On Urban Fantasy

On several occasions, I’ve heard readers bemoaning the comparatively small number of horror novels being released by major publishers. But the horror is out there; it just sometimes isn’t being marketed as such. In the case of supernatural horror in particular, it’s often being marketed as urban fantasy. Take Tim Waggoner’s Matt Richter series, for instance. The first novel, Nekropolis, was originally published as horror, but years later Angry Robot re-released it and the next books in the series as a dark urban fantasies. (You can read more about Nekropolis on Tim’s website.)

And of course there’s my own Jessie Shimmer series; the first novel, Spellbent, was dark enough to earn a nomination for a Bram Stoker Award, and the books get even darker from there.

But, if you’ve been head-down in horror novels, you might not be familiar with urban fantasy as a genre. So, in this column I’m going to give you a bit of an introduction to it.

First, what is fantasy?

Wikipedia provides a decent definition: “Fantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Many works within the genre take place on fictional planes or planets where magic is common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three. In popular culture, the genre of fantasy is dominated by its medievalist form, especially since the worldwide success of The Lord of the Rings books.”

So what’s urban fantasy?

The most basic (and inclusive) definition: an urban fantasy is a contemporary fantasy set in a city. (What does contemporary mean? Anything from the mid-1800s to the near future; however, most urban fantasies are set in the present day. Think of the old Twilight Zone series, for instance.)

“In urban fantasy you don’t leave the chip shop and go to another world to find the unicorn. Rather, the unicorn shows up at the chip shop and orders the cod.” – Elizabeth Bear

What’s the most cynical definition? Hot chicks in strappy black dresses running around major cities slaying monsters when they’re not making out with vampires. In other words, Buffy, only different.

While a lot of popular urban fantasy series do focus on vampires — for instance, Gail Carriger’s Soulless, Jennifer Rardin’s Jaz Parks series, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series — it’s a mistake to think that urban fantasies and vampire fiction are synonymous. Some urban fantasies don’t feature vampires at all and focus on other types of supernatural/mythological entities, frequently fairies or demons, and some mainly focus on human magic practitioners.

However, some readers and even book editors will most immediately consider any vampire story with romantic elements set in the present day as being an urban fantasy if it’s too gritty to pass as a paranormal romance, the city being entirely optional in their eyes. To a lesser extent, this is true of werewolf/shape-changer fiction as well.

Sexual content is acceptable to a point, but if the plot fundamentally focuses on sex, it will likely be marketed as an erotic paranormal romance just to prevent angry letters from parents who still think anything labeled as fantasy will be appropriate for minors.

An urban fantasy will often (but not always):

  • feature a strong female protagonist who is a loner (but has friends)
  • feature lots of exciting action and suspense
  • be darker than either paranormal romances or mainstream fantasy
  • contain humor, often through a roommate, sidekick, etc.
  • be set in a large city in the present day, near past, or near future
  • feature a hidden world of magic (see: Harry Potter)
  • be written from a first-person point of view (“I woke up…”)
  • contain a love story or romantic subplot (You can sometimes substitute a platonic relationship but in general editors want to see a love story in there or at least a budding, progressive romantic attraction between the protagonist and a secondary character).
  • contain a mystery or have a major character who works as a cop or PI or mercenary
  • if the plot doesn’t focus on sleuthing/mystery solving, the protagonist will be involved in “mission-based” scenes: hunting down monsters, staging a heist, rescuing a child, defending a house under siege, etc.

Why is writing urban fantasy appealing?

  • Urban fantasy is popular, considerably out-selling other fantasy types
  • It’s a genuinely cross-genre novel class; you can bring plenty of other genres into the story (horror, certainly, but also mystery and science fiction if you like)
  • It’s a lot of fun to write

Why is writing urban fantasy (potentially) frustrating?

1. Editors are eager to make their books appeal to the enormous romance/paranormal romance market, and your book will be marketed accordingly, whether it’s appropriate or not (see the unfortunate reference to “magic-drenched passion” in the back cover copy on Spellbent.)

2. Consequently, some mainstream romance readers will pick up your book and judge it as if it were a romance; romance has its own set of genre expectations:

  • a sexy idealized alpha male hero (he can be a hot-tempered jerk, but he can’t be an alcoholic/unemployed/impotent/shy/depressed)
  • a happily-ever-after ending (HEA) (You can substitute a happily-for-now ending)
  • nothing too outlandish/imaginative in the story (see the Amazon review of Spellbent in which the reader declared it “read too much like a fantasy novel”).
  • the story must not be too cerebral/nonlinear/”difficult”
  • the heroine must be concerned about her clothes etc. even though she’s got better things to worry about.
    • the heroine must of course be feisty but can’t be too “butch” or otherwise challenge the reader’s gender/sex role perceptions
  • nothing too disturbing in the text:
    • protagonistic vampires/werewolves shouldn’t really act like the bloodthirsty monsters they are (and are treated more as somewhat mundane superheroes)
    • nothing too “icky” (protagonists with disease or deformity)
    • no harm to children or cute pets

If you’re writing genuine contemporary fantasy (or modern supernatural horror), you’ll probably inevitably be violating those romance “rules”. And your editor may to ask you to scale back content he or she feels will scare off a lot of romance readers. I personally encourage you to push these boundaries, but just keep them in mind so you’re not surprised by initial rejections or requests for revisions.

Also, bear in mind that if you’ve sold a series and the first book does well, the editor is likely to make fewer content change demands for later books. My first editor had me significantly rewrite Spellbent to fit with their perceptions of what their readers wanted. While I wrote Shotgun Sorceress with a focus on relationships, I included scenes that I figured my editor would find too extreme; to my surprise she mostly didn’t ask me to change them. And so when I wrote Switchblade Goddess, I included as many horrific scenes as I felt the book needed.

A further downside is that some disgruntled epic fantasy/hard SF readers feel that “their” fiction has been crowded off the shelves by “vampire porn” and will scorn anything marketed as urban fantasy unread (unless it’s by Neil Gaiman).

There’s more to the genre than what I’ve outlined here. If you’re a writer, I hope you’ve found these insights helpful. And if you’re a horror reader, I hope you’ll give the novels swimming in the dark end of the urban fantasy pool a try. You may find the kind of supernatural horrors you’ve been craving.

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