In my continuing series on not writing the same old same old, I think it’s well worth mentioning the role of fantastical creatures. Certainly you can have an urban fantasy without any creatures, but they’re a nice touch. The trick, of course, is to use them right. You cannot rely on the existence of elves, vampires, were-creatures, ghouls, goblins, or zombies to carry your story. They’re all so damn common, even overused, that readers will get bored quickly if there isn’t something else there to hold their interest.
George H. Scithers, editor emeritus of Weird Tales magazine, put it this way: “Werewolves and vampires can’t carry a story any more than being in space can. You can use them as a setting, as it were, but it’s got to be ‘you’re in space and something funny happens’ or ‘there are werewolves and vampires and something funny happens.'” I’ll freely admit to having used werewolves in stories before, but their existing in my setting wasn’t remarkable. Rather, they were a tool that allowed me to tell the real story.
A story can only really support one fantastical element. The Lord of the Rings has its one ring, for example; the various races are just tools for telling the story. If they were anything more than that, they would detract from the story.
In a more relevant example within the context of urban fantasy, Harry Dresden’s being a wizard allows his stories to be told, but nobody would have read past the first book if his wizardliness were the only thing to the books. This is an important thing to learn and apply to your own writing. If you spend much time reading fantasy and science fiction, which you ought to if that’s what you’re trying to write, then you’ll start noticing that there’s only one real focus of any story, and everything else is subordinate to this element.
So what does this mean if you want to apply your cryptozoological knowledge to your writing? First, don’t be cliché. We’ve all seen enough sexy/angsty vampires, including the sparkling kind, to last us a lifetime. Second, make sure that creatures aren’t the only thing holding your story together. There should be some plot other than “there are zombies, OMG!” Third, establish why there are creatures. You don’t have to stick in huge amounts of exposition to do this, but you should have a clear idea in your mind why there are creatures, and you should put enough of this on the page to satisfy readers. This can be as little as “there have always been creatures, people just learned to un-see them,” or as much as an entire history of where and when the creatures came from.
Whatever you do with creatures, do it deliberately. If you’re slap-dash with your creatures, your readers and editors will know, and they’ll stop reading.