Fantasy in the City

We’ll start with the classic Urban Fantasy structure, mostly because I’d never noticed it, until Illona Andrews told me that Darkship Thieves followed it (it does.)

Now before we get too deep in, there’s a ton of Urban Fantasy that doesn’t fit this.  For one not all Urban Fantasy has females as the main character.  Both Dresden and Monster Hunter International are urban fantasies, after all, as are my own shifters series.

But the thing is that if you look at those, they kind of fit too.  MHI more easily than Dresden, but Dresden too, if you take the attractive scary opposite sex being as not being his main love interest (which is usually female.)

The thing is, as I explained in the comments before, that this is not a template to write by — though people sell things like “An urban fantasy template” but more a thing to look at when deciding what categories to put your novel for sale under.

First, let’s get something out of the way which I think I said at the beginning, but have since not mentioned and some of you might have lost sight of: structure is NOT what determines genre.  Genre is a combination of structure and other elements.  Even if your fantasy has a mystery structure (Dresden partakes a lot of the noir-mystery structure.  On structure alone it’s an hybrid between that and urban fantasy.)

And Darkship Thieves is STILL a space opera, despite having an urban fantasy structure.

So, before you go doing anything stupid, the essential elements of urban fantasy are: a city, and FANTASY.  I.e. some part if not all of the setup for the world must involve magic, (often) shape shifters or (very often) vampires.  Sure, now I think about it, you could get away with having some mysterious aliens in place of the magic creatures but be careful not to explain them too closely, because that puts you in science fiction realm.  (Well, to the readers of shifters, no, probably not, but that’s because I didn’t get to that till book 3.)

So it starts with: the city/area/world are in danger.  There is a supernatural menace coming for them.  And there is one chosen to stand against them.

The chosen part is very important, as is, at least in the beginning, the fact the chosen might not have any clue she is (most urban fantasies have female protagonists, so for the sake of convenience, I’ll use the female pronoun throughout.  Be aware it can also be male.)

Often the first thing the chosen knows about her special nature is that all these things are coming out of the woodwork to attack her.

After a while she figures out what’s going on, often with the help of the love interest/male counterpart.

This man is often somewhat odd himself and might be supernatural/have special powers.  On first meeting, she’s often scared of him, and sees only his scary qualities, though she might/probably will come to realize throughout the book/series that they have more in common than not.

Remember when I said it’s very important that the main character have special powers and be the chosen?

Often the first few books are “training” and discovering of/revealing of those powers, often while she fights her way up a hierarchy of baddies.  Every time a bad thing is defeated, we find that it was just a front for the truly big bad.

Long running series eventually pit their character against some vast, shadowy evil that plans to swallow the whole world/destroy mankind.

The first book often entails the main character discovering the full extent of her specialness/that she’s not quite human and accept her mission to defend others.  In that way the first book is often a “coming of age” novel for the main character.

Urban fantasy also has a certain feel to it.  Some people don’t consider urban fantasy proper unless it takes place in a large city, but this can be got around as Larry Correia did by shuttling the heroes around.

However, often urban fantasy shares the noir feel of “Through the mean streets the hero walks alone.”  Even if the hero is a she and the mean streets involve fangs.

Again, I’m sure I’m leaving a hundred things out, so feel free to ask questions.

Next week heroic fantasy.



  1. So what do you do for an “urban fantasy” that doesn’t have a city? The story I’m currently working on has a heroine hunting a supernatural evil while gaining the help of magical allies, there’s two competing love interests (one of whom isn’t human), and all in all it seems to fit the pattern…but it takes place in a small mountain town in the middle of nowhere.

    1. you don’t need the two competing love interests, though they appear a lot.
      I don’t know. Goldport is a small mountain town, but Baen classes it as Urban Fantasy. I think because it feels larger.
      I think in terms of finding readers you’re probably safest putting it in UF, but you might get some people telling you it’s not.

