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).