What Is Urban Fantasy?

Updated on October 4, 2019
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Cecelia grew up in South Australia. During her work in Kindergartens, Cecelia also became interested in speech development as literacy.

Image from Morguefile.com
Image from Morguefile.com

Urban Fantasy Is a New and Interesting Genre for Readers and Writers

I find myself asking out of academic and personal interest—what exactly is "urban fantasy?"

When I first heard about it, the concept seemed simple—it was fantasy set in a large city. The exact opposite of the traditional "pastoral" or rural fantasy, and epic imaginary country spanning "high fantasy."

But as I tried to develop an idea for a story or novel, I began to question that assumption. Every story has a setting; however, many stories are not defined by that setting.

We live predominantly in cities nowadays, so the city is a logical place for story setting. What makes an urban fantasy different from a fairy story simply set in the city?

Mishell Bakers’ Five Elements

According to Mishell Bakers’ guest post in The Writer’s Digest, all urban fantasy novels must contain five elements:

  1. The City
  2. Magic
  3. Mystery
  4. Point of view (generally first person)
  5. Sizzle (sensuality and “blatant or subtle eroticism")

These Elements Are Not Universal for the Genre

Mishell Baker is giving advice to writers and this sounds more like a formula on how to sell to certain audiences than an analysis of the tropes of "urban fantasy."

  • Number one (the city) - For sure!
  • Number two (magic) - Not necessarily magic, as the tale could be science fiction or post-apocalyptic.
  • Number three (mystery) - It's like saying the story needs a plot. However, politics, intrigue, alien invasion, horror, or war would also work.
  • Number four (point of view) - I use first-person occasionally, but I have come to believe this is the hallmark of a lazy writer. It takes more effort to flesh out a character and make a third-person narrative. I’m speaking from personal experience here, as after noticing first-person was becoming a habit, I challenged myself to change my first-person narrative into proper characterisation.
  • Number five (sizzle) - The writer may well lose as many readers as they gain by emphasising romance. It is not suitable for younger readers, and many male readers won’t tolerate it.

"Dark Angel" Is an Example

Dark Angel was a television series that ran from 2000–2002. The series was created by James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee, and sits squarely in the Urban Fantasy Genre. When I analyse this series, I get six elements, some similar to Mishell Baker's elements, and some different.

  1. The City but Not the Way We Know It: Dark Angel is post-apocalyptic as a disaster has destroyed society. The city is not the normal urban environment; many buildings are damaged, and the characters live amongst the more functional of the ruins.
  2. Full of Secret Places: Dark Angel explores the hidden parts of the city. Scenes are shot in sewers and abandoned buildings.
  3. Cyberpunk: The main character, Max, is the result of a genetic engineering program. This reflects the cyberpunk obsessiveness with technology and computing. The disabled Logan is also a rich lovable nerd, and when his IT skills fail, he has greater geniuses he can call upon.
  4. Paranoia and Government Secrets: Created by a secret agency, unable to be open about their identity, hunting for the secret agency, and being hunted by the secret agency, all means that a great deal of espionage and intrigue has been thrown in.
  5. Characters With Powers and Super-Strength: Max and the other members of her series have enormous strength and enhanced processing skills.
  6. Unresolved Sexual Tension: Max and Logan don't admit their feelings for each other, and after they do, a virus prevents them from getting together. Many writers and producers have discovered that frustrated love holds the audience longer than smug, satisfied love. I would have liked to see them get smart and choose other partners, but that was just my point of view.

Skyscraper - Photo by Allan Schultz
Skyscraper - Photo by Allan Schultz

Conclusions: Make The City Different

We have only analysed one example so far, but I think one thing did become clear. The city must be more than a place to live for the work to qualify as "urban fantasy." The city needs to be estranged from reality and bathed in a light of unreality. It also needs to have secrets and retreats for the characters. The city also needs to have some personality. Sentient buildings only appear in a very few horror stories, but I would say that "urban fantasy" writers ought to consider something along those lines.

© 2019 Cecelia


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