… and why it doesn’t work sometimes.
Urban Fantasy doesn’t exist. Go into any bookstore (well almost any) and look for the Urban Fantasy section. Not there and not coming soon. This is partly because UF spans genres – action, horror, science fiction, steampunk, crime, romance, chick-lit, mystery, alternate reality and more. The publishing houses never got the chance to lay down laws, thank the stars, and so UF is what people who know, point to and say, ‘that is UF’.
To try and focus a little more than that, let’s examine some core elements.
UF involves the supernatural. Some or all of: vampires, witches, werewolves, fairies, gods, demons, trolls, orcs, spirits, zombies, magic and so on. That’s so broad. The genre splits in two here – one segment where the supernatural is known to the population and one where it may be suspected, but is not officially known. The first segment often takes on many of the settings of Alternate Reality fiction.
So what distinguishes it from general fantasy? It takes place in a recognizable contemporary setting. Since most of us live in cities, the majority of UF is city based. That’s not to say that the setting is completely familiar – often there are differences in the way things work.
The mundane protagonists are familiar; they have jobs and cars and a place to stay and bills to pay.
So the above elements form the environment into which the story is dropped. Where UF fails, we can broadly categorize, it is because the environment fails, or the story (i.e. pretty much everything else) fails. Or, in the case of a real Galliformes Meleagris,* both fail.
Why stories fail is for a bigger blog post. I’ll return briefly at the end. But in this post, I’d like to look at why the environment fails in UF, or indeed in any speculative fiction.
How can UF fail on the environment?
Often, the supernatural elements do not form a cohesive, consistent and limited whole. We live in a rational age, more or less. We like things to have reasons, and just inventing supernatural laws and reasons is more difficult than it seems. You can tap into a mythos – say werewolf and most readers will fill in a great deal of detail, for example. But if you want to pit paranormals against each other and have them mingle with humans you need to give them strengths and weaknesses, otherwise a god turns up on the set and says ‘you’re all dead, I win’. Further, the paranormals have to have sufficiently human attitudes that we can identify with them or recognize their motivations and they can have a reason to interact with the story. As I say, this is difficult, but an obvious task for an author, and it’s kinda fun.
What’s difficult and much less obvious is getting the rationale right for whether the paranormals are known to the general population or not, and how the population reacts if they are. A lot of UF books have paranormals creating casual mayhem, but the populace is supposedly in ignorance of them. Or the general populace knows about the paranormals and just shrugs off the mayhem. This is less fun. This is the messy end of world-building.
But where either of these things fail, the suspension of disbelief fails, and I become distracted. I starts muttering ‘it wouldn’t work like that’, ‘why did that happen’, ‘where are the police’, ‘what percentage of local taxes go to pay for all the repairs’ and once that starts, the book is falling, not flying.
For me, nine out of ten times, it’s the interaction between the paranormal and the human that starts to erode the suspension of disbelief, and nine out of ten times that starts with questions like ‘how can they not realize that’s paranormal’ or ‘how can they be so casual about the paranormal’.
Read Kim Harrison’s Hollows or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and see how much effort is put by them into making their world-building consistent and believable. In the Hollows, humanity and the paranormals live uncomfortably side by side, but know about each other. In the Dresden Files, the police (some of them) are constantly denying the reason for the mayhem and inventing ‘logical’ explanations. And in both cases, the writers entertain you with the interactions, rather than try and sweep it under the carpet.
Location and occupation
These are much less likely to be the source of failure. If the author gets the one-way system in your city the wrong way round, he can always play the alternate reality card. Irritating, and it might ruin it for you, but unlikely that sort of thing will ruin it for many people.
At a base level the occupation of the protagonists is seldom completely wrong. What puts me off is where the behavior of the protagonists or the surrounding cast doesn’t work for that occupation. The detective who wanders onto a crime scene and handles things. Or his supervisor who lets him have repeated days off in the middle of a gang war.
How can UF fail on the story?
As I said earlier, there are too many ways for me to go in to depth here. See some of the questions I ask myself in the blog about reviewing books – plot and characters, pace and action.
The important thing I’d like to focus on here, is that, for me, many more books fail on story than in the environmental area, but it’s the environment that is more often wrong. Yet I will limp along with a book that is implausible, even irritating, as long as I have at least characters, plot and pace. A lot of the aviating steampunk I’ve read bugs me and yet I read the books and quite enjoyed them.
