Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Writing Urban Fantasy, Part 1 -- "Oh yeah? Says Who?"

I'm starting a new blog series--or at least attempting to start a new blog series--on writing, specifically urban fantasy and where I think the genre may go in the future. To kick off the series, let's start with the ever popular task of trying to define the undefinable.

What is urban fantasy?

Urban fantasy is often defined as having supernatural/paranormal elements layered over our recognizable modern or near-future world. The setting is a large city such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, or St. Louis. Often the main character is female and the story is told in first person point of view. The story can have elements pulled from other genres such as science fiction, mystery, horror, and romance and woven together in a cohesive manner with varying degrees of emphasis placed on each of these genre elements. Primarily, the plot will consist of a mystery to be solved or a problem to be corrected before some great calamity strikes. Romance, if present, is usually a secondary plot. Character and story arcs often carry for multiple books. These are "The Rules" of urban fantasy.

We could spend hours if not days debating the finer points of what is or isn't urban fantasy. That is time we could spend doing more productive things, like writing the next book in a series or even the first book in a new series. For me, the definition hinges on the romance and if it's the main focus of the story or not because it's the easiest way to separate urban fantasy from its cousin, paranormal romance.

Where did it begin?

Most "experts" will point to the initial release of Laurell K. Hamilton's GUILTY PLEASURES (Book 1 in the Anita Blake series) in the early 1990s as the beginning of the genre's mass appeal to readers. However, I believe Anne Rice's INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE would also qualify as an early example of urban fantasy, even though the point of view character is male and much of the story is told as Louis's memories, the actual "interview" takes place modern times.

However, one could make a strong argument for finding urban fantasy's roots in the Romantic Movement in works such as Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, Bram Stoker's DRACULA, Charles Dickens's A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and Edgar Allan Poe's MASK OF THE RED DEATH, to name a few. You're probably thinking to yourself "But these are classics! How can they be urban fantasy?" The answer is simple: At the time they were written, they were set in the modern era, in urban centers, and carried an element of the supernatural. Time moves forward but the written word doesn't. It's fixed on the page.

Pinpointing the start of urban fantasy is difficult and open for debate. Suffice it to say the genre has steadily gained popularity is now one of the most widely read genres because of its broad appeal to readers of other genres.

What are some common elements?

The most common element is the supernatural. Whether the supernatural takes the form of vampires, werewolves, fairies, zombies, aliens, shapeshifters, or something else isn't set in stone. Nearly any creature can make an appearance in urban fantasy.

What is the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance?

The two share 90% of their genre DNA. However, the main differences are this: Urban fantasy focuses on an issue outside of a romantic relationship between two characters. Paranormal romance focuses on a romantic relationship between two characters and how outside forces affect that relationship. The best litmus test to determine if a story is urban fantasy or paranormal romance is to ask the following question: "If the romance between Character A and Character B were removed, would the plot still stand as a viable storyline?" If the answer is "yes," chances are good it's urban fantasy. If the answer is "no," it's most likely paranormal romance.

Okay, so that covers the basics of urban fantasy. Are we clear on what is and isn't urban fantasy? We've all got "The Rules" firmly fixed in our minds? Good.

Now forget everything I just said.


Because it's fiction. When Mary Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN, she wasn't concerned with a genre. She wanted to write a ghost story. She wanted to write fiction.

You want to write urban fantasy with a male protagonist? Do it. The "rule" that says you must have a female protagonist hasn't stopped Jim Butcher, nor did it stop Mary Shelley.

You want to write urban fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world? Do it. Stacia Kane's Downside Ghosts series is a wonderful example of the broken "rule" that says it has to be a modern day or near future setting. You can even write a story set in the past. Edgar Allan Poe did. THE MASK OF THE RED DEATH uses the backdrop of the Black Plague for its setting even though Poe was writing in the 1800s, long after the plague had all but disappeared.

You want to write urban fantasy set in a small town? Do it. Look no further than the popularity of Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series to see that small towns can be just as intriguing as large metropolitan areas. Charles Dickens's London wasn't the sprawling urban center it is today. Yes, it was still a large city but reading that story has the feel of being set in a smaller London.

