The Inaccurate yet Simple Definition: A fantasy story set on "modern" Earth.

What's So Inaccurate about the Simple Definition:
Marketing Dorks at Publishing Houses. It's true that there are certain type of UF that must remain firmly in the genre ghetto--once you have Elves-are-walking-the-streets-of-LA, you're pretty much doomed--but your book may end up on the "Fiction and Literature" shelves if they get the whim to do that.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods is UF. I haven't been in a bookstore yet that shelves the book in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. But James P. Blaylock's "The Rainy Season" is stuck back there, even though it's written in a high toned style that drives most fans of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind mental, but wouldn't make readers of Salman Rushdie pause for a minute. Why is that? Marketing Dorks.

Charles de Lint is a writer of Urban Fantasy--perhaps one of the founders. His stories are a masterful mix of folklore from Ireland and North America. Sometimes both mythos appear in the same book, sometimes one side of the coin more than the other. But what makes de Lint's work shine is how he never makes excuses for the strange things in his modern world. Characters react to these things as they will, as it fits with their character--but they have to cope with these things. In some places, the reader feels like "reality" is the illusion, the magic real, and right there if one took the time to look for it.

Could de Lint's work end up in Fiction and Literature? Not according to the Marketing Dorks. And some days I agree with that. Some days, I don't.

Urban Fantasy can be blatant--see the racecar driving elves written by Mercedes Lackey--or it can be very slight, as in Elizabeth Hand's Waking The Moon. The timeframe is limited to taking place in the last 30 years, though I'm not sure that limit is a true one. We'll have to wait and see if someone attempts an urban fantasy story set in the Victorian era, or something. UF can be retold fairy tales or myths, but retold mythos and legends aren't automatically UF.

UF can use fantasy creatures, like elves--that seems fairly common to the subgenre. It can also use magic--very often based on modern occult traditions, but sometimes in startling ways, like the painter who creates spirit people in de Lint's Memory and Dream. There can be magical artifacts, talismans, works of art. What matters is that the setting appears to be our modern, everyday world, and that much of the action takes place there. Sometimes fantasy stories begin in the everyday world, and then the adventure takes place in a magical world--that's not urban fantasy, that's a different trope.

[Editor's note, 3/3/2003: corrected an author's name.]

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 fantasy episodes in 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, Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld 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 (such as Jim Butcher's Dresden Files) 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.

So a couple of ironic things have happened. Urban fantasy as a term was originally coined to describe the type of fiction that Charles de Lint writes, but under current market definitions some don't think of him as an urban fantasy author at all. The other bit of irony is that books set in rural wildernesses are marketed as urban fantasies if they otherwise fit the more recent genre criteria (see below), whereas novels like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (which is a thoroughly urban kind of fantasy) are not.

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 and people enjoy reading it
  • 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 peculiar set of genre expectations that don't always appeal to dedicated fantasy, science fiction, and horror readers and writers. If you’re writing genuine contemporary fantasy (or modern supernatural horror), you’ll inevitably be violating those romance “rules”. And your editor may to ask you to scale back content that 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.

3. 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).

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