The Elements of Urban Fantasy

While my books are considered Urban Fantasy as far as marketing and shelving goes, what I write, in my opinion, is supernatural crime fiction. At it’s heart, my series revolves around solving crimes. The main characters are on the side of law while the villains are criminals in some form or another. Much of Urban Fantasy falls within this purview, worlds full of paranormal creatures and people, both good and bad, perpetrating violence of some sort or striving against the odds to stop them. It’s fun stuff, pulling on elements from a variety of genres to create a unique blend of dark, gritty, suspense, full of action, romance, and crime-solving. I also believe it gets missed out on by a lot of readers who lump it together with paranormal romance, which I think is a genre in its own right, pulling from many of the same elements, but is at its heart, a romance. They are shelved together, but anyone who has read from both, will likely tell you they are distinctly different kinds of stories.

So, what makes good paranormal crime fiction? It’s not hard to imagine that the same elements that make good crime fiction, with or without the paranormal, make for good Urban Fantasy.

  1. Firstly, you need to have a crime-fighting protaganist. Typically, these are hardened, tough people, male or female, who aren’t afraid to take it to the bad guys. They aren’t sweet and loveable by nature, and can take as much shit as they dish out. Emotionally, they can be closed off, damaged people, abrasive, socially maladjusted, or just plain malcontents. They don’t really care much for following the norms or the rules, because that tends to interfere with their sense of justice in the world. At their core, they have an over-powering sense or righting the wrongs done in the world and seeing justice done. It’s important though to understand that this does not make them unlikeable. Typically, the redeeming qualities peek through enough to let the reader hope that they will change over time and lose some of that crusty outer shell and become a happier, healthier person.
  2. A paranormal world. This runs the gamut from putting supernatural elements into our contemporary, real world to creating an alternate world where the regular rules don’t necessarily apply. Whether it be cabals of vampires or zombies roaming the land or just plain old ghosts, Urban Fantasy gets the “Fantasy” tag from this element. It is what sets it apart into its own sub-genre from more traditional crime fiction. Because I think the supernatural makes for some damn cool story-telling, I believe it adds something special to the genre. Many readers out there eschew UF because of the fantasy element. They want their police procedurals or techno-thrillers straight up. There’s nothing wrong with this mind you, but often UF gets over-looked because readers believe the super-natural supercedes the crime fiction. This is not the case at all. Like I said earlier, UF is at its heart, paranormal crime fiction, adhering to many of the traditional elements of the genre. The paranormal merely adds a different flavor, turning it dark in a different way.
  3. And speaking of dark, UF, like most crime fiction, takes on a rather dark hue. It tends to be gritty and violent. It has or can have, a very noir flavor to it. Some may complain that genre fiction avoids the deeper issues that literary fiction is suppose to sink its teeth into. In actuality, the opposite is true. By incorporating an element that is by it’s nature pretty dark and full of mystery, UF is ripe with explorations of social, moral, and emotional issues. By pairing off with things distinctly non-human, UF can delve into what it means to be human, what it means to be alive in ways that more traditional crime fiction would have difficulties with. And because it deals with violence like all crime fiction, it looks at what it means to be good and just and treads through those murky waters of falling somewhere inbetween. Things are never easy for characters in good UF, and often they must make tough choices around achieving just ends through less than ethical means.
  4. Finally, like all good crime fiction, every UF needs quality villains. Personally, I like my bad guys to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of good and evil. Good villains should have a sympathetic quality to them. The reader should love to hate them and hate to love them. They need to root for their demise while at the same time, some small part of them should feel sorry for what’s happened. This interplay of emotions is key to creating the great UF villain. It could also be said that this dichotomy should apply in some way to the UF protaganist, making one cringe while at the same time cheering them on to victory.
  5. In the end. UF, and crime fiction in general does not always play out smoothly in the end, nor should it. Things don’t always work out exactly the way one plans in real life, and it shouldn’t in the UF story. Success comes in varying degrees, and while the prize should be obtained in the end, i.e. the defeat of the villain, this always comes at a price. Good crime fiction does not typically leave one with warm fuzzies at the end. It should make the reader think, stop and give pause and wonder, “The hero(ine) won, but…” Victory can be achieved in many ways, and conflicted characters should achieve it in a conflicting manner. The world is a difficult place, even when one finds success, and so it should be in the UF story.

