Sunday, April 24, 2011

U is for...

Urban Fantasy.

I tried to look up the definition of Urban Fantasy, and I think I'm more confused on the definition than when I started. I believe I've sort of mixed in Contemporary Fantasy and Paranormal Fiction, in addition to the actual Urban Fantasy genre. The rules I found were a bit blurry, so to speak. They spoke of "sometimes they involve this..." and "this is a common theme," but no definite rules. Then again, how can you impose strict rules on creativity?

What can be defined as Urban Fantasy? Paranormal stories that take place in an urban setting. That makes sense according to the label. They're not called rural fantasy stories, after all. But I admit to just having thought that paranormal stories taking place in the modern day and age were Urban Fantasy, and that they didn't necessarily have to happen in a city, despite the moniker.

For instance, Patricia Brigg's stories of Mercedes Thompson, while associated with a city, appear to mostly happen at her home, which appears to be a nice plot of land where she has room to take her coyote form and run around. A large plot of land on the outskirts of a city seems a bit rural to me.

In Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series, some scenes are set in the city and some are set in rather rural areas, once again involving a home out in the woods with plenty of acreage. After all, wolves need running room just as much as coyotes. In fact, maybe more. We've got some city coyotes in these parts. A group of them gave me a heart attack while I was out taking a late night walk last week. Yikes!

Another rule that floated by from Wikipedia was that characters often had tragic pasts. I never really thought of that as a rule, but I can see that in a lot of the series I read. In fact, I can take that one step further and say they frequently don't have both living parents, if they have any at all. I feel like there is often a mother, but not a father. That's just with the stories that come to mind, though. So do they have to be lacking a parental unit, preferably the male one?

Does Urban Fantasy have to have a kick *ss chick in it? That seems to be a common undertone, and I can't think of one I've read that doesn't involve at least one, but is that a rule? I didn't find it as a requirement anywhere. Can a man be the main character?

What about sex? Some of these Urban Fantasy series are practically porn! Is sex a requirement? Is that our modern view of vampires? I can't say that's entirely new, a vampire being sexual. Mina sure liked Vlad Draculea in "Dracula," and there have been many other eroticized examples in horror. But what draws the line between horror and Urban Fantasy? Did Anne Rice write Urban Fiction or did she write horror? Or was it Contemporary Fantasy? Stephen King is clearly a horror author, but what sets his book "Salem's Lot" apart from Urban Fantasy? Is it that, in horror, they only want a little vampire action if they've been compelled, but in Urban Fantasy they're just plain sexy, so of COURSE humans want them and are willing to give it up? Is there an example of a horror story where the victim is willing? I could swear there was at least some of that in Anne Rice's books, but it's been a long while since I read them.

Perhaps it's that, in horror, the supernaturals don't tend to have human emotions, but in Urban Fantasy they can pity humans and even fall in love with them. But wait, Draculea certainly had human emotions in "Dracula." Look how far he went to get the woman who reminded him of his first love, long dead! His motives were all too human. And he cried...

One thing I can say is that I can't recall ever having actually found fear in respect to an Urban Fantasy. Yes, they include the creatures of our nightmares, at least nightmares from our childhood where a vampire was always bad and a werewolf would always eat your face off. Even shape shifters were always bad ("Cat People"?). They just aren't really scary. We always know the main character will come out of it and kick some major booty on the way out.

In horror, the supernatural creatures have to be finished off at the end, or at least a good show made of it. They are to be destroyed, not followed, not worshiped, certainly not respected. Yet in Urban Fantasy and related genres they can be both the good guys and the bad guys.

The only thing I've always considered a bit of a rule in my mis-construed definition was that supernatural creatures interacted with regular humans in a somewhat "normal" way. As in, humans acknowledge they exist. They may not be happy about it, but they know it and they have to live side by side with them in many ways. In Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books, they can be anywhere: on the police force, in a church, even a school teacher can be a were-something or other! Kim Harrison has them more distant in her Hollows series, as I don't believe there are any humans in their neighborhood (The Hollows). I'm not really sure about the flip side of that, though. It seems supernaturals live out there in some places, but maybe the humans aren't aware of it.

