Monday, April 14, 2008

Urban Fantasy Explored

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.


Anonymous said...

That's Urban Fantasy? Man, have I been mislabeling some novels. What, then, would you call the works of S.W. Vaughn?

Terry Odell said...

OK, I didn't think I was the least bit interested in urban fantasy, but if I'm understanding the definition, then Highlander would fall under this category. Slap me silly, because I started out writing Highlander fanfiction.

Angelia Sparrow said...

I tend to label angels and demons and such paranormal.

When I write urban fantasy, you get werewolf trolley drivers, zombies working loading docks, pixie street gangs and such. But the focus is on the human moving through this world. I take a lot of inspiration from Glen Cook.

When I write paranormal, the Devil himself runs a school, vampires live as club-bois and werewolves conduct online romances. The focus is on the romance and the humans are a sideline.

Anonymous said...

The problem with angels….

This is a touchy subject with me because I actually have a completed manuscript (100,000 words) with angels and demons in it. After contacting several agents and even dropping a small fortune on a writing conference, I was told by a New York editor for a major publishing house that she’s had terrible luck in the past with “Religious Fantasy.” Personally, I don’t think my novel is religious fantasy at all, but…when you say “Angel,” everyone knows what you’re talking about. An angel, quite simply, is a messenger of God. In my experience, the moment you drop the G-word, agents and editors seem to run in terror.

Oddly enough, the CBA market doesn’t really seem that interested in the genre, either. (Except Peretti's "Piercing the Darkness" and "This Present Darkness", there really arn't that many angel books in the CBA market.) So, in my opinion, based on what I’ve seen, angels seem to be somewhat taboo. They’re too religious to be Urban Fantasy, but also not quite right for the CBA market. (I think Perretti is the exception.) The only author I’ve seen who pulled off angels in her work, and got it to work in a sci-fi setting, was Sharon Shinn’s angel books. “Archangel” is still my favorite book. But technically, her angels were not Real angels; they were basically humans with wings who could pray to the god on the planet….(Spoiler….You find out God in Shinn’s book is a spaceship orbiting the planet.) So, my conclusion is the following…Fairies = Urban Fantasy, Angels = Religious Fantasy (ie, Peretti) If you take the time to write a book with angels in it, real messenger of God type angels, you’re going to have a tough time selling it…at least, I think you will. But hey, I’ve been wrong before.

K. Z. Snow said...

The problem, I think, with attempting to define any subgenre (or sub-sub-subgenre) is that such efforts merely build boxes in which both readers and writers get trapped. The more detailed the definition, the more confining the box. At least your definition of UF, Nick, was mercifully broad.

I've seen urban fantasy anatomized in detail. A beautiful, heterosexual, kick-ass female protagonist is a must; narration in the first person, from her pov only, is a must; certain creatures, and kinds and levels of action, are a must. And on and on.

Sad to say, when editors start buying into such fussy yet essentially capricious standards, they reject worthy variants. Soon, readers are conditioned to believe they must demand those standards. Finally, writers feel coerced into producing work that conforms to those standards...and pretty soon the market is glutted with loads of derivative crap.

I just wish there were more emphasis on quality and less on categorization in the publishing industry. Then again, I once wished for world peace, too.

Angelia Sparrow said...

I hate when the boxes go up.
My urban fantasy heroine is plain, asexual and alcoholic in the best Raymond Chandler tradition.

The best book I read with angels was A Year and a Day by Sarah Harvey. The Angel of Joy and the Angel of Vengeance share a flat in NY.

Now I want to stop treking through Memphis in 1923 Egypt and write my Memphis TN stuff.

Bernita said...

I sometimes define urban fantasy as a contemporary world where the paranormal and paranatural are treated as normal.

Cora Zane said...

Interesting post! What comes to mind when I think of UF is Lilith Saintcrow's Dante Valentine series.

Yes, there is the standard 1st person POV, the kickass heroine - as someone already mentioned - and there is also her demon lover, but underlying it all there are magical/new age elements. Not everyone can pull off that kind of amalgamation, and that's the reason I like that particular series. It's different.

I don't necessarily look at werewolves and vampires living among humans (or in the city) as a strict qualifier for UF, because there are so many paranormal romances that also fall into this category. I certainly don't think of Christine Feehan as an UF author, but under those terms she would certainly be cropped in with the rest.

The difference I note is that UF has more of a streamlined, hard edge delivery of the plot. It's like a new twist on cyberpunk. There is the less flowery environment, and it's less romancey, more driven by the storyline than the heroine/hero relationship (although there may be romantic elements blended throughout the story).

It's one of those things that's difficult to define, but when I start reading a book, if it's UF I usually recognize it for what it is right away. Who knows? Maybe it's the tone.