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How To Write Urban Fantasy: Mixing Magic With Noir
Urban fantasy is a subgenre that combines the best of two worlds: grounded, present-day urban landscapes populated with otherworldly creatures. While most urban fantasies are set in large metropolises like New York City or London, there are occasional outliers. The size of the city does not matter as much as the way you intertwine the familiar with the supernatural.
One of the primary ways that urban fantasies differ from traditional fantasies is that most of the latter take place in rural areas where there is plenty of space, so it is easy to separate dragons, werewolves, or vampires from unsuspecting humans. In urban fantasy, however, magical creatures and supernatural forces are navigating the same dense, crowded cities as humans, so there are bound to be accidental interactions.
People often confuse urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy , but they are distinct subgenres. The primary difference between the two is that contemporary fantasy can take place anywhere, while an urban fantasy takes place in a city or town that functions almost like its own character in the story. Another important difference is that urban fantasies usually take place in our current day and age, while contemporary fantasies take place in times contemporary to when the story was written. For example, the contemporary fantasy category includes works like C.S. Lewis's Narnia series , which though contemporary, no longer feels "modern."
Urban fantasy stories tend to have a noir tone and feel, so they are darker than pure fantasy and often include crimes and the characters who solve them. If you're ready write an urban fantasy, keep reading for some essential tips to get started.
Choose your city and do your research
Establishing the setting for an urban fantasy story might sound simple, since you don't have to create a completely new world from scratch. But it's important to remember that many of your readers will be familiar with—or even live in—the city you choose. With this in mind, consider basing the setting on where you currently reside or somewhere you have lived previously. Readers can tell if you are intimately familiar with a setting or if you've done nothing more than a perfunctory internet search.
If you want to set your story in a city that you've never lived in, now you have the perfect excuse to take a trip in the name of research! Familiarize yourself with the city, talk to the locals, and find out what kind of people live there. Observe the way people interact with each other: do residents greet strangers with the same familiarity that they greet acquaintances? Do they seem to be friendly with the baristas, waiters, and shop clerks they see often? Are there events for residents to mingle, like festivals and block parties? Or does everyone keep to themselves? Are they nervous, or withdrawn? Pay attention to what occurs on the surface and consider what might be happening behind the scenes.
As you establish your setting, consider the following questions:
- What role does the city play in the story? Do aspects of the city provide the perfect cover for monsters and villains, or are there aspects that repel evil forces and offer protection to the city's innocent citizens?
- How do evil forces operate in your city? Can they move about in the open without humans realizing it? Or do they roam freely, terrorizing the populace?
- How does your protagonist relate to the city? Are they a native who feels at ease taking the subway alone? Or are they a new transplant to the city, about to uncover the city's supernatural secrets?
Don't create a fictional city
You might consider setting your urban fantasy in a fictional city of your own creation. Though non-traditional, creating a city from whole cloth avoids many of the pitfalls that might be encountered by a writer who doesn't know the city they wish to write about. If you aren't at home in a particular city, you may be more suited to a fictional urban environment. Twelve Kings of Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu is a great example of this kind of writing, but it comes at the cost of the series not adhering entirely to the genre's most identifiable conventions. It might be advisable to avoid writing about a fictional city for two major reasons.
First, publishers want you to reference a real-world city. Agents will be looking out for an author that grounds their work in real-world conflict and setting. Avoid the label "urban fiction" if your work doesn't meet this expectation. The reason agents search for this sort of writing is that it guarantees an audience – people from that city – and lends the author credibility in their descriptions. Further, readers of urban fiction have particular expectations. It is often better to meet your audience's expectations than to attempt to subvert them, especially if this is your first publication.
Second, the rules of your fictional setting need to be clear. The streets and important buildings, the factions, and the political agendas of the residents will need to be fleshed out, just as if it were a real place. Though this may be part of the fun for some writers, it could be a distraction for others. Such worldbuilding may lead to plot holes , procrastination, or a lack of believability.
Establish your central conflict
Conflict is essential to any good story. It's what hooks your readers and makes them want to keep reading. Some writers find it difficult to write conflict because it pains them to make their characters struggle. Luckily, the premise of urban fantasy—supernatural events or creatures co-existing with humans within the tight confines of a bustling, "normal" city—includes inherent conflict before you even plot out the details of your story. When you take urban characters who are trying to fit in and function as part of society and then complicate their daily struggles with monsters, magic, or supernatural elements, you've got an instant recipe for conflict.
As you plan the conflict for your story, ask yourself these questions:
- How does the city as a whole feel about the supernatural?
- How do the supernatural forces feel about "normal" human society?
- What prejudices or societal restrictions act as barriers between the supernatural and the mundane?
- Which characters (if any) refuse to believe in or see the supernatural, and how does such denial affect the characters' relationships?
- Who holds the power in this society, who wants the power, and who deserves the power?
Get to know your characters
Urban fantasy is usually character-driven, so it is essential that you create well-developed characters that resonate with readers. As you get to know your characters, consider the following:
- What are the protagonist's beliefs and feelings about magic and the supernatural? Perhaps your protagonist is staunchly skeptical or atheistic, or their initial understanding of the supernatural is surface-level.
- How will your protagonist handle the challenge of straddling two very different worlds? Will he or she prefer one world over the other?
- Which characters are aware of the supernatural elements and which characters are completely clueless? What separates the two?
Since urban fantasies are character driven, readers should be able to relate to and even sympathize with your antagonist(s) or villain(s). Remember, no one is all good or all bad: just as your protagonist is flawed, so too should your villain exhibit positive or relatable traits in turn. This will complicate the story or impact the reader's opinion of them.
Give your city character
A defining element of urban fantasy is the setting's status as a character in and of itself. In many cases, the city is an entire cast of characters, and each borough has a particular personality. Often, this personification of the city is literal within urban fantasy – the city can be said to be alive, because it is literally alive or has a will of its own; other times this is simply a useful brainstorming strategy, or the city feels alive to certain characters. Ask yourself some of the following questions to determine the temperament of your city:
- What does the city want? What does it need? Identify any possible weak points in the city's infrastructure – what changes are taking place alongside the developing narrative?
- What parts of the city are asleep, and which are awake? Why are some places more active? How old or young is each neighborhood or district?
- How is the city divided? What are the major areas of the city? What kind of people live in this city, and how are they divided?
Tie characters to boroughs or neighborhoods
Depicting archetypal characters, as urban fantasy often does, forces a writer to toe the line between portraying the uniqueness of their city without completely caricaturing its citizens. In many cases characters are tied directly to a specific neighborhood or area, and these characters are used to describe – and in turn, are described by – that area. Though superhero comics are by no means urban fantasy, there is a good deal of overlapping themes and characterizations in these two subgenres. It can be useful to look at comic books to give yourself an idea of how to portray a particular city or borough: Ms. Marvel is from Jersey City; Peter Parker is not just from New York, but Queens specifically; and Daredevil is from Hell's Kitchen. Each of these characters is a strong example from which to build a character that represents an area, and is represented by that area in turn. Because the characterization of urban environments is similar in superhero fiction and urban fantasy, reading comics featuring characters tied to real-world cities is likely to pay dividends in terms of understanding how to paint the characters that might appear in them.