So tell me, how do YOU define Urban Fantasy? What do you see as the rules? What sets it apart from horror?

Happy Writing!


Lydia Elizabeth Burnwell said...

Hm....several good points here. I hadn't thought of myself as an urban fantasy writer, but I suppose since my only published work involves a strong female vampire who loves a male human (who knows who and what she is, shock!), then I fit most of those "rules". Although, come to think of it, mine is set in the city, not on sprawling land. So would that disclude me? Interesting thoughts to ponder...

Also, I suggest reading PC and Kristen Cast's 'House of Night' series, if vampires is what you seek. They, too, have vampires and humans co-existing (though the humans do not like them much), has many strong women (but some men as well), is partly (okay, mostly) set on land outside the city, and has some sex (though not much--mostly implied or tastefully alluded to). I really enjoy their books and they release a new one every six months (next one is in June! Yay!). If you want to take a look, the first novel is called "Marked". It's a bit different take on the vampire world (and took me quite some getting used to), but a very good, evolving story!

Creepy Query Girl said...

It is confusing isn't it? I have a YA urban fantasy that I'm querying and I hazard to label that way because 1. It concerns a classic fantasy creature (fantasy creatures have more to do with dwarves, unicorns, wizards, mermaids, dragons and lord of the ring/peter pan/legend type stuff, you know? I would call a vampire or a werewolf more paranormal or supernatural.) 2. It also has world building but is also a contemporary story that takes place in a modern-day town.

Jeff Beesler said...

I think with the onset of Twilight it set the standard for what Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance is. But the genres altogether blur more now than ever. You can have an urban fantasy with horror elements. You can have a science fiction western. You can even have a cook book memoir. Genre has always been a difficult beast to tame and I think it's going to stay that way.

Al Penwasser said...

Urban Fantasy...? Would that be finding a parking space right in front of your apartment building?
Seriously, Urban Fantasy to me is when the antagonist is just like us (apart from the whole supernatural bits). You couldn't tell him/her apart from anyone else. Graphic sex isn't a requirement, but like the est of the human experience, it's still necessary.

M.J. Fifield said...

I've been using the definition of "Paranormal stories that take place in an urban setting." After that, I just kind of wing it and see where the story takes me.

Andrew Leon said...

I think the problem with all of these "genres" is that none of them are really genres. At best, they're just sub-genres under fantasy, and, really, I think, they're just attempts at labeling a particular fad. It's why the lines are so blurry.
These aren't sonnets. It's all a lot of free verse that people want to catagorize, and you really just can't do that.

Margo Lerwill said...

Because there is so much disagreement on the topic, and out of respect for some of the pioneers (whose stories weren't set in cities) I tend to say contemporary fantasy for works by writers like Gaiman and De Lint. They may or may not be set in an urban environment, but they are modern and heavily influenced by mythology and folklore.

I tend to use urban fantasy for the stories with a particularly crime noir sensability, though I think for some writers just throwing in a detective acts as shorthand for really exploring the noir roots of some of the most popular urban fantasy.

Within urban fantasy, I will often refer to Angry Chicks in Leather (a term coined by Lilith Saintcrow, I believe) for the Anita Blake style character (which may or may not include strong sexual context - I don't think there are hard and fast rules for that).

Of course, there's so much crossover and blurring, the usefulness of labels only goes so far.

K.C. Woolf said...

Interesting post, and comments.

Genres and subgenres are just a framework, aren't they. Of course they're important for sales and marketing purposes, which is a valid reason to take them into account, but as it's a framework, it's a simplification of reality that helps us understand. Many novels are crossovers and could be categorised in different genres / subgenres.

Like Kelley Armstrong's 'Women of the Otherworld': some of the books (on Amazon) are under paranormal, others urban fantasy, and some both.

I write contemporary fantasy in a rural setting, so I find it difficult to call my novel 'urban fantasy', and usually go by modern fantasy or contemporary fantasy.

Thanks for the post! :-)

Shannon Lawrence said...

Lydia, it sounds like it could be considered under UF, but I've also seen the sub-genre of Paranormal Romance, so that might actually fit better. Thank you for the series recommendation!

Katie, it IS confusing! I hope you get it all figured out and your querying finds you the perfect one to publish your book!

