There is no denying that fantasy has been on the rise in the last couple decades. Even more recently, the genre of urban fantasy has gotten a strong foothold in the book market. So, what makes urban fantasy so special? At this year’s WonderCon, authors Stephen Blackmoore, Rachel Marks, Mishell Baker, Mairghread Scott, and Kevin Hearne gathered for the Life in the Weird City: Urban Fantasy panel to discuss what sets the genre apart: the city.
In many urban fantasy books, the city in which the story takes places does more than act as a setting. Often, the city also becomes a character of its own. Mairghread Scott, author of comic series Toil And Trouble and the soon to be released children’s graphic novel City on the Other Side, discussed how the city is literally a character in her newest story, in the form of a “spiritus loci.” “I didn’t want to focus on the city, but it was important to show how the city influenced the story’s characters,” said Scott. For City on the Other Side, Scott went so far as to get old maps of 1910 San Francisco, the setting of the story, and included them. “I didn’t want the city to dominate, but I think when you focus on it, it makes the story more real.”
Stephen Blackmoore, author of Dead Things, remarked how he didn’t necessarily see Los Angeles, his novel’s setting, a character. Recognizing, however, that there are many interesting things about LA that not many people would know about outside of it, he likes to incorporate what he can into his story. “I’ve been told before that [Los Angeles] reads like a character, though it is entirely unintended.”
“For me,” said Rachel Marks, author of Fire and Bone, “It’s hard for me to show the city without embodying that space.”
Using a modern day setting and a familiar cityscape does have its drawbacks, as these authors also discussed. Namely, they felt that drawback mostly in the form of reader feedback.
“I’ll mostly get told that there’s something weird with my historic setting,” began Mairghread Scott. “I remember how one artist had to redraw all the doorknobs in a story because someone said to me, ‘turning knobs wasn’t a thing then.’”
Kevin Hearne, author of the Iron Druid Chronicles, groaned over his issues with using firearms in his stories. “If you write one thing wrong with firearms, you’ll be emailed forever. And then, when they contact you, they all seem to think that you’ve never been told about it before.”
Another issue that these authors shared with one another was that of avoiding common fantasy tropes. Sagely, Mishell Baker, author of Phantom Pains, said, “Sometimes it’s unavoidable.” Any voracious reader will tell you just about everything has already been written in one fashion or another, but it doesn’t mean that a writer should avoid approaching a similar story, especially if it’s one that they feel compelled to write. In the end, how you write a story will be different than how any other person would write it. Though, there are some things that you can still minimize, such as Stephen Blackmoore swearing he would never use werewolves in any of his stories.
Personally, I love urban fantasies. They give the ordinary world a touch of magic, both opening the reader to familiar yet new experiences and allowing writers to create fantasy stories that ring of fantastical possibilities.