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.
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.
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?