Author Topic: I've learned something important about Urban Fantasy  (Read 701 times)  

Offline Shane Lochlann Black

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I've learned something important about Urban Fantasy
« on: January 11, 2020, 10:10:58 am »
I've been giving serious thought to the boundary between fantasy and urban fantasy. At the same time, I've been wondering what it is about contemporaries of my LadyStar stories that makes them a success. In the process I believe I've uncovered a flaw in my own reasoning. 

I write fantasy for a pretty simple reason. I want my characters (and readers) to explore the parts of that archetypical magical forest we never get to explore elsewhere. I want them to find that hidden temple and the ancient quest concealed inside and then paint the pictures of their journey on a wide and deep canvas with as many colors as I can muster.  Problem is I'm not entirely sure that's marketable as fiction.  Might be marketable as a video game. 

At the same time, I've gone back and done yet another analysis of what makes similar characters (not stories necessarily) popular, and I do believe I've found they all have something in common: no matter what their premise, if they have fantasy elements, they are all urban fantasies. The advice to qualify an urban fantasy by subtracting the romance and seeing if the story can still stand on its own is what guided my analysis. The examples don't exactly line up, but they come too close for it to be a coincidence. LadyStar is a story about girls who have magical powers. As I understand it, urban fantasy is a fantasy story that takes place in a contemporary present-day setting (with a conventional frame of reference), usually with a young female protagonist and an optional romance. Audiences are usually YA or less commonly NA.

Here are the examples of similar stories I studied: 

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The landmark urban fantasy. (Romance: yes)
2. Charmed - Three witches disguised as young adults with magical powers contending with present day life. (Romance: yes) 
3. H2O Just Add Water - Three mermaids disguised as teenagers with magical powers contending with present day life. (Romance: yes)
4. Sailor Moon - Five extraterrestrial warriors disguised as teenagers with magical powers contending with present day life.  (Romance: yes)
5. Harry Potter - Three wizards disguised as normal teenagers with magical powers contending tangentially with present day life.  (Romance: yes)
6. Superman - An extraterrestrial disguised as a human with superpowers contending with present day life. (Romance: yes)
7. The Avengers - Five humans and an extraterrestrial with superpowers contending with present day life. (Romance: yes) 
8. Spider-Man - Teenager with superpowers contending with present day life (Romance: yes)
9. Percy Jackson and the Olympians - Teenagers with magical powers contending with present day life (Romance: ?)
10. Twilight - A girl with a magical boyfriend contending with present day life (Romance: yes) 

See the pattern yet?  It occurred to me that my story might be an improperly packaged urban fantasy in the wrong setting.  The only examples that more closely match mine are:

1. The Chronicles of Narnia - Contemporary teenager-ish protagonists step through a portal into a magical world and gain magical powers. (Romance: ?) 
2. John Carter of Mars - Contemporary human steps through a "portal" and gains superpowers. (Romance: yes) 
3. The Lord of the Rings - Fantasy characters in a fantasy realm contend with magical powers. (Romance: yes)
4. Star Wars - Teenager in a galaxy far, far away gains magical powers. (Romance: no) 

While it could be said that almost everything in the first list is based at least somewhat on John Carter or elements of John Carter, the truth is the first list is far more consistent and more popular, at least in the present day. With all due respect to Tolkien, Lewis, Lucas and Burroughs, of course.  They are all fantasies, but only four of the fourteen take place elsewhere. This takes nothing away from these works, but at the same time it illustrates how rare "other world" success stories are compared to the urban subgenre.  I have to admit that world-building is very difficult and VERY time consuming compared to writing a story that takes place in a conventional frame of reference. 

It may very well be that my characters (which are really all that has emerged from my efforts so far) transplanted to a contemporary setting with their powers intact might be the adjustment that not only makes the story better, but also makes it marketable.   

The advice I can offer to other authors is this: If your story isn't working, or your books aren't selling, you have to go back and do an unforgiving analysis of it. Chances are a simple adjustment is all it takes before it becomes a lot easier to write and sell.