Once a character has become representative of a neighborhood or area, it becomes easy to draw that character into conflicts linked to that area, or to draw the people of that area into challenges that face the character. The Netflix animated series Trese does an excellent job of showing the different factions within Manila, their conflicts of interest, and how a protagonist can be thrust into these conflicts.
When a character from one borough comes up against a character from an opposing borough or city, conflict between the two is natural and can be used as a cue for action. Furthermore, a character may act differently depending on whether they are in their element, or out of it. All this can be tied to location.
Create rules for the supernatural elements
You will need to do some worldbuilding and set some parameters for the supernatural aspects of your story. Try to envision an average day in your supernatural creatures' lives. Do they rest, and if so, for long? Do they eat? What kinds of things do they eat?
Do your supernatural creatures have headquarters or gathering places? If so, you can add humor and connect with readers by using supernatural creatures or events to explain the everyday irritations of urban life, such as the perpetual traffic congestion near that one intersection downtown or the pungent smells that waft out of every subway grate.
Once you establish the rules for the supernatural aspects of your story, make sure you follow them. Readers will notice if you violate your own rules.
Where is magic hiding? Why?
Many works of urban fantasy disguise the supernatural, and that disguise can be pivotal. The popular Vampire the Masquerade role-playing game by White Wolf publishing is named for the "masquerade" that separates vampire and human society. In this setting, humans are unaware of the supernatural because the vampire princes orchestrate the division between the human and supernatural worlds, and vampire society punishes those who reveal themselves. In other urban fantasy stories, the boundary between human and supernatural has to do with the human mind's inability to easily comprehend magic, or the sheer inaccessibility of magic – it is rare and secreted away, or only possible in the "hidden world" within the story. These rules about how magic is concealed and revealed lead to complications:
- What happens to supernatural creatures who are revealed to the mundane world? Why does the supernatural not reveal itself more frequently?
- What happens to a mundane human who stumbles upon the supernatural? Is it possible to interact with magic unintentionally? What are the possible consequences?
- What conflict exists in the supernatural world that does not exist in the mundane world, and vice versa? In what way do the conflicts of one world bleed into another?
While some writers may be tempted to explore the idea of mixing magic with the real world so that the protagonist is already familiar with these concepts at the start of the story, this also breaks the most basic conventions of the genre. This is the key difference between urban fantasy and magical realism. Magical realism portrays the fantastical and real existing side-by-side; magic is understood and accepted by those who cannot access it, and they may even benefit from its presence. A key element of an urban fantasy story, however, is the way that the supernatural world hides itself, even if it's in plain sight.
Identify your target market
Urban fantasy is a popular subgenre in young adult (YA) fiction, so evaluate your story and see if it is appropriate for tween and pre-teen readers. Plenty of adults consume YA fiction, so you might actually increase your reader base by writing for a younger crowd. You can still include romance and intrigue in YA stories , but you will have to keep your language tame, and any sexual interactions will need to occur off the page. Steering clear of mature themes can be accomplished by interrupting scenes before they get steamy, or by keeping things strictly flirty.
Your target demographic is also an important consideration for elements of your story pertaining to crime and corruption; it's always beneficial to explore themes like these with younger audiences, but be sure that the way the information is presented is accessible to people in the age range you're writing for. There is a certain level of legal jargon and referential humor that will fly over the heads of younger audiences.
Identify potentials for romance
Speaking of romance, romance isn't an absolute requirement for urban fantasy, but love interests and love triangles are frequent features. Just think of all the conflict and angst you can create as characters navigate romantic feelings for supernatural creatures or for characters with different beliefs!
Furthermore, urban fantasy has a direct overlap with the ever-popular vampire and supernatural romance subgenres. Be aware that there are exactly two types of readers of these stories: those who really want to see Dracula in a committed relationship , and those who stop reading as soon as a supernatural romance takes root. It would serve you well to choose a side to write for, and stick with it: either supernatural romance is off the table, or it's integral. The middle ground is unlikely to please either audience.
Consider adding mystery and crime elements
Since urban fantasies tend to have a noir tone, many plots involve protagonists trying to solve a mystery or a crime. Crime-fighting cops and amateur sleuths are common tropes in urban fantasies, because the possibilities are endless when you consider the supernatural forces they'll have to investigate or the magical powers they'll wield to apprehend perpetrators. Other common noir tropes that would particularly benefit an urban fantasy story include:
- Characters who are haunted by their pasts : Perhaps a deuteragonist in your story has hidden involvement with an event that helped create negative circumstances in your plot.
- Expositional monologues : Your character having an inner monologue, or even a play-by-play with their fellow good guys of what's been discovered so far, can be a helpful tool for readers to assess all the evidence and make guesses and theories of their own. After all, for many readers, that's the best part of a mystery. Not all urban fantasy stories need to be based in detective fiction or mystery, but they certainly go well together!
- A minor crime that reveals a major aspect of the plot : fleshing a small crime out into a complicated web of corruption over the course of a narrative. Just be careful not to get lost in your own web!
- The Incompetent Cop : This character trope serves to reinforce the competence of the protagonist, while also serving as an additional source of urgency – your protagonist had better get to that evidence before the other detective bungles it! It can also serve as a much-needed bit of comedic relief in a serious story, if you can do it tastefully.
Remember that though the normal rules of a crime scene investigation may not be in effect, the investigation sub-plot should avoid breaking the established supernatural rules. If the vampire murderer can't cross water, and they disappear across a river after committing a murder, then their ability to accomplish this type of escape should be explained. If the explanation is unsatisfying, then expect your readers to lose interest.
Consider "hidden world" tropes
Another common urban fantasy trope is traveling to a hidden world. This is present in works like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and China Miéville's Un Lun Dun . In these cases, a supernatural world concealed within the urban environment is accessed and has its own rules. This is perfect for those writers who may be less familiar with the city in which their story is set. Less research is required when the character is more directly removed from the mundane elements of the setting. Consider the moment when Harry Potter walks through the wall at platform 9¾ – immediately following this transition to the magical world, Rowling is able to take greater liberties with the events of her narrative. Living chocolate frogs, moving photographs, and minor spells for repairing spectacles quickly introduce the character (and the reader) to the magic of the world.
The "hidden world" trope also allows a character to neatly progress through the Hero's Journey . This allows an author to structure their novel in a manner that is proven to be successful, and it gives the author a chance to subvert the expectations of readers, because most modern readers recognize at least the majority of the elements in the Hero's Journey. The hidden world allows an author to provide supernatural aid to their hero or introduce a mentor, and the entrance and exit to the hidden world are excellent moments for a hero to literally "cross the threshold" or experience a satisfying "return." Further, the hidden world trope pushes our hero toward Apotheosis – a realization central to that character's development – because they are placed in a new (and often hostile) environment that allows them to literally or figuratively confront certain elements of their character.
A great way to learn more about writing urban fantasy is to pick up a book and start reading. GoodReads features a list of the top user-reviewed urban fantasy books , so you can find books that already resonate with your target demographic. As you read your way through their list, pay attention to tropes that feel overused or aspects that really draw you into the story.
If you follow the tips above, you will be on your way toward writing your first urban fantasy story!
