What’s In a Genre: Urban Fantasy

Alma T. C. Boykin

In the beginning, there was fiction and nonfiction. Mostly. Ish. Sort of. If you didn’t look too hard. And all was good, and all authors lived in harmony with their publishers, and it was Very Good. But then a marketing agent sidled up to Eve and said, “Psssssst, wanna get more shelf space?”

Um, OK, maybe not quite like that. People have always had their personal preferences in reading. Eventually, publishers and book stores (and news stands) started lumping books as fiction, non-fiction, romance, adventure, Western, literature, and so on. Genre developed in the modern form both as a way to sort books (fiction – literature, adventure, western, romance, speculative fiction [sci-fi, fantasy]) for shelving and sales, and to cater to reader tastes. Reader taste came before shelving dictates, but over time, readers who liked X came to demand more of X, and so subgenres developed. Today? The little zipping sound you hear are hairs splitting.

Fantasy is the big category. It has epic fantasy, high fantasy, romantic fantasy, Lit-RPG, contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance (which might be fantasy or might not, depending on the beats and tropes. Some PNR is shelves as fantasy, some as romance.) dark fantasy, grimdark, some steampunk/gaslamp fantasy . . . I’m sure there are others out there. I incline toward writing urban fantasy, so I’m going to look at what makes it a recognizable thing. Keep in mind, there are exceptions all over the place that are still considered urban fantasy by readers, so YMMV.

UF generally takes place in a realistic background setting, often urban or suburban, in a recognizable time and place. Vienna in the late 1800s. New York city in the early 2000s of late 1990s. The rural Thames River valley in the late 1970s. Contemporary Tokyo. I’d say that the cut off for most UF is around 1900 or so, but there are exceptions. The setting is semi realistic to the place and time, within the chosen conventions of the story. Society is realistic, more or less, again within the conventions of the story. Urban is generally the key, but UF tropes and patterns can appear in rural settings.

Fantasy – there has to be a fantasy element. It can be vampires, were-creatures, dragons and unicorns and basalisks and minotaurs that really exist, djinns and fallen angels, witchcraft that works, Ancient Old Ones lurking off in the distance (although that edges into horror as a genre very easily, or dark fantasy). A fantastic element must be present in some form. Usually, at least some of the characters accept magic or fantasy monsters/creatures at face value and don’t really blink, although they may be unhappy about them. Whether the fantastic element is to be kept hidden, or is out there and everyone just shrugs and sighs, “Talking cats. What did you expect?” depends on the story.

Problems and difficulties in UF blend realistic and fantastic. Your main character takes on a great job with an import company as an accountant and discovers that 1) the company does some shady stuff and 2) it is run by were-tigers who are feuding with a different company run by dragons. The MC has to pay the bills, survive public transportation in San Francisco (or Portland, or LA, or . . .), decide what to do about the illegal activity if anything, and figure out how to deal with a boss who might eat her if she points out that he sheds so much he’s clogging the computers. In the main Familiars series, the protagonists worry about rent, bills, college tuition, the car breaking down at awkward moments (like, three days before pay-day), raging teenage hormones, and witches with grudges, a sorceress who believes in blood feuds, and an in-law who isn’t a vampire, really. No, he’s not. Maybe? And Familiars who provide a LOT of magical power while shedding all over everything.

[A quick aside here. Ellen Buikema at Writers in the Storm blog had a piece that describes Magical Realism as very much like UF, but with one major twist. If you are looking at tropes alone, that might be true. However, as a literary genre, Magical Realism often has political aspects and cultural requirements that separate it from UF. Marketing Urban Fantasy as Magical Realism is not going to work.]

In The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper sets the story in the Thames River valley, upstream of London. It is close to the winter solstice, and a school boy, the youngest of a large family, is coming home and . . .well, things get Interesting. He discovers that he’s not exactly mortal, that he is fated to join in the battle of Light and Dark, and that some of the neighbors are not quite what they seem. Bot most people have no idea that this is going on, and part of what he has to do is use some magic to keep others from knowing, or to protect them through ignorance. Technically the novel is YA, but I’d argue that it crosses the age categories.

