So what the hell is Urban Fantasy, anyway?

Here’s a confession: I usually have to be told what my books are.

Well, not what they are. I know that they’re squarish piles of paper with writing on them that have been bound together in a great big factory somewhere. But I still remember the day when I was told that my second novel, The Company Man, was not, in fact, science fiction, but was instead “dieselpunk,” a subgenre I was totally ignorant of. And just the other day, I happened to mention to someone that my third novel, The Troupe, was Urban Fantasy. And the response I got was a cringe, a slow shake of the head, and: “Nnnnnnoooot really.”

I’ll be honest: Urban Fantasy has always confounded me a little, and I think this is mostly because I’ve always chosen to define it quite broadly:

Urban Fantasy: a speculative fiction story with fantastical elements in an urban setting of what is very recognizably the real world.

I asked about this on Twitter the other day, assuming my definition was more or less correct.

I then received, at last count, 132 responses.

Some of them were part of an ongoing conversation I was just copied on. But the opinions about exactly what the hell Urban Fantasy is varied so wildly that I started taking notes, like I was caught in a storm of butterflies with especially outrageous colors.

For starts, some define Urban Fantasy as having a definite style, akin, I think, to noir. Justin Landon of “Staffer’s Musings” made this point, saying Urban Fantasy must have a “thriller” structure to it, and Kristin of “My Bookish Ways” supported it by saying that in Urban Fantasy, the singular city itself – Chicago, New York, San Francisco – must have a very distinct character of its own. All very much like a noir novel with fantasy elements.

This crossed over a bit to the repeated assertion that Urban Fantasy must take place in modern times – a fantasy story set in 1870’s Chicago was not Urban Fantasy. If Urban Fantasy is a cross of Fantasy with another genre – noir, thriller, and so on – Historical Fiction is not an ingredient in that cocktail.

So far, it sounded an awful lot like modern noir with magic. Which is a lot more specific than my definition.

Stina Leicht, however, made the point that Urban Fantasy has elements of the punk music scene, and contains much of the same underground, gritty, artistic style, specifically referencing Charles de Lint and Emma Bull. She also very clearly said that Urban Fantasy is not Paranormal Romance, and many agreed that these two often get confused, when they’re actually quite distinct.

I can’t possibly go over the full conversation here (and I thank everyone who contributed), but I started to feel a little confused about some of the definitions I was hearing. Because nearly everyone had a very, very specific idea of what Urban Fantasy was, and had books and stories to reference and back up that idea. And when I checked them out, those books and stories claimed to be Urban Fantasy, even if this put them in loud disagreement with one another.

The feeling I got from all of this was that a specific appeal is now more commonly found, and more prized, than a broad one. Urban Fantasy is itself a subgenre, but within that broad definition there are hundreds of little mini-sub-genres, Balkanized little genre city-states that are, to some degree, quietly at war with one another, each claiming to be different from the next – even though, to the uninitiated, they all look more or less the same. A reader unfamiliar with SFF will simply look at it, and say, “Oh, there’s magic in it? Then it’s fantasy.” Though this might incur a long expository argument from the initiated.

Our entertainment is now created with a set of very specific reference points in mind, and our love of that entertainment is increasingly impenetrable to outsiders. In today’s time of constant information flow, we expect our fiction to be informed by that same amount of information. You must know the background of several pop culture and literary touchstones in order to begin to understand the work.

So, we don’t want a broad following – we want a cult following, an intimate, intense, historied relationship with the work. And for some, you can’t just love a book : you have to create a whole new category for it, and a history of that category, and you must compare and contrast it against the others. It’s like literary criticism on methamphetamines, only now you aren’t comparing literary movements that take place over decades, but genre trends that emerge and dissipate within months.

Book awareness is now viral – but don’t forget that viruses tend to exhaust themselves fairly quickly.

Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure. I definitely think that the internet, whose feed is so huge that people will find themselves restricted to narrow avenues of information, is going to increasingly Balkanize nearly every form of entertainment. We’re going to start a lot more conversations with, “Oh, you don’t know about _______? Really?” Soon, we’ll all be the record store clerks from High Fidelity on some subject or another.

While this does build a close bond with your entertainment, it’s obstructive to nearly everyone else. A work’s following will grow much more slowly, if it grows at all. And it’s going to get increasingly hard to figure out the lasting power of a work: do you think that audiences in twenty years will be able to look back and decipher the reasons why we laud the work we do today, untangling the history and genre qualifications that make us categorize it as we do? Is a work that is considered great within the genre system capable of lasting outside of that system? I find myself doubting it.

And writers, who probably don’t fashion a story with a specific subgenre in mind – and how could you, since they’re often so narrow, and change so much – will flounder more and more when it comes to the question of, “What genre is it?”

Whatever answer a writer might have to that question, I think they’ll be told more frequently that it is the wrong one.

8 thoughts on “So what the hell is Urban Fantasy, anyway?