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Writing Tips Oasis
A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Urban Fantasy
By Georgina Roy
Welcome to the Writing Tips Oasis guide on writing urban fantasy. Here, we will talk specifically about writing urban fantasy, so, if you want to know more about the act of writing, you can view our guide on writing fiction .
Urban fantasy, as a subgenre of fantasy, first appeared in the 1990s, with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire , and the rest of her series about vampires paving the way. Today, urban fantasy is among the most popular genres, with urban fantasy titles often hitting the top spots in the NY Bestseller List.
Urban fantasy stories are, essentially, stories that involve supernatural species and creatures that come straight out of a myth. Starting with vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters that shift into animals, shapeshifters that can shift into any person or animal, elves, fairies, and other fey creatures, all the way to angels, demons, witches and wizards, mages and oracles. The other essential part of an urban fantasy story is the urban setting. There are many ways that you can play with the setting, but the most essential thing is to have your story happening in a city, rather than the countryside. However, like with most so-called rules about writing and genres, you can subvert the rule and come up with something new.
In this beginner’s guide to writing urban fantasy, you will find the most common elements of an urban fantasy story or a novel. We hope the guide will help you in writing your novel.
Table of Contents
Part One: The Urban World
2. the city, 3. outside the city, 4. maps, pathways, and other helpers, 5. societies and cultures, 6. the everyday life of the characters, part two: the fantasy world, 1. the myths and legends, 2. animals and wildlife, 3. people and other species, 4. the magic, 5. the urban fantasy world, 6. the characters’ roles, part three: the story and the plot, 1. developing characters, 2. developing the story, 3. types of urban fantasy stories, 4. developing the plot, 5. subplots and overarching plots, 6. romance: yes, or no, 7. continuation of the story: creating a series.
Like we mentioned in our introduction, urban fantasy has creatures straight out of a myth or legend appear in the urban world. In an urban fantasy novel, it wouldn’t be weird if a many-headed hydra appeared in the Hudson river, nor would it be weird if ancient pharaohs rose out of their pyramids and decided to take over the world.
Now, the general rule is that the word urban in urban fantasy comes from an urban setting: which means that your story will need to happen in a city, although, there are urban fantasy stories that happen in smaller towns as well.
In this part, we will focus solely on the world building of an urban fantasy world, specifically about the urban setting. While you might think that you need to have your story set in a big city in modern times, there are actually different ways that you can interpret the word urban and choose different types of places in different eras. In addition, we will talk about the rest of the world outside of the city. In an urban fantasy world prevalent with magic, the world itself can look differently, depending on your story. So, let’s take a look at how you can build an urban fantasy setting.
The first thing that you can play with is the era. You can choose any era, as long as you can keep the urban setting. Meaning, you can choose to write a story set in the past where the characters live in a city – or travel from one city or another. For example, take Kat Ross series called the Fourth Element , which are set in ancient Persia.
If you choose an era that’s not the present day, make sure to really include the era: speakeasies in the 20s, swords in medieval times, etc. together with the right clothes and events that, historically, happened in that period.
The modern world, however, is a lot easier to portray because we’re so familiar with it. You will still need to decide how much of the modern world are you going to include. For example, you might be thinking of the modern world, but if you eschew the internet and social media part out of your setting, your story automatically gets set in the 1990s.
When you’re writing your urban fantasy story, use the normal urban world as a tool. That way, you can use everything that the modern world has: phones, fast cars, airplanes, internet. In the modern setting, every place in the world is easily reachable, every person in the world can be contacted unless they’re technophobes and have never heard of a smartphone. On the other hand, in the urban fantasy world, you can have a vampire laughing at Nosferatu, or you can have elves using Snapchat.
There are two different ways that you can portray the city: as it is, or as it would be because of the magic. We already mentioned that magic in the world can change the way it looks. Take, for example, Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series, which are set in NYC . Now, admittedly, the Guild Hunter series belong firmly in the paranormal romance genre, however, Nalini Singh has done an excellent job at world building. In her novels, NYC is transformed by the presence of the Tower, which is the seat of the Archangel who rules over the territory.
The abovementioned points to the fact that you can choose to have your story set in Las Vegas , for example, but it doesn’t have to be the Vegas that we know. You can change it, shape it as per the needs of your story. Or, you can use the urban setting as it is without changing anything.
What you need to keep in mind is this:
– If magic is not a secret in the world, then changing the setting will add more credibility to it;
– If magic is not a part of the world, then you can, and should, keep the setting as it is: unchanged and unaffected by the magic present in the world.
A very good example of magic changing the face of the world in urban fantasy can be seen in Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniels series. In it, magic is a part of the world that comes in phases (shifts). Throughout the day, magic and technology flood the world, with magic rendering technology useless, and magic being weaker and less accessible when the technology is up. And while the series is set in Atlanta , we constantly see how the presence of magic has changed the city.
If you choose the second type, you can have many magical locations hidden away by glamour and charms. A good example of this is how J.K. Rowling hid 12 Grimmauld Place in London. No one could see the house unless they were told about it by Dumbledore, which ensured that no muggles will come close to it. There are many other examples of magical places being hidden away so that normal humans will not get close.
By outside the city, we’re not referring to surrounding suburbs, but to the world outside of the city. For example, if your story is set in a magical city, is the rest of the world aware of it?
If magic is happening only in this specific town, what does the world know about it and how does it react? Moreover, is there any other setting that your characters have to visit in the course of the story?
A story can be set in just one city, of course, and cities offer the opportunity to include many different locations in your story, to include secret societies and underground groups, and add many different layers to your world.
If you’re keeping the setting as it is, unchanged by magic except for certain magical locations, then you would not need maps or pathways. However, it would be a good idea to print out a map of the city, circle all the locations and mark down the path that your protagonist and other characters would take throughout the story. This will make it easier for you to keep track of how far along you are in your story.
If you’re changing the urban world, then you should consider making maps of the changes, and add the pathways there as well. We mentioned Kat Ross previously, who used an ancient setting for her story. In her novels, Kat Ross includes maps that help you understand the setting, both because it’s in the past, and because the world has been slightly changed by the presence of magic and magical beings.
Well, you cannot have a separate species, who are primarily magical creatures of some sort, without building a society and culture around them.
Elves will have their own society, and so would angels, faeries, and vampires. This can be seen in many different novels. For example, in Karen Chance’s Cassandra Palmer series, vampires have their own society and hierarchy, and so have the mages. Both sides have a leader and a council who rule over the others.
Shapeshifter packs always have an Alpha, and sometimes the Alpha has sentinels, lieutenants, betas, and other subjects.
Culture is another important element, especially if the setting you have chosen has been changed by the presence of magic. How do magical creatures feature into a big city? What types of jobs do they have and why? What can a seer with the gift of foresight work as? What about a person with wings?
More importantly, what kind of a mark will these supernatural creatures leave on the city? Will they go for something glaringly obvious, like the Tower in Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series, or would the change be subtle – a dingy motel on the outside will be the sprawling lair of a vampire on the inside.
The everyday life of the characters can include anything and everything: from how and where they get food to how they get around.
For example, in Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniels series, magic does weird things to animals, which changes most recipes as we know them, while chocolate has become a rarity, making it highly expensive and hard to get.