The TV series Beauty and the Beast had two fantastic elements: the male protagonist, and telepathy of sorts. The setting – New York City – and the female lead’s work – lawyer – were very realistic. Vincent had birth defects that made him look like a monster, a lion in fact, and he and Father and others lived under the subway tunnels and so on of NYC, only venturing out at night, or when protected by the few people they could trust. Katherine worked as a lawyer. In some ways, the story (first three seasons) was closer to Paranormal Romance, because romance was the primary trope, but the two genres hadn’t split yet, and I’d call it as much UF as PNR.

In many ways, UF is a genre that readers and writers “know when they see it,” to paraphrase a Supreme Court justice. It is a big tent that gave rise to Paranormal Romance, among other things. It comes down to the driving themes and elements.

Image Source: Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

24 thoughts on “What’s In a Genre: Urban Fantasy

  1. It befuddles me that UF doesn’t make setting into a character.
    Like Ankh-Morpork, Lankhmar, Sanctuary, etc.

    It seems like such an obvious fit, and certainly still shows up in horror. (I have the impression that it maybe occurs in Magical Realism, but I’m not confident in the assertion.)

  2. I always have a problem with genre definitions in Fantasy. Your definition of UF is far broader than mine . What would you call the Steven Brust “Vlad Taltos” books? Cities loom large there, but I wouldn’t call it UF. Would you?

    I think of UF as a recent definitional genre that rose up in the 80s? 90s? typically in the form of oddball hero/ine lives his/her life in a modern urban background setting which may or may not have similar others. Lots of Contemporary Fantasy might have an urban setting, but the story lines are not the same — UF is its own thing.

    To me, it’s not the formal definition that matters; it’s the marketing vibe the term generates, which is pretty arbitrary. Harry Dresden might be UF or Contemporary, but his vibe is more about Wizards or Otherworlds, so I think of him as atypical of UF — not very genre-specific.

    My first series is theoretically Contemporary Fantasy (modern human foxhunter in Elfland), but it’s far more the heroic fantasy trope of hero-visits-strange-land as a vibe, though the modern elements do come into play in a rural and economic trade sense. There’s no label that’s really right. Rural Contemporary Fantasy is the best I can do.

    For my current WIP series, book 1 is a prequel, when the hero is 15. YA? perhaps, but it’s only the prequel. The main series starts with book 2 when he’s 20. It’s set in a Georgian/Regency London-ish environment, but the city isn’t magical. UF? Vaguely, but it’s more like a wizard-builds-a-business-that-is culture-overturning-and-profitable in conjunction with “period-appropriate” science. Since the magic is built into the microbial life, it can manifest evolutionarily under unusual conditions (and be exploited by humans), so this is a “Science-of-magic” story at heart, in a pseudo-time/place that is suggestive of a real time/place.

    Marketing is all about the vibe, not the technicalities. What I call UF is not a genre I like much, very subject these days to wokerei, and that vibe is far worse than technical accuracy.

    1. I’ve not read the Vlad Taltos stories, alas. Lack of time on my part. There’s so much out there, and most of my reading time is dedicated to non-fiction for Day Job.

      Genre is getting harder and harder to pin down, once you get past huge sweeps like “fiction vs. non fiction” or “hard sci fi vs. fantasy.” I don’t call the Elect story (soon to be stories, I hope) paranormal romance, even though they are technically PNR, because of where that sub-genre has gone. Readers who like PNR won’t find several of the now-defining elements in my stories.

      I suspect we’re reaching the point where precise genre is fading, and “this book is like X, Y, and Z” will steer marketing more and more.

      1. IMO the Vlad Taltos stories are NOT Urban Fantasy as they are set in another world thus the city were many of Vlad adventures are in is not a Real World City and can’t be seen as a Real World City.

        It’s a Dark Fantasy set in a Fantasy world with no real connection to our world.

    2. It was a nice review, but I still remember Madeleine and the Mists being called high fantasy magical realism. . . .

      1. Which would be especially amusing for my series-in-progress, since one of the first things the hero (the Thomas Edison of magic) invents & manufactures is a new lighting system powered by an improved (magically-based) biosystem (think “fireflies”). So… no gaslamps (or not at least unless they become economically more viable.)

  3. Not all fantasy that is in an urban setting is urban fantasy. I think a key to classifying it as urban fantasy is the urban setting is in the real modern world. MHI is UF as is the Grimnoir Chronicles. They are recognizably in the real, modern world. Son of the Forgotten Warrior and Servants of War are not (even though Servants of War is in a setting recognizable as Russia). So Lankhmar and Sanctuary fall out of UF, even though they are all fantasy novels.

