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What is Urban Fantasy?

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TerrySpear

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I’ve seen this question asked a lot lately. Everyone from agents to editors to authors are coming out with their own versions. And I’ve been asked this a lot by students and others. So this is my version:

When I first started writing vampires, the tag urban fantasy didn’t exist, so I used “paranormal.” But paranormal to me is really ghosts, psychics, that kind of otherworldly phenomenon. And it can be in present day, or the past, as long as it’s not fantasy. Fantasy, anything goes, because it’s fantasy and exists in a world that is not our own.

So what is urban fantasy? To me, it is mythical, fantastical creatures living in our contemporary times. Have a demon romance? It’s urban fantasy. It can be urban fantasy horror, or urban fantasy romance. But it’s urban fantasy. The fantastical element in modern times.

Think of the hero, werewolf extraordinaire, working on his computer, checking the Internet, using his cell phone. It’s urban fantasy. He can be sitting in the country estate, or living in the city. But it’s still urban fantasy.

Think of the gargoyle that protects your apartment complex at night, and talks to the heroine during the day. Urban Fantasy.

Now, what is being said–-urban fantasy is first person. Why? I’ve read tons of third person POV urban fantasy werewolf stories, for one. And they were urban fantasies by virtue of the fact werewolves live among us. Whether they’re in the closet or have come out, it doesn’t matter. It’s a fantasy world within the normal structure of our world.

Some say that urban fantasies are not romances. Why? Are paranormals not romances? Some are, some aren’t. Some historical fictions have romances and some don’t. I know, because I review them and ask for only the ones that have romances. So sometimes we try to limit ourselves into some narrow defined category because some write like this and all of a sudden we’re all supposed to write that to fit the category, and again I ask why?

My werewolves, as well as many others, are sexy. And The Vampire...In My Dreams is a YA and is sweet. Yet both are romances. The werewolves are third person, the YA, 1st person, and they are urban fantasy. They’re not fantasy, which would be set in a different world. They are not paranormal, dealing with psychic or ghostly entities. They are urban fantasies.

Why get hung up on a tag? Because people who are writing them want to define this for query letters to agents and editors. And also because readers and devout fans of urban fantasies need to see the tags.

So what is urban fantasy? Mythical creatures living in present day society, whether they’re vampires, werewolves, mermaids, gargoyles, other shapeshifters, fairies, pixies, ghouls, or other kinds of creatures that we normally don’t see joining the exercise clubs or dancing in our dance clubs–that’s urban fantasy, 3rd person point of view, 1st person point of view, romance, no romance, light, dark, doesn’t matter.

So what is your take on urban fantasy?

Terry Spear/Terry Lee Wilde
Deidre's Secret (paranormal, psychic YA)
Heart of the Wolf, Don’t Cry Wolf
The Vampire…In My Dreams, (YA)coming Aug 26 to bookstores!
Deadly Liaisons, coming November! (vampire adult romantic suspense–urban fantasy )http://www.terryspear.com/

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#1 - July 29, 2008, 06:12 AM

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Terry,

My take on urban fantasy is that the "urban" part is important--that the setting is a city and that it almost becomes a character in its own right.  I also kinda sorta thought that a certain darkness and grittiness is expected.  I always picture the movie Blade Runner in my head when I think of urban fantasy just because that movie really pegged the "city as character" and grittiness issues.  I don't recall hearing that a 1st person POV is a requirement, but that could just be me being oblivious.   I think that I would call something that doesn't have those qualities "contemporary fantasy", which kind of covers the time and place aspects...I know I struggle with these definitions too because I have two adult stories that my agent hasn't shopped yet (we're focusing on YA for now) that are contemporary settings with fantasy elements and plots, and one even takes place in a slightly fictionalized Boston, but they're not urban fantasy in my mind because they lack the elements I described above.

As far as romance...I don't know.  I think that some readers mght have expectations one way or another...and I suppose an important part of this discussion is does the romance have to be romance with a capital R and all the expectations that come with that (HEA and so on)?  An HEA ending might not necessarily blend well with the gritty dark end of things...

And what about YA urban fantasy?  Do the definitions/expectations from adult urban fantasy hold true there as well?