When it comes to transport, for example, will an angel with wings use an airplane to get around and why? How do mermaids get from one place to another? Can you use magical ways of getting around?
A very good example of magical transport is using ley lines. Ley lines are considered to be metaphysical pockets of energy that can be used for fast travel from one place to another.
The best way to complete your world is to imagine one day in the life of your character. It doesn’t need to be a special day – it can be just an ordinary day. Your protagonist, or one of your characters, will just wake up, go to work, and then continue through his or her day. When you do this, you will find yourself building your world: cafes and bakeries, banks and offices, apartments, friends, places to go, things to see. Restaurants and pubs, where trolls dwell and elves turn up their noses. If you do this for more days, where your characters will do different things, you will get to fully know the world you have built, or, at least the urban part of it – the one that is either normal, or as close to normal as it could be.
Now that we covered the urban world, it is time to focus on the fantasy world. What is the best approach to building a fantasy world in an urban setting? The truth is that there is no best approach, however, as long as you focus on keeping the magic and the fantasy aspects consistent and limited, you will build a world that can and will be the home of many amazing stories.
What do we mean by limited?
We will tackle the limits before we talk about consistency because you cannot have consistency in a magic world without limits. The limits in a fantasy world ensure that the magic is believable and, within the limits and rules of the world you’ve created, logical. A very good example of a magical limit can be found in the world of Harry Potter, where, even though you can transform one type of food into another, you cannot conjure it out of thin air. If you have magic, make sure that the magic is not omnipotent.
One magic user should not be able to do just about anything (this is why magic users in fantasy worlds usually are able to use only one type of magic connected to one element: fire, water, earth, or air, and in some cases, they can use two different types of magic). This means that when you create fantasy creatures and species that can use magic, you need to decide what type of magic they will be able to use, and what type of magic they will be unable to perform. In other words, you need to decide what kind of things your characters will not be able to do.
Once you have posed your limits and rules, you will be able to keep these in your mind as you write your novel – and as you edit it as well. In fact, it’s crucial to watch for consistency when you edit your novel because once the writing takes over you, you might not stop to consider whether you’re following the rules or not.
In a world without limits, you will have no stories. Your characters will be able to solve almost all of their problems without ever embarking on a journey or changing in any sort of way.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can proceed on building a fantasy world, almost step by step.
The question you need to ask yourself here is: which myths and legends are you going to take for your novel?
Or, are you going to make up your own?
As long as you keep the urban setting, even if you invent your own myths and legends, you can still build a wonderful urban fantasy world.
The problem arises when you try to incorporate too many different mythologies around the world into one. You cannot have a world with faeries and angels – unless you find a way to connect them. Again, we can draw an example from Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series – where the world is populated by humans, vampires, and angels, which is a rare combination. The gist is that you cannot just use fantasy species from different mythologies without adding your own twist to them. And that twist must ensure that it makes sense for creatures from Norse mythology, for example, to coexist with creatures from Greek mythology in the same world.
Now, let’s talk about the myths and legends of your urban fantasy world. In the real world, we have myths and legends cultivated by many different tribes and nations around the world. In your world, you need to do the same because of two reasons.
First, having myths and legends in a world makes the world more realistic. Second, myths and legends in your world are also your worldbuilding tools. In an urban fantasy world, myths and legends take on a whole new meaning, because in an urban fantasy world, myths and legends are real.
An old myth can hold the key to the resolution of your plot. You can use myths and legends to foreshadow things to come. And every myth that your protagonist learns or is aware of can be used in your plot – and should be used in your plot, to make for a more cohesive story.
Animals appear often in fiction, whether as a symbol, a metaphor, or just because they belong in the story and play a part in it. In urban fantasy, while adding a special animal (or animals) is not something that you must do, it can be useful. Remember, the urban fantasy world is most often similar to ours – with the minor difference that all (or a certain number of them) myths and legends are real. So, you need animals in your story to make it more real.
You can use the usual tropes: a witch has a cat, for example. This is used in TV and film just as much as in novels. For example, in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, the wizard Harry Dresden has a cat. He also has a ghost helper, but we will get to that later. In Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, horses appear often because when the magic is in full force, conventional transport like cars do not work.
When it comes to other wildlife: you can draw from myths and legends. Strange animals can appear that do not exist in the real world, but are a part of a myth. Here, we’re not talking about a minotaur or a sphinx, because they are part human part animal hybrids. We’re talking about seemingly ordinary animals that appear in the story for a reason. Also, people have pets, in any world.
What are the common species that appear in urban fantasy?
First, of course, are humans, both magical and non-magical ones. Magical humans are usually people who can use magic (any type of magic). They are called witches, wizards, and, in some cases, mages as well.
Next in line are werewolves and shapeshifters: people who can shift, or turn, into animals. The shapeshifters can shift fully or partially, or, they can do both in the same universe. Often, a shapeshifter is also a magic user.
Then, you have human/animal hybrids like the minotaur and sphinx we mentioned earlier. In this type of species, we can also add mermaids, considering that they are part animal part human. These hybrids differ from shapeshifters because they cannot shift, they were born that way.
Last, but not least, we have all the different beings from mythology: angels, demons, faeries and everything in be3ween, including gods and other monsters. Also, do not forget about demigods and demigoddesses, half angels, half vampires, half demons, etc.
Remember, you cannot just play mix and match with mythological creatures and see what comes up. If you have angels and vampires in your world, make sure that it’s possible. If you have faeries and demons, make sure their existence makes sense, that it’s logical for these two types of beings to coexist in your world.
In order for you to have an urban fantasy world, you need some kind of magic. The magic can stem from the world (elemental magic that focuses on the four elements: earth, fire, air, and water), it can stem from other sources. It can be invoked with incantations, rituals, potions. Then you have the magical artefacts and objects – quite often, these objects have doomsday properties (they can even be actual magical bombs). Spells that got out of hand, curses that need to be lifted. The list of ways and methods of adding magic to the world is endless.
What you need to be careful with is limits. A healer cannot heal everything, a psychic cannot read everyone’s minds, a clairvoyant cannot see everything all over the world. A necromancer can communicate with ghosts, maybe even make zombies, but can they really raise the dead?
The one and only reason why you need limits in the story, is because when your characters are overpowered, we’re not following them as they are challenged, which in turn, causes them to change. Overpowered characters have no need to improve – as such, they don’t need to change. As a result, you don’t have a story.
You see this mistake often in serials: in book one, the protagonist either gains new powers or improves upon his or her existing ones – and then in book 2, 3,4, and so on, that character remains static. There is a certain type of beauty in reading a series, but when you realize that the main characters have remained static for three books in a row, the magic is gone.
Well, if you’ve paid attention to all the elements we’ve listed so far, and if you have found ways of incorporating them into your world, then congratulations! You have set out the foundations for your urban fantasy world.
Why are these just the foundations?
First, because you need to connect all these elements in your story. Think of it like a circle: a well-developed urban fantasy world supports an urban fantasy story, and in turn, the urban fantasy story is what brings the urban fantasy world to life.
