I recently had the very great pleasure of talking to a group of aspiring authors, writing teachers and writing students at the 2011 Scribblers' Retreat Writers' Conference in St. Simon's, Georgia, and thought I'd post my notes on my topic, which was Urban Fantasy: Modern Day Fairy Tales Drawn From Fantasy and Folklore. (Because that's what I write, yo?) :) Keep in mind that these were only my notes, which I expanded upon during my talk, which hopefully made it a little more fun and interesting than just the dry read-thru that you're about to experience (including one part where I almost caught on fire, but you kinda had to be there to get the full effect of that incident...) At any rate, maybe there are some other aspiring authors out there who can use the info, so here you go!
At its most basic level, Urban Fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy which involves present-day Earth and includes a supernatural element. On a much broader scale, however, Urban Fantasy represents the basic human need we have—especially in today’s uncertain times—to believe that good always beats evil. This “trope”, or literary technique, is at the heart of every good fantasy novel, whether it’s Sci-Fi Fantasy (Star Wars, Star Trek), Historical Fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones), Young Adult Fantasy (Harry Potter) or today’s Urban Fantasy, which includes novels like Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Neverwhere.
According to Library Journal, Urban Fantasy was first defined as an acknowledged sub-genre in the late 1980’s and early ‘90s(1). In the years since, there has been a slow but steady growth in stories about alternate realities, vampires, werewolves, witches and zombies, leading to 358 fantasy titles hitting the bestsellers list in 2010 (up from 160 in 2006)(2). Fantasy and science fiction made up 10% of adult fiction sales last year, compared with 7% for mainstream literary fiction.(3) Urban Fantasy is considered a “cross-over” genre, as modern-day fantasy tales can be combined with mystery, romance, science fiction, horror, young adult genres, and by default, reaching a wider variety of readers. In light of declining print sales, major publishers like the Big 6 (Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster) are increasingly seeking crossover novels that break genre molds and span genre bridges, and Urban Fantasy fills that need perfectly.
Urban Fantasy has always been around, from the days when spooky stories were told around warm fires on cold nights, but many classic Urban Fantasy tales were written in the 1800's: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Robert Lewis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde. Spooky stories involving everyday life never went away, and were reflected in 20th century “pop-culture” through the use of television shows and movies:
Dark Shadows The Twilight Zone The Addams Family The Munsters
X-Files The Outer Limits Tales From the Crypt Buffy the Vampire Slayer
And the tradition continues in a more modernized way:
Grimm True Blood Supernatural Ghostwhisperer
Once Upon A Time Sanctuary Haven Being Human
Lost Medium The Vampire Diaries
No matter how many statistics I quote you, no matter how many examples I give you, the bottom line is that people are drawn to the unexplained, the fantastic, the out-of-ordinary. I joke that I began my writing career by deciding that imagination was the best weapon in the war against reality, but that’s actually the truth, not a joke. I’ve always been drawn to a story well-told, and the more elves and hobbits and white rabbits and talking caterpillars it had it in, the better. Today’s Urban Fantasy tales are no different than the fantastic tales of J.R. Tolkein or Lewis Carroll; they’re just tales told in a way that reflect today’s society, viewed through a modern day, somewhat supernatural lens.
The supernatural elements in today’s Urban Fantasy are virtually unlimited. Vampires, witches, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, faeries, dragons, any form of magic. Special powers such as telekinesis, the ability to read minds, invisibility, superhuman strength. New twists on old legends or mythologies. Vampires who are married to witches who read minds and give birth to werewolves. Zombie faeries who can only be killed by toxic pixie dust. Shapeshifting dragons who roam the skies at night and fight forest fires during the day.
Those are extreme examples, of course (but hey, if I see one of those ideas in someone else's future novels, I want credit, darn it!), and while the plot device the writer chooses to employ will of course vary, the basic plot of an Urban Fantasy novel usually includes:
- 1) An over-arching theme of Good vs. Evil. The stakes can be as high as the fate of the world, or as simple as saving the life of one individual, but there is always a goal that serves the greater good. Whether your protagonist is a supernatural bounty-hunter who keeps demons from taking over the world, or a single mom who finds out her neighbor is a vampire, moral dilemmas—and the consequences of them—are a mainstay of Urban Fantasy.
- 2) The journey of the self – UF protagonists often start out ill-equipped, or even unwilling, to deal with the situations they find themselves in, but through character development (which the author shows by their ongoing actions and insights), find within themselves the strength to meet ever-increasing challenges.
- 3) A Major Secret – one that puts the protagonist outside the realm of “normal”, but forces them to behave as though they were just like you and me. By placing the protagonist in an urban, “everyday” setting, the author creates a sense of kinship with the reader, fostering the much-needed suspension of disbelief.
I tend to shy away from straight horror, and I must admit that I've never quite seen the appeal of the whole "zombie" thing (unless it's based on the true genesis of that particular belief, which is deeply rooted in voodoo, not brain-eating automatons who can only be killed with a shotgun blast to the head), but who knows what I'll write about next? With Urban Fantasy, I've got a rich field of imagination in which to play.
(1) Library Journal, “Urban Fantasy: The City Fantastic” http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6561372.html
(2) Stuart Johnson & Associates/Simba Information, book sales tracking http://www.simbainformation.com
(3) Bowker® is the leading provider of global book information and decision-support solutions through services that promote an efficient supply chain to publishers, book sellers and libraries. http://www.bowker.com