Woo… we’ve reached the point where event registration is open for GenCon. Let’s talk a little about how the process went with getting registered for events. There are two big things to note that we did, since there were two of us, when when we […]
Tag: Harry Dresden
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?
Share questions, ideas for articles, or comments with us!
I’m continuing my way through the Dresden Files series, and I was noticing something in Jim Butcher’s writing style that I really appreciate, and that got me thinking about other book series as well. That idea being, how much do you describe about the world you create for a story?
For the Dresden Files series, the world of the stories might seem easier than some to describe. After all, as an urban fantasy, it’s set in modern times, in a real place. Then again, I’ve never been to some of the places in Chicago that are mentioned in the books — in fact, besides driving around it once, the longest I’ve been in Chicago was a long weekend, over a decade ago. So, in describing these new-to-me places, what does Jim Butcher do that I appreciate? In an example from the book Small Favors, the characters go to an aquarium to hold a meeting with some monsters. Instead of spending much of any time describing what the aquarium looks like, Butcher lays out the reasons why it is a good spot for the character’s meet-up (despite all appearances to the contrary). With how these details are described, you get an idea for why the aquarium was picked, not what the aquarium looks like. And there isn’t a reason to describe what it looks like — most readers will have a solid idea of this already, so there’s no need to describe the outside as you drive up, because it doesn’t matter for what’s happening in the scene. Even though Butcher used an aquarium that actually exists in Chicago, it doesn’t matter if my mind’s picture of it isn’t exactly right. In fact, this covers for him in case he ends up not having every detail right in his description, because someone would likely complain if he got something wrong. And if someone knows the location well enough to catch that, they don’t need a picture of it painted for them anyway.
So, what was done differently overall in this series that sets it apart from a lot of others? In short, it doesn’t infodump — I’ve read most of the books in the series, and I still haven’t run into any long scenes of world-building; nor have there been any grand, overarching segments describing every piece of magic, lore, and landscape that’s going to be important later. There are a number of reasons why it’s good to avoid this as a writer. An example of infodump occurs in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One — the author spends most of the first three chapters world-building. He goes through a ton of 80s references and nuggets of information about the characters, their society, and their world that go on and on forever. There are a couple of issues with this; one is that it ends up telegraphing a ton of things. For most of these instances in Ready Player One, it wasn’t so much a Chekhov’s gun as it was a Chekhov’s machine gun, with the way everything was jammed into those first few chapters. It’s also frustrating because it ends up meaning that not much happens in a story full of infodump. Ready Player One is one of the few non-fantasy examples of this — authors of epic fantasy are often the worst offenders of using infodump or overly detailed description. George R.R. Martin is a bad one for this, tending to include too many details that don’t advance the plot. It also happens in Lord of the Rings (yes, I went there), in which things are described to a level well beyond what the reader wants or needs.
The question is, then, how do you balance it so that you aren’t pulling a fast one, but not putting in so much detail that it stops your story in its tracks and gets people to put down the book? I enjoy Dune quite well, for example, but I have trouble getting through it, especially early on, as Frank Herbert spends so much time developing his world, all the politics, and all the other different facets of the series. For that reason, I don’t read it in book form; I listen to it on audiobook, because that’s how I can make it through those opening chapters. But instead of just talking about how some books get it wrong, how about some ways you can do better than the big names I’ve mentioned who don’t always do it right?
(If you aren’t a writer, just think about who might do these things from the stories you’ve read or watched.)
First, I think it’s good to ask yourself as a writer/creator, does the reader/viewer need to know this? You put time and effort into coming up with all the details for your world. That is awesome, but some of those details are only meant for you. When you crest a hill and look down on the plains of Fargath, you don’t need to tell everyone about the river in it, unless the river is really important and unique. I already know what a plain looks like, so I don’t need to know the basics. The example below about the plains of Fargath is what you want to avoid:
As your band of weary travelers crested the final hill, they looked down on the plains of Fargath. Before them stretched miles of open grasslands that were turning golden in the autumn sun. Off in the distance, you could see a stream with a couple of trees standing next to it, but beyond that and a few small rolling hills, there was nothing for the eye to see. You turned to look at your traveling companions. They turned to look at you, sweat beading on their brows after a long days’ work. The horses looked tired, and didn’t appear to want to continue.
Let’s break that down. First, what I’ve described is a pretty standard plain. It’s actually a pretty boring plain. We probably already know I’ve been traveling all day, so it’s obvious that everyone is going to be pretty tired. The only useful pieces of information in the paragraph above might be that it’s autumn and that the area is called the plains of Fargath. It could be cut down to something like the following:
As your band of weary travelers crested the final hill, they look down into the plains of Fargath. The autumn air did nothing to stop the heat, but had already begun to turn the grass a golden color.
Two sentences — that’s all you need to describe what took way longer before. Now imagine traveling all the way to Mordor describing everything like the first example.