This means that you make the story fit your world. If you have faeries in your world, then at least one character must be a faerie. If you have a magical phenomenon happening every week in your world, then the story will begin when the phenomenon fails to make an appearance. Think of your world as static before your story starts – and when the story starts, even the world itself will undergo a change.
That change can be on a global scale, on a cultural scale, within a community, in the nature of the world, or in many other ways. It is quite often that writers create the story first and then the world. This gives you the opportunity to ensure that the world matches your story perfectly.
However, even if you create the world first, before you have created your characters and your story, you can get the same result. Because a well-developed world offers the opportunity for thousands of stories within. In fact, a lot of urban fantasy authors create spin off series, write novellas and short stories that do not feature the main characters of the main series, but the novellas and short stories happen in the same world – be it before the story begins, or after. Karen Chance, author of the Cassie Palmer series has created another series ( Dorina Basarab ) and set them in the same universe, only in a different city (the Cassie Palmer novels are mainly based in Las Vegas, while the Dorina Basarab stories are mainly set in New York). In addition, however, Karen Chance has many short stories and novellas that happen in the same universe, but are set in different years to the two main series. If you have a well – developed urban fantasy world, the opportunities for stories are endless.
Isaac Asimov might not have been an urban fantasy writer – but his Future History series encompasses almost his entire fiction work, from series to short stories, all interconnected throughout millions of years, as humanity reaches for the stars and beyond.
We previously mentioned how, in a world of faeries, it would be unusual not to have at least one faerie character (or at least, half – faerie). The same applies to worlds of vampires and angels, gods and goddesses. However, what you need to ensure is that you don’t have a vampire character just because you need one character to be a vampire. To continue the example, find the vampire character a role that has an impact on the story.
These roles do not have to be major roles: but it’s better to introduce a character because he or she is needed, rather than just have a character who appears in the story for the sake of appearance.
The best thing about urban fantasy is that you can make up your own world, through your own imagination, and you don’t even have to use any world mythology and make up your own. This means that the types of supernatural characters we named above in section three are only the most common types. There are many more types of supernatural creatures that can be found in many different mythologies from all over the world.
Otherwise, you can make up your own myths and mythological creatures, especially with the help of two books: The Golden Bough , by James George Frazer, and The Hero with A Thousand Faces , by Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell and many other philosophers, including Jung and Freud, talk incessantly about the monomyth: the myth that gives birth to all other myths. By analyzing the monomyth, you can use it to create your own myths and legends – and ultimately, your own supernatural creatures and a supernatural, urban fantasy world.
Now that you’ve created the basis for your story – the urban world and the fantasy world – it is time to create the story.
In this section, we will be talking about structure and how to plan out your urban fantasy novel. Please keep in mind that each bit of advice you read in any of our guides is yours to modify and change as you see fit, including the tips we will present in this section. Another note: it’s important to know that the tips in this section are not meant to be used for creating an outline – but for creating a plan.
Here, we will talk about characters in urban fantasy, not from the aspect of their supernatural species, but from the human side (even if the characters are not, technically speaking, human). In urban fantasy, one has many different beings: from gods to demigods, to faeries and vampires. The human side is necessary to show progress in these characters, especially since often, these characters are immortal – or as close as you can get to being immortal.
In addition, we will talk about the story, how to develop it, and what types of stories are often found in urban fantasy series, as well as how to develop the plot for your story.
Previously, we talked about the fact that it’s important to have diverse characters in your urban fantasy novel, and that you need to ensure that they have a role in it as well. In a way, think of your characters as a cast in a movie: each character needs to have something to do.
Here, we need to talk about how each character (or, at least the major characters) needs to have a character’s arc of change. But, before we get to that, here are some things about characters that you’re probably aware of:
– Your characters need to be relatable and sympathetic;
– Your characters need flaws to make them seem more realistic;
– Your characters need to be well-developed and layered;
– Your characters need to change throughout the story.
And all of the above are true. In addition, you will probably be warned not to make your character a Mary Sue (or a Gary Stu), which can be pretty difficult in an urban fantasy novel. Often, the protagonist is so overpowered that there is no room for them to change and progress. This happens mostly in series, where the character gets superpowered by the end of book three, and then, all subsequent books seem to repeat themselves in a formulaic way.
So, to avoid this, avoid making your character overpowered. Less is more, even in urban fantasy. However, if you tip the scales in the other direction – where your character is so underpowered that he or she needs everyone else to help him or her with his or her problems, you will end up with a protagonist whose only agency is to convince people to fight for him or her. And while that does have the potential to make an interesting story, the protagonist still has very little agency, and it is crucial for the protagonist to be the one with the most agency in a story.
In other words, an overpowered protagonist can solve the problem in a bit (which means you have no story), while the underpowered protagonist just does not make things happen (in which case, any other character from the supporting “cast” can be the actual protagonist).
When it comes to other characters: all important characters must be introduced by the end of the first act of the story (we will talk about the story acts later). When you’re creating and developing your characters, keep some of the following things in mind:
- You can divide your characters in three different groups: heroes, villains, and antagonists (and, it’s worth mentioning: love interests).
- The heroes are, of course, your protagonist and whoever else is on “his side.”
- You can have many antagonists, however, only one will be the main antagonist.
- You can have many villains, who in turn can have big or small roles in your story, however, you can only have one main villain.
- You can combine the main antagonist and the main villain.
- If you’re writing a series, you can have a main antagonist for the overarching plot, and several other antagonists who will be defeated in each book.
- Your main antagonist needs to be developed just as much as the protagonist is (regardless of whether the antagonist is a villain or not).
- A main antagonist who is merely a villain is a two-dimensional, underdeveloped character who is evil only for the sake of being evil.
- Be careful with the number of characters you develop – because each character must have a different voice. You don’t want to write dialogue that reads like a monologue.
The best thing about writing a novel is that you have the time to develop your characters. The best thing about writing an urban fantasy novel is that you can have antiheroes who will be loved by the readers. Urban fantasy worlds are often harsh worlds that need characters who will shoot first, ask questions later – probably because the other side is doing the same thing.
The genre is such that the path of peaceful resistance is not of utter importance to your readers, however, you also don’t want to create a character who will just shoot and curse everything in sight until everyone is dead (again, where is the story in that?).
So, the most important thing to remember when you’re creating your characters is the fact that they live in a world where gods and monsters lurk in the dark – which means that the damsel in distress will not last long unless she has a knife hidden in her boot.
The easiest way to develop the story is to divide the story in three acts. In the first act, you need to do the following:
– Introduce the main characters (including the antagonist/villain, if possible);
– Introduce the main conflict (or basic dramatic situation);
– Put the protagonist on the hero’s journey.
For the last one, we recommend reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces (by Joseph Campbell) and The Writer’s Journey (by Christopher Vogler). The second one is actually more important in developing a story because it describes how to apply the hero’s journey in a novel (or a film).
Putting the protagonist on the hero’s journey in the first act means that the protagonist will go through these stages: ordinary world, receiving the call for adventure, resisting the call, and then, after being put in a situation where the protagonist has to take action, crossing the first threshold, which is the end of act one.
In urban fantasy, however, no reader will blink an eye if you begin with action rather than introducing the ordinary world – in other words, you can develop the ordinary world later through backstory. In this case, you can start immediately with the call to adventure.
