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How to Write Urban Fantasy: Mixing Magic With Noir


Urban fantasy is a subgenre that combines the best of both worlds: You get an exciting story with magic that takes place in the middle of present-day cities or towns. While most urban fantasies are located within large metropolises like New York City or London, there are the occasional outliers. The size of the city does not matter as much as the way you weave the two together and juxtapose the familiar with the supernatural.

One of the primary ways that urban fantasies differ from traditional fantasies is that most traditional fantasies 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, magical creatures and supernatural forces are navigating the same densely populated cities as humans, so there are bound to be some 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 urban fantasy takes place in a city or town that functions almost like a 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 the time that was contemporary when the story was written, so the contemporary fantasy category includes works like C.S. Lewis's Narnia series that no longer feel like our current times.

Urban fantasy stories tend to have a noir tone and feel, so they are darker than pure fantasy and tend to include crimes and characters trying to solve those crimes. If you're ready to start writing 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 setting from scratch. However, you have to remember that many of your readers will be familiar with—or currently live in—the city you choose as your setting. With this in mind, consider setting the story 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 based it entirely off of 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? Pay attention to what occurs on the surface in broad daylight and consider what might be happening behind the scenes. If the city seems to have a dark underbelly, find a way to safely explore it so you can include real-life details and give your story a feeling of veracity.

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, unaware citizens?
  • How do evil forces operate in your city? Do they take public transportation, or can they move about in the open without humans realizing it?
  • How does your protagonist relate to the city? Is he or she a native who feels at ease taking the subway alone, or is he or she a new transplant to the city and is 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, spinning 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 though his work is urban fantasy in the literal sense, it doesn't fit the strict confines of that genre and is marketed simply as fantasy. There is wisdom in the acknowledgment that urban fantasy is a subgenre shaped by the publishing community. It might be advisable to avoid writing 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 builds in an audience for the book – 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 structures, the factions, and the political agendas of the residents will need to be fleshed out, just as if it were a real locale. Though this may be part of the fun for some writers, this could be a distraction for others. Such worldbuilding may lead to plot-holes, procrastination in terms of putting words on a page, or create a lack of believability.

Establish your central conflict

Conflict is essential to any good story, because conflict hooks 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 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? (Here is another prime area for exploring conflict: If your protagonist is a staunch atheist who believes that everything has a scientific explanation, he or she will experience major internal conflict when the city's supernatural or magical elements start challenging that world view).
  • 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: Your protagonist will have flaws or traits that contribute to the conflict, and your antagonist will have positive traits that complicate the story or affect how readers relate to the villain.

Give your city character

In urban fantasies, the city is a character. In many cases, the city is an entire cast of characters, and each borough has a particular personality. When you set out to create characters, consider the possibility of personifying the city itself. Often this personification is real 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? What elements of the infrastructure are decaying, and 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 borough?
  • How is the city divided against itself? What are the major areas of the city? What classes of people live in this city? Are there newcomers? Are people divided by class? By race? By gender or locale?

Tie characters to boroughs or neighborhoods

Urban fantasy often depicts the archetypal characters of a city. This can be difficult because an author must run the line between showing the flavor of the city and caricaturing the average citizen. In many cases characters are tied directly to a borough, and these characters are used to describe – and are described in turn by – that borough. 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 incredibly 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.

Once a character has become representative of a borough, 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 wedged into these conflicts. When a character from one borough comes up against a character from an opposed borough or city, conflict between the two is natural and can be used as a cue for action. Further, a character may act differently depending on whether they are in their element, or out of it – and this can be tied to locale.

Create rules for the supernatural elements

With urban fantasy, your story takes place in an era that your readers have experienced firsthand, so you do not need to provide in-depth information about the rules and norms of human society. However, you need to provide some framework so readers understand how the city's residents feel about magic and the supernatural.

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 need rest? If so, when do they rest and where can they safely rest? What and how often do they eat, and how do they acquire necessary food?

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 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 those rules. 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" which 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. Further, 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 fiction. 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?

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 eagerly 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 intense sexual interactions will need to occur off the page. In urban fantasy, steering clear of mature themes can be accomplished by interrupting scenes before they get steamy. Nothing shuts down teen romance faster than the haunting of a poltergeist.

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 or prejudices!

Further, urban fantasy has a direct overlap with the ever-popular vampire romance or supernatural romance subgenres. Be aware that there are exactly two types of readers: those who really want to see Dracula in a committed relationship, and those that stop reading as soon as a supernatural romance takes root. It would serve a writer well to choose a side of that line and stay on it: either supernatural romance is off the table, or its integral. The middle ground is unlikely to please either intended 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.

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 travel to a hidden world. This is present in works like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and China Miéville's Un Lun Dun. In cases such as this, 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 9 and ¾ – 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 "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 which 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. Good Reads 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 are looking to relax, or just want to binge, then Trese on Netflix is an excellent work of recent urban fantasy and has received positive reviews. Further, because the characterization of urban environments is similar in superhero fiction and urban fantasy, reading some comics featuring your friendly neighborhood Spiderman, Ms. Marvel, or any other hero tied to a real-world city, is likely to pay dividends in terms of understanding how to paint the characters that might appear in any given city.

If you follow the tips above, you will be on your way toward writing your first urban fantasy!

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