Understanding Urban Fantasy and Its Roots

Would you believe not everyone has heard of the urban fantasy genre? I was shocked too. But, when someone asked me what it was, I stumbled, lots of things came to mind. Turns out, it’s not so easy to define. Authors and writers (agents and publishers) in the genre have varying descriptions on the definition. So, I took some time, did some research, compared notes, and this is my answer — along with other cool information.

Prague

This photo of Prague is a great visual for the urban fantasy vibe.

Defining Urban Fantasy

It’s a hard genre to pin down, but this is my attempt to wrangle it into its essence.

Mythical and magical creatures and beings living alongside regular humans in a real world setting.

Some people will insist it has to be set in a city, while others include rural and remote settings.

As to key elements, it is a melting pot of other genres as it blends fantasy, horror, humor, suspense, mystery, action and adventure, and romance.

Analyzing the Phrase Urban Fantasy

This is where the confusion starts. It’s an odd phase. But after researching and reading opinions on the origin, the most logical explanation is that the word urban is borrowed from a related term, Urban Legend. Urban is used to differentiate modern from traditional legends.

So, urban fantasy differs from traditional fantasy — with entirely imaginary landscapes — by being contemporary with landscapes anchored in the real world. Which means it does not have to be set in a city. But to use the term Modern or Contemporary Fantasy would be more confusing since Urban Fantasy (UF) can occur in any timeline—Renaissance, the Uruk period, or right now.

The fantasy part is more obvious. It must have a fantasy element that is integral to the story.

A Brief History and Forerunners of Urban Fantasy

The subgenre is new, but the idea is as old as Shakespeare. A Midsummer-Night’s Dream brought fairies into the modern world.

One of the earliest “modern” storytellers is Anne Rice. Interview with the Vampire (1976), the first book in The Vampire Chronicles, was set in 1791 Louisiana and Paris. The story chronicles the 200 years of life-after-death of Louis, a vampire. It was originally filed under horror.

Moonheart (1984) by Charles de Lint is an award-winning, bestseller set in 1980 Ottawa. It features a wizard, an imp, a secret paranormal investigative section of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), and a very special house.

War for the Oaks (1987) by Emma Bull is about a faery war in Minneapolis, and there’s a romance component.

The Borderland Series (1986-2011) edited by Terri Windling is about the place between the real world and the magic world.

Now, the book series that set new boundaries and really pushed this genre into the spotlight was Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter. The protagonist is female and the story is told in first person. It also has a strong romantic element and focuses on crime-solving and action (at least the earlier books did). These books were first listed under horror as well.

First person and female heroines ruled in the beginning but that is no longer the case.

This category is huge with a plethora of authors and titles. I don’t know when it became an official category, but it probably needs a better name and more subcategories.

Urban Fantasy VS Paranormal Romance

In UF, romance may be there but is not the focus of the plot. In Paranormal Romance, it is. Example of Paranormal Romance is Soulless by Gail Carriger.

Urban Fantasy VS Horror

By nature, UF has horror elements but its main purpose is not to scare or frighten the reader; it’s more of a byproduct. With horror, terror is a key element. Example of horror is Stephen King’s It.

Urban Fantasy VS Magic Realism

Magical realism blends magical elements into a realistic world in order to pursue a deeper understanding of reality. The magical elements are normal occurrences presented in a straightforward manner. The plot is based in reality. It’s serious. It’s drama. UF not so much; it’s escapist. Example of Magic Realism is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

Still confused? Here are some examples you might already know.

Urban Fantasy in TV and Film

  • Bewitched
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer
  • Pushing Daisies
  • Dead Like Me
  • Lost Girl
  • Sleepy Hallow
  • Supernatural
  • Ghostbusters
  • Underworld
  • Blade
  • The Crow

Want to get your feet wet?

Popular Urban Fantasy Authors

  • Ilona Andrews: Kate Daniels series
  • Kelley Armstrong: Otherworld series
  • Patricia Briggs: Mercy Thompson series
  • Jim Butcher: Harry Dresden series
  • Jeaniene Frost: Night Huntress series
  • Neil Gaiman: American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere, and Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett)
  • Charlaine Harris: Sookie Stackhouse series
  • Kim Harrison: The Hollows series

Do you read UF? Do you write UF? Do you watch UF? What are your feelings on paranormal romance, horror, and magic realism?

Cool image of Prague by Valerii Tkachenko, WikiMedia Commons. To see more stunning photos visit his Flickr pages.

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47 Comments

  1. You’ve defined the different genres well. I still prefer to place some elements under horror. And when looking for fantasy titles, I’m looking for pure fantasy along the lines of Tolkien and Brooks. Sometimes it seems as if the urban fantasy stuff has invaded the regular fantasy.

    1. Yes, I’ve noticed that too. I think they need to separate UF and pure fantasy because they have such a different feel. Gah! Sometimes I find sci-fi and fantasy mixed together too, which I don’t like either.

  2. I haven’t read fiction in so long now, I’m well overdue. So I can’t really comment on this post, but I did want to say howdy and hope you’re making lots and lots of yummy things to eat.

    Cheers and boogie boogie.

