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What Is Urban Fantasy?
Urban fantasy is a genre of literature encompassing novels, novellas, and short stories in which fantastical characters and concepts are placed in a real world urban setting, often in the present day. Urban fantasy novels have devoted followings and they have spawned many film and TV adaptations.
Urban fantasy books often overlap with the fantasy subgenre known as paranormal romance—which combines romantic themes with fantasy elements like vampires, werewolves, shifters, faeries, and zombie armies. The terms, however, are not synonymous. Many contemporary fantasy series check boxes in both subgenres, but urban fantasy stories are not necessarily paranormal romances.
The 3 Characteristics of Urban Fantasy Fiction
Today’s urban fantasy authors employ a wide range of styles and techniques, but several elements unite their works, thereby establishing core characteristics of the urban fantasy genre.
- Urban fantasy stories are set in cities. Typically these cities exist in the modern world, but they may also be in an alternate world or universe. Occasionally you might encounter an urban fantasy novel set in a small town, but this is less common.
- Urban fantasy stories often draw from noir and police procedurals. These novels and stories tend to imitate other genres that center around urban settings—featuring elements like a procedural plot, a mystery or thriller-style structure, noir-style dread, and a visceral atmosphere of grit and urban hardship.
- Urban fantasy stories incorporate fantastical elements and supernatural creatures. These could involve undead zombies, vampires, druids, demons, wizardry, witchcraft, and other such fantasy tropes.
Examples of Urban Fantasy
Urban fantasy came of age alongside the rise of contemporary cities. Therefore, most of the seminal works of urban fantasy were written in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Here are a few highlights:
- The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch
- The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews
- The October Daye series by Seanan McGuire
- The Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series by Laurell K. Hamilton
- The Hollows series by Kim Harrison
- The Alex Craft series by Kalayna Price
- The Mercy Thompson comics by Patricia Briggs
- The Neverwhere television series created by Neil Gaiman
3 Tips on How to Write Urban Fantasy
Not all fantasy writers set their sights on writing urban fantasy. For instance J.K. Rowling, the master of young adult fantasy novels, was quite content to place Harry Potter in a more bucolic, faraway world of wizardry—with only occasional scenes set in contemporary London. If you feel inspired to explore the genre, here are three key writing tips to make sure you ground yourself in urban fantasy:
- Set the ground rules for your world. Before you start writing, you need to understand what about your novel will be supernatural and what will be drawn from reality. If your book is set in a fantastical New Orleans, do characters eat po boys and ride around on giant anthropomorphic vampire bats? Or do they eat metal knowledge bars and ride the bus around town? Establish rules and stick to them.
- Build your storyline around a core conflict. Urban fantasy pairs really well with suspense, thrillers, and mysteries. If you task your main character with solving a crime or catching a terrorist or another traditional trope, you’ll build the narrative foundation you need to keep your urban fantasy interesting. All the supernatural moments and supporting characters won’t matter at all unless your core story is always propelled forward.
- Say something thematically. Dropping supernatural characters into picayune reality can be fun, but it won’t leave much of an impression unless you have a thematic point to make. Urban fantasy naturally lends itself to statements on technology, human connectedness, love, and basic morality. Find a way to ground all your supernatural fun on a thematic bedrock that will make your story matter to the reader.
At the end of the day, the best urban fantasy novels are just like the best novels in any genre. They have a strong main character, feature riveting storytelling, and have a thematic message at their core. Their premises can be exotic, but the elements they’re built on are tried and true.
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