Friday, November 12, 2010

Defining Urban Fantasy

I noticed that there have been several conversations on Twitter lately that have been trying to define urban fantasy.  I just attended a session that tried to do just that at the World Fantasy Con in Columbus, OH.  The panel was comprised of authors Holly Black, Michele Lang, Cinda Chima, and Stephanie Robertson.

To sum things up, urban fantasy:

  • holds hands with paranormal romance and contemporary fantasy.
  • is often influenced by the mystery genre.
  • takes place in the modern world or in the future.
  • is comprised of weird stuff in the real world.  (This is the most broad and my favorite.)
  • can have an open or closed world.
Much was said regarding open or closed worlds in urban fantasy, mainly because the very heart of the genre involves blending the real with the imaginary.  The authors defined an open world as one in which the general population is aware of the supernatural/magical elements of their world.  A good example in my mind would be Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking.  She supplies an alternate history of our world in which the we all become aware of most magical and supernatural phenomena, and that also makes everyone afraid of tomatoes.  Poor bastards.

Closed worlds are worlds in which the general populace is unaware of such elements, often chalking fantastical events off to overactive imaginations, intoxication, or symptoms requiring a good dose of Haldol.  The average citizen in the Harry Potter series is closed to the idea of magic, leaving millions of Muggles hopelessly ignorant that they were this close to being Voldemort's bitches.


The type of world an author chooses to use greatly affects the nuances of effective world building.  One of the panelists remarked that books with open worlds that have no explanation for how everyone knows about werewolves, witches, and vampires makes for a less believable plot.  "Yes, Virginia, there is a Dracula."  I appreciate the irony of trying to make the unbelievable believable, but there has to be a sort of logic in one's world to set up the willing suspension of disbelief in one's audience.

Some other genres that came up during that panel, and several other panels, that seem related to me included steam punk, cyber punk, weird western, rural fantasy (AWESOME), and mash-ups.  I'm having trouble placing my book in an appropriate genre.  The definition of a book is critical.  It guides consumers towards what books they may like to try.  Placing a book in the wrong genre feels like a bait-and-switch to readers, and understandably pisses them off.

I feel my book is closest to urban fantasy in its structure and style, but it doesn't take place in a city, and it has a few aspects of weird westerns.  I want to fight for that urban fantasy label, if I can ever land an agent, because urban fantasy is booming right now.

What do you think?  Do you have anything to add to the discussion?

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