    1. Mostly recently a tie-dye/rainbow cake. It’s a fun cake!

  3. I was going to say, Laurell K. Hamilton comes to mind first when I think of Urban Fantasy. Not really a genre I read very much. I know it’s been very popular, though, in books and on television lately.

    1. I’ve notice an increase in TV shows too.

  4. I’ve read all the authors you listed. I hadn’t really considered them urban fantasy, just fantasy or contemporary fantasy (if that is even a genre). But now that you’ve listed out what makes them urban, I can totally see it. Another excellent and informative post. That’s why I nominated you for the versatile blogger award!

    1. Oh, thanks!

      I’ve talked to people who don’t like UF because they want a new world to explore. And I’ve met people who find epic fantasy is too much work to read.

      1. My sis-in-law is the former. She won’t read anything based in our reality.

  5. I do read some UF, but I haven’t written any yet. Sometimes I think the only people who really care about these types of classifications are those in the publishing realm. The readers just know what they like to read. 🙂

    1. Probably true. A big difference from fantasy and UF is cover art. That’s my biggest clue when I’m wandering around the bookstore. They used to be all scantily clad women, but we are finally moving away from that.

  6. Haven’t read anything by Gaiman yet, but didn’t realize those books you mentioned were urban fantasy. Also hadn’t thought about Shakespeare’s work in that context. Good post.

  7. A very thorough definition of Urban Fantasy. I’m working on one now that will debut this summer. 😀 It’s been a lot of fun to write.

  8. I prefer epic fantasy and science fiction, I like my settings either historical or space operish 🙂

  9. I don’t write it and I only occasionally read it, but I enjoyed your post. 🙂

  10. Ok, seriously, THANK YOU for posting this! I’d heard of urban fantasy but never really understood what it was. I totally get it now 🙂 This was so helpful! Oh, and I found out that it’s a genre I like, LOL

  11. I wasn’t sure if my book The Eighth Day counted as urban fantasy, since the better part of it takes place in a suburban town. But apparently a lot of reviewers classify it that way, which suits me fine! So I guess I write urban fantasy, yay! (Because it sounds so cool.)

    1. 🙂 I love that your readers classified it for you!

  12. I like urban fantasy, but it certainly needs to be kept separate from other fantasy.

    1. Yeah, I would love to see steampunk sectioned out too. I guess that’s the nice thing about online bookstores. They can do a lot of sectioning and tagging to help readers find what they are hungry to read.

  13. I had never really thought about what urban fantasy is, but you’ve done a great job describing it. Sometimes I think readers miss out on some great books because they want try a different genre.

    1. The best thing about bookstores is that front area with books from all genres mixed together. The cover grabs you, the blurb entices you, and then you read the book. That’s how I end up reading different genres.

  14. Great research on the genre. I do read urban fantasy and love it. I have also done some writing in it, though I prefer creating whole new worlds.

    1. I can totally see the appeal with both, but I wonder if most people have a strong preference for one over the other or don’t care either way.

  15. It’s crazy how layered the fantasy genre is! But this post explained it perfectly. A great reference. As an Urban Fantasy/High Fantasy writer, I applaud you for doing such a great job laying it all down here! 😉

  16. you blew my mind! i never thought about urban fantasy being around for so long, but it totally has been! we just named it! i love it! great and thorough explanation!

  17. Good definitions, distinctions, and differentiations. I don’t read UF, but I write it sometimes, and I still enjoy Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Angel series.

    1. Me too! As a matter of fact after I wrote this I looked up and watched the Buffy pilot, and it still holds up.

  18. Great definitions and distinctions here. I really enjoy reading urban fantasy. I believe it’s my favorite kind of fantasy.

    1. I think it might be mine too.

  19. I write and read and watch UF – love it. Originally turned onto it by Rice, then Harris. Love those ladies.

    Great pos about the distinctions between genres Holly! 🙂

    shahwharton.com

    1. I started with Rice too. Then Hamilton, and then Harris or maybe Butcher.

  20. I guess because of the title, I’d always expected Urban Fantasy to take place in a city. Wrong.

    As to this Magical Realism, it still bothers me that the essence of this category is always ignored. The magical elements are always discussed, the realistic world is, too, along with the reason for the juxtaposition of the two–to gain a greater understanding of reality. But the underlying cultural elements are seldom mentioned. Yet, that is essential to Magical Realism. Well, in this writers mind it is. Old school, I guess.

    1. Thought I’d pop back to say more on this. Sorry. You must think I’m nuts, but I’m just interested in the topic. Gabriel Garcia Marques died this year. He was the novelist who really defined magical realism. His novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was a milestone in the literary world back in the ’60’s. Even Neruda praised it. High compliment, indeed.

      1. No, I totally get it. The subtleties of the genres or sub-genres rather are fascinating.

        1. Oh and the history and the evolution.

  21. I like when films incorporate the urban fantasy. It makes a great setting.

  22. This is one of my favorite genres. It was HOT right before the Paranormal explosion and I have several pieces awaiting completion that fall nicely in that niche.

  23. I miss DEAD LIKE ME. It was a great show. But in typically TV fashion they took it off the air. The show was filmed in Vancouver. I know they say Seattle, but I lived in Vancouver and it’s hard not to recognize most of the places. Thanks for clarifying, eh!

    1. I loved DEAD LIKE ME too. The writers strike is what killed it. 🙁

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