Urban Fantasy, what is it? And how do you create good urban fantasy?
I’ve mentioned Urban Fantasy before in some articles, but I wanted to delve deeper into it and provide some more examples beyond my normal one.
Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy in which the narrative has an urban setting. Works of urban fantasy are set primarily in the real world and contain aspects of fantasy, such as the discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence or conflict between humans and paranormal beings, and other changes to city life. A contemporary setting is not strictly necessary for a work of urban fantasy: works of the genre may also take place in futuristic and historical settings, actual or imagined.
I figure I can just drop in some Wikapedia knowledge to get the conversation going since they are going to define it basically the same way that I’m going to describe it. I would say that urban fantasy basically does always show up in a contemporary setting at least from what I’ve seen. But as they say it isn’t required, but it is extremely normal for it to show up in that contemporary setting.
The best way that I would describe it is that it takes a realistic setting, generally earth and our world, and then puts a twist on it. Whether it’s Fae creatures as in Grimm and The Dresden Files, to the weird London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, there are large chunks of the normal world still there for the story. These twists on the world can be highly hidden such as in Neverwhere or sometimes very obvious as in The Dresden Files, though magic and monsters are still generally kept under wraps there as well.
What generally makes strong urban fantasy is the balance of normalcy with the absurd. You see the normal world happening around the characters and you often see the characters pining for or rushing headlong into the more magical aspect of the world. While I wouldn’t quality Harry Potter as Urban Fantasy since most of it takes place at Hogwarts, it does have some elements of urban fantasy, and Harry is someone who rushes headlong into the magical world because anything seems better than living in the space beneath the stairs. That compares to Grimm where Detective Nick Burkhardt is not all that excited to find out what else is going on in the world. It makes his job much harder and makes his life much crazier in ways that he doesn’t want. I think this really helps drive the home the humanity of the main character as you see the struggle. There is some Urban Fantasy, and Lost Girl is an example, where the main character, Bo, loses touch with her humanity seemingly as the series goes along. Now, a lot of that is just writing, but it hurts the show when the focus on that has been lost and it was stronger at the start of the show. They made some poor decisions in the show by trying to be edgy, but unfortunately the writing dropped off too much and the acting talent wasn’t up to snuff to pull it off.
When I think about it, I don’t think that there are many particular things that make urban fantasy strong that doesn’t make most other books, movies, and TV shows strong. It has to focus in on an interesting character with flaws and have an interesting plot to go along with it. Within that a good focus on the tension between the two worlds is generally one of the driving forces. Shows like Grimm and Supernatural, which isn’t pure urban fantasy, but is closely aligned to Urban fantasy, and book series like The Dresden Files, all the main characters are the gate keepers keeping the world of monsters and other scary things back and allowing humanity to live in blissful ignorance of what is actually going on. That tension, whether or not the main character is the gate keeper, is probably the thing that is most unique to urban fantasy as it’s the most consistent theme to it. However, it is certainly not a required part of urban fantasy or something that is only limited to urban fantasy.
So I’ve mentioned some of the examples of Urban Fantasy that I’m familiar with. There are certainly a whole lot more out there, and I’m always interested in finding more to read. So I’m going to ask for some suggestions and then give some suggestions of my own. If you have some that you’ve enjoyed, let me know.
The Dresden Files
My #1 recommendation. The books are very well done and Jim Butcher does a really good job of developing an interesting world with interesting monsters. The series starts off a bit rough as it was some of if not Jim Butcher’s first major writing experience. But besides that, it’s about Harry Dresden, a wizard PI in Chicago who is basically one of the only forces holding back hordes of darkness from not just consuming the city, but at times the world.
I believe this show was met with mixed reviews, and I will say that there is some camp factor to the show and special effects. However, I liked the show. It is a bit monster of the week throughout a lot of it, but it does that well. The main character is interesting, and the creatures and building up of the world is quite interesting as well.
Probably my first introduction to Urban Fantasy, though I might have read the first Dresden Files book before. Neverwhere is an interesting and crazy crafted world of the London Below. A normal human runs across a girl named Door whose life is in danger. After helping her, Richard Mayhew starts having changes in life, and he starts to disappear from the world. He finds out that he’s now moved from his normal life in London to being part of London Below.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
One that people might not think about as it’s moved on from being part of the collective view, but like Supernatural, it’s a modern show with monsters. The reason that I would say this is more urban fantasy, at least as how I would qualify it, is that Buffy takes place in a single town of Sunnydale that just happens to be sitting on a hellmouth. It’s a classic show and one that does have a bad season or two in there, but is mostly very strong.
Just to do some more quick hits based off of what other places are calling Urban Fantasy that I’ve enjoyed:
All fun TV shows
Big Trouble in Little China
From Dusk Til Dawn
The Last Witch Hunter
All solid movie choices, though a lot of them B-movies.
Little Witch Academia
Blood Blockade Battlefront
Those are some anime options.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Last two I would say are urban fantasy adjacent books. But I recommend all of these books.
So you can see that I’ve watched a lot, but what are some other recommendations especially in books and anime?
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