by Nick Conrad
First and foremost: what the heck is urban fantasy?
In a nutshell, urban fantasy is any fiction in a contemporary or near-future Earthbound setting—most often in a city—wherein paranormal characters such as vampires, werewolves, aliens and zombies coexist with “ordinary” humans. The conflict is generally centered around extraordinary circumstances that contribute to the emergence of close relationships (romantic or otherwise) between human and nonhuman characters. The otherworldly characters can either exist openly as an accepted part of society or live in secret, with only a few human characters becoming aware of their paranormal status in the course of the story.
What’s the difference between urban fantasy and regular fantasy?
“Regular” fantasy is a vastly inclusive genre with lots of subtypes. But the main difference between UF and traditional fantasy is that not only is Earth the setting instead of a different world, but the story takes place on turf that is familiar to the reader. Even if the paranormal characters are based in a realm that humans don’t know about, they will end up interacting with humans in the humans’ world at some point. If the paranormal characters exist in a separate realm from humans, such as deep in the woods or on a parallel plane with little or no human interaction, the story is more contemporary fantasy than specifically UF.
Why does it have to be in an urban setting?
These stories very frequently do fall in metropolitan settings—especially those that are easily recognizable to a wide range of viewers, such as New York or Tokyo. But the key word isn’t really “urban” so much as “recognizable”. If the setting involves the hustle and bustle of the modern world, it’s UF. Frequently, some problems of contemporary society (such as class issues, racism, war or disease) are addressed. Some “What if?” fears about the modern world might also be addressed, especially if the story is set in the near-but-still-recognizable future.
What’s the difference between UF and plain old paranormal?
The paranormal category encompasses stories about vampires and werewolves, but the dominant elements in a paranormal can be less tangible. There can also be more of a gray area between fantasy and accepted reality in paranormal. In UF, the dominant paranormal elements are the paranormal characters and their abilities, whereas paranormal fiction might be centered around the paranormal aspects of more “real” characters, such as people who practice white magic, have psychic powers or communicate with ghosts. Most people accept that vampires and werewolves are not a known and active part of human society—there’s little doubt that they aren’t real. The paranormal genre, however, can focus on concepts that, while not scientifically provable, aren’t as easily dismissible as pure fantasy.
What about angels and demons? Paranormal or urban fantasy?
If the angels and demons are only viewed in the abstract sense—making suggestions to people, appearing to them in visions, affecting people’s daily lives without being seen—many people would testify that this actually does happen. Many mainstream religions certainly accept such happenings as possible. So these are gray-area paranormal elements. But if the angels and demons are a visible, tangible part of society, actively participating in it for better or worse, the story becomes UF. The same would hold true for ghosts. Ghosts making appearances in your kitchen, paranormal. Ghosts running a restaurant that’s patronized by other ghosts, UF.
What are some examples of UF through the ages?
From a technical standpoint, UF has existed for centuries as a popular means to deliver moral messages and social commentary. Grimm’s Fairy Tales could be considered UF because paranormal characters such as witches, giants and anthropomorphic animals existed side by side with ordinary mortals and the use of magic was widely accepted throughout their society. One of the earliest twentieth-century examples of UF came to us by way of a German actress named Thea von Harbou and her husband, the film director Fritz Lang. In 1927, their screenplay hit the silver screen as the silent film Metropolis. This film depicted a futuristic Earth with strong science fiction elements, but it qualifies as urban fantasy because the setting very clearly paralleled modern society in a way that was readily familiar to the viewers, addressing such issues as capitalism and socialism.
UF didn’t actually become labeled as a genre until the early to mid 1980s, when author Charles de Lint began to popularize the concept. Some other familiar names in the genre include Mercedes Lackey, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris and Patricia Briggs.