Fascinating conversation...would love to hear more!
#2 - July 29, 2008, 06:41 AM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
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I think the danger in adding "romance" to the mix is that you are creating a sub-sub-genre.  "Urban-fantasy-romance".  This is a mouthful.  But "Paranormal romance" accomplishes the same impression with two modifiers instead of one.

So, if your story is a romance that is urban fantasy, you simply call it "paranormal romance".  It isn't that an urban fantasy can't be romance...it just isn't labeled that way.

I think the lines between paranormal and "urban fantasy" are blurred.  I'd say that urban fantasy is a subset of paranormal, really, with setting more the focus than anything else. 

Now, also be careful, because just because a story contains a romance doesn't mean it IS a romance novel (however you modify that).  MOST stories have some level of romance...but I don't think you can call it a romance unless the romance is the major plot driver.  In other words, the story is about how the werewolf and the unicorn fall in love, but obviously a lot of stuff is thrown at them  (action! adventure!) that makes that process particularly interesting. 
#3 - July 29, 2008, 07:23 AM

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I agree with a lot of what Marissa said re: paranormal romance versus urban fantasy- I think this is a distinction that exists more for adult novels than for YA novels, due to the fact that buyers have to classify adult books as either fantasy OR romance, but not usually both for shelving purposes.  The biggest predictor, or so I've heard, is whether or not the romantic relationship- either in one book or at the end of a series- has a happy ending.  If someone picks up a book in the romance section and the book ends with one of the two people in the relationship permanently dead, readers are NOT going to be pleased.  From what I've heard, they may in fact try to track you down and kill you.

Other than that, I think the line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance gets a lot fuzzier.  I listened to a panel last weekend where they were talking about how if a book walks the line between the two, they might stick it in the fantasy section, but give it a romance cover (or vice versa).  A lot of the distinction is about branding and who a publisher thinks your audience is going to be, and whether they'd be more likely to look for books in the fantasy or romance section.

For YA books, since they're usually shelved altogether, I don't think there really is much of a distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance- most books are free to do whatever they want to blend genres, cross lines, and break whatever rules are already out there, because readers come to the table with fewer expectations than adult readers, which is part of why I think that YA urban fantasy can have such a different feel than adult urban fantasy. 

Back before the term "urban fantasy" was hot, I used to call my books "contemporary supernatural"- and strictly speaking, that label probably fits better, because I deal with a lot of elements that some people may consider more paranormal than fantasy (like aura vision or psychic powers), and my books, though set in real-world contemporary settings, are rarely set in cities.  That said, for the way the term is USED today, I don't think urban fantasy has to be urban at all.  I think the term has morphed until it can basically stand in for "contemporary supernatural," though I do think there might be a certain kind of tone implied by the term.  When I think urban fantasy, I tend to think darker and grittier, and lighter, comic fare (though it still often gets the label) seems like less of a classic exemplar of the group to me, and more of a fringe member.

Marissa, your book (which I loved) fascinates me, because it's one of the only examples I can think of in which there is a YA book that I could actually call a romance, in the traditional Happily Ever After sense.  With most teen books, the HEA has to be modified, because the characters are teenagers, and you aren't going to get the kind of finality you get with adult romances, with the characters married and having kids.  With yours, since they're historical, there is more of a sense of that HEA.  And I guess with Twilight, there will be as well, if Becca and Edward really get married...
#4 - August 01, 2008, 11:26 AM

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 :embarrassed2  Aw, thank you, Jen!

You're not joking about romance readers being rabid about their HEAs...I'm on enough romance writing relation loops that I hear about rabid reader responses and people who get upset if book one of a trilogy doesn't have the HEA...they can't wait for it to happen in book 3.  They don't quite stalk and kill authors, but they'll certainly flame and post evil Amazon reviews.

And I think you're right about YA urban fantasy having fewer rules...YA in general is pretty rule-free, which is why it's so wonderful to write.  I do wonder which has the greater bearing on that--fewer reader expectations or how YA is shelved in stores.
#5 - August 01, 2008, 12:59 PM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
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Nothing constructive to add, just wanted to wave to Terry, who I didn't even know was here!