Inspiration doesn't come packaged for sale. It's our job as authors to figure out what the story is trying to say and then put it in terms readers can understand. In my case, it's very possible my whimsical flights of fancy off into the magical forest and its hidden quests were confusing the point. I'm writing a story about teenage girls with magical powers. To make that story relatable to readers, those girls must contend with their powers (and conflicts) in a familiar setting. 
« Last Edit: January 11, 2020, 10:20:01 am by Shane Lochlann Black »

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    Online blubarry

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    Re: I've learned something important about Urban Fantasy
    « Reply #1 on: January 11, 2020, 10:31:06 am »
    I'd caution you to make sure you're marketing to the right subgenre of UF and not making the mistake that UF is all YA or NA. There are many big sellers that aren't YA geared. The first UF series I read was the Dresden Files. Not YA, though it shares some elements and characters that brings that aspect to it.

    As always, if you're releasing in a genre, read and understand the expectations of that genre. There are definitely some UF series that are more YA, but you might consider looking in the paranormal categories to see if what you're thinking fits there better.

    Offline Jim Noss

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    Re: I've learned something important about Urban Fantasy
    « Reply #2 on: January 11, 2020, 10:38:25 am »
    I'm not really sure if you understand the Urban Fantasy genre. Like, at all. Most of those examples you listed aren't urban fantasies. Superhero movies might technically be fantasies in a contemporary environment but they're a genre onto themselves and are not what people are looking for when they sit down to read an urban fantasy book. Although TV shows like Buffy and Charmed ARE Urban Fantasies I think reading popular books in the genre would allow you to gain a better understanding of the tropes and expectations readers have when they pick-up an urban fantasy book. There are many different types of urban fantasy but your examples of the genre went so far out of the box that I have to believe that it must be intentional.

    Your point about romance also seemed to come out of nowhere. Most urban fantasies have some type of romantic element, but when the romance dominates the book that's when you end up with paranormal romance, which is urban fantasies sister genre.

    Also, most urban fantasies are NOT young adult, though some are.

    Offline C. Gold

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    Re: I've learned something important about Urban Fantasy
    « Reply #3 on: January 11, 2020, 10:37:52 pm »
    Nailing what urban fantasy is can be somewhat difficult. I always felt it was magic fantasy set in modern day cities. Usually with non-magical people completely clueless, to give the reader that sense that your neighbor might be something 'other'. You can have vampires, shifters, and all sorts of magical beings, but they hide. It gets less UF to me and more alternate history when everyone knows about magic.

    However, the Baine Chronicles is very urban fantasy yet it's set on a completely different world from Earth. Everyone there knows about magic, but takes place in cities that feel Earth-like but with additional elements.

    So I guess it's really how strongly you use the city setting that gives it that urban feel, not just locating it on Earth modern day, and it can be on different planets. I'd never consider Harry Potter to be urban fantasy because most of the story takes place in more of a standard fantasy setting - schools or magical buildings or homes of magical people. Even when Harry is on the street, he's in a magic bus that is veiled to muggles. There's not that sense of a magic person in everyday life that I expect in UF stories.

    An urban fantasy series also has the same main characters throughout with some element of paranormal investigating, crime fighting, or the like. The focus is on that aspect, with perhaps a touch of slow building romance across several books. They also usually have everyday troubles like paying the bills or getting tech to work around a mage (poor Harry Dresden).

    While superhero movies do take place in modern day cities, they don't have the right elements to feel like urban fantasy. Their stories are much larger as they deal with larger things.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts as a reader of urban fantasy as well as other fantasy.

    Offline Lady Runa

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    Re: I've learned something important about Urban Fantasy
    « Reply #4 on: January 12, 2020, 05:09:53 am »
    Personally, I have a feeling that urban fantasy has a certain element of noir to it. It's gritty, even cynical to a degree. While fantasy as such generally tends to be more wholesome and optimistic, in UF you're never too sure whether good can prevail over evil...

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