    I think the key to urban fantasy is part of it has to deal with the impact of fantasy creatures in the real world, whether it is keeping them secret (MHI) or regulating them (Grimnoir). Mind, that just my opinion, but that tends to be what I look for.

  4. I thought it interesting that in Alma’s Familiars’ world that magic is known to exist but there are still people who “don’t believe it exists”.

    Deliberate blindness?

    1. In that particular case, there’s actual blindness.
      Sensitives can sense magic, others? Not so much.

      Or to put a different spin on it, I don’t really believe in quantum physics. There are people who swear that they’re true, but I don’t see evidence of it, and they don’t fit neatly into my worldview.

      1. True, and while we’ve witnessed Big Problems happening in public because of “Cursing accidently summoning monsters”, generally in the Familiars’ world magic users keep low profiles.

        Even the most visible magic users, mages (with Familiars), are the minority of magic users.

        But still it is strange when an educated well-to-do couple decides that their daughter’s classmate (the daughter of two of the main characters) is mentally unbalanced because she talks about her parents’ Familiars and her brothers being magic-users.

  5. I’d add “CuteWeird” as the opposite of GrimDark.

    I’d also add “High Fantasy with Low Stakes”. That last one was ‘Legends and Lattes’ which Bill and I both enjoyed. A female Orc warrior hangs up her sword and reinvents herself as a coffee shop owner in a city that’s never heard of coffee!

  6. If urban fantasy is about dealing with fantastical in a contemporary setting, I wonder if that technically makes Bram Stoker the founder of urban fantasy?

    Been slowly reading his Jewel of the Seven Stars, and it does strike me that it is set in his own time.

    1. It could. Arguing who was the first to write X gets tricky. Did Mary Shelly write the first sci-fi novel, or can you go back to Johannes Kepler and his book about traveling to other planets?

    2. Not in my opinion. While it’s been awhile since I read his “Jewel”, IMO most of his works fall into the Horror genre.

      Horror deals with the “fantastic” but it is about “fantastic monsters”.

      Plus, Horror deals with an intrusion of the strange into the normal world. For a good part of the story (in horror), the main character or characters are going “this can’t be really happening”.

      In Dracula (for example), none of the main characters believed that vampires were real so they didn’t recognize what was threatening them.

      While Harry Dresden (for another example) knew that vampires were real (and dangerous) and had the knowledge (and power) to off-set the advantages that his vampires foes possessed. That’s why IMO the Dresden Files are Dark Fantasy (and Urban Fantasy) rather than Horror.

      1. I would say Dracula’s at least debatable. The staking/etc of Lucy is I want to say a bit past the mid-point of the story (open to corrections, it’s been a while), and from that point on, the surviving human characters are pretty much all clued-in about Dracula and out for the Count’s blood.

        1. It took the arrival of Van Helsing for the other characters to understand the problem.

          Before that, none of the characters knew vampires existed.

          That’s the point IMO of Horror.

          1. Fair enough, I just feel that the novel points the way towards urban/contemporary fantasy by its emphasis on the idea that the monster is knowable, and (with enough courage, tech, and subject matter expertise) beatable.

  7. I can’t remember where I heard it, but once I took genre to be a very shorthanded way of saying “you know, that thing where-”
    it was a lot less stressful.

    Totally flipped the weight from “getting the right label” to “conveying the information accurately.”

    They’re similar, but the latter depends on the target.

    Urban Fantasy *still* has to get past the way that, when I first ran into it, it meant definitely-not-for-me romance novels with grrrrrrl power and horrible choices protected via plot armor. (now largely shifted to paranormal romance– and broadened out to where it won’t automatically be a Really Bad Idea shield)

    1. For me UF rather oddly means stories like Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer, though it’s hardly urban. Or are the John tales rather upbeat folk horror instead?

      1. IMO the John tales (like many of Wellman’s other stories) were Dark Fantasy not Horror.

        John, like some of Wellman’s other characters, were aware that “Dark Creatures/Evil Magic-Users” existed so IMO those stories weren’t True Horror and John & the others knew how to deal with most of the supernatural problems they faced.

        1. ” knew how to deal with most of the supernatural problems they faced.”

          Often “make sure everyone knows about it and stays away”.

          “Run your fastest and hope it’s fast enough.”

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