      1. When I read “Draw One in the Dark,” I pictured Goldport as a fictionalized version of Golden. If so, that would be not quiet as small as the town I’m using, but still not what most people would call “urban.” So if that qualifies, I guess I’m probably good.

        I know that competing love interests aren’t actually necessary, but it seems to be a popular trope in the genre. The cynical marketer in me also suspects that if you can get a good shipping war going, it’s probably good for at least a few dozen extra sales.

      2. So … I keep having these half-formed ideas of a rural community with various fantasy goings on, roughly centered on a very small rural town. But the only ones that have a chosen character are one where the character is supernatural and really doesn’t want to act, after what happened the last time he did, and another who willingly falls into a certain job. The only world-shattering consequences are faced by the first, and that comes from his own power.

        The others don’t. Well, one might. It’s set in another community, and involves a particular supernatural entity and a man who finds himself a certain type of events. The rest are just in that situation and have to deal with it best they can.

        So, they are all clearly fantasy, but what are they? A mostly rural setting; maybe a chosen character, but not always, and rarely world-stake events. Are they just general fantasy?

        1. You don’t have to be a Chosen One to be a chosen one. I’ve been rereading Dresden Files. Harry, in the first books, would call himself an ornery cuss who’s doing something because he can and most people can’t. Mab chooses him later, but that’s more purely because he keeps doing stuff that gets him brought to greater and greater powers’ attention, as far as we readers can see, not because he was born special.

          1. While that is true Mab had her eye on him way back in book one and the reveals we have gotten indicate that Harry is special beyond being an ordinary cuss doing what needs doing.

            Of course the question isn’t when we the readers knew or when Harry knew but when Butcher knew.

        2. I’m not sure it has to be *world* stakes (thinking of Buffy, here, “What’s the plural of Apocalypse?”) Maybe just “big” stakes will suffice. Something critical to the protagonist, whether it’s her family, her life, or heck, even just her very necessary job.

      3. Never underestimate the power of a place. Civilization comes from cities after all (though they’re a nice place to visit, for me, but I wouldn’t want to live there)

        A good reference is Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart. This story is very nearly worthless, the characterisation has quite a lot of problems , but it’s still a very engaging movie because I love the city in which it is set in the author’s – pardon me – me the moviemaker’s ability to realise it.

        Go thou and do likewise, if you’re serious about having that element in your stories.

        1. In the Big Hero Six movie, San Franokio is absolutely gorgeous, and I’d probably appreciate it even more if i was familiar with San Francisco or Tokyo.

          The name wouldn’t actually work at all, of course, but that’s different.

        2. …place to visit, for me, but I wouldn’t want to live there

          I’ve compared (big) cities to ionizing radiation: Low doses are probably harmless, larger doses can be occasionally useful, but prolonged high exposure is unhealthy. At least I know I can visit, say, NYC (native guide helps) for a few days, but I feel such a relief upon getting somewhere more countrified.

      4. Goldport feels pretty large…as I said a while back it makes me think of Greely which a quick check shows was 103k for the 2010 census.

        Now I know from your statements it is a composite of several Front Range towns but with the university and the fact it supports four antique refinishers and a slightly larger than modest downtown I see it more as a small city. Or maybe my line between city and town is mis-calibrated from a youth in Wyoming.

    2. I think in this case, “urban” is shorthand for “modern human domiciles.” IOW, it doesn’t take place in the past, alternate history or fictionalized, and it largely takes place in a human space, not Fairyland.

      For example, Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series has, as its protagonist, a half-human changeling. (In this world, “changelings” are defined as Faerie-human hybrids of whatever percentage.) While parts of it take place in various Faerie-touched lands, particularly in later books, they’re all grounded quite thoroughly in modern-day San Francisco and its environs, including wild areas such as Muir Woods. So while it doesn’t always deal with the big city, it’s always “urban” because the sense is that this is something that *could* be happening here-and-now.

