Tag Archives: urban fantasy


Following on my previous post about self-publishing, this tweet from author Myke Cole pretty much sums up all my thoughts on the subject of “gatekeepers.”

So, way to go, Myke.



While reading some pieces for workshop shortly after my last post, I stumbled into inspiration.  The piece which inspired me was a choose-your-own-adventure-style retelling of several fairy-tales with a more mature twist, and it got me thinking about those times when a single, currently named genre is not an adequate descriptor for a piece of fiction.  What happens when you want to blend genres, and what are the pitfalls to avoid?

The biggest pitfall that should be avoided is obscuring your story with setting.  As I said in an earlier post, a story can only support one fantastical element.  If you are writing an urban fantasy/steampunk story, you cannot effectively focus on both the fantastical creatures and the clever steam technology that you’ve come up with.  You may try, of course, but your story will suffer as you try to go in too many directions at once.  Better, continuing with the uf/sp example, to use the steampunk as nothing more than a backdrop which could, with little effort on your part, be swapped out in favor of a spaceship, an underwater city, an alien planet, or the “real” world.  On the other hand, you might wish to focus on the steampunk, using the urban fantasy elements as little more than a backdrop.

The second pitfall to avoid is trying to blend disparate genres.  Certain genres lend themselves to being blended with other genres: romance, for instance.  In these cases, the one genre is a sort of template which is laid on top of the other.  Likewise, there are some genres which take the addition of templates well.  Fantasy and science fiction both serve well as bases upon which other genres may be laid.  Common sense should tell you when two genres are unlikely to play nice with each other before you have invested too much time with an idea.  For instance, it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that you’ll be able to write an effective romance/horror story.

When it comes to the bending of genres, the thing to remember is that you can’t make a genre something that it is not.  But that’s the point of genre bending, you say.  Not quite, I say.  In bending a genre, you are trying to make change the shape of the genre in question to accommodate the story that you’re telling.  If you bend the genre too far, though, you’re going to break it.  If that happens, then you were trying to use the wrong genre as a foundation, and you would be better served by another genre.

So how does this apply to urban fantasy?  Let’s run with the steampunk example I was using earlier.  Both genres work well as templates, so it’s a matter of deciding which one will be the base of the story.  Since this blog is ostensibly about urban fantasy in Philadelphia, I’ll say that urban fantasy is the base, and that steampunk is the template.  What I now have is Philadelphia, circa an alternate 1894, where the Reading Terminal is also a sky platform for airships, and automatons, rather than poor laborers, do menial and dangerous tasks.  This forms the backdrop for a story in which werewolves are overrunning the city, and it is the job of a Gentleman Adventurer to stop them.

Throughout this post, I have assumed your familiarity with steampunk, however, if you don’t know anything about the genre/subculture or you want to know more, the Brass Goggles steampunk blog and forums are one of the best places to start.

Breaking the Cliche

In an earlier post, I discussed the difference between how I see urban fantasy and how the world at large generally sees urban fantasy.  A lot of what makes the average urban fantasy is a collection of tropes that at least approach being cliché.  Chicks with leather pants and sawn-off shotguns?  Overplayed.  Sexy vampires and werewolves?  Killed for the next few years by Twilight.

If urban fantasy wants to evolve as a subgenre, it must move beyond these clichés.  This doesn’t mean that there can’t be werewolves or vampires, but they ought to keep their shirts on unless the situation absolutely demands otherwise, and the vampires ought only to sparkle if they’ve been attacked by some variety of glitter elemental.  We, as writers, must push the limits of what urban fantasy is to realize what it can be.

This does not require so radical a change as you might imagine, though.  I’m not suggesting that you or I must completely do away with the basic tropes of urban fantasy; without those tropes it would be a different genre.  What I’m saying is that we must understand which tropes are essential and which ones are cliché.  With that understanding, we can move forward to write more interesting stories which challenge readers to reëxamine their ideas about what urban fantasy is.

Don’t reinvent the wheel–it works well enough–make a more pure wheel.  Build from the foundations that have been laid, but don’t just build another samey-samey block house.  This is our mission, and we have no choice but to accept it.

The Difference

Often, when I hear people talking about urban fantasy, I hear words like Twilight and paranormal romance.  I resent this.  I don’t have a problem with paranormal romances, just so long as I don’t have to touch them.  Neither do I have a problem with strong female characters and romantic subplots, which are seen by some as part of what defines urban fantasy.  I do have a problem with vampires who merely sparkle in the sunlight.  Were I a vampire, I would be embarrassed to leave my crypt until the sparkling thing blew over.

I bring this up because I think there’s a difference between the perception of what urban fantasy is and what it actually is.  I agree with Genre Bender that the difference between urban and regular fantasy is that urban fantasy is that urban fantasy takes place in a modern setting, and I have noticed that the line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy is blending, but I don’t think that “a kick-ass heroine (often wearing leather pants and wielding a semi-automatic)” is a necessary part of the formula.  There is merit to said kick-ass chicks, but urban fantasy, as a whole, can take them or leave them.

What urban fantasy needs is the fantasy.  Magic, monsters (though you might want to steer clear of vampires and werewolves until people get over this whole Stephanie Myers thing), strange happenings in general.  Romance, hard-boiled detectives, and leather pants are all optional.  Hell, strong female protagonists, no matter how much they feature in today’s urban fantasy, are optional.  The reason that people are seeing these elements are non-optional is that they’re some of the most common elements.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’s interested in seeing more urban fantasy that isn’t chick-lit.  I’ve devoured Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, but that’s about all the urban fantasy that there is that isn’t targeted at women.  I’m not saying that books targeted at women are bad (except for Twilight, though that’s because it’s Twilight, not because it’s targeted at women), I’m saying that I’m not normally interested in reading books targeted at women.

This is part of why I write.  I can’t be the only male who likes urban fantasy and wants to read non-chicky urban fantasy that doesn’t star Harry Dresden.

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