What is Urban Fantasy?

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Urban Fantasy is a genre that I find is often mis-characterized. People don’t really understand what the label means or conflate it with other genres. In this post I am going to lay out my thoughts on what Urban Fantasy is and explain what differentiates it from other, similar genres.

HISTORY

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Urban fantasy began to develop as a distinct genre in the mid-80s. One of the first standout works in the genre was the Borderlands series, a shared universe assembled in anthologies and edited by Terri Windling. The stories take place primarily in Bordertown, or B-Town, a city straddling the divide between the magical Elflands and our real world, a place where magic and technology intersect in strange ways.

This series and the works of authors like Emma Bull and Charles de Lint formed the basis of early Urban Fantasy. These stories focused mainly on the idea of mythological or magical beings interacting with the modern world. It had a more myth or fairy tale type feel. This vein of Urban Fantasy can still be found in the works of authors like Neil Gaiman, but the genre has now gone in a different direction.

In the early-90s Urban Fantasy began to take in more noir and detective elements, moving away from mythological stories and more towards supernatural thriller tales. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books are the best example of this, and in many ways have become definitive of what Urban Fantasy has become, spawning a myriad of similar stories in its wake.

While Hamilton’s books gained in popularity among readers, Urban Fantasy began to move to television. In 1997 the first episode of the show that many, including myself, would argue is the most iconic work of the Urban Fantasy genre to date aired on The WB…

Since then, Urban Fantasy has continued to flourish with series like The Hollows by Kim Harrison or The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher still being very popular among readers. Television has also proven to be fertile ground for Urban Fantasy series following the success of Buffy along with the growth in popularity of nerd culture and fantasy in general. Supernatural might be the most famous and longstanding of these shows, but series like Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, and Lucifer are among the many examples out there.

All of these stories have certain common threads. They are all set, at least partially, in our world and usually during modern times. They all have some kind of magical element and usually feature demons, vampires, or other creatures from folklore. And I would say the vast majority of these stories also have some sort of mystery, crime, or thriller element.

There is always Brandon Sanderson’s very concise description of Urban Fantasy which could be used as a working definition:

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But I think there’s more to it than *just* that. The confusing thing about Urban Fantasy is that it is so similar to many other fantastical genres like horror or paranormal romance. It is distinct from them, however, and I’m going to go through the differences below.

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These two terms are often used interchangeably, but technically speaking Urban Fantasy is a subgenre of Contemporary Fantasy. While Contemporary Fantasy refers to any fantasy story set in modern times, I think that Urban Fantasy needs to have a gritty feel and a bit of a noir influence. At the very least I would argue that Urban Fantasy is characterized by a thriller feel, even if it has a lighter tone.

For example, I would argue that Harry Potter is Contemporary Fantasy, not Urban, because it is defined by its sense of wonder, magic, and discovery. Whereas the Mortal Instruments has the grit and darkness and “thrillerness” that characterizes Urban Fantasy.

Also, it has a lot more leather.

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2

Horror often features supernatural elements. Creatures like vampires, werewolves, and demons show up in both Horror stories and Urban Fantasy stories. So what separates them?

I would argue that it is a combination of character competence and engagement with the supernatural. Characters in Horror stories are not known for being very competent. Furthermore, in Horror stories that feature supernatural elements, the goal of the protagonist is never to engage with or understand the monster but rather to escape from or destroy it.

By contrast, Urban Fantasy characters are very often competent in the way that they interact with the supernatural. And even if they are out of their depth, they are willing to dive in and engage with the world, to become immersed in it rather than to be fearful of it.

Think of the way that Buffy or the Winchester brothers deal with monsters as opposed to the victims in Jason or Freddy movies.

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3

Paranormal Romance is probably the genre most often confused with Urban Fantasy, and to be fair the two share almost all of the same elements. But there is one key difference, which author Jeannie Holmes describes as such in her blog post “Writing Urban Fantasy, Part 1: ‘Oh yeah? Says Who?’“:

“The two share 90% of their genre DNA. However, the main differences are this: Urban fantasy focuses on an issue outside of a romantic relationship between two characters. Paranormal romance focuses on a romantic relationship between two characters and how outside forces affect that relationship. The best litmus test to determine if a story is urban fantasy or paranormal romance is to ask the following question: ‘If the romance between Character A and Character B were removed, would the plot still stand as a viable storyline?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ chances are good it’s urban fantasy. If the answer is ‘no,’ it’s most likely paranormal romance.”

For example, if you were to remove Edward Cullen from Twilight Bella’s life would’ve been even sadder and more meaningless than it already was. But if you took Angel out of Buffy, she would still slay vampires. And he would get a spin-off series set in LA.

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CONCLUSION

While Urban Fantasy started out as myths and fantasy in the modern era style stories, I think it has evolved into having a very distinct identity derived from its ties to the mystery and thriller genres. Hopefully this post has cleared up some of the confusion surrounding the genre and given you some insight into what it is and where it came from. And if anyone ever asks you what Urban Fantasy is, please feel free to refer them to this post!

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4 thoughts on “What is Urban Fantasy?

  1. A most interesting post. I have what I think will probably be an Urban Fantasy in my head. Thanks for the clarification. I’ve other projects to finish first though. One awaiting the publisher, one to edit, and one to finish writing!

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