Hey Terry!  :pp  :smile
#6 - August 17, 2008, 04:43 AM
Christine Norris

A CURSE OF ASH AND IRON
coming some day (soon, I hope!)

prairie girl

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So then, what's the difference between urban fantasy and magical realism? :smile
#7 - August 20, 2008, 02:12 PM

Toothpaste

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Sometimes not a whole heck of a lot.   But the difference tends to be magical realism offers no explanation for the existence of supernatural characters. 

For example look at Melissa's book, Wicked Lovely.  In it there is a reason there are faeries in that particular city, there is tell of parallel worlds with ours where faeries exist.  We believe the explanation, suspend our disbelief because we are in her world.  It works.  Stephanie Meyer has vampires, but before she can let us believe in them she has to explain why we are allowed to, how over time they were made out to be legend when they really weren't.  We are offered an explanation as to how our world could have these vampires in it, and then the reader goes, okay, cool.

In a magical realism novel someone might work in an office say, and happen to have a best friend who has magical powers.  We don't know why, it is never explained why, nor does the main character find it remotely odd that this person happens to have magical powers, even though everything else in the story suggests it takes place on earth here and now.  Magical realism is also usually more concerned with the realism aspect than the magical, and uses the magical stuff as a commentary on society etc.  If the story is about a man trying to find his father and asks his faery friend for help, and they go to the countryside and learn about being men in this day and age and how difficult life is, that's probably magical realism.  If the story is about a man trying to find his father and discovers he is the prince of all faeries and makes friends with a faery who helps him ascend to the throne and it takes place in a modern urban setting, that's Urban Fantasy. 

Think of it as being quite close to absurdism, where strange things happen, but no one in the story seems to notice it.  Magical realism DOES NOT MEAN something set in a realistic location with fantasy elements.  It can, but the term magical realism can be deceiving that way.  Don't take the term literally otherwise you could even count Harry Potter as such.  And it certainly isn't.

The best example I can give is my own writing where I get the odd reviewer who says something like:  "And we are in a totally normal world then suddenly there is this talking octopus, it doesn't make any sense!"  I often nod in agreement with these reviewers.  Exactly.  It isn't supposed to make sense.  That's what makes it so fun!

Anyway, hope that helped!
#8 - August 20, 2008, 03:45 PM
« Last Edit: August 20, 2008, 03:50 PM by Toothpaste »

TerrySpear

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Hi Christine! Waving back! It's a great group! :) Terry
#9 - August 21, 2008, 03:24 PM

I just got an interesting definition of Urban Fantasy from my agent which basically boiled it down to a time: modern-day. If the character, beginning setting or time in space is relatively "now" (as opposed to historic), it could be considered "urban" fantasy. [Therefore, by this definition, it would not, in fact, have to entail the gritty/horror elements or even the city-scape setting, but is something that teens from today could identify with teens from today dealing with something extraordinary/out-of-the-ordinary.]

*shrug*

Two more pennies to throw into the mix...
#10 - August 27, 2008, 01:38 PM

merewald

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Interesting...I always thought it was a modern fantasy story - like Duskydawn said.
#11 - September 05, 2008, 02:04 PM

chan

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It seems like not even agents are quite sure.  My agent came to me saying my story was paranormal, which I thought was weird because it is gritty, in a very urban setting, and deals with shapeshifters--which seemed very unlike the ghosts, psychics, etc. y'all mentioned before. I told him I thought it was urban fantasy and thought about it and said maybe I was right, but that they were fairly interchangeable in YA.
#12 - September 15, 2008, 05:06 PM

I guess I'd think paranormal had a touch of otherworld/spirit/ghosts vibe in it as opposed to fantasy which would have fairies/elves/trolls/wizards.

I actually think your vibe was closer, but - hey - as long as it's published!  ;-)
#13 - September 15, 2008, 05:47 PM

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I personally prefer the term "contemporary fantasy" to "urban" because, well... Not all modern-day-setting-with-fantasy-elements novels take place in cities, and even if that's not what the genre means, I'd say that's what it implies.

(While I'm very, very glad to be out of the town where I grew up, the farmer's daughter in me wants recognition. Trust me, if there are going to be werewolves anywhere, it's out in the fields and woods! :neck)
#14 - September 15, 2008, 07:51 PM
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