As with my comments in my blog about reviewing books, I’m in no way an arbiter of the way things should be done. These are my personal views and I would welcome comments.
I’ve survived (enjoyed) writing courses in the wilds of Dartmoor and I’ve read the ‘How to’ books on writing. One of the basic tenets from both is dealing with the backstory. The classical mistake newbies make is to have too much back story, too early. The advice ranges from ‘break it up’ to ‘weed it out’. The argument behind this is sound –
Agents read the magic first three chapters (if you’re lucky), and do not want to get bogged down in ‘why’ before they get engaged in ‘what’.
Readers need to be engaged in the ‘now’ story, not the ‘then’ story before they’ve gone far. The tense usually changes for backstory, and ‘I had gone’ rather than ‘I went’ or ‘I go’ feels less direct, less engaging.
So, I pared my backstory down. And down. And made two mistakes. The first HUGE mistake, was that there was some backstory which had just happened and was really exciting. I left it as backstory because, silly newbie, I wanted to open my book with my pre-conceived opening, which was Amber Farrell, PI, sitting in her office and the client coming in. Hey, worked for Raymond Chandler, how wrong can it be?
Lots wrong. Raymond Chandler didn’t create PIs, though he defined a genre of how to write about them. When he said (as Marlowe in The Big Sleep) “I was wearing my powder-blue suit… I was neat, clean, shaved and sober… I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be…” His readers knew what a PI was, and could immediately start to take the background information and fleshing out the ‘PI blank model’ in their head. They knew he’d be tough and sharp and he confirms this with his dialogue in the first chapter.
On the other hand, I was starting with a woman PI who’s been bitten by a vampire, but is human, and is kick ass, but is… and is.. etc. etc. The PI blank model doesn’t fit, and I can’t flesh her out in snippets of dialogue before getting down to some action. Yes, there are other female PI’s in Urban Fantasy, but they’re not well defined enough for me to call one up in a reader’s mind, and besides, this is Amber and she’s different.
So I eased in a little backstory to illustrate Amber – she’s bruised and sore because she got hit by a truck. She got hit by a truck because she was out busting a drug smuggling operation. She was out busting a drug smuggling operation because that’s way more fun than what PIs usually have to do to pay the bills.
You see? It’s all good stuff, and I hope it gives you a feel for Amber. But it’s backstory, and it only happened last night. Why, said my editor, in big red letters, why did you start in the office? Start at the point she’s about to break up the drug smuggling and gets hit by the truck. And she was right – I re-wrote and it gives the book a flying start while filling lots of Amber details in.
So, massive improvement by taking backstory and making it ‘now’, rather than using my pre-conceived traditional PI opening.
The other backstory problem was more subtle, and I’m not really saying it was a mistake.
How did Amber become so capable and where/when was she bitten by a vampire?
Amber is a very capable woman because she spent ten years in special forces, in the most covert battalion in the US Army. That ended when she was bitten by a vampire, and the army went from not believing in them to having their very own test subject.
OK, I’m not going to add ten years of following Amber through her special forces training and operations just to avoid back story, but I get away with this part. I can say ‘she was in special forces’ and the reader will know she’s tough and capable and have a good idea what that part of her life meant and what abilities it gives her.
But the vampire attack… what do I do with that? It’s two years ago at the start of the novel and involved an operation deep in the South American jungle and left Amber with some problems – she’s afraid she’s turning vampire, she’s guilty that only she survived from the squad (which she was leading – so the deaths are her fault), and she can’t talk to anyone about it, and the army want her to… etc. etc.
I thought I got away with giving the bare bones of this. After all, a vampire attack is a vampire attack, isn’t it? They leap out and bite your neck. They killed her team, but didn’t manage to kill her. She killed them. Enough already?
No. The majority of reviewers have said ‘I want to know what happened in South America’.
There will be a short story prequel called Hacha del Diablo (or probably, The Devil’s Axe). It will tell the story. It’s not Urban Fantasy – Amber’s about as far away from civilization as you can get when this happens – if it’s anything, it’s Military Horror (a genre I’ve invented for the purpose). Regardless, I’ll enjoy writing it, after finishing Hidden Trump. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it. It’ll be on Amazon for free.
And hopefully, that’ll be all that’s necessary for Amber’s back story!