Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Grounding Urban Fantasy in Reality

by Laura Bickle, author

One of the tricky issues in writing urban fantasy is finding the appropriate balance between fantasy and reality. Urban fantasy, by definition, includes fantastical elements (including paranormal creatures or magic) in a mundane setting. Fantastic elements make a story interesting, and realistic elements make a story believable. Too much fantasy makes the magic less special, drowns it in a sea of fantastic characters and places. Too much realism makes the world too gritty or dull. But how much of each is too much?

Often this takes a good deal of trial and error, depending upon the rules of the world. There are two types of settings in urban fantasy: an open world in which the fantastic elements are known to all its inhabitants, and a hidden world in which the fantastic elements are unknown except to a select few.

Open worlds include worlds in which fantastic creatures roam the streets, have the right to vote, and are well-integrated into the fabric of society. An open world would be the kind of world in which my brother would bring a vampire home for dinner that he met on a paranormal dating site. I’d be glowering at his hickeys while I was spooning out the mashed potatoes. Open worlds allow for more elements of the fantastic, because they have become ordinary in that setting. People are accustomed to hair removal products for Weres being marketed on daytime television. The world is flexible and resilient, operating under a different set of rules than our own. The reader’s beliefs are effectively suspended at the outset, and the reader knows that anything is possible in this world - it’s wide open.

Hidden worlds require a lighter touch with the fantastic. Hidden worlds operate almost exactly the same as our own on the surface. It’s what’s beneath that’s cause for alarm. Too much magic roiling underneath the surface can make the fantastic elements seem less special and dull their impact. Too much magic also strains the credibility of a secret world needs to remain secret. Ordinary humans may miss a few supernatural creatures or organizations operating in their midst, but are less likely to be able to ignore a zoo of things that go bump in the night living across the street.

The urban fantasy I write is primarily of the hidden world variety. In Embers, Anna Kalinczyk is an arson investigator by day. By night, she pursues malicious spirits with an eccentric team of ghost hunters and her fire salamander familiar. Anya must stop an attractive arsonist intent on summoning an ancient entity that will leave Detroit in cinders. She exists in a very real world, with a real day job, and most of her conflict and magical activities are hidden from her boss and the rest of the city, where it’s business as usual.

In Dark Oracle, which I wrote as Alayna Williams, Tara Sheridan swore off criminal profiling after narrowly escaping a serial killer. By combining Tarot card divination with her own intuition, she must help an intense federal agent find a missing scientist who has unlocked the destructive secrets of dark energy. In Tara’s world, her power as an oracle using Tarot cards is concealed from her partner. To keep Tara’s powers in the spotlight, I limited the amount of additional magic in the book to the magic used by the other women in her sisterhood of oracles.

Each story is different, with a different focus on magic and the mundane. But the writer should keep in mind where the emphasis lies and keep experimenting with the ratios to craft a believable story that is also interesting and compelling.

Laura Bickle has worked in the unholy trinity of politics, criminology, and technology for several years. She and her chief muse live in the Midwest, owned by four mostly-reformed feral cats. Her short fiction has appeared here and there. Embers, her debut novel, is first in an exciting new urban fantasy series that continues with her forthcoming second novel, Sparks. More information is at

Laura also writes as Alayna Williams. Alayna’s “debut” is
Dark Oracle, Pocket Juno’s June 2010 release. More info on her work can be found at


ECPI Editors said...

So I wonder if more readers prefer the "open world" or the "hidden world" when it comes to urban fantasy or paranormal stories?


Cora Zane said...

I like both open and hidden worlds. Really it depends on the book. The only thing known to put me off with a UF is when there are so many different species running amok and so many different kinds of powers/magic being flung around the book feels cluttered.

I've picked up a few like that. It's not that they're bad books, they're just too overwhelming for me to stick with. There's a lot to be said for balance. I agree with that 100%.

Angelia Sparrow said...

I kind of like the half-open worlds, where humans KNOW the fantastic ones are there, but they tend to oppress them. (Elizabeth Donald's Nocturnal Urges series from Cerridwen is terrific on this theme: vampires do the scut work, the sex work, hazardous manufacturing, etc)

Or the fantastic ones are facing trouble after staying hidden so many centuries, like Charlaine Harris.

I like writing an open world, where HR has guidelines about species size and lunchroom portions, where special tile keeps the centaur accountants from making too much noise, where pixie street gangs roam and have Sugar Anonymous meetings. (yes, still working on that universe)

But, I want a good sense of the urban part as well. Give me a real city, make it almost a character in its own right. LKH uses St. Louis to great effect. Elizabeth Donald (above) uses Memphis. And both of theirs feel real, like overlays in my mind on the physical city when I'm there.

Laura Bickle said...

Good points. I can see that there's a lot involved in wordbuilding in open worlds...creating laws and norms for supernatural beings.