The second act of the story will feature all the obstacles that the protagonist needs to face in order to achieve his or her goal. In an urban fantasy book, these obstacles can be developed through the following:
– Obstacles that challenge the protagonist’s views and perspective and initiate the change in him or her (obstacles directly related to the protagonist’s inner demons);
– Obstacles that stem directly from the world itself (and the mythology behind it);
– Obstacles that must be overcome in order to get a new clue or make a step forward in solving the problem and achieving the goal.
The third act, of course, is the resolution, the end of the conflict that the protagonist has to achieve through:
– Undergoing a trial.
Often, that trial can be life-threatening. However, beware of using the danger of physical death to the protagonist, because that one has been so overused it has become a cliché . Moreover, there is the Doomsday Scenario (where the world is at stake), and the Death of a Loved One (where someone the protagonist loves is in grave danger). Whichever trial you choose, make sure that you add your own spin to it – and make it original and your own.
We touched upon some types of urban fantasy stories in the previous section (Doomsday Scenario, Physical Death, etc). Now, we can take a deeper look at the types of urban fantasy stories (and in some cases, character urban fantasy stories).
- The immortal protagonist (although it doesn’t happen quite often, many of UF protagonists can live forever)
- The Doomsday Scenario.
- Kidnapped loved one who is in danger of physical death.
- Supernatural CSI story ( SPI Files ).
- Supernatural PI story ( The Dresden Files ).
- Supernatural troubleshooter stories (where the protagonist is a person who troubleshoots problems of a magical nature).
- People going missing due to magical reasons (a spell, a creature, a paranormal serial killer).
- Prevention of a demonic ritual (usually goes together with the previous one, where people go missing/are killed in order to do a magical ritual).
- A Faustian Deal (a deal with the devil, or a representation of the devil, to get power).
- Murder mystery.
- Missing magical artefact mystery (goes with Doomsday Scenario/Doomsday Device).
The list can go on and on. It is imperative to add your own spin to the story type (and, no matter what you think, the chances that someone else already has a similar story in mind are bigger than you realize). Nothing is new under the sun. What is new is your own interpretation/representation of it.
Many people have a different definition of plot. For some, it is a chain of linked events that build the story. For others, every scene in your novel needs to be a part of the plot. In addition, many define the plot in three events:
– Inciting incident;
– Plot point one;
– Plot point two.
And, plot point two leads to the resolution.
The inciting incident is what we called earlier the call to adventure. Plot point one is answering the call and taking action. Often, this means that the protagonist has to make a decision to act – and they need to make a wrong decision. If the protagonist made the right decision in plot point one, what would follow is the resolution and not the second act of the story. Plot point two, which happens at the end of the second act, is when the protagonist makes the right decision. In a novel, this is the moment where the protagonist, finally, has a very clear idea of what needs to be done, and, due to his or her character arc, is ready to do it.
The last definition of plot does not talk about linking the events in your novel through cause and effect, which is vital to your story, however, the simplified concept can be useful when planning your story, because it allows you to know, beforehand, where you need to take your protagonist.
Subplots serve the main plot of the story. They also exist to help develop the characters better – by putting them in different dramatic situations that help them change. In addition, subplots can lead to clues to the resolution of the main plot (especially since most of urban fantasy stories revolve around a mystery – of a missing person, an artefact, a villain/antagonist who needs to be discovered, etc.). The best way to incorporate subplots is to connect them to the main plot in a way that ensures that the resolution of the plot would not have been possible without them (be it for plot reasons or character reasons).
Overarching plots are either subplots that begin in the first book of a series and are wrapped up at some point in future books, or it is only one overarching plot that is focused on the main antagonist/villain in the overarching story.
Subplots can focus on major characters, minor characters, the protagonist’s relatives and friends, small mysteries that do not require the protagonist’s immediate attention. Subplots are often neglected by the protagonist until it’s too late, which helps you add drama, conflict, and tension in your story.
When it comes to the overarching plot, make sure that the protagonist comes closer to solving that problem with each book – as a result of either the main plot or several subplots that enable you to create a final book that will please the readers (due to the resolution of the overarching plot) and make them cry for more.
If you answered no to that question, prepared for this one: is there no love in real life?
Just because you add romance to your urban fantasy story, it doesn’t mean that your story will automatically be bumped into the paranormal romance genre (although, the chances are high of this happening, considering that romance sells more than fantasy).
But, romance happens in real life. Romance happens in an urban fantasy story. Unless your character has a very deep reason for being single, not having romance in your story (especially if you’re writing a series), will be weird and incomplete.
Science fiction is often guilty of this problem, where the romance is either neglected or just happens in what seems like out of the blue.
In urban fantasy, however, romance can also be featured way too much (example: Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, True Blood – Sookie Stackhouse series, and The Vampire Diaries ).
What you need is balance. Keep the romance as a subplot, rather than having it as a second plot (as is the case in paranormal romance, where you can literally choose to see the romance as the main plot, regardless of the presence of another plot or other subplots).
The best thing about adding romance in urban fantasy is the fact that, just like in paranormal romance, the participants in the romance will be paranormal humans (or beings), which changes the interpretation of romance. It offers the chance for writing a romance that can be challenged in a way that cannot be challenged in a normal world, which can serve very well for tugging on your readers’ heartstrings.
If you’re writing a series, you can introduce multiple characters as love interests – however, be careful not to create triangles (maybe even rectangles) that are obvious and on the nose. Often, the hero and heroine meet in the first book and get the happily ever after either at the end, or, often, sometime in the middle, and then the story continues with them as a pair.
Whichever you choose, remember that not adding romance to your story can be harmful rather than helpful – it will make your story seem dry. On the other hand, you don’t want a protagonist who is so obsessed with his or her love life that the main plot becomes a subplot.
What does it mean to create an urban fantasy series?
Well, think of your urban fantasy series as a TV show that your readers will love to go back to. Urban fantasy (and many other genres too) offer the chance to create a series because of many reasons. We will list some of them:
– You can expand the world;
– You can expand the cast of characters by introducing new characters in subsequent books;
– Your readers will get more connected to your characters;
– You can write many different stories in an urban fantasy world;
– You can write novellas and short stories that are spinoffs of the original story;
– You can have spinoff series that will already have a fan base;
– You can develop your characters better over the course of several books;
– You can allow yourself to pace your overarching plot – especially if the final antagonist/villain is nearly impossible to beat.
What you need to do to create a series is to plan an overarching story arc (overarching plot), and with each book, you need to have your protagonist come closer to the resolution.
If you’re creating a spinoff, make sure to choose the new protagonist wisely. The new protagonist in a spinoff series is usually part of the main cast of major characters, although, often, the new protagonist is physically far away (in a different city, perhaps), and lives a life that is vastly different from the life of the protagonist in the initial series.
Creating a spinoff has to be done carefully, and the spinoff has to focus on a different character and, while it is possible for the spinoff to serve the main overarching plot, it is way better if the spinoff protagonist has his or her own story that does not revolve around the overarching plot of the main series. Cameos of the main characters from the main series, however, are welcome, especially if they have skills and abilities that can be used to resolve the conflict in the spinoff novel or series.
