Keeping it Fresh Part 1: Urban Fantasy Settings


June 27, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Yesterday, I posed two questions: 1) Is Urban Fantasy past its shelf-life and 2) What makes some UF books feel stale and not others?

First, I don’t think UF is a dying genre but I do think there are common elements of these stories that have worn thin. More so when an author combines too many of the common tropes into the same novel. So, as a writer, I want to look at the elements of UF and discuss how each could possibly be used to give the reader something different, something new.

cityToday’s element is setting.

Urban Fantasy is by definition set in a city, usually a contemporary one. In traditional fantasy, the author creates a whole new world where magic and supernatural beings exist. In UF, the author has to explain how she has elves hanging out in New York or werewolves running for senate. There are four common ways this is done.

1. The Supernatural Secret- In this version magic and supernatural beings exist in the real world, but keep their existence secret from normal human beings. Karen Chance’s Cassie Palmer series, set in Las Vegas, uses this method.

2. Alternate History- With this technique, the author comes up with a way to out supernatural beings and magic to the world at large sometimes modifying real history to explain the role of supernatural elements in the world. The Sookie Stackhouse series is a simple version of this: once synthesized blood was developed Vampires decided to reveal themselves to the world.

3. Post-Apocalypse- In this version, there is usually some war or event that forces magical beings to reveal themselves and drastically changes the world as we know it. Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series, set in Georgia, follows this convention.

4. Pure Fiction- Here the author creates a world similar to our own but with fictional cities, governments, and authorities. Carolyn Crane’s Disillusionists Trilogy, for example, is set in a fictional city similar to Chicago.

So, as writers, how can we manipulate one of these techniques to make our story more vibrant and unique?

Well, you could choose Post-Apocalypse or Pure Fiction just because they are the lesser used techniques, but I think there’s broader answer:

Making the details count.

One of my favorite elements of traditional fantasy is being engrossed in an entirely new world that I’m learning about as the story progresses. In UF, much of the world is going to be familiar to me, so how can a writer capture that sense of wonder in the real world? By explaining common things from the supernatural perspective.

In the Supernatural Secret setting, I love it when authors explain historical or current events as having been caused by supernatural elements. It makes for interesting detail that further pulls you into their world. One thing I dislike about this version is how often  writers give no explanation for why powerful supernatural beings feel the need to keep their existence secret. Providing that detail can help the reader better understand your world and how it works.

Source: Google Images

In the Alternate History setting, the writer has all kinds of opportunity to explain why supernatural beings revealed themselves, why they were always known, and show how that knowledge makes the lives of everyday humans different from the way they are in the real world. One of my favorite examples of such a detail comes from Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series. Since a genetically altered tomato caused a plague that killed many humans, humans are terrified of tomatoes even decades after the plague was destroyed. They don’t eat pizza! Can you imagine not having pizza, lasagna, BLTs, or McDonald’s fries with ketchup? Can you picture a world where specialty stores and restaurants that cater to supernatural beings who were immune to the plague that carry tomato-based foods that humans won’t even set foot in? Harrison did.

While it’s a small detail in the larger setting of the story, it does add something to her world that makes it unique and interesting.

Urban Fantasy is fantasy and as writers we have an opportunity to weave fantastical elements and details into our stories that can create wonder, humor, political intrigue, or combative tension. Attention to detail in the setting can make a book stand out from the crowd and leave lasting impact in the mind of a reader.

What details do you love seeing?

Which setting do you prefer for Urban Fantasy?



11 thoughts on “Keeping it Fresh Part 1: Urban Fantasy Settings

  1. TamrahJo says:

    I don’t read much (if any) urban fantasy, but I believe your points to be spot on – the books I enjoy the most are the ones that layout the details of the time/place of the story with such breathtaking beauty, I cannot help but submerge myself into the world of their creation – –

    I’m reminded of Marco Polo and how he wrote of his travels – there were those who claimed he made it up, and others who wondered how such incredulous things could actually exist, but nonetheless, he was a ‘best seller’ of his time, because he made people see the world he wrote of as he saw it….


    • That makes me think of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series. Her narrative prose is beautiful, even though I tend to prefer more action to exposition. Even so, there were some passages I ended up skimming just to move forward with the story.

      Where I think setting details really, really work is where writers don’t just explain what the characters are seeing, but how it impacts them. Say, you’ve got a fantasy character approaching a massive walled city. It’s not enough just to say how tall and thick the walls are. What do the dimensions of the wall mean to the character? If she’s a former army general, she might be subconsciously thinking of ways to besiege the city even if it’s unnecessary just because that’s how her mind operates. If the character is a thief or spy, she might be thinking of ways to climb over those walls by night and slip past the guards, even if she knows she’s walking right through the gates today.

      • TamrahJo says:

        Exactly! I too, tend to skim if the details of the landscape are too long – thanks for this reply as it made me realize that I, too, enjoy learning of the world through the character’s eyes…

  2. L. Marie says:

    I love the post-apocalyse setting ala Ilona Andrews’s series. But I also loooooove the Edge series and how Andrews divides the world into the three regions (the Edge, the Weird, and the Broken). I never get tired of the explanation about what makes the regions so different from each other.

    • The Edge series is one that would be hard to place in one of the four categories above. It’s kind of a combination of Supernatural Secret and Pure Fantasy. Either way, I really appreciate that the Andrews team creates such unique Urban or Modern Fantasy worlds and systems of magic. They are a great example to look to when talking about writers who do unique and different things in their genres.

  3. Christopher says:

    This is all great. I think something else that helps, is to not overlook the specifics of the setting even if it’s a real place. Say Chicago, don’t assume that everyone knows about the transit system. Ground the story in details about the Red Line, the main train line running north/south through the city.
    I think even when it’s a real place, the details help to ground it. You just don’t have to harp on the things that are similar to everywhere. just the specific details of a certain location.

    • Excellent point. That makes me think of Merit from the Chicagoland Vampires series by Chloe Neil. Merit, the MC, is a bit food obsessed. She’s constantly dragging herself and her fellow characters to uniquely Chicago food-joints. There’s one really memorable scene where she gets a stuck up, prissy vampire to eat a Chicago-style hot dog and then gives him hell because he tries to use a knife and fork. It stuck with me because not only does the scene show the relationship dynamic between those two characters but tells us much about Merit’s personality, her pride of her hometown and its traditions, but also helps to immerse you in that mentality.

      • Christopher says:

        Those sorts of anchors in reality really help define the setting, but they also serve as contrast for the fantasy elements. That’s what makes Urban Fantasy special, and maybe that’s some of what has gotten lost in the shuffle. The paradoxical quality of the supernatural among us, is just so intriguing. You want to be able to believe that it is possible, and having the factual pieces be nice and detailed makes a difference.

  4. MishaBurnett says:

    For Catskinner’s Book, I use the secret supernatural setting, for the most part, and I draw heavily on my personal experience in the sleazier side of commercial property management for specific locales. The Outsiders (and those influenced/modified by the Outsiders) tend to gravitate towards those places that ordinary humans forget about, cheap strip malls with low occupancy, abandoned department stores, shuttered factories. The places I write about are generally described from memory, and I think that helps them feel more real.

  5. this was a very interesting read for someone like me, who doesn’t read urban fantasy (as generally genre-defined) but whose work has strong urban elements. I love the tomato example you give!!! 🙂

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