Urban Fantasy: Past its shelf-life?

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June 26, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

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Has Urban Fantasy gone stale?

“I’m over vampires/werewolves/angels/demons/fae. These types of characters are tired and overused and I wish writers would do something new and different.”

The above is not an actual quote, but the conglomeration of sentiments I’ve been seeing in reviews for Urban Fantasy books and even on some blogs.

I could spend pages of discussion invalidating this sentiment by saying things like: “Um, exactly what supernatural creatures do you want to see in UF, then?” or “It sounds like you need a new genre to read,” or “Maybe you just disliked that specific book and its portrayal of supernatural creatures and society.”

Based on my own experience as a reader, I can say that I can’t get enough of supernatural beings. If a vampire story is well written, it won’t matter to me that I’ve read hundreds of other books on vampires. I’m a fan of the genre and will devour just about everything published in it.

However, there are so very many books in this genre to choose from and I have been disappointed by novels more frequently than I’d like to admit. The more I read in the genre, the harder it is for me to be enchanted, bewitched, and swept away in sheer wonder. There are just so many similar elements used by UF authors that they do start to become boring, tired, and overused.

But, does that mean the genre is stale or is it the approaches to it that are being taken by the writers?

There are books I’ve read that have so many of the same elements and are still unique, fresh, and demand being read in one sitting because I just…can’t…stop until I see what happens. And plenty of these books have vampires/demons/werewolves/fae and all the usual trappings.

don't touch my book

 

So, what is it that makes some books in Urban Fantasy feel fresh and unique and others feel stale and clichéd?

As a writer in the genre, this discussion intrigues me. I’ve got some specific discussion points planned for future posts, but I’d like to hear your ideas. And it doesn’t have to be UF specific.

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19 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy: Past its shelf-life?

  1. Kate Sparkes says:

    If the story is fresh and unique, and the approach to the creatures brings something new to the table, I think the book has a real chance of standing on its own. But a lot of the less-appealing books might use the tropes/species as a crutch, thinking that just using vampires/werewolves/fae/whatever is enough to make the story compelling. It’s not. The concept isn’t a novelty anymore, so readers need more to pull them in. There needs to be as much originality of story and voice as there would in any other genre, and just having those angels/demons/etc isn’t nearly enough to hold up a weak plot or sub-par characters.

    Cool paranormal stuff is no excuse for laziness, is what I’m saying. I don’t think the genre is played out, but I do think maybe it’s becoming hard to stand out when it feels like everything’s been done a hundred times, and some readers are going, “ugh, ANOTHER girl in love with an angel/demon/half-dragon/whatever that just happens to be ridiculously attractive to humans?” But how long have stories about dragons and wizards been around, and people still devour them? I think it’s hard to say a genre could be “past its shelf-life,” though I can see how the trend might be in decline. I don’t think the market will go away. 🙂

    • I think you’re right about paranormal elements being crutches for bad writing, or maybe even publishers being more likely to promote lower quality books simply because of the popularity of the genre.

      The point you hit on that I think is most interesting is the comparison to traditional fantasy. I think there will always be a market for UF just as there is for dragons and wizards. It may not enjoy quite the level of popularity that is has now for much longer, but it’s not going away.

      As a writer, I’d just like to figure out how to refresh and invigorate the genre and encourage other writers to do likewise. It’s a selfish thing. I want more good books to read! 🙂

  2. Wanderer says:

    Great post, I can’t wait to see where you (and the squirrels) take it as you go more in-depth. I think it’s a shame that so many badly written/poorly constructed UF books/movies have “ruined” the genre for people. Every time I think about writing a paranormal story, I feel like I’m tiptoe-ing around all the things that have been done before and trying to come up with something unique without just dumping glitter on it.

    I think it mainly comes down to the quality of the writing and the approach-ability/quality of the characters. It shouldn’t matter what kind of furry skeleton your main character may have in their closet if they’re a good character. If your character prefers blood over whiskey, how is it different from another well-developed character with an addiction?

    • I feel the same way about the tiptoeing and glitter dumping. Every time I’ve sat down to write recently, I feel like I’m churning out the same stuff as everyone else with just slight variations.

      Character construction is definitely something I’ll be tackling in regards to this topic, but I’ve got some other ideas on how to avoid being stale, too, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of you have to say about it. Maybe we can inspire each other!

      • Wanderer says:

        I write Fantasy usually, and it’s often the same thing there. We have archetypes and tropes that are not inherently bad, but when we fall into stereotypes and repetitive patterns, that’s when it all goes wrong.