      1. I think the “modern human domiciles” is right on the money. Part of the appeal of urban fantasy–aside from the kick-ass MC–is the fact that it’s taking place in the “real” world. You get the one-two punch of: Perhaps strange things are happening just around the corner from me, and Getting to identify with what’s happening because so much of it familiar.

      2. Contemporary fantasy would be more accurate.

        Although there is the problem that some of it is clear alternate history fantasy. All the urban fantasy where the masquerade broke and everyone knows there is magic among us.

        1. Or even has real world changes such as the Hollows novels where the Cold War tech competition was genetics not space and the reason the masquerade broke was genetic changes causing plagues.

    3. At Rocket Stack Rank, I consistently label these stories “Modern Fantasy” (or try to anyway). For me, “Urban Fantasy” is just Modern Fantasy set in a big city. I use “Contemporary Fantasy” as a strict synonym for Modern Fantasy.

      One aspect I might suggest adding is that, at the beginning of the story, anyway, most people in the world are unaware that there’s anything supernatural happening. So if the heroine goes to the police about a vampire that’s bothering her, they’ll likely send her to a psychiatrist. The key is that the conceit of the story is that it really takes place in our world.

      On the other hand, if the police have a whole policy for handling vampire-related complaints, then I usually call it “Slipstream.” The difference is that although it seems to take place in our world, the reader is constantly jolted (and usually amused) by the way things are mostly normal but everyone just takes some really weird things in stride. E.g. the heroine figures out he’s a vampire because it says “Vampire” on his driver’s license, and she knew to look for that.

      In a long series, I suppose our world gradually gets transformed by the supernatural as more people find out about it. I’d still call that “Modern Fantasy” as long as it started off being our world and evolved from there.

      1. Not always on the unaware. You have stuff like Laurel Hamilton’s, where everyone knows, though it’s never explained why or how or when everyone came to know. (This only drives me nuts because I have “science fiction mind” and doesn’t seem to bother most readers.)

        1. I have to do at least one double-take before I’ll label something “Slipstream,” so stories that are set in a world that’s like our world but magic has been around for a while and people are used to it also get labeled “Modern Fantasy.” I agree that that’s a problem, but I don’t have a better label at the moment. (And those aren’t all that common.)

          Ideally, “Modern Fantasy” should pair well with “Historical Fantasy,” in which the idea is that there was magic in the past, but most people didn’t know about it. But if the fantasy is industrial-scale (e.g. it’s used in wars) then I call it “Alternate History Fantasy.” Unfortunately I can’t call something “Alternate Modern Fantasy” for stuff that’s set in a variation of our modern world. Most of that is covered by “Superhero” but certainly not all.

          1. I agree with you. We’re in violent agreement, in fact. It’s just one of those things that Amazon labeling system lacks. So the closest is “urban fantasy” even if there will be complaints.
            As for slipstream, I always thought that was something else, including chaotic narration.
            My masters in literature is 35 years out of date, so perhaps the terms have evolved. (They seem to, every ten years.)

        2. It’s hard to find rigorous definitions for most of these terms. Since I only review short fiction and run my own site, I can make them up if I want to, but, of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll be useful to anyone but me. 🙂 Eventually we’ll let people use them to select stories, so it does help to make them consistent though. And at that point a query for “Urban Fantasy” will pull all the “Modern Fantasy” stories.

          When I worked at Amazon, people complained a lot that we had too many subgenres. And that we needed more. And that lots and lots of things were mislabeled. It’s a problem that extends far beyond books.

          1. I know. This series is to try to give people a clue on how to put their books up, though.
            I got tired of people saying things like “well, there’s a sexual relationship, so it must be erotica.” And “There’s a mystery, so I’ll put it in mystery, even though it takes place in a star-trek like environment.”
            I’m trying to help them find the audience, or most likely audience.

        3. In cases like that I just assume people have know forever although then my science fiction mind asks why that didn’t cause different social structures to develop.