  1. I think thankfully these are generally not concerns the artist need confront other than as a discussion in terms/semantics. Isn't this why publicists make their money? Novels like yours can be fit into any host of boxes.

  2. Actually, genre's the biggest stumbling block for me and a whole host of writers. If it can be fit into any host of boxes, then, in marketing terms, it really doesn't quite fit into any. Think of it as a sell, or a pitch, and if you pitch a book strongly in a certain genre, then it guarantees a sale. But if the pitch is, "Well, this is SORT OF, kind of MAYBE alternate history fantasy, but it's also got this, this, and THIS," then it's not as easy.

    This might not seem to matter when directly selling to fans, but there's a whole structure in place of book sellers, vendors, blogs, you name it, that wheel and deal in genres because genres make selling easy. If fantasy is your drug of choice, then you just need to keep making material with that similar compound, and the customers will keep coming back.

    This has gotten easier for me as time's gone on, but for my first novel, publishers kept turning it down because no one was sure what it was.

  3. Thanks — this answers some of my own questions. I've had people tell me mine is urban fantasy or contemporary fantasy. I'm definitely not noir. But is it set in a modern, albeit fictional city, complete with cell phones and computers. It doesn't have any punk in it. Curiously, I would not define urban fantasy as having thriller structure — it's more like a private eye novel. Mine is most definitely thriller, with a ticking time bomb of something that will happen, complete with the high level politics and much more action.

  4. Genre and subgenre are boxes publishers and marketers use to reach a certain audience, but woe be unto any author who hasn't a clue where their book fits if they want to sell it to a publisher or reader.

    If the author doesn't know where his book fits, it often means he's got a hodgepodge of a novel that will please no one, and that he's so poorly read in the genre that his book is a collection of cliches and over-used tropes. It's a rare author who doesn't know any of this and who hasn't read widely in the market who produces a book worth publishing.

    Anyway, here's the definition I created for urban fantasy when I taught a writing course on Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files."

    In the late 1980s, a number of fantasy authors began to write about the various creatures and tropes of fantasy like elves, other supernatural beings, and magic in contemporary times in big cities rather than the past or in mythic places.

    The Encyclopedia of Fantasy defined these urban fantasy novels as “texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect, and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.”

    Authors like Charles de Lint created stories where the real urban world and Fairy met. Other writers during this period include Emma Bull and Mercedes Lackey.

    The heart of these stories are folkloric in tone with a sense of a fairy tale being retold in modern terms. The language of the novels is lyrical and poetic, and events from the main characters' point of view have a sense that something may or may not be happening.

    This type of urban fantasy is now called traditional urban fantasy, and a current writer is Neil Gaiman.

    In the late 1990s and beyond, a different type of urban fantasy began to appear. These novels had their basis, not from fairy tales, but from the horror and mystery genres. Other media influences included the TV show, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

    These contemporary urban fantasies were popularized by Laurell K. Hamilton with her Anita Blake novels. They have a strong protagonist who has some form of supernatural power.

    The narrative is usually in first person, and the world has a strong sense of good and evil.

    The real world is the gritty reality of the big city where the natural and the supernatural mix, often to disastrous results. The main character often has a probable sexual and crime-solving partner who is supernatural and a forbidden sexual partner either by society or by her/his own standards.

    The main driving plot is a mystery which the main character must solve to prevent chaos, whether it be preventing bad supernaturals from harming humans or some form of disaster from occurring.

    Most often, the main character is in law enforcement– a police officer, a private detective, or a bounty hunter.

    Mysteries by themselves have many varieties including the cozy and the detective novel, the police procedural, the spy novel, and the thriller.

    Each type of mystery has an urban fantasy equivalent. Here are some examples.

    COZY: An amateur detective solves a murder with minimal blood and violence involved. (Think Miss Marple or MURDER SHE WROTE)

    Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse/TRUE BLOOD novels.

    PROFESSIONAL AMATEUR DETECTIVE: A professional in a specific setting uses his insider information to solve a crime. The Dick Francis novels about horse racing are a good example.

     Marjorie M. Liu's   "Hunter Kiss" series. The heroine's job is to kill demons, and she must solve mysteries involving them.

    POLICE PROCEDURAL: Think LAW AND ORDER or any serious cop show.

    Keri Arthur's Riley Jenson series

    Anton Strout's DEAD series. Paranormal NYC government agency which takes care of paranormal threats and covers them up. Hero Simon is an ex-thief who uses psychometry to read objects.

    CE Murphy series. Shaman cop Joanne Walker.


    Many of Kelley Armstrong's "The Otherworld Series."   

    Kat Richardson's Greywalker novels.

    Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files."


    Laura Anne Gilman's HARD MAGIC.    Magic (the current/electricity) is seen as a science with spells.  A group of young Talents is brought together to create the first forensic magic investigative team. 


    Simon R. Green's Eddie Drood novels.

    • Excellent clarification of the different types of fantasies. Thanks Marilyn: you really helped me clarify where my novel fits.

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