Magical realism; connotation in fiction
Published: December 4, 2007
|What is magical realism? How is it different than fantasy?|
In magical realism, the world appears much like our own, but also includes an element of the extraordinary. In Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find he has turned into a giant insect. In Stacey Richter's "The Cavemen in the Hedges," cavemen scurry in backyards, rummage through trash, and adore shiny objects. In Gabriel García Márquez's "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," Pelayo finds an angel with "huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked" in his courtyard after a rainstorm. Still, the extraordinary is firmly rooted in the ordinary. "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" is populated with human characters, such as Pelayo's feverish newborn and the local priest, Father Gonzaga. And the story is anchored in details the reader recognizes from her own reality: rain, sea and sky, a chicken coop.
In The Fragrance of Guava, García Márquez argues that strictly realistic literature can be "too static and exclusive a vision of reality." Though it stretches the bounds of reality, magical realism acknowledges that magic is inherent in our day-to-day life. For example, in García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Mauricio Babilonia is always followed by a fluttering of yellow butterflies. This is a fantastic detail, yet it is based in reality. In an interview with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, García Márquez shares this anecdote:
When I was about five, one day an electrician came to our house in Aracataca to change the meter ... . On one of these occasions, I found my grandmother trying to shoo away a butterfly with a duster, saying, "Whenever this man comes to the house, that yellow butterfly follows him." That was Mauricio Babilonia in embryo.
García Márquez exaggerates this occurrence in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but he's also highlighting the very real kind of magic that exists in our daily lives.
Fantasy is very different. While magical realism situates readers in a predominantly realistic world, fantasy takes place in an unreal world with unreal characters. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a popular example of fantasy. The trilogy's characters include Hobbits, who are little people with big feet, as well as Elves, Dwarves, Fairies, Ents and Wizards. It also features a ring that bestows power but corrupts those who possess it. Fantasy creates different places and species, ones that exist outside of our world. While magical realism stays grounded in our own reality, fantasy breaks free of it.
Why is connotation important in fiction?
The denotation of a word is its literal definition; the one you find in a dictionary. The connotation, however, refers to the suggested meaning, including associations and emotional implications. Both "scrawny" and "slender" have similar denotations, but "scrawny" sounds inferior or sickly, while "slender" evokes a more graceful or positive image. Understanding the connotations of words can enhance description, meaning, and tone.
Neglecting a word's connotations can put your word choice in conflict with your intentions. Let's say I'm writing a scene about a young woman who has just arrived in Paris, a trip she's eagerly anticipated as her first solo adventure. At the airport, she finds a taxi:
She heaved her luggage into the trunk.
The word "luggage" implies she's weighted down and "heaved" suggests effort. This moment seems more burdensome than what I intended for this young traveler. Here's a revision:
She swung her pack into the trunk.
The moment feels lighter and more energetic, which is more appropriate for the start of this exciting trip. And the shift in meaning is accomplished with attention to connotation.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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