronized musical dance numbers. This can be irritating if the musical is otherwise realistic (The Sound of Music); this is why few people enjoy realistic movie musicals without prior training on opera, or on comical or fantasy musicals (Gilbert & Sullivan, Mary Poppins).
But crowds breaking out in song never seems implausible in the world of the Blues Brothers. It’s a world where nuns levitate and use telekinesis when you’re not looking directly at them, where a car that drives off an overpass can suddenly find itself falling down from above the tallest skyscraper in Chicago, where a blind man is a crack pistol shot, and where men on a mission from God are physically indestructible.
I didn’t like 100 Years of Solitude as much as most people. Its magic realism shattered my attachment to the story, because there was no point in worrying or wondering about the characters or their plans when at any moment, some deus ex machina could descend and save them.
Magical realism, by definition ( I claim, though its definition is vague), uses inconsistent world building. In epic fantasy, consistency is critical. We can’t know when to worry if we don’t understand the rules of the world. The rules must be clear and consistent. But magical realism is a world that is 99% realism and 1% magic. The 1% cannot appear in a regular, systematic way. That would be science fiction–say, a universe with faster-than-light travel.
So how can you write magic realism without ruining your story’s tension?
One approach is to write a story too meandering and unfocused to have tension, or a story set in the past so that we already know nothing really terrible happened; or if it did, well, it already happened. Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses both techniques in 100 Years of Solitude. I still didn’t like it. If the fix to prevent magic realism from ruining the story is to remove the tension, the cure is worse than the disease. [ADDED: For me. If you don’t mind that, then the rest of this post is, well … wrong.]
The Blues Brothers is magic realism done right (by my standards). Here’s three reasons why:
1. Magic comes in through the cracks, not the front door
Magic in The Blues Brothers almost never resolves a serious plot problem. It can resolve the problem of the Nazis, because they are comic relief. Other than that, most magical events happen in the background, as flavoring (the Penguin’s mysterious way of moving, the impossibly high leaps of the dancers in the church, the blind Ray Charles noticing the would-be shoplifter sixty feet away).
Magic can introduce a plot point. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s very short story “The old man with enormous wings” does this well; it has only two magical incidents, and both happen unexpectedly, creating rather than resolving complications. I like it very much.
2. If magic resolves a plot problem, it is a consistent magic
The Blues Brothers are indestructible. They can survive falls from any height, explosions, and apparently bullets. This does resolve some plot problems–every time Carrie Fisher shows up to kill them, and seems to have succeeded, we find out they’re unhurt. The violence inflicted on them in these episodes progresses over time, so we gradually accept it as a rule of the world that the Blues Brothers are indestructible. This, being a consistent rule, operates like fantasy, not like magical realism. It’s okay to have plot problems hinge on magic if the reader/viewer understands the rules of that particular magic.
3. The main characters act as if they are in the world of magic realism that they are in
There are 2 ways to mix characters and reality wrong. One is to have characters in a magical world who are inordinately surprised by magic, or neglect to use it where they could. The economics of the Harry Potterverse are an example. Another is to have characters in a non-magical world who act as they expect magical interventions (think Doctor Who, marching into the lair of every evil overlord ever, armed with nothing but a sonic screwdriver). Magic realism, where magic happens infrequently and unpredictably, requires special care about this. The more often magic occurs, the less surprised people should be by it.
Latin American magic realism depicts the world as it would be were Catholicism true, and God were inclined to intervene in everyday events, but rarely, and arbitrarily, in his mysterious ways. The people in it are surprised and curious when magical things happen, but not for long, and don’t bother looking for explanations. They simultaneously do and don’t believe in magic.
The Blues brothers live in a world where magic happens every day, and so they’re even less fazed by it than the inhabitants of a Marquez story. That unflappability is a key part of their character, and a key part of the movie’s humor.
Everything in the story–the quiet self-assurance of the Blues brothers, the bursting out into musical numbers, the car chase scene beyond the scope of Michael Bay’s imagination–fits with the way magic works in their world, but without ever disrupting the basic storytelling principles of plot and tension. That’s why I’d rather re-watch The Blues Brothers than re-read 100 Years of Solitude.