So You Want To: Write An Urban Fantasy
As great a work it is, fantasy doesn't begin and end with The Lord of the Rings
. In Urban Fantasy
, mythical creatures and magical beings walk the streets of major cities, towns and suburbs, and mythical quests and legendary battles are fought not in far-off lands of myth, legend and lore, but in the world that exists outside the reader's window. It's a fascinating and fun genre, and this page is designed to give you some pointers in how you can contribute to it.
Of course, check out So You Want To Write A Story
for all-purpose advice.
- Firstly, you'll want some Fantasy. Magic and Powers is a good place to start, and you should also check out Our Monsters Are Different. The term "Fantasy" is so broad that you might want to concentrate on what you're not including as much as what you are. Keep in mind that even in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most influential works of this genre, they didn't have leprechauns. Do you really want to do a Fantasy Kitchen Sink? If that sounds like too many balls to keep in the air, cut down on the magic. Alternatively, a good approach might be to build up how The Rules work one step at a time. So your main character is a Vampire? Okay! So is this series vampire-specific or are there also, say, ghosts?
- Next, obviously, the Urban setting. The term "Urban Fantasy" might imply that the story is set in the Present Day, or perhaps Twenty Minutes into the Future, but there's no reason you shouldn't shake it up and set your story in Victorian London or even The Future. Not to mention the obvious: your story could be set in any city in the world, or you could even invent your own. If a whole city seems tough, maybe focus on one establishment, such as a high school, hospital, office block, airport, fire station, church...
There's a lot to think about, but here are some questions you should think about the answers to.
- Are the supernatural elements of the story being kept behind a Masquerade or is it common knowledge? If there is a Masquerade, why is the magic being treated this way? Is it because The World Is Not Ready or just that those who have encountered monsters, witches or fairies just don't think that the authorities would believe them? If there's no Masquerade, how does magic affect the world? What is the divide between the Muggles and the Witch Species?
- What is the tone of the series? Where does it fit on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism? You can get away with leaning on a few plot elements or character types that may seem a little familiar to the reader if you show them in a new light. Are good and evil distinct forces in your story? Are the characters fighting for a cause, or for themselves?
- How do the supernatural elements of the story affect the characters? Do members of the Witch Species embrace their powers as part of their identities, or do they view them as a burden? If the world where the story is set is filled to the brim with magic and wonder, how do other Muggles feel? Are curses and hexes more common than healing magic and lost treasures? How are the relationships of the characters altered by the fantastic? Can a romantic relationship be sustained if one of the partners is turned into a cat, for example?
- Just how much magic are you working in, anyway? Don't make the mistake of thinking that a well thought out, believable setting can only be a Fantasy Kitchen Sink. Increase the Urban and tone down the Fantasy, if you want: you can do great things by having just one or two supernatural elements (or several relatively low-powered ones) and then taking advantage of the Butterfly Effect. It's not about the size of your idea, it's what you do with it, and that book really explores the main conceit with a lot of depth. There's a story where the only supernatural part was that some characters could read minds, but it worked very well, and was one of the best explored worlds ever written.
- Where does your magic come from? Gods? The Earth? Maybe the mage uses their own life force? Even if it is magic, it has to come from somewhere, and where shapes the use and limits. For example, magic from Gods tends to be dependant on the god granting the request, and can be ridiculously powerful, while spells that draw from the mage's life force are limited in scope if you don't want to end up hurting yourself in the process. You can have magic come from multiple sources, but remember you have to stick to the rules you set down for each type.
- Don't use big magic as an excuse for small plots. If you want to work in seven different species of elf, that's fine. It doesn't mean your story sucks at all, it just means that, apparently, you really love elves. But please don't just throw in a new species of elf because the Wood Elves are getting boring and you need someone to give your protagonist The Shadow Ruby so hey, how about some Shadow Elves, too? If it's that boring to write about the Wood Elves to begin with, then they're probably not much fun to read about either, and if you're only adding the Shadow Elves for the sake of novelty then they'll probably be flat characters who aren't believable.