These are five pretty general elements of UF or what I consider to be important when I think about what UF is or should be. I attempt to incorporate these in my Deadworld series, sometimes more successful than others. It is not so easy as just tossing in a kick-ass protaganist with an evil villain and letting them duke it out on the supernatural battlefield. It should be a tough read at times, make you think and tie your stomach in knots. At times it should also kick your moral compass askew and make you wonder about how things should really be. Exactly what is it to be just? What is it to be right versus wrong? And leave you at odds sometimes, swimming in the murky gray of the inbetween when it comes to deciding exactly where one should stand on important issues, whether social, moral, or personal.

Anyway, it’s food for thought or so I hope. What are your thoughts on the whole genre of Urban Fantasy. I’m curious to know. Happy reading/writing everyone!

The ignored (relatively) side of Urban Fantasy

I’m postulating this notion more on circumstantial evidence than anything else right now. It’s something I plan to delve into a bit more, do some more research, and ask some more folks about, but I wanted to put this out there for people to comment on because it’s something that I find unfortunate for many UF writers.

UF exists on a pretty broad spectrum. It’s what one might call a blended genre, pulled together from several other genres. If we were to look at it on a line from one extreme to the other, we’d find something like this:

Romance——————————–Fantasy—————————————-Crime Fiction

Each of these genres on their own contain their own tropes and character types, and have a general story structure that readers have come to expect over the years. While UF spans across these three genres, the one common thread they have is the use of a contemporary fantasy element in an urban setting. If one examines review sites across these genres, one finds a wealth of reviews, comments, and information among all but the crime fiction end of things. I find this a bit baffling. A sizeable chunk of the books you find on the shelves labelled UF, involve crime-fighting characters who solve a crime of some kind. We have private detectives, cops, FBI agents, etc. all working to stop some kind of paranormal villain. Is it just me, or is it rather odd that the characteristic “paranormal” somehow precludes these stories from being considered within the crime fiction genre?  On occasion you can get someone who breaks beyond these bounds and gets considered by almost everyone, i.e. The Dresden Files, but in general this wealth of paranormal crime fiction is relegated within the ranks of those who typically cover the UF genre.

Some of this could easily be due to how UF is marketed and shelved. You just don’t see them among the ranks of mystery and thriller writers. Somehow, the paranormal precludes them from membership, and I just don’t get this. There are a lot of readers out there who read primarily mysteries and thrillers, who would likely find a great deal of content within UF that would appeal to them, but they’re never made aware of them. I have no answers around how to change this. I merely want to point out the fact and bring it up as an interesting issue that I believe deserves some discussion. What do you think? What are some UF books you’ve read that are really crime fiction disguised in paranormal clothes?  Or some mysteries/thrillers you’ve found that have paranormal elements but aren’t actually labelled as UF? I’d like to hear about them.

Happy reading/writing everyone!

Reader Question: What would you like to see in your paranormal?

There are no new stories to be told. We writers have likely heard some form of this on more than one occasion. On a basic level this is probably true. There are a limited number of story types that we all fall in. Because I’m fond of architecture, I’ll use it as an analogy. There are only so many foundation types upon which to build. The cityscape of books throughout history is a varied and marvelous site to behold. However, if we tear it all down to the ground, we’ll see vast, repeating pattern of sameness. The trick obviously, is what you build on that foundation.

I currently live in the neighborhood of urban fantasy. It is an often creepy and violent landscape full of broken down tenements, gothic mansions, and overgrown bungalows (among others). The foundation of my building is much like others in this part of town, set down in the concrete of law enforcement, ghosts, and vampires. What I’ve built is not a bright and cheery place. It’s overgrown with peeling paint and cracked window panes. Some rooms in the house are a jumbled mess, filled with broken furniture and blood stains on the floor, while others are stark though expensively furnished. There’s a basement, dank and dark, seeping with musty, unwanted odors, and locked storage spaces you’re pretty sure you don’t want to open. And then, there’s the attic, inaccessible by normal means, requiring a pulled down ladder, from which strange and alien sounds come in the night. Okay, you get the idea and I’m having too much fun with my analogy here. Though built upon the familiar, the architecture of your story can and should be uniquely yours.

My story has ghosts and vampires, tried and true story characters of the urban fantasy landscape. Done time and again over decades past. Some readers may roll their eyes at the thought of yet another building thrust up in this crowded space. My hope of course is that the tour through this place will make it feel like a unique journey, sometimes familiar, yet not like any place else you’ve been.

So, readers of the paranormal, what do you hope to find in this familiar part of town? What would you like to read that would take these stories full of paranormal creatures and people in a new direction? Or have you left the neighborhood entirely, looking for new places to live/read.