        Great discussion topic!

  3. Christopher says:

    I definitely don’t think it’s a genre thing. genres are such broad categories that you’re going to have overlap. You’re also going to have a spectrum of good to bad, original to cliched. I’m sure that there are lots of genres with an over abundance of titles. With the multiple options for publishing available, more books than ever are becoming available to more people. That means books of all quality levels, in all genres.

    • Valid point. So, as writers, how do we ensure that our books are a higher quality? That they have something that makes them stand out from the rest?

      • Christopher says:

        I think properly enlisting editors and beta readers is a great place to start. It can be tempting to write a story and rush it to the marketplace just because you can.
        I think if you take the time to step back from your work, or get others help doing that, you can identify if you’re just slapping a bunch of tropes into a story and throwing it on the page.
        I think being conscious of the fact that it’s easy to fall into that trap makes it that much easier to avoid the trap in the first place.

  4. JP McLean says:

    I’ve heard that same sentiment, but rarely from a UF fan. We’re a tolerant bunch. UF fans are prepared to suspend belief for a wide variety of scenarios as long as the story entertains. For me, the key is writing characters that the reader will care about, regardless of which UF element is tossed into the mix. When the character touches something in the reader, they want to know what happens to them and will go along for the ride. That’s just IMHO, but there you have it.

    • I generally agree that the quality of the characters is the most important piece of the puzzle. There’s something more, though. I miss the sense of wonder I had when I first started reading UF, when everything was new and exciting. Occasionally, a book comes along that still manages to create that sense of wonderment in spite of usage of common UF elements. How the writer manages that is what I plan to explore. As an exercise to challenge my own preconceived notions about the genre if nothing else 🙂

  5. MishaBurnett says:

    Any time a work is popular you will get people who write derivative works. John Grisham’s popularity inspired shelves full of dull “courtroom dramas”, but that doesn’t mean that lawyers and trials are overdone. My homeboy Thomas Harris wrote some good books about FBI profilers, and suddenly there were a million of them, but good police procedurals are still being written.

    I think avoiding a genre because it’s popular is as silly as trying to write a genre because it’s popular. Write what you love.

    And publish soon, okay? I’ve got a bunch of people I want to recommend your work to.

    • Whimper. I’m working on it, but… well, revisions and I aren’t getting along… like, at all. I think I’ve figured out what my core issue is and, well, this little detour on my blog is intended to help me nail it down for certain.

      Until then, Doc Squirrel has password protected my manuscript and won’t let me near it. She’s mean, that one.

  6. forgingshadows says:

    Urban Fantasy is definitely not dead, and there are lots of different things you can do with it. For example, Neverwhere is an urban fantasy of sorts. And it’s not at all like most of the others in the business.

    I think that people get stuck thinking that an urban fantasy means one specific thing, so they recycle plots and characters and the tone of a novel. That’s where things are going wrong. I believe that every genre has limitless potential, but authors have to break out of the mold set by their predecessors to take full advantage of it.

  7. B. Patterson says:

    Haha. “sounds like you need a new genre too read” is probably the best response you can give.

    I started out saying I would NEVER read or write a vampire story, but after writing a story about Succubi (I used them as a psychic vampire), I moved on to blood suckers. And now whenever I read, I’m always looking for that feeding scene where the vamp has a mini orgasm when he/she feeds (even if I’m reading a book that has nothing to do with vampires).

    As has been said many times on your threads, characters are key. And so are interesting concepts, even if it’s not new. For example, we’ve already seen vampires being “bonded” to the vamp that turned them a few times. I tried to be different with my vamps by having bonded be able to see their partners emotions as colors.

    • LOL! That was a response I gave myself when I realized I was getting bored with UF books, so I’ve been reading some traditional fantasy this week.

      I like the idea of vamp seeing emotions as colors rather than, as is traditional, being able to fully read their mind or “smelling” emotions in their pheromones. Even small changes to common UF or PNR element can do wonders for making a book unique.

  8. L. Marie says:

    What a great topic!! I never get tired of the tropes, especially if authors produce compelling stories that include them. I guess that’s why I love KEEPING IT REAL by Justina Robson. I’m not sure if you’d classify it as strictly urban fantasy, since it has some sci-fi elements. The heroine is part cyborg. But she’s a bodyguard hired to guard an elf. But her elf is very different from Tolkien’s elves. The author took time to create a very unique world. And that seems to be the key–absolutely stellar world building.

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