Next, unique is cool. In the example of the plains of Fargath, what sort of detail could be unique?
As your band of weary travelers crested the final hill, they looked down into the plains of Fargath. The autumn air did nothing to stop the heat, but had already begun to turn the grass a golden color. Off in the distance, you could see the head of the giant. The thirty-foot-tall stone head was clearly broken off from a giant statue, but none was to be seen.
Okay, that’s pretty cool. A thirty foot tall stone head, clearly broken off from a statue — how did that get there? It’s a detail that is probably going to be important, and that is definitely unique. Maybe they just camp by the stone head for the night and something happens there — even if it’s just an important conversation, now people are going to remember the plains of Fargath. But look at that compared to the first paragraph. It’s more interesting, because heads of statues lying on the ground are interesting. It’s still shorter, and the reader isn’t getting bored, because thirty-foot-tall stone head.
That’s one way to keep things more interesting — another would be to describe the function of the place or the reasoning for going to this place as you travel. This is what Harry Dresden did in Small Favors when going to the aquarium. He said it was off of peak season. So we now know to imagine the aquarium as being pretty empty. He talked about how unless people can see something, they don’t really know what happened or think that it happened the way it did, hence meeting indoors. We now have a clear purpose and functionality for picking the location of the aquarium. How would that work in an example that isn’t written by a prolific author?
No one went to the plains of Fargath for anything more than a novelty visit to the thirty-foot-tall head of a statue. It would be a quiet location for planning to be completed, and a place for plans to be set in motion for getting back the kingdom.
That’s really short, but again, without going into great detail about the plains of Fargath, we now have an idea of what the place is like. It’s quiet, it’s empty, there’s nothing there. We also know why we’re going there — probably something the reader would know already by that point, but a nice thing to clarify form time to time. We also know that this is going to be their base of operations. That tells us a lot about the place and why they are going there instead of just what the place looks like. Using this method also cuts down on a planning session ahead of time. It literally cut two scenes way down, potentially. It also has a sense of action to it that you lose in just a purely descriptive scene. Sure, there are plenty of ways to make description more active, but generally that adds to the length of the description. See the plains of Fargath example below:
As your band of weary travelers crested the final hill, they looked down on the plains of Fargath. Before them stretched miles of open grasslands that were turning golden in the autumn sun. The grass twitched in a breeze that barely cooled anyone. Off in the distance, you could see a stream babbling slowly across the plain with a couple of trees standing next to it, but beyond that and a few small rolling hills, there was nothing for the eye to see. You dropped out of your saddle and looked at your traveling companions. They turned to look at you, sweat beading on their brows after a long days work. The horses hung their heads and didn’t appear to want to continue.
It’s a little bit longer, and while we now have sense of motion with the grass twitching in the breeze, cresting the hill, the stream babbling, and the sweat beading, it’s still pretty much a long descriptive paragraph. If you felt like my two sentences above about reasoning weren’t enough, we can even add a little of the detail back in while keeping it very short:
No one went to the plains of Fargath for anything more than a novelty visit to the thirty-foot-tall head of a statue. Even fewer people came to see the statue as the autumn days grew shorter. It would be a quiet location for planning to be completed and plans to be set in motion for getting back the kingdom.
Now we know the season and also sets up more why the plains of Fargath will be empty. It’s probably not needed to add that, but maybe the shortening days will matter to the plot later, or that will be a trial they have to overcome. It only adds in a sentence, and not a long sentence at that.
The final way to make interesting world-building is on-demand world building. This basically means that you only add a detail to the world when you need it. Patrick Rothfuss does this in The Kingkiller Chronicle series. His narrator, Kvothe, only tells the parts of the world that are interesting to him, and only when they are relevant to the story. That does mean that information is sometimes sprung on you, but not often, and as a writer, that would be something to try to avoid if the piece of information is important for a later plot twist. What Kvothe does is about the opposite from what Wade Watts does in Ready Player One. In both cases, you’re dealing with a narrator who is the star of their own story, but Wade Watts gives you all the information to start, whereas Kvothe sprinkles in what is important where it’s needed. In Ready Player One, however, I don’t know that it could have been information dumped a ton better. As I said above, it was a Chekhov’s machine gun in that information dumping, so how do you avoid springing a surprise on the reader with that? It could have been cut down some, as there was a plethora of information and details given that weren’t needed, and that likely would have been the best solution.
With on-demand world building, it’s something that you just don’t have to use in writing or in shows or movies. I’m actually doing that with season two of Dungeons and Flagons (Found Here) where the players are helping me create the town of Bresson on the fly as well as NPCs. As a Dungeon Master, this can be a little bit scary to do, but it’s also a lot of fun, they are giving me the cast and location for this adventure, and I get to see the places that are interesting to the players and really get to be along for the ride with them. All of the suggestions above are great ideas for pulling into your RPG as well. Giving information on demand, or keeping descriptions short for a theater-of-the-mind game, or even just describing why a place is a good spot for the characters to go can all make for an interesting story.
