The Great Urban Fantasy Debate Part 1

02 Jan

I found a blog post that delves into some of the same questions and dilemmas I have about writing Urban Fantasy. I don’t want to be forced into writing a mystery, which seems to be a staple of some of the genre, but something I have no interest in writing. Not only does it intimidate me, it downright terrifies me to even think of writing a mystery. And I am not going to be pigeon-holed into doing so.  It was an interesting article that brought up some of the very points I had mulled over such as the seeming proliferation of PI plots, both professional and civilian, such as the Dresden Files, the Mercedes Thompson series, the Anita Blake series by Laurel K. Hamilton and some others. It seems that there is always a mystery going on, though not always in the same fashion as in the mystery genre itself, which I won’t touch with a ten foot pole. But that brings me to the thought that most plots involve a mystery to some extent and that my own plot does indeed have some elements of that in it as well. Just not a lot and that was pointed out as well and made me feel better about the idea of mystery being included and not having to deal with the PI and police procedure.

I don’t think I have to write a mystery UF, but it’s a worry that it might be the only one that would be picked up for publication. The posts at the end of the blog were reassuring, reminding me that not all UF is a mystery and I feel free again to write what’s in my head and not try to force it into an unnatural shape, which would prove disastrous.

From there I found this blog by Carrie Vaughn. It comes in 3 parts and the second part is particularly interesting and helpful. I was much relieved to find that my book does not have any of these issues in its current first incarnation. I’ll be rewriting basically the whole thing and it was good to re her pet peeves and keep mind what not to add. And it was funny, since I have had some of the same issues with female leads lately. As she put it “When the heroine is insecure about her appearance and ability to attract men, and talks about this by comparing herself to her best friend who is a blond bombshell. You would be amazed how often this happens in these books. I take this one personally, for obvious reasons (I am, in fact, blond). “Blond” seems to be a code word in some of these books for “not the heroine.” Or even, in at least one book, not that I’m going to name names or anything, “bimbo.”” Yeah, being a fellow blond, I too find the blond bombshell/bimbo label annoying. I am neither a bombshell by virtue of being blond, nor am I a bimbo. Just saying.

Now from here I found this article by Lilith Saintcrow and all I can say is wow. I mean wow. But before I delve into my thoughts on this blog, let me first address the classification of books into genres.

How genres are defined.

Apparently this is an issue. I hadn’t realized that it was a big debate since the books I have read about writing, written by both authors and editors, made it clear how books are defined. By what drives the Plot and by the setting, in that order. There shouldn’t be a question about weather something is Paranormal Romance or Urban Fantasy, barring a few books that straddle the line. Since both are similar in setting we have to look at the plot. What is the main focus of the plot, what drives it forward? If the primary focus of the book is the romantic relationship between two people, if that is what drives the plot forward, their actions and reactions to each other, then its a Romance. I don’t care where it takes place, what’s happening in the background, its a romance. There can be a mystery happening around them, or a war, or a Zombie apocalypse, it doesn’t matter. There can be lots of sex or no sex, it doesn’t matter. If the focus is the relationship, it’s romance. Just to make things clear, if the focus and drive of the story is sex and not a relationship, then it’s erotica.

Urban Fantasy is primarily a fantasy as defined by the setting. There is magic, other races or supernatural occurrences in our own world. It’s Urban because it happens in a city. Time frame isn’t a defining part of it, but most of it is contemporary. (If it happens outside a city, it is considered Contemporary Fantasy, but I find so few people know of the genre that it’s easier to call it Urban Fantasy, but I digress.) Pretty much just like a paranormal romance, so here’s where the plot matters. What drives the plot? In UF it should not be a romantic relationship. It should be the protag against something, preferably of a supernatural persuasion, vampires, werewolves, his/her powers, a mob boss, whatever. There can be romantic elements in it, but that isn’t what drives the plot along.

Let’s look at Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs. Cry Wolf On her website, she lists this book under Paranormal Romance and this is one of those books that walks the fine line between UF and PR but I think she has the right catagorization. In her own words “The series has plenty of action, but there’s more emphasis in on the romantic attraction between the hero and heroine.” She is right but it’s not easy to say it’s wholly one or the other. The relationship between Anna and Charles does take up a lot of the book and it is the more central point of the book, but it’s not a typical romance plot. There isn’t a high level of sexual tension or graphic sex scenes and the side plot seems more main plot than just side plot at first glance. But in the end, it is a paranormal romance if you have to pin it down and you do. Not to force it to be one or the other, in fact this is a particularly skillful blend of the two and it stays away from the pitfalls of both with enviable ease.

Categorization isn’t a dirty word, and it isn’t there to make books fall into rigid formulas and defined boundaries. Every genre book doesn’t have to be the epitome of the genre. It’s there to make it easier for us all to find what we like, to talk about what we like and describe it to others in ways we will all understand. It’s so much easier to tell people what genre or genres a book falls into, such as Cry Wolf which I would describe as both UF and PR. The people I’m talking to will understand what the book is about without me telling them the whole plot and ruining the book for them.

The problem comes when people don’t understand what the defining characteristics of a genre are. Or don’t know what makes it one genre and not another. UF and PR suffer from this and I see the problem being mostly with the publishers, some with the authors and the rest with the people who don’t read them in the first place but tell everyone what they are about. But that comes back some to the publishers.

So tomorrow, I’ll delve into my thoughts on Lilith Saintcrow’s post and we can delve into this problem more.


Posted by on January 2, 2011 in All About Writing


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9 responses to “The Great Urban Fantasy Debate Part 1

  1. sonia

    January 8, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I hadn’t thought of Cry Wolf as paranormal romance but I guess it makes sense. I remember being disappointed that the wolf politics and stuff weren’t stronger.

  2. Stila Webb

    January 8, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    That’s why I brought it up. It does ride the line of Urban Fantasy (Really Contemporary Fiction, but I’ll delve into that topic later) and Paranormal Romance, but the plot and focus of the story is really a romantic one. The plot with the witch and such is there to help Anna and Charles deal with their own relationship. And yeah, I wanted to know more about how the packs work, and the next one has more of that. I don’t consider the next book, Hunting Grounds to be romance. Have you read it? Pretty good.

  3. sonia

    January 8, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Yeah, I have. It was pretty good. A lot better than Cry Wolf.

    What do you think of Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares novels? I think they straddle the line between urban fantasy and more traditional fantasy.

    • Stila Webb

      January 8, 2011 at 9:40 pm

      I haven’t read those yet. I’ll have to look them up, I’m always looking for new things to read. I just finished Dead Witch Walking and it was okay. Have you read her Mercedes Thompson books? Pretty good.

  4. sonia

    January 8, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    You should! They are pretty good. The first one is Magic Lost, Trouble Found. I thought the title itself was pretty interesting.

    I am about three books behind in the Death Witch Walking series. :(

    Yeah, I love her Mercedes Thompson books. They are on my must read list.

  5. Stila Webb

    January 8, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Yeah, Mercy is awesome. For Urban Fantasy Mercy Thompson and Harry Dresden are the best I’ve read so far.

  6. sonia

    January 8, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    I am a few books behind in the Harry Dresden series as well! lol I heard somewhere he has a daughter now.

    Another must read for me is Mark Del Franco’s Conner Gray series. I really like John Levitt’s Dog Days series, too.

    • Stila Webb

      January 8, 2011 at 10:52 pm

      Too many books, too little time.

      • sonia

        January 8, 2011 at 10:53 pm

        yeah. Wish there were more hours in the day to read.


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