Writing Optical Illusions: Using Optical Illusions to Create Magical Realist Narratives

Optical Illusions

Optical illusions create an effect in which the perceiver’s actual view differs from the expected view. It is sort of a visual irony.

Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001). Once a student of Ernst Kris, Gombrich became a professor of art history at the University of London and author of the groundbreaking books The Story of Art (1950) and Art and Illusion (1960). In the latter he explores the psychology of perception and its influence on the interpretation of art. Gombrich was one of the first art historians to apply Gestalt psychology and the cognitive psychology of perception to the understanding of art….

Gombrich brought his ideas on psychology and art together in Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. In it he describes the brain’s perceptual restructuring of an image as having two parts: projection, which reflects the unconscious, automatic rules that are built into the brain and guide our vision, and inference, or knowledge, which is based in part on inference and may be both conscious and unconscious. Like Kris, Gombrich was impressed by the parallels between the creative process of scientists and the inferential, creative model building undertaken by the artist and the beholder of art…. (Kandel)

Writing Prompt

Begin by choosing one of the above optical illusions as your focus then consider this chosen illusion as two perceptions within a single narrative. You might want to include portions of your reader’s response writing in this new narrative, but this is optional and at your discretion. Follow your gut. See the below writing prompt and example.

Choose any of the above optical illusions on which to base your story. Perhaps you chose “Two Face” as your illusion. In this case, you might identify one perception as “straight on” and the other as “side.” Now, create a character for each perception. You might name the side profile Bob and the straight on Albert. It challenges our perceptions of reality that two men, who look exactly the same, would suffer half a face. Perhaps their upper spines fused in such a way that one must look straight on and the other must always look to the side. This slightly offbeat version of our reality is an excellent example of magic realism. 

EXAMPLE: Albert and Bob attend the same party at a modern art gallery or an Appalachian general store. Albert can only speak with people while starting at them straight on, but he only has half a face. Perhaps he lost half his face in the war or a bombing or maybe Albert was just born that way. Perhaps people are nice to him but there is always an awkwardness, etc.

Albert has never met Bob, and yet, Bob is an identical replica, only he has a condition that makes his head always turned to the side, so he must always stand sideways in order to have a conversation.

You can see how these two characters defy normalcy. They even suggest a sense of paranormal occurrence, and yet, their conditions are not impossible. They are  intriguing individually and as foils for one another. They force the reader to blur perceptions and the “beholder’s share.” Imagine how many settings Albert and Bob might inhabit. How might Albert and Bob interact if they were women? Children? Animals? The possibilities are limitless. Your task is to create a slightly offset experience and collection of characters in a very real setting.

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Contributing Faculty

Rae BryantRae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared or will soon be appearing in print and online at  The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. She has a Bachelors in Humanities from Penn State with a concentration in Eduction and English Literature and minors in Art, History and Philosophy. In addition to her Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins, she completed graduate coursework in Curriculum and Administration at Penn State. She has been teaching and lecturing for over twenty years in campus classrooms and at writing conferences. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association and is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.


Kandel, Eric. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.