Keeping it Fresh Part 3: Supernatural Beings


June 29, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Source: Google Images

Source: Google Images

Welcome to the third part of our series on how to prevent your Urban Fantasy books from being stale and moldy. We’ve already discussed Setting and Systems of Magic, and today we’re taking on the denizens of your cosmology.

The Supernatural Beings of Your Urban Fantasy

We’re not talking specific characters yet (that will be a separate post), we’re talking the races and types of supernatural critters or sentient beings we use in our cosmology. This piece of the puzzle is the trickiest one to tweak in my opinion and must be approached with caution. Still, there are ways to make your conglomeration of supernatural beings unique.

1. Draw from mythology and folklore: Isn’t that what every other UF writer is doing? Yes, but the degree to which each writer manipulates the mythology varies. Some writers take the idea of a supernatural race or being and then build their entire cosmology around it with minimal influence from actual mythology or folklore. Nothing wrong with that, but adding in tidbits that link to known history and mythology can hook your reader in deeper. For me, seeing these sort of links in a book is like a fun little zing of understanding and comprehension. It ties the book to the “real world” and adds a bit of legitimacy to fantastical concepts. The more heavily an author links to folklore and mythology, the greater credibility they appear to have. Which is valuable, because it helps the reader to suspend disbelief at fantastical concepts.

The drawback here is that this requires a fair amount of research and maybe even more careful plotting. There’s also the risk that someone else has already used the same mythological concepts and links in very similar ways.

2. Make your own monsters: I’ve seen plenty of readers complaining that they’re tired of the usual fare of supernatural beings. Vampires, werewolves, angels, demons, and Fae have all been done to death, they say. So, could you create entirely new supernatural beings to use in your writing? There’s potential in this area, but again, I think it’s tricky.

The reason the usual supernatural suspects are so popular is that they tap into the collective consciousness and understanding of supernatural concepts. They’re familiar and readers have an idea of what they’re going to get when they pick up a book on vampires. If you give them a supernatural race they’ve never heard of before, you may lose their interest before they even get past the summary on Amazon. It might just be too foreign for them to risk when there are so many other options to choose from. In other words, it’s a gamble. This isn’t a route I’d encourage anyone to take just to make their book stand out, only if your unique supernatural being is the point of the book. Otherwise, you might have more luck modifying existing supernatural races to your own cosmology.

3. Twist the traditional: This is probably the riskiest maneuver in the bunch. What I mean here is using one or more of the traditional supernatural races, but giving them your own twist by changing up some part of the lore. While it has potential to make your books stand out, it may not be in the way you want.

Case in point: Sparkly Vampires.

Better, no question.

I’ve seen all sorts of twists on traditional vampire mythology: they’re hybrids of humans and aliens that landed on Earth milennia ago, they’re the descendants of Atlanteans: humans with nanomachines in their bloodstream that heal their bodies, they’re demons, they’re a race of Fae, and so on. The first two were the hardest for me to get past because they undermined the whole concept of cursed creature of the night. The further you go from the accepted understanding of a traditional race, the harder it will be for your readers to suspend disbelief and the more likely you are to get backlash.

Then again, the authors of all of the series I’ve mentioned above are bestsellers. So, take that into consideration. Again, it’s a gamble. Some readers will love you for subverting tradition and others will deride you. So, if you come up with a twist on the traditional you love and it works into your story, go for it!





20 thoughts on “Keeping it Fresh Part 3: Supernatural Beings

  1. Green Embers says:

    You know, on Coursera I took a course on mythology and there was something interesting in that. This was more focused on greek mythology but his point was that there was no proper or accurate telling of the myths. Throughout time they have become so varied and different versions were abound a plenty but none of them were “wrong”. Which was very interesting to me. I do get the point of being careful about going against the grain but if it is something that works well in the world that you have created then go for it. It is fiction after all, so in the end… who really cares if vampires sparkle or not?

    • I do, for one. But I will concede your point. The sparkle twist on vampires is clearly not universally reviled or Meyer wouldn’t be a bestselling author with multiple movies based on her books. So, I suppose much of this sort of thing boils down to personal preference.