Urban fantasy as a genre is very versatile and it offers you the chance to be highly creative when developing the world, characters, and stories. As we noted several times, never take any writing advice for granted, and always modify each tip until it works for you.
You might be comfortable developing a plot in three points, or you might need to create a detailed outline that shows you everything you need to know. You might need to create a series bible where you will keep everything about the characters, events, and the world at the tip of your fingers – or you might choose to keep it all in your head.
You might want to include characters from every supernatural species you’ve created, or you might want to just focus on a main cast of relatively human characters. You might use a certain mythology in detail and keep everything without adding your own spin on things, or you might want to create your own. In most stories, vampires suffer in daylight – that doesn’t mean they need to suffer in yours. Angels might be kind creatures in Christian myths and legends, but they can be ruthless and cruel and evil in your world.
As long as you keep the world consistent, as long as you have a story, as long as your characters change and progress, you will have an urban fantasy book that is able to stand on its own two feet and entice readers – and if you can generate a fan base with your first book, you can continue it into a series. The creation of a series is neither new nor limited to the urban fantasy genre, although urban fantasy (like epic fantasy) offers more possibilities for the expansion of your world.
You can mention places in the first book and have your characters visit those places throughout the series. You can introduce problems that can take years to solve, mysteries that will have the readers reread over and over again in trying to solve them, and best of all, you can have romance that does not need to be fast (goodbye instant love, hello well-developed relationship), and, in most cases, the romance is good for the story.
Writing an urban fantasy is like stepping through a veil in the real world and entering a world that is essentially a magical version of ours – and if you create a series, you can live in it for years, maybe even decades to come.
A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Urban Fantasy is an article from Writing Tips Oasis . Copyright © 2014-2017 Writing Tips Oasis All Rights Reserved
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As an art student, she’s moonlighting as a writer and is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her laptop, trying to create her own.
5 Simple Tips For Writing Awesome Urban Fantasy
Urban fantasy is one of the most popular fantasy subgenres around. Defined as stories with magical or supernatural elements that take place in a contemporary city or town setting, the urban fantasy category includes the likes of authors such as Patricia Briggs, Cassandra Clare, Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher.
Its definition seems simple, but what does it take to create a truly engaging urban fantasy story that readers will devour?
Let’s dive into five easy tips for writing incredible urban fantasy.
1. Create an immersive setting
Perhaps the most important aspect of urban fantasy is its setting .
Whether it’s a big city, an outer suburb or some other spin on the urban setting, the world of your story should be so vivid and well-developed that it’s basically a character in itself.
Here are some quick tips to help you create a truly immersive urban fantasy setting:
- Spend some time world-building off-page before you start writing for real. This will help you immerse yourself in the world of your story, so that once you start writing, a stronger sense of setting will naturally shine through.
- Draw inspiration from real-life urban environments to create a realistic setting : think about the buildings, the streetscapes, the people, the sounds and smells…
- Or go one step further and create an alternative urban fantasy version of an actual city.
- Show the setting through the eyes of your characters. If the world is new to them, have your reader discover it alongside them; if it’s familiar, explore what they love and hate about it by weaving setting description throughout the narrative.
2. Balance magic with reality
Magic is one of the elements every fantasy novel needs , and urban fantasy is no exception. However, urban fantasy differs from other fantasy subgenres (such as traditional/high fantasy) in the way it balances its magical aspects with elements of reality.
While a lot of fantasy books are set in entirely fantastical worlds populated with magical people (or people who are all aware of the existence of magic), urban fantasy generally features a realistic setting with ‘normal’ humans alongside its magical people and creatures.
The magic or paranormal aspects are often hidden in plain sight – existing in the real world right under humans’ noses. Alternatively, the real world might know that these aspects exist; this is often utilised as a source of conflict.
However you choose to present the magical aspects of your urban fantasy, you must ensure they’re always blended with some measure of reality. As author Emma Jane Holloway defines it :
Urban fantasy is about the junction of our everyday modern world with the realm of the fantastic.”
3. Craft killer action scenes
Readers of urban fantasy expect a healthy dose of action.
Whether it’s a thrilling fight scene or a heart-pounding chase through city streets, injecting plenty of action into your story will satisfy readers and keep them turning those pages.
As well as creating excitement and advancing the story, action scenes are also a great place to explore conflict and tension and develop your characters.
Of course, you’ll need quieter moments in between your fast-paced scenes to balance things out and let your readers (and characters) breathe for a bit. But action is one of the most common elements of urban fantasy stories, and readers will expect to see it.
Speaking of what readers expect to see… Let’s take a moment to talk about tropes .
4. Present a fresh take on common tropes
All genres of fantasy are at risk of becoming rife with clichés , and urban fantasy is no different. How many times, for example, have you seen an urban fantasy story with a love triangle (usually between a human girl and two paranormal-creature-men, at least one of whom is dark and brooding…)?
It’s important to avoid turning readers off with clichés when writing urban fantasy. However, clichés aren’t to be confused with tropes.
A trope is simply an aspect that appears consistently throughout many books in a genre – it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad aspect. In fact, readers expect tropes to some level. They expect to see at least a few of the things they’re familiar with and like about the genre when they pick up an urban fantasy book.
As author Adam Heine points out :
ALL STORIES HAVE TROPES. A story is good or bad based on how those tropes are used. What we like about tropes is familiarity (‘Yay, ninjas!’), excitement (‘Oo, the hero’s going to get all awesome on the badguys!’), and especially when our favorite tropes are twisted in interesting ways (‘I did NOT see that coming’). What we don’t like is when tropes are predictable to the point of boredom. That’s when a trope becomes a cliché.”
To avoid boring your readers with something they’ve seen a hundred times before, identify any tropes you’re making use of and ensure you’re exploring them in a fresh, original way.
For example, if your story involves paranormal or mythological creatures that have been slightly overused in recent years (such as vampires or werewolves), try to present a fresh take or reimagining of those creatures, or create new ones entirely.
5. Write a series if you can
Generally, urban fantasy readers are more likely to engage with a series rather than a standalone novel .
Just take a look at all the popular and successful urban fantasy series out there – it’s clear that readers like to get invested in multiple books featuring the same setting and characters.
If your urban fantasy story is suited to being split into a series , you should think about doing so. Take some time to expand your world and develop your story into a multi-book experience.
Not only will it appeal to your audience, but you’ll also experience the many other benefits of writing a fantasy series , from increased sales potential to a clearly established brand and identity as an urban fantasy author.
If you write urban fantasy, what are your top tips? If not, what’s your favourite urban fantasy read?
Let us know in the comments below!
Claire is a freelance editor and proofreader based in Newcastle, Australia. She works with indie and traditional authors to prepare their works for publication, primarily editing fantasy novels. In her spare time, you might find her reading, birdwatching or drinking endless cups of tea while writing things of her own. Click here to visit Claire's website.
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How to Write Urban Fantasy with LivingWriter
Urban fantasy is seemingly an oxymoron; how could magic, often depicted to be the thing of old fictional myths and legends, exist in a world as advanced and modern as the one we have right now? Yet that is exactly the premise of this widely popular fantasy subgenre: what if they were all real?