- Remember that Magic A Is Magic A and stick to the rules that you set yourself. If you write a story where werewolves are allergic to tomatoes, for example, and Plucky Girl Luna Q. Furfang is presented with pasta bolognese by her hunky chef boyfriend, then it's a problem for her to eat it anyway with some rubbish excuse like "the moon isn't full tonight" that isn't going to apply next time she's faced with tomatoes. Maybe she only picks at un-sauced bits of pasta around the edge, and her apparent fussy eating becomes a point of contention in their relationship. Perhaps she's wanted to tell him the truth about her secretly being a werewolf for quite some time now, and this provides her with an excuse to do so. It's a pretty weak excuse, but is that the kind of character she is? If you've already specified that the Big Bad can only be killed by exposing it to strawberry jam, but the character with the power of conjuring jam already gave up their powers, don't just Handwave them back. You could have the Five-Man Band forced to cook up massive vats of strawberry jam in order to save the world. There's always a more inventive and interesting way to end something than just giving up and declaring A Wizard Did It.note
- Throwing magic into the mix sometimes has the effect of turning everyone Good or Evil. Can you think of a Real Life war or conflict where one side was unequivocably good and the other was utterly, irredeemably evil? Even in World War II, America and Britain were allied with Josef Stalin, while Mussolini's Italy was very much a lighter shade of dark gray compared to the Nazis. Why would magical conflict be any different? Having an entire species of evil bastards as some kind of Designated Villain crew is a cheap way of securing a non-stop supply of enemies for your protagonists to fight, but will your audience really care when one of them is defeated? If Black Magic and White Magic have the effects of turning their users good or evil respectively, why don't more people know about these side effects and avoid the evil? Is it because it's more powerful, has wider applications, or is addictive? Is it simple ignorance, cynical disbelief of "old wives' tales" warning of the effects, or deliberate misinformation being spread by someone for their own purposes? Or do both forms of magic have consequences? White magic turning the user into a Knight Templar is a popular choice.
- Remember that Your Monsters Can Be Different. Then again, it's extremely difficult to reinvent the vampire or the werewolf or some other classic monster, and inventing your own creatures can lack the archetypal significance of something more familiar, like, say, a zombie. The best approach is probably to look at what you need the monster to do, and add or take away weaknesses, strengths and other traits that we associate with those monsters to make them your own, based around where you want the plot to go. If you want your vampire to be a devout Christian, there's nothing stopping you from discarding the rule about them hating crucifixes. If you're writing a romance story and your werewolf has a silver wedding ring, you could drop the stuff as their Kryptonite Factor. If your protagonists are trying to escape a horde of evil goblins and their regular meeting place is a coffee house, maybe the goblins could be allergic to coffee?
- Avoid making magical powers limitless. Magic, to work as a plot element, requires rules, and it requires limits - there should be some things that your characters, even with magic, should not be able to do, or are only able to do with great difficulty and extreme sacrifice on their part. Limitless magic tends to lead to Deus ex Machina or literal Hand Wave resolutions where everything that has gone wrong can be undone with a flick of the wrist - readers tend to find that boring and a bit of a simplistic cheat.
- For more extensive thoughts on this, we highly recommend checking out episodes 14 and 15 of the Writing Excuses podcast, which discuss in depth the use of magic as a plot device.
- If you're giving your main characters any kind of supernatural powers, then you may find it interesting to explore how they may be Cursed with Awesome or Blessed with Suck. Whilst this can present an interesting opportunity to explore how magical powers would work and what effects they would have on those possessing them in a "realistic" context, try to avoid making it an overly-convenient crutch for angst, and maintain a balance between the awesomeness of the abilities and the suckiness of the consequences of possessing them. Most fantasy is in many ways essentially Wish Fulfillment - the reader will approach your text often wishing that they could do the things that your characters can do, and if you have constructed a situation where your character possesses amazing and enviable skills and abilities with few negative drawbacks, and yet spends all their time whining about them, this will risk irritating your reader. In a similar vein, Wangsty immortals (including vampires) are dime-a-dozen - just check out Who Wants to Live Forever? - and there's a bit of a 'been there, done that' feeling to them; try and focus on the positives as well, or at least make them stick out.
- Explain where your monsters come from. Despite many Urban Fantasies being filled with vampires, dragons, werewolves, and more, almost no story makes an attempt to explain where these creatures come from. They just pop out fully formed like Athena from Zeus' head. And since Urban Fantasies are supposed to take place in the real world, you need to explain how your creatures fit into evolution and natural history. Not only does this make your creatures seem more realistic, but it provides excellent opportunity for plot growth. Are vampires souped up bats using magic to disguise themselves as human? Are they just humans infected with a symbiotic microorganism? Or is the mortal theory of evolution flawed or just completely wrong? However, one explanation one should avoid is the one almost all Urban Fantasies resort to when pressured with a race's origins, namely that (in the case of werewolf stories, for example) a human/demon/wolf mated with a demon/wolf and voila, instant werewolf. This is a bad Ass Pull at best, unless you do some serious justification.
