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.