What are some of the best and worst books that you’ve read or movies or shows you’ve watched in terms of world-building and information dumping? Is there someone who really stands out to you as being a great world-builder?
Share questions, ideas for articles, or comments with us!
We are trying a new thing with Amazon Links. If you’re interested in what we talked about in our articles or used for the podcast, please consider making a purchase through our links. Purchases help support our website and offset our costs. Thanks!
During my time between jobs, besides spending a lot of time doing mind numbing training in new programming languages, is go to Fantasy Flight Game Center and try out some different games than I’ve played before. And yesterday I went with a friend and played […]
We’re back in urban fantasy land today with Storm Front, the first installment of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. But while this series belongs to the same genre as Little (Grrl) Lost, the tone couldn’t be more different, and the stakes in these stories couldn’t be higher. It’s a little hard to describe these books, but think “1920s noir but with 100% more magic,” and you’ll be pretty close.
In the first book of the series, we meet Harry Dresden, Chicago’s premiere (and only) professional wizard. As the story starts, we find Harry in his downtown office, where business is slow. Before long, in walks (naturally) a beautiful woman with a big problem–her husband is missing, and she wants Harry’s help.
Harry’s old-fashioned sensibilities — not to mention his need for cash — lead him to eagerly accept the case. At first, it seems that the woman, by the name of Monica Sells, came to Harry mainly because she didn’t trust the police with her case; however, Harry soon learns that Monica is hoping to hide her husband’s strange behavior from the authorities — behavior that, to Harry, sounds suspiciously magical in nature.
By way of several misadventures with paranormal creatures, a slimy Chicago mob boss (what else, I ask you?), and a Warden who dogs Harry’s footsteps in hopes of catching him out for misuse of magic, Harry finds that the strange events he keeps encountering all seem to be leading to a mysterious drug called ThreeEye. The drug allows normal humans to gain the Sight, or the ability to perceive the hidden magical world around them. This is a big problem — even for those well-trained in magic like Harry is, the Sight can cause confusion and even madness; for mundane humans, it can be disastrous.
Harry soon finds that all signs point to ThreeEye, and to whomever is distributing it. Harry knows he’ll need to find the source of the dangerous drug and put a stop to whatever nefarious plot is behind it. But with so many leads, which one is the right one? And will Harry be strong and wily enough to face whatever is lurking in the shadows?
This series is somewhat different from my usual fare, but I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit thus far (I just finished book #2, Fool Moon). I was unsure about Harry Dresden as a character at first, but I’m sold on him at this point. His exterior of suave (and sometimes grating) bravado turns out to conceal a character who is flawed, uncertain, and a little bit reckless. He enjoys using magic because of the cool factor; make no mistake — however, his true desire is to use it to protect both the people he cares about and the innocent bystanders around him from the dangerous world of magic that only he and a minority of others are aware of. In short, Harry may be a wizard, but he’s a very human one. Top that off with a complicated past that is only just beginning to be revealed in book #2, and you have a character who will hook you in and take you along for the ride.
Though I’m really enjoying these books, I do need to add a couple notes of critique. For one, I noticed a couple of moments where things felt a little loose in terms of editing — Harry is suddenly using an object he left somewhere without mentioning when he picked it back up, it’s difficult to tell who’s speaking in a string of rapid-fire dialogue, the logistics of a fight scene are a little tricky to envision, etc. It’s nothing major, but it’s enough for my editor-brain to pick up on. And I have to mention that the whole chivalrous/old-fashioned/knight-in-shining-armor thing Harry has going strikes me as a little casually sexist at times (though I’m starting to think that’s more or less the point, as Harry himself acknowledges this perception of his behavior several times). My final beef with these books is the level of violence — it’s all done to good effect, and is largely necessary to the plot, but at some points it comes preeeetty close to breaching my threshold for that kind of stuff. However, do keep in mind that I’m more squeamish than the average bear, so scenes that bothered me might not be a big deal to others.
All of that said, I’m finding The Dresden Files to be a solid series so far, and I’m really looking forward to finding out where it’ll go next. I’m told that the books only get better as they go along, and for a series that’s already shaping up nicely, that’s encouraging and exciting to hear. I’m hoping things will keep on picking up steam in the third installment, Grave Peril.
Have you read any of the Dresden Files books? What did you enjoy about them? Are there other books like The Dresden Files that you’d recommend to those who enjoy the series? Let us know in the comments!
Share questions, ideas for articles, or comments with us!
Email us at email@example.com
Follow us on Twitter at @NerdologistCast
Message me directly on Twitter at @Kefka73
Visit us on Facebook here.