Jeffrey, I'm looking forward to the Cowboys vs. Aliens sci-fi western, despite the cheesy name. But you're right. It's like horror movies, where all the rules suddenly changed. That medium has been rocked, as well.

Al, yes, I think both of those definitions work. Ha! Or finding parking downtown without driving in circles for an hour.

M.J., that's a good, non-complicated way to look at it. I like the way you think.

Andrew, that's a really good point, and well said. On the one hand, it would have been easier to classify when it was only genres (sci-fi, horror, romance, drama, etc.). On the other hand, the one story I tried to submit to two magazines (and then gave up on, this being about a decade ago), was getting turned down by sci-fi mags as not fitting that genre, horror mags for the same, and I had no knowledge of any fantasy mags or that as a genre, to begin with. All that to say that the blurring of the lines may have been good for at least one thing--when your story didn't fit one specific shape.

Margo, all very true, and Gaiman is a great example of someone who blurred the lines way back when. I think he was always listed under horror not too many years ago, if I remember correctly. I don't remember having a separate fantasy section back then at all, though. It was sci-fi or horror.

K.C., I love the comments! Framework is a good way to classify it. Contemporary Fantasy seems like a good catch-all and a way to envelope multiple sub-genres and those that blur the lines. It sort of makes the term Urban Fantasy sound like an extraneous sub-genre.

Rebecca Dupree said...

Urban Fantasy = Sex. Hahahaha. Only on True Blood. :D

Michelle Gregory said...

great post. makes me glad i'm not trying to fit my story into a niche.

Andrew Leon said...

Actually, Gaiman is a good example, but not for his books... his comic books.
And American Gods is classified as Sci-Fi, although I never would have considered it that.

I remember the very first "cross-genre" books I read: 1. the original Apprentice Adept trilogy by Piers Anthony 2. The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey 3. The Warlock of Gramarye series by Christopher Stasheff. All crossing the sci-fi/fantasy threshold. I though it was sooo cool back in the 80s.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Lot of good questions there. May someday it will figure itself out (or not). I love the Mercy series, hate Sookie.

Jo Schaffer said...

Confusion! Vampre sex? Without glitter preferably.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Rebecca, definitely on True Blood, but also in Laurell K. Hamilton's books!

Michelle, good place to be, for sure!

Andrew, really? Sci-fi? Anne McCaffrey was probably my first fantasy novel. I've been thinking I should revisit Pern since I only ever read one of her books.

Donna, while I wouldn't say I hate Sookie, I don't go out of my way to read one of the series and I often want to shake her. Hard.

Jo, oh man, I'm not sure I'll ever get over the sparkly vampire thing. I just can't bring myself to take it seriously. Glitter! Hahahaha!

Andrew Leon said...

Yeah, Gaiman won the Nebula for best sci-fi of the year with American Gods in... um, 2002? To some extent, it's all a matter of perspective.

Ani said...

Awesome awesome AWESOME post! This question is still something I'm not clear on and this could pose to be a potential problem when querying as the genre of the story must be stated. I've ready different things on different sites about the lines that make urban fantasies different from say, paranormal romance? What if the urban fantasy has romance in it? What if the paranormal romance is in an urban setting?

But great examples and loved the humor! :D

Anonymous said...

very interesting post, and also comments. Labels can be confusing sometimes, but they are important to help categorize the book in the publishing world. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Um... um... I think you've summed up pretty much how I'd describe Urban Fantasy. I don't think it necessarily has to have sex. What comes to my mind first when I think Urban Fantasy is Cassie Clare's The Mortal Instruments series. Shadowhunters, werewolves, vampires, warlocks and other paranormal creatures kicking demon butt in New York City and surrounding urban areas.

nutschell said...

Great post! I think urban fantasy means it's set in our modern day and age. :0

Shannon Lawrence said...

Andrew, huh! It definitely does seem to be about perspective.

Ani, that's exactly why it's so important. I've been told that one must be clear on exactly what niche they fit into once they're pitching/querying.

Damyanti, very true. They have to know where to shelve the books once they get published.

Rachel, I hadn't heard of that series, but I'm going to look into it. Thanks!

Nutschell, concise, and I tend to agree.