        4. Sarah, in one of her books, she says that the Vampire Council decided that they would go ahead and drop it because modern technology (think the signature comparison scene in the first Highlander) was making it impossible to stay covert. Once they did, it led to the others basically giving it up so they could be included in the new legal system.

      2. Ah, so I’m messing you up by talking about them abstractly. Sorry about that!

        Do you think it would make sense, then, to simply list Amazon’s categories (the relevant ones) and include short comments for each one?

        1. probably at the end. First I’m trying to get people to understand the difference between story/structure/elements.
          BUT you’re not messing me up. The discussion is important, because it’s important to know the gap between what it is and what Amazon lists.
          I don’t have a huge problem with Amazon’s categories, but they fail in some little details, which to be fair so did traditional publishing. I mean both my shifters and Larry’s MHI are listed as Urban fantasy, which neither are, really, in the sense of “big city.”

  2. Another good summary. Thinking back on some of the stories/series I have read in this genre it’s a very good summation. Will definitely applying a “critical” eye to some of my personal favorites now.

  3. What about a fantasy that’s set in a city but has virtually none of the other elements? Protagonists who have special powers because they were born oh-so-special annoy me, so in the fantasy series I’m writing now I went to some effort to establish a basis for paranormal powers that has nothing to do with having chosen the right parents.

    The books are not even remotely noir, either.

    Any suggestions? I certainly don’t want to call them urban fantasy if that’s going to disappoint a lot of readers with the expectations you outlined.

    1. That’s a really good question, because I think of Charles de Lint as urban fantasy, although it is not always set in a city per-se.

      I’ve seen de Lint and a few proto-urban-fantasy writers retroactively called “modern fantasy” in reviews, whatever “modern fantasy” means.

      1. “Modern fantasy” was one of the competing names for “urban fantasy.” Right now, I see it mostly applied as a “this doesn’t currently conform to the prevailing tropes of urban fantasy. Even though it’s a fantasy, set in modern day, modern time.” Unfortunately, that’s not where the readers look; “Urban Fantasy” won as the genre name, so UF is where readers will look even for things that only have background magic, or are set in rural areas, or involve runaways living in the ruins of a modern city on the border of returned Faerie land, and there’s not a single werewolf, vampire, or love triangle in sight.

        Look at it this way: we can all argue Star Wars is truly a space fantasy, with wizards in space. However, the readers and movie-watchers have overwhelming declared it is science fiction, so it’s going to go down in history as science fiction. If you want more star wars, you look under SciFi.

        Similarly, if you’ve got a modern-day fantasy, it’s Urban Fantasy.

        1. Unless the chick on the cover is wearing skin-tight black leather, and there’s a guy with his shirt open to show pecs and abds. Then its sold as Paranormal Romance 😉

            1. I’d say yes, since I label my Russian Colorado fantasy stories as Urban Fantasy, and no one has squalled about “that’s not in the right genre!” Even though you don’t really have a competing love interest outside of the one where the second child is kidnapped. And that’s if you squint.

              1. And between those and Sarah’s shifters books being called such, I seem to have gotten an idea that “urban fantasy” that’s a bit askew from many. A few times at Libertycon I was asked about preferred genre and that was one answer.. that seemed to always get met with a reply about something that… how to put it? Just felt more violent or grungier than I really care for.

        2. “involve runaways living in the ruins of a modern city on the border of returned Faerie land”

          Borderland, huh? I think there’s technically one werewolf there, name of Lobo. 😉

          1. Yeah, but does Wolfboy really count, seeing as how he can’t change back to human? (Or, if I remember the one story right, refused the only chance he got?

            The only person who thinks he’s hunky and dreamy is Sparks, after all.

            …okay, and Peach, at the Hard Luck Cafe. Well, she thinks he’s cute, if not hunky.