- Supernatural plot elements are often used as a metaphor for something more mundane. The plot of the original Frankenstein novel can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth - isn't the idea of creating something evil a terrifying prospect? Buffy the Vampire Slayer was originally based upon the idea that High School is hellish, by filling Sunnydale High with actual demons that themselves often represented fears such as peer pressure and relationships. Be creative, this is a very flexible way of enriching your story. But don't make it too Anvilicious, and keep in mind that Genre Savvy readers will recognize what you're doing.
- A lot of urban fantasy focuses on the True Companions, such as Buffy and Hellboy; Supernatural and Charmed focus on families. The characterization is often a much-loved feature about this sort of show, as the Masquerade tends to force the few who are in the know about the world's magical secrets in together. Perhaps your story could explore working relationships that are magically influenced, such as a hospital or veterinary practice for magical beings, a secret post office for magical messages, a special branch of the army for those with Psychic Powers or a sanitarium for werewolves? Or perhaps you can subvert or invert this expectation... the group is not made up of True Companions, or even enemies forced to work together to survive.
- What about using magic for crime? What potions would you brew if you wanted to rob a bank? Could an incubus walk into a shop and charm the girl at the checkout into giving over all the money in the till? If you could see the future, would you become addicted to gambling, or avoid it as boringly predictable? Do vampires show up on security cameras?
- Consider turning the story around, and telling it from the perspective of a character who can't use or completely understand magic observing another character who can use it very well, thank you. The story can degenerate into a sort of "find the Kryptonite" sequence, while the non-magic-using heroes try to figure out what the evil magic-user cannot do, but it can be a useful visualization and writing exercise.
- While it's tempting to pit magic and science against each other, you can do more to pull readers (who, by and large, come from a background where they know at least a little bit about science, as opposed to almost nothing at all about magic) into the story by using one to influence the other. For example, one of the Dresden Files novels has Harry casting a very large, classic fireball spell, but incorporating the laws of thermodynamics to produce a sheet of nearly frictionless ice as a side-effect of the fireball spell.
- Magic also doesn't have to be all dusty tomes, Latin spells and arcane rituals. Consider Post-Modern Magik - how might modern technologies and practices be incorporated into magic and fantasy? The hideous monster might have been immune to all weapons that existed hundreds of years ago, but does that mean it's Immune to Bullets? Perhaps the dark rituals needed to summon the Elder Gods from their ancient tomb might be found on Google? Do the vampires wear stakeproof torso armor? Do vampire hunters wear neck protectors?
- Start with a garden variety Changeling Fantasy. Then subvert it. The protagonist's real family/species may be not too nice, and instead the protagonist considers their Muggle Foster Parents to be their "true" family, and treats their foster parents and siblings as anyone would their own family. Perhaps even taking it upon themselves to defend them from the various supernasties, Mooks, and Big Bads that inhabit the universe. Bonus points if the protagonist has a Super Powered Evil Side persona that results from their family or species' heritage, or if the protagonist was whisked away from their biological parents because they are the harbringer of doom.
- Consider even the setting. Particularly in works set in the modern day, many creators set their works in major urban centres like New York, Paris, London, Sydney, etc; the obvious advantage here is that these are immensely large, influential and powerful urban centres with large areas and populations (convenient for mystical creatures to hide in plain sight) and which, owing to cultural and social prominence, are easily recogniseable and iconic. However, for ironic value you could consider setting your story in a city or locale that the reader might not expect, particularly if it is a smaller city or one with a less glamourous or more mundane reputation. This is especially effective if you live in a smaller place like this and can draw effectively on local landmarks and areas — think about the world outside your window as well.
Suggested Themes, Plots, and Aesops
- When the story focuses on magic that the protagonists of your story can use, the magic must have rules. Maybe the magical process requires a lot of concentration (on the order of running PERL code in your head), maybe it requires them to injure themselves or otherwise sacrifice something to power it. Your best bet is to use magic as a symbol for a form of power (money, influence, knowledge, etc.) that you understand, then use the rules for that kind of power to shape how magic works. For example, magical energy might be gathered in particular ways (like earning money on a job) and can be stolen if the holder isn't careful; how would a magical "stock market" or "bank" work?
- If there is no Masquerade and magic is out in the open, think about the kind of effects magic would have on established society, including law enforcement, art, technology, and culture overall. Would magical proficiency be a common skill, something to be envied, or the profession of the elite. Or perhaps you'd explore the effects magic would have on society the way Watchmen explores the effects superheroes would have on society. Milieu is very important in all kinds of fantasy and science fiction; society is an important part of milieu.
