What is urban fantasy…
… 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.