          2. I loved those two short stories collections and wished they’d lasted.

            Tempted to do a parallel now but probably need to wait to get the cred to claim “anthology editor” and ask for submissions.

            1. Want some good news? There’s more in that universe!

              Emma Bull wrote a standalone novel: Finder
              Will Shetterly wrote a standalone: NeverNever
              There was also a third collection in 2011: Welcome to Bordertown.

              1. So, I had this thought of working on something like Borderland to put out the call for a shared world anthology then thought better of it. I mean, I’d like to but first I need some credibility.

        3. All I know is that I got complaints when I labeled a story “Urban Fantasy” even though it took place on a farm.

          As for Star Wars, psi powers are an old staple of SF. Do you really want to relabel all of those as fantasy? And what about super hero stories? Are those all fantasy too? Maybe they should be, but I’m not going to do it. I just use “Superhero” as a subgenre of SF. Likewise, I’d call Star Wars “Space Opera,” which has the conceit that whatever seems to be magic really has a scientific explanation somehow.

          1. And you’d be right, sort of. BUT in the buying world, the way to get your story found is UF.
            Star wars goes beyond psi-powers. The structure is “fairytale.”

              1. Not nearly the same — says she who studied fairytale structure. I mean, in the sense it is, all stories are, more or less. Star Wars is clearly and over the top.

                1. I was a bit surprised when I (finally) saw Star Wars. I had known some of the terms were used by I summed it up as:

                  Knight must rescue Princess from “Dragon”…in spaaaaaace!

            1. Well, Kip gets picked up by a spaceship and carried off to a series of increasingly strange other worlds, so it’s a lot like a portal fantasy, if not a fairy tale. And in the climax, he literally saves the world.

              I did a quick search on “Fairy-tale structure,” and I do see what you mean. I wonder how much Space Opera has the same structure, though. I’ve personally liked the definition of Space Opera as “SF in an interstellar setting in which there are any characters who have to be called ‘My Lord.'” 🙂

              1. To some extent and some space opera it partakes of the fairytale structure, but Star Wars was just so On the Nose! Probably because it came out while I was studying it.
                Uh…. I write space opera with no Lords. I will probably in future write at least one of what I call “Regency in space” — to be fair it’s written, but long hand and long ago — but it’s not my favored space opera. I grew up on Heinlein.
                Oh, and most human stories partake some of the fairytale structure. Might be how we arrange thought or seek coherence. They think some of those stories go back 20k years or so, so…
                It would be a great post if I weren’t too lazy to research the particulars instead of “I read somewhere.”

        1. Yeah, I think of DeLint, Emma Bull, and all the Borderlands crew as urban fantasy – along with the Serrated Edge series out of Baen, and Wen Spencer’s Ukiah Oregon series. (Okay, I know the last technically counts as sci-fi, but it’s pretty much the precursor to so many of the urban fantasy tropes today…)

          Clearly, more people should write awesome stuff like…that… why are the writers looking at me?

          1. Ooooo….the Spencer I haven’t heard about so I need to check it out.

            And people always give you that look…I wish I could write well enough for 1/10th of the ideas I have but I don’t…yet.

            1. You haven’t? Fix that. Ukiah’s great. If you can get him. It’s pretty much a classic publisher refusing to revert rights scenario, though, IIRC.

              I read them ILL because the library couldn’t even find them to buy.

  4. Where do Glen Cook’s Garrett Files fit? Definitely fantasy, certainly urban (most of them, anyway), heavy noir influence, but the protagonist is not “special”.

    1. And it’s not set in a *contemporary* city. Other world (not merely alternate, *other.*), hero without magic–it sounds like a very strange riff on Sword and Sorcery.

      1. The Garrett files are the illegitimate love-child of Fantasy and Hard-boiled-detective a la Dashiell Hammett. Or so it seems to me.

  5. The young lady on the cover has the superpowers “immunity to frostbite of the navel” and “make large sword non-noticeable to local law enforcement”?.