Urban fantasy mixes in the fantastical and the supernatural with the modern and technological. Alongside your frantic office workers and friendly neighborhood old lady, vampires and elves exist, maybe in a glamoured cafe or in an abandoned building.
The interesting setups of urban fantasy novels have earned them a large fanbase, with many famous titles and series under the subgenre, such as The Dresden Files series, The Shadowhunter Chronicles series, and the Kate Daniels series.
If you want your work to join this list, then you’ve come to the right place! We’ll help you write an amazing urban fantasy novel, covering all bases while giving you additional advice on how LivingWriter can help you write more conveniently.
The Definition of Urban Fantasy
Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy where common fantasy elements exist in a modern setting, often in a metropolitan city. Because of the unconventional combination, most urban fantasy novels put a twist on current information about certain fantastical beings to explain their existence, or at times cohabitation with normal humans, in the metropolis.
Urban fantasy often takes on a similar atmosphere as noir and police procedurals, as both subgenres are about solving crimes or mysteries. However, urban fantasy stories will most definitely highlight more on fantastical crimes that cannot be resolved by mundane means.
Urban fantasy can also easily be mistaken to be the same as paranormal/supernatural romance, as both often sport romantic tones and plots. Their main difference often lies on how much romance is focused: urban fantasy’s romantic themes are often secondary to the main plot, while paranormal romance features it as their main theme.
Now that you understand urban fantasy, it’s time to know how to write one!
How to Write Urban Fantasy
The urban place….
One of the first things you might want to consider before writing an urban fantasy novel is the setting of your story. Although most urban fantasy stories feature busy cities like New York and Las Vegas, you can opt for more lowkey locations, as long as it is familiarly populated.
A key feature of urban fantasy is the juxtaposition of the normal and the fantastical, so naturally you need to have, at the very least, an almost-personal knowledge of the city. This can be a great excuse to go into that much-wanted vacation you’ve wanted for this year!
Although you do have the option of writing about a fictional city, we highly recommend you to choose a real-life location to base your urban fantasy on. Aside from having an easy reference about the setting, publishers can also take advantage of this fact in their marketing.
There will be a lot of things that you will want to research while you’re in the city. The physical layout of the city, as well as its prominent establishments, is going to go to number one on the list. We recommend that you draw or grab a detailed copy of the city map, which will be your main resource material once you’re starting to write your early drafts.
You also want to know the feel of the city. Bask in the atmosphere of the lively days, and melt in the embrace of the calming nights. Where is the energy coming from at daytime, and where do people recede to once the night comes?
Be on the lookout for interesting locations or even urban legends, as they can be easy references for the fantasy side of the city.
If the city has an air of noir mystery, explore the dark underbelly as safely as you can. Interacting with the locals can help you glean a bit of this information, and also just help you get a personal feel of the population living inside that city.
By the time you have explored the city, you should have had an idea of how your main character, whether a visitor or a local, should navigate through the cityscape.
…in the Fantastical Setting
After understanding the ins and outs of the city setting, now you want to incorporate the magic into it. You can do it either one of two ways: portraying the city as is, with the magic settling in the background, or the other way around, which is portraying the city as seen through the magical side of the population.
A question you might want to ask is how magic is presented in your novel. If magic is unknown and hidden from the general public, you need to explain how it is hidden and how one may gain access to the magical locations. Think something like Platform 9 ¾ in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
If magic is known to the city, then you need to show how it changes the city compared to the one we have in real life. For example, in the Kate Daniels series, magic and technology alternate in strength, with one losing effectiveness while the other is gaining strength.
You can then proceed with worldbuilding: the process of establishing the fictionalized version of the city, where the main story will take place. Your city research will come in handy, as well as all tips for worldbuilding in fantasy here.
Worldbuilding will also include the fantastical beings that will be coexisting with the normal humans. Although a minor note, you should still consider your choice of myths and legends that come alive in your fictionalized city. Angels and demons are bog-standard combos, but mixing in vampires and angels can be quite jarring, so you need to have a pretty good explanation as to why they’re both there.
Establishing the Conflict
Urban fantasy often thrives on a central conflict, and the entire premise of urban fantasy being inherently oxymoronic gives you a lot of ideas to work with as conflict. There are a lot of tropes of conflicts in the urban fantasy subgenre that you can build upon, such as supernatural crimes, Doomsday scenarios, immoral deals with evil entities for more powers, and whatnot.
Most commonly, if magic is hidden from the usual world, these conflicts revolve around magical situations that spill into/affect the unknowing “normal” world, and the main character attempts to resolve these issues to ensure the harmonic coexistence of the two realms in the same city. If you plan on using this trope (or any trope for that matter), don’t forget to add your own twist to it!
Identifying your novel’s main conflict is also important if you plan on writing a series , as you will be dealing with a major arc containing the central conflict of the series, as well as the prominent conflict in the current novel. It should be noted that it is rather easier to write a series with urban fantasy novels, and some publishers might even encourage you to write a novel into a series. In that case, you should take advantage of this and approach a bigger conflict for your series.
Another note to consider in urban fantasy are the subplots. More prominently, the romantic subplot is a very common theme in the subgenre, if not a staple. Although it can become increasingly hard to differentiate urban fantasy with romantic undertones and paranormal romance, as long as romance remains a subplot to the story.
The best part of romantic subplots in urban fantasy is the number of possibilities that come up with normal-supernatural relationships, which can be great in fleshing out your main characters and making them more alive in the universe. Looping in a pinch (not a lot) of paranormal romance, which is a validly popular subgenre, to your urban fantasy can be beneficial than having none at all.
The Character Cast
Much like any other novel, the main character can make or break your story, so you need to make very special consideration for your protagonist. In urban fantasy, the main character will almost be a part of the magical world, maybe through their latent powers or through accidental exposure to the magical world.
All characterization tips apply to urban fantasy, such as having a relatable, layered and complex, and dynamic main character. Your reader will have to root for this main character, so you have to make sure that your protagonist deserves the support. This will be especially true if your story spans across a long series.
As with any fantasy subgenre, you also need to keep a tab on the objective power levels of your characters, especially your main character. More often than not, your main character should not be overpowered, having access to magical techniques that can poof their problems away, or else a story wouldn’t be formed from it (unless you know what you are doing). Avoiding deus ex machina plot devices is a standard fantasy tip, and it is true for urban fantasy as well.
Another character consideration is about personifying certain areas into archetypal characters. For urban fantasy that spans multiple cities and countries, you want to do this for your secondary characters, as they allow you to create a conceptual relationship between the area and the character. This makes your city setting “alive” through the representative characters.
If you want to have an easy way outlining your main character and the rest of the cast, you can use LivingWriter’s powerful Story Elements feature for it! Enabling you to write notes to your heart’s content, embedding images for visual inspirations, and deep integration with the LivingWriter manuscript, there’s just no better way to write character notes than with Story Elements .
Write Urban Fantasy with LivingWriter
Urban fantasy has been taking off well lately, with a lot of popular titles popping out left and right, indicating an active readership that you might want to take advantage of. We hope that these tips on urban fantasy writing will help you on writing your next book, and we are looking forward to you trying out LivingWriter just for you to see how great of a writing companion it is!
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