- For some reason, series of this genre love their Arc Words.
Set Designer / Location Scout
- Cities, obviously, it's there in the title. But is it a grim, grimy and Noir-esque or Mary Suetopia? Is it a major urban centre like New York, Paris or London, or a smaller city or township?
- Also, it doesn't have to be a city at all. Cities are overrepresented in Urban Fantasy, so how about something other? A small sleepy town with surrounding wilderness and villages can be anything from Ghibli Hills to a surviving modern enclave of Überwald. Roads and highways, with big rigs, bikers and hitchhikers, are another underutilized setting, especially if they are for some reason lawless. Or you can stick with a city, but ditch the peaceful, cosmopolitan, globalized aspect with McDonald's and Internet, and put your city into the aftermath of a war, global crisis or a similar event.
- Also, consider the historical era. The genre lends itself to almost any time period in which humanity had cities, though the most common examples to date have focused on the turn of the 20th (steampunk) or 21st centuries. The Shadowrun franchise is set in the (relatively) near future, and the "7th Sea" CCG/tabletop RPG setting is lifted from most of the 17th century. Do some research, with particular emphasis on periods where society changed significantly, such as the shift from the Republic of Rome to the Empire, or the American Revolution.
Expect to find a lot of modernised updates of traditional magical iconography. Think vacuum cleaners instead of broomsticks to fly through the air; mobile phones that have cameras can be used to identify vampires (who won't show up in the picture); potions can be carried around in hipflasks.
Incorporating magic into modern technology (such as forging "cold iron" into bullets
opponents) is very much a hit-or-miss proposition, as there is more involved than just physics. Symbolism can either boost or hinder the effects. Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes
had one human character kill a supernatural being by carving a sort of crescent shape into a wax bullet. The bullet itself evaporated upon being fired, but the target still died because the human believed
that the crescent-shape was his smile, a symbol of happiness, wielded against a creature of misery. By contrast, some of the werewolves in the Dresden Files
book "Fool Moon" were only vulnerable to inherited
silver; thus, wandering down to the local photography supply store to pick up a gallon of silver nitrate solution wouldn't work.
For some reason, the popular image of urban magic-users incorporates Badass Longcoat
fairly often. The subtle touch works nicely, such as a single item of jewelry (usually silver) to display a pentagram or other magical symbol. Depending on how certain the character is in their power, they may go so far as to include other "classic" fantasy elements into their outfit, such as pointed hats or odd neckware.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- The Coffee Achievers is an Urban Fantasy webcomic by Mitch Clem of Nothing Nice To Say. It includes cool details such as a mixtape that allows the listener to fly.
- Some parts of Harry Potter, mostly the bits set in London.
- The Dresden Files
- The Ambergris books by Jeff VanderMeer. Not set in a slightly altered real world, but to an entirely original fantasy world developed enough to have motor vehicles and telephones.
- The entire Nasuverse.
- Charles DeLint's Newford books
- American Gods
- Cast a Deadly Spell, urban fantasy with a '30s hard-boiled detective Film Noir twist
- The Wizard of 4th Street series, set Twenty Minutes into the Future, but with a strong retro feel and Magitek replacing high-tech
- Repairman Jack
- Leave It To Chance
- The sidestory in John DeChancie's Castle Perilous novel Castle Murders has King Incarnadine visiting an Aspect based on Film Noir, complete with demon gangsters and transparent Captain Ersatzes of 1920-30s celebrities.
- The shortlived Marvel Comics series Nightside, with The Others, several races of different monsters living the Masquerade and organized like crime families.
- Being Human
- Persona 3
- Persona 4
- Ghostbusters does a very good job of mixing creepy paranormal and supernatural myth with off-the-wall comedy and Mad Science
- The Cornersville Trace Mythos
- Night Watch. The epic battle of Good and Evil set in post-soviet russia, mostly Moscow.
- The Skulduggery Pleasant series is about a snarky teenage girl and a skeleton detective mage who fight crime in Ireland.
- War for the Oaks by Emma Bull is considered one of the defining works of modern Urban Fantasy, and quite possibly the first work to mix elves with rock-and-roll.
- Durarara!! is a great example of Urban Fantasy where only few fantasy elements are involved in the main story. One of the main cast hails from Celtic mythology.
The Epic Fails
- Later series of Charmed seemed to suffer from Power Incontinence and introduced a character with the power of "projection" which basically meant "do anything". More and more magic was being thrown at the script but the plot remained rather dull and formulaic and there was a lot less of the characterisation that made the series interesting to begin with (assuming you found it such).