      • kokkieh says:

        For me the big problem with Meyer’s vampires is that they are flawless. They have no weakness apart from an uncontrollable thirst for blood, and the Cullens even have that sorted. AND then they have superpowers to boot. Every creature should have a weakness, otherwise it’s impossible to empathise with them. And I don’t think being very emotional is necessarily a weakness.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    This is where I had the most fun in world building. I deliberately set out to populate my world with creatures that weren’t typical fantasy tropes.

    I’ll admit that I borrowed from other writers–Ambimorphs and Blue Metal Boys are inspired by William Burroughs, and Necroidim are based on Clive Barker’s Cenobites. Still, I like to think I put my own spin on them, and many of the folks running around The Book Of Lost Doors are entirely my own creation.

    My intent was to bring back a sense of mystery, to confront readers with something new. I actually wrote a post on this very subject about a year ago:

    • Your book definitely came to mind for new monsters and I think you did a fabulous job with it. I’m not sure how it escaped me as I was writing this post, but you’re right about how new monsters definitely add mystery and prevent the reader from guessing what comes next.

  3. Kate Sparkes says:

    As soon as I saw your topic, I thought, “SPARKLY VAMPIRES!” I give her credit for doing something different, and it’s not like you can say “Well that’s not what vampires are like in real life.” I don’t like it, and when I decided to play with vampires my number one rule was “no sparkles,” but I accept that it has worked for a lot of people. Somehow. O.o

    It’s a tough question. On one hand, I as a reader am very accepting of variations on the creatures I’m familiar with (say, vampires and were-whatevers). Others that I haven’t previously known interest me less. I’ve read one series I likes with Fae, and now any time I see the word “Unseelie” in a book description, I pass. Sounds too similar, even though the differences are probably huge and I might really like another take on the theme.

    I’m a jerk, I know…

    • Nah, you’re not a jerk, it’s just a preference. We have limited time and cash to devote to reading, so we’re skeptical about books. Who wants to buy a book to find out 10 pages in that it’s just a rehash of the same old story or something that is new and different just isn’t your cup of tea? That’s a simple reality of how readers choose books.

      For writers, I would urge caution in shaking up “accepted mythos” without a specific purpose in mind. It has to mean something. It has to fit in with the cosmology or story.

  4. kokkieh says:

    I enjoy Terry Brooks very much. His Shannara series contains epic, urban and dark fantasy. He puts a new twist on existing races, like dwarfs, elves, gnomes and trolls, but also invents many monsters of his own with great success. I can definitely recommend studying his work for tips on how it is done.

  5. Vagrance says:

    In regards to using known mythological references, I strongly recommend you watch Fate/Zero. It’s a very interesting take on the heroes we know. Give it a try, but be warned, it is anime.

  6. MishaBurnett says:

    What’s also interesting is how one person’s alterations can become part of a creature’s cannon. For example, in “Return Of The Living Dead”, Dan O’Bannon introduced the concept of zombies eating brains. On the director’s commentary on the DVD he explains the rationale.

    The dead, he posited, are driven by pain, not hunger–they can feel their bodies decaying, and the process hurts. When animated, they are driven to find release from the pain–which they get from the endorphins found in living human brains. (O’Bannon had recently been in a long term hospitalization following surgery and had read extensively on pain management.)

    Now, the idea of the zombies wandering in search of “braaaiins…” is part of the creature’s cannon, but few people know the story behind it.

  7. But… everything looks better with a mullet!!! 😉

  8. L. Marie says:

    I can’t help thinking of how critical Tolkien was at Lewis’s Narnia series because Lewis mixed mythologies (Greek/Roman with Norse). Tolkien stuck to Norse mythology. But I love Lewis’s blend and respect Tolkien’s diligence in sticking with Norse. I have my own twist on characters from Norse mythology.

    • Wanderer says:

      I always love remembering this little disagreement! I remember reading/hearing (paraphrased) that Tolkien said, “C.S. you just CAN’T have fauns AND witches AND talking animals etc.etc. it just won’t work.” I have to admit, it makes me a bit happy that Tolkien was wrong.

  9. I get bored with the traditional. Gotta keep souping it up, I say!

  10. I remember starting off borrowing a lot from Greek mythology, but as I grew into my story I made a point of replacing most of that with more interesting, organically grown ideas. Not that I write urban fantasy, but the point holds true for traditional fantasy as well: elves and orcs (and minotaurs and demigods) are just as cliche as vampires and werewolves.

    Well, maybe not minotaurs.

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