Building Urban Fantasy — Part III

When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.

Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:

Make It Criminal

Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.

In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.

On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.

Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.

Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.


Bring on the Horror

Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:

Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.

Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?

Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.

Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.

Here’s an example of description employing coded language:

Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.

Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?

Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.

Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.

A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.

Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.

Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.

In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.

As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.

What’s at Stake

The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.

In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.

However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.

In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.

Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.


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In Search of Villains

Why is it so hard to find a truly bad guy (or gal)? In our efforts to render multi-dimensional characters, have we gone too far down the road of understanding and/or excusing wrong behavior?

Fiction needs conflict in order to test the protagonist and advance the story from its opening to its closure.

Conflict comes from the antagonist. For years now, I’ve been carefully using the term antagonist most of the time because I wanted to convey to my students that the opponent in a scene need not be Snidely Whiplash.

However, I’ve grown weary of that namby-pamby approach. What I’m looking for is a well-designed villain, someone who’s evil and intent on harming or thwarting the protagonist.

Serial killers qualify, but they’ve outworn their welcome. Let’s get over the psychotic insanity and find a motivation that’s a little more clever, shall we?

How can a villain harm an individual? Let me count the ways ….

Embezzlement? Blackmail? Ruin? Identity theft? Robbery? Abduction? Emotional slavery? Abuse? Bullying?

On the surface, embezzlement seems rather tame. A bit dusty. Certainly dry.

But is it? It was, if you recall, the underlying motivation for the villain in the film GHOST. Patrick Swayze’s best friend electronically transferred a few million and got himself in trouble.

John Sandford’s novel, BROKEN PREY, features a trio of geeks that electronically drain the bank account of a powerful Mexican drug cartel.

Real-life crook Bernie Madoff siphoned off the pensions of so many people who are now facing uncertain futures and impoverished retirements.

This year, I assumed management of one of my father’s business accounts. It only took a quick comparison of my checkbook balance versus his to show me how easily a person in financial trouble could stumble down the road of temptation.

Embezzlement is more than taking someone’s money. It breaks trust as well, and that hurt can stab deep.

Blackmail? Oh, tosh! No one can be blackmailed these days. Modern society no longer deals with guilt or its sister, shame. People behave as they please. All kinds of indiscretions float through Facebook, and even a princely scandal fades fast.

There is, however, emotional blackmail. One family member coercing another within the entangled webs of dysfunctional families. A wealthy, elderly relative can force her children and grandchildren to put up with her demands in order to inherit her money.

A rebellious teenager can manipulate his parents, pitting them against each other and possibly even pushing them toward divorce.

Blackmail operates best on a foundation of guilt, but it’s really about the inequity of power between two people.

Robbery? Muggings happen. These days, the fear of having your identity stolen due to a robbery preys on people’s peace of mind–less for the inconvenience of losing cash in the wallet and more for the supreme nightmare of juggling bureaucratic red tape to restore everything.

But what if you’re a courier entrusted with the formula for a remedy that will cure cancer? The formula has been sold to a pharmaceutical company, and you’re supposed to deliver it. Only you never arrive.

Robbery, in today’s world, needs to have enormous consequences.

Wait! Let’s define what “enormous consequences” means.

Consider a little girl in the year 1900 that’s given a dime–all the money the family has until payday a week away–and she’s sent to buy a loaf of soft white bread because that’s all her ailing grandmother can eat.

If the dime is stolen, or if the loaf of bread is stolen, aren’t the consequences to that child and her family also dire? What happens to the grandmother if she can’t eat anything? She will weaken and possibly die. If they love her, they’ll be devastated. The child will blame herself. What if no one helps her understand this isn’t her fault? Or what if a grieving parent does blame her? How can she make restitution?

There are so many ways for characters to hurt each other, and so many paths of evil that the bad guy can take. In writing, remember to think through why an antagonist selects the course of action he or she chooses. The motivation doesn’t have to be one that will activate compassion in the reader. Sometimes, villains are just mean because they enjoy it. Effective story conflict doesn’t always require readers to feel that the villain is justified in some way. As my father would say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The bad guy’s mother may beat him black and blue every morning before school, and that won’t justify his bullying a scared little first-grader out of her lunch.

No matter why, he’s practicing extortion. We can understand where it comes from, but we don’t have to paint it a sympathetic color in an effort to have a complex character. Wouldn’t it be better to keep reader sympathies with the six-year-old who has nothing to eat all day?

Or, if we want to make a protagonist out of the boy, then he should not let the beating drive him to commit wrong. It takes a mighty strong character to break the cycle of violence and abuse. If this boy has that kind of character, then how will he defeat the abusive mother without degenerating to her level?

Fiction needs villains in order to keep story conflict going. Study James Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY for examples of how banal evil can be.


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