You want to write urban fantasy with multiple character view points? Do it. Faith Hunter's Rogue Mage series began with BLOODRING and featured both first and third person points of view. Bram Stoker's DRACULA has multiple points of view and each is necessary to convey the story. This is important: The story dictates its needs. If it can be told from one character's point of view, great. However, if more than one is required, don't sweat it. There is no actual "rule" that says you can't have more than one.

My point is this: Urban fantasy is a label used to identify where a book falls in the publishing spectrum. At the end of the day, it's fiction. Aside from the basic rules of writing, such as grammar, spelling, and the structure of story, there are no rules. Some of the best fiction ever written has broken "The Rules." Urban fantasy as a genre has broken rules from Day One and it will continue to do so. In fact it'll be necessary for the next generation of urban fantasy writers to break even more rules.

Will we see urban fantasy set on distance worlds and trekking through the stars? I think so.

Will we see urban fantasy set in the Roman era with gladiators battling werewolves for the entertainment of thousands? It's possible.

This is fiction and in fiction, anything is possible.

Okay, so we have a basic working definition for the genre. In my next post, we'll discuss one of my favorite topics: researching the urban fantasy novel.


Jani said...

Great post, thank you. I look forward to reading the rest.

RK Charron said...

Hi Jeannie :)
I loved this post.
I didn't even know that there was a genre called Urban Fantasy until I joined Twitter. I just thought it was Fantasy. Everything is so labelled now.
I was thinking about your references and I have two more:
Thorne Smith who wrote TOPPER back in the 1920s
Homer - The Odyssey (fantastical elements in a then-modern-day tale?)
Merry Christmas,
Love & Best Wishes to you & yours,

Jeannie Holmes said...

Thanks, Jani! I'm glad you're enjoying the posts. :)

Jeannie Holmes said...

Hi Rob,

Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

I agree everything is so labelled now, which I personally dislike. I think a good story is a good story, regardless of where it's shelved or what label is slapped on the cover, but it's a "necessary evil" with publishing. Therefore, I work with what I'm given.

Excellent examples! Thanks for adding them the list. :)

Merry Christmas to you and yours as well!

Anonymous said...

Not to argue the point... :)

I didn't discover urban fantasy until I started reading Jim Butcher's Chicago wizard for hire and Kim Harrison's Cincinnati witch/vampire/pixie for hire. After those two came out, the market was flooded with al the wannabe authors.

I almost passed up on Blood Law because someone on Amazon wrote that it was Kim Harrison clone. Not quite. The world is quite different. If a witch and a pixie show up I might pass.

wildlower said...

Great post!!!!! I'm looking forward to the next, I'm a research junkie so I'd love to see the research involved with UF.

Jeannie Holmes said...

Hi cdreimer,

Well, not to argue the point further, but Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher came along about 10 years after Emma Bull's WAR OF HE OAKS (1987), Laurell K. Hamilton's "Anita Blake" books (GUILTY PLEASURES was printed 1992/93) and Tanya Huff's "Blood Ties" series (BLOOD PRICE, 1991), all of which are considered among the pioneering works of the genre.

Jim's first "Harry Dresden" book (STORM FRONT) wasn't released until around 2000/01. Around the same time you had Charlaine Harris releasing DEAD UNTIL DARK, the first "Sookie Stakehouse" book, in 2000, and Kelley Armstrong releasing BITTEN (first in the "Women of the Otherworld" series) in 2001. Kim's "Rachel Morgan" series didn't hit the market until 2004 with DEAD WITCH WALKING, and by that time Jim, Charlaine, and Kelley were already established.

So urban fantasy has been around for a long time. It just hasn't been given an official genre tag until recently, with the past 5 years or so, because it's gained in popularity so quickly. Publishing works with an 18-24 month lead time so books that are currently being bought may not hit the market until at least 12-18 months from now, if not longer. Publishers try to predict what will be the next "hot" thing. If three publishers think mermaids are going to be the next big thing in urban fantasy, I can guarantee in 12-18 months you'll see a flood of mermaid related books on the shelves. All will be compared to the book lucky enough to be released first. That may explain some of the "wannabe" factor you see. :)

Jeannie Holmes said...

Hi wildlower!

I'm a research junkie as well so I probably put in more research time than is really necessary. But I like have lots of different toys to play with and use to build my little worlds. :)