When people think of fantasy they generally think of something like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In other words, they think of something where the fantastic elements of the story stand pretty much on their own, and are only contrasted with the technology, culture and standards of the mundane world we live in superficially, if at all. However the genre of urban fantasy exists to do pretty much the opposite. While it includes many of the things that the average person associates with fantasy, it puts them in a much different context from the typical fantasy yarn. Oddly enough by doing so urban fantasy actually bears more resemblance to the early folktales that inspired modern fantasy than most modern fantasies do. After all, the people who originally listened to folk tales heard stories about people living much like they did interacting with fantastic creatures and forces.
So, for the purposes of discussions on this blog what defines Urban Fantasy?
- The story takes place in a city or large town that would be recognizable to the average citizen of a first world country. It doesn’t have to be a real city or town, nor does it even have to exist on Earth as we know it although that certainly helps, the important part s that the people have access to and be familiar with the trappings that make modern culture tick. Things like modern telecommunications, transportation and mass media are as much a part of urban fantasy as the fantasy elements are. Part of what defines the story is the conflict between recognizable culture and everything else.
- The story includes at least one element of myth or magic. This is the “everything else” mentioned a second ago. Whether it be gremlins in the sewers, wizards hiding as librarians or who knows what else, some aspect of the fantastic has to exist as a contrast to the recognizable, modern world. There can be only one fantastic element or many, they can be known to the world at large or hiding in carefully maintained obscurity, they can replace one or two mundane elements such as when teleportation magic replaces cars, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the contrast between modern society and the fantastic.
- There must be conflict over how the world will define itself. In short, the first two bullet points tend to be in conflict. Modern society isn’t really built with the fantastic taken into account. Sure, many people would like to have magic powers or be able to shapeshift, but the fact is our society currently doesn’t have the measures in place to police and protect such people from each other or the public at large. All kinds of issues creep out of this. The attempt to strike or maintain a balance that lets both sides exists peacefully is often at the core of urban fantasy.
What are the weaknesses of urban fantasy? First, it has a tendency to become obsessed with it’s fantastic elements. In order to explain how such things could coexist with modern society magic tends to become an uberpowerful fix-all, or vampires wind up holding all positions of political/financial/cultural power or something else that makes the everyman totally irrelevant to the story. While there’s nothing wrong with characters who are exceptional, in fact exceptional characters are pretty much a requirement of good fiction, cutting the everyman out of the story entirely makes it very hard for your audience to become invested. More than anything else, that must be managed.
Second, many urban fantasies feels similar. They frequently begin with, or arrive at, the All Myths are True trope. This is at least in part because they rely so heavily on their fantastic elements and, like all successful book franchises, run as long as the publishers think they can get away with. The constant need for new material keeps authors grabbing new ideas from mythology, but they tend to choose things that readers will be mostly familiar with. This is why there are so many werewolves and vampires in the genre, to give just one example. The best urban fantasies pick one shtick and try and stick with it. A great example are the October Daye books by Seanen McGuire.
What are the strengths of urban fantasy? Well, the author doesn’t need to spend a lot of time bringing the audience up to date with obscure culture or political situations, at least most of the time, because the characters are probably already living in an Earth a lot like our own. This leaves more time for developing characters and plot.
But most of all it makes the characters a lot more accessible to the reader. No one in the last three or four hundred years has spent their lives wishing to get out of their squiring to a drunken knight or cleaning out stables while wishing they could be a squire. The characters in an urban fantasy have problems similar to what readers have, or readers will at least know someone who’s had similar problems. When new, extraordinary problems come up it will make it easier to relate to how the characters are coping. The same goes for all other aspects of the story, not just the character’s problems.
All in all, urban fantasy is a great genre for people who love to tell fantasy stories but don’t feel confident in tackling all the world building needed for high fantasy. It’s also great for people who love more character driven stories and don’t want to bother keeping track of all the cultural, historical and political baggage that seems to come with so many other genres of fantasy. Lastly, if you’re just cutting your teeth on the fantastic it’s a great way to start.