    1. Was once in a discussion of Even the Queen where one person commented that she had just read as far as Sparrow, and until then, she was wondering what the cover artist was thinking.

      I said, “Probably ‘how can I indicate this story is urban fantasy?'”

      Though, to be sure, Sparrow’s midriff is not showing.

      That’s one where the women are women of a certain age.

    1. Except that with most UF / PR it’s more like “Fangs for the mammaries”….. and to quote Jayne, “How’s that get fun?”

  6. I’m really enjoying this series of posts – thanks! An observation: Sometimes the MC already knows they’re special, but they’re determined to hide it, and the first few books are the conflict between ‘solve this big problem’ and ‘maintain cover identity.’ The decision to acknowledge said specialness openly (if only to family and friends) is a kind of coming-of-age, I suppose. The decision to hide in the first place can fall on a spectrum from ‘I wanna be like other kids’ to ‘Evil Government/Overlord/Xenophobic Neighbors will kill me and all I love if I reveal my true nature.’
    At least for me, it’s more believable/enjoyable when the MC at least had an inkling of their specialness before the story starts (You’re twenty-something and never noticed that you can see ghosts? You haven’t been to the graveyard/hospital/highway intersection much, have you?), and the effort to hide (for whatever reason) adds some conflict even before the big bad is discovered.

  7. Interestingly enough, my two favorite Urban Fantasy series are both British and both police procedurals. Peter Grant (from The Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch) and Bob Howard (from The Laundry Files by Charles Stross) came into their powers as part of their jobs. There are enough similarities between the two series to make me wonder if there is a distinct UK Urban Fantasy style as opposed to the US Urban Fantasy style.

    The protagonists are male, mentored by a very old and not entirely human wizard figure, gradually growing in power through study and practice, spend as much time battling bureaucracy as nameless horrors, both involved romantically with mages as powerful as themselves, but not usually working the same cases. Both are more tech geeks than bruisers, as well.

    1. “spend as much time battling bureaucracy as nameless horrors”

      I’d rather have the nameless horrors, meself.

  8. OK, so where does my work fit? I call it urban fantasy but it doesn’t exactly fit your definition.

  9. I finally learned that I was writing “character-driven secondary world fantasy” when I saw another author refer to her own work that way. “Ah, ha!” I said to myself. The thing is that I still don’t know what the right Amazon category is. If I put my books in “General Fantasy,” no one will ever find them, since that’s the category for ALL fantasy.

    For a while I chose “Historical Fantasy,” because I saw that Robin McKinley’s Spindle’s End and Beauty were categorized that way, and my work bears some resemblance to hers. But readers informed me that it should be used only for fantasy set in the history of our world, and mine isn’t.

    Another perceptive reader of mine calls my stuff “Epic Fantasy,” so that’s what I currently use. But there is no “dark lord” and no end-of-the-world quest and few battles (although there are fights to the death at times). So it’s not a great fit.

    1. I dub any secondary-world fantasy in a pre-industrial world “High Fantasy.” If it involves the affairs of kings and queens and the fate of the world (or at least the country) is at stake, then I’ll refine that to “Epic Fantasy.” Otherwise, I usually call it “Fantasy Adventure” (which I like better than “Sword & Sorcery.”) But I think of those two as subclasses of High Fantasy.

      As I said above, if it’s set in the real history of our world, then I call it “Historical Fantasy,” but if they’ve modified history (e.g. there’s a Royal Academy of Magic that feuds with the Royal Academy of Science), then I call it “Alternate History Fantasy.”

      How well these mesh with Amazon’s categories, though, is a different question. They’re just what I use to review short fiction at Rocket Stack Rank.

      1. I started including “high fantasy,” “character driven,” and “secondary world fantasy” in my keywords a few months ago. Since I also started putting new covers on my books at the same time (plus new sales copy for a few), it is hard to tease apart which changes are doing what to sales.

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