How to stand out in a genre…maybe

I asked my wonderful agent, Ginger Clark, the other day, for some blog ideas, and one of the things on the list was, “How does Deadworld stand out from other Urban Fantasy?” At first glance, the automatic response is, “Of course it stands out! Duh, I wrote it, didn’t I?” Okay, I’m not so smug as that, and in fact, authors in general worry about this sort of thing on a continual basis. With so many stories out there, how does the story stand out? What makes it so different and unique and original that people are going to want to buy it over anything else out there? There are tons of good stories out there to read, and I certainly want people out there to pick up my book over others if given the choice. If you snag Deadworld off the shelf with any other random UF books, I want you to choose mine. I want my whispering little voice to chime in over your shoulder, “Pick Deadworld. It rocks.” And then, you’ll turn to my smirking little bookseller angel and say, “Why? What makes it stand out over these other ones?”

This should be a question readers ask. When given the choice between good books, what makes your story stand out from the rest? What makes it different? Notice, I say different here and not better. There’s always the danger here, when authors tout their books, to come off as condescending toward other authors. The point is not a matter of better or worse. I readily admit there a lot of writers out there who are better than I. But when the reader is browsing through the shelves and sees an endless parade of weapon-wielding women on covers and a blurb indicating a plot involving kick-assery against paranormal baddies, they want to be able to choose the one they will likely enjoy the most. So again, the question becomes, “How do you stand out from the crowd?”

In hunting down writing advice, you will often hear, “Read the genre. Know what you’re up against, so you aren’t writing a rehash of what’s already out there.” This is pretty good advice in my opinion. So, did I go out and scoop up a dozen UF books to see what the market was producing? As you can probably guess, the answer is no. When I developed my ideas for Deadworld, I had not read a single UF book. Why, you ask? The funny thing is, I didn’t think I was writing an urban fantasy. The bulk of my reading had come in straight fantasy and thrillers. I was reading Koontz and Martin, not Harris and Hamilton. I had it in my mind that I was writing a paranormal thriller. When I got the call and was told they were buying it as UF, I was like, “Oh. Really? Ok, then. Guess I’ll have to check into that.” Perhaps it wouldn’t have taken nearly two years to sell it if I’d been pushing it as UF instead of thriller. Live and learn.

To me, Deadworld is still a paranormal thriller. It’s high stakes crime fiction with a nasty villain who will keep on killing if he isn’t stopped. It just so happens, the villain isn’t quite living anymore. There are ghosts. There’s a not-quite-living guy who’s also trying to get this villain. And yes, I mean vampire. I wanted to write a vampire story or at least a story with vampires in it. But, I wanted to take it in another direction. I didn’t want the classic, gothic mythos vampire, which spawned my different take on what a vampire is, and spawned the hero of my series, a former old-west sheriff, turned vampire. The heroine, Jackie, is tough, but not full of the stiletto-wearing, ninja-skilled, kick-assery that has become something of a stereotype in the UF genre (yes, I know there are plenty of other character types, but there have been enough of these types of characters to create a perception in UF). I like characters who are fairly flawed. If you want a reasonable analogy and have read the books, think Chess Putnam from Stacia Kane’s Downside books sort of flawed. I wanted a character who has some serious emotional issues that interfere with her ability to function well and jeapordize her ability to succeed. Jackie is a woman who thinks she is better off than she is because she can’t face what is wrong. I have a psychology degree, and exploring emotional issues is a lot of fun for me, so I wanted a story that would allow me to do that. There’s no hot vampire sex in Deadworld, though you do get the beginnings of a romance. The characters just didn’t allow for anything like that to happen. Relationships and men are a difficult subject for Jackie, and that plays out in Deadworld and the series as a whole.

On the grander scale, Deadworld is a reference to that world which exists beyond our own. I’m fascinated by “what if’s.” I love to speculate on things like the afterlife. What happens after we die, and what if it isn’t at all what we figured? I wanted a broader story canvas that would allow me to do that, and this series is going to explore that direction. Deadworld sets the stage for that, but I really enjoy epic stories, so as this series goes on, things are really going to step beyond the normal world. I’m totally jazzed by what’s coming down the road with this series.

So, is Deadworld different enough, unique enough to stand out from other equally good books in the UF genre? I hope so. I hope my coming at this story without any real knowledge of the UF genre as a whole will grab reader’s attention. Only time and the readers will tell.