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Building Urban Fantasy–Part II


Supernatural Population

A necessary element for urban fantasy is its supernatural population. Certainly the villain is going to be supernatural, but there can be other enemies or allies to the protagonist from the magical or immortal creatures as well. And diversity of supernatural entities adds extra layers to your story.

M.H. Borosin’s novel, THE GIRL WITH GHOST EYES, features a San Francisco Chinatown that’s riddled with demons, ghosts, grotesque creatures, witches, sorcerers, and shapeshifting tigers.

Daniel Jose Older’s book, HALF-RESURRECTION BLUES, is set in New York City’s Puerto Rico district with ghosts and resurrected dead people walking the streets at night.

In JACK THE GIANT KILLER by Charles de Lint, modern-day Canada is populated by leprechauns and boggarts, to name just a few.

Beyond sprinkling supernatural characters into the story world, and beyond the goals of individual characters in primary and secondary roles, how will various supernatural types interact with each other? With humans? What are their societies? What are their customs? What are their special powers? How do they live? What do they wear? Where does their money come from? How are they governed?

Which leads us into the next point of consideration:



So how, exactly, are your supernatural beings organized? Do your were-leopards get along fine with with the vampires? Or are they at war? Or do they maintain territories and an uneasy peace?

Who rules the vampire hive? How many vampire hives, for that matter, are in the city of your choice? Or in the country? Do all vampires get along with each other? That seems unlikely, given that predators generally have trouble in that department. So who controls them? What are the consequences if a vampire breaks the rules?

Is there a fairy queen presiding over a court? What are her laws? Who are her enemies? Her allies? How does she govern the fae? How does she enforce her will over them?

Do all the wizards belong to a union? I can’t see Gandalf joining, but then he’s not a character in an urban story. But with the modern-day settings of urban fantasy, how can wizards fit in and operate within present-day America?

Butcher’s Harry Dresden character advertises in the phone book. He tries to obey human laws as much as practical. He also lives under the strictures of the White Council. And his ethics of confidentiality toward his clients can clash with the demands of the human police department.

Kim Harrison’s Cleveland is divided between the part of the city where humans live and work and the part of the city where the supernaturals are supposed to stay.

If you want to write about vampires, is vampirism legalized? Do vampires have rights of citizenship? Are they allowed to vote? And since they naturally tend to prey on humans, what laws govern that?

Maybe in your world, all supernatural creatures live in US cities illegally, in violation of immigration laws, and have no citizen rights at all. Does Immigration hunt and deport them?

Rules of Magic

Rule #1:  magic comes at a price. It should never be free because then magic makes getting out of difficult plot problems too easy. Story tension dissipates, and your plot will collapse.

Harry Potter can practice magic at Hogwarts, but he is forbidden to use his powers when he’s not at school.

In Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series, the male wizards eventually go insane. How’s that for a future?

Rule #2:  magic must be limited. This is for the same reasons as stated in Rule #1. Unlimited use of magic destroys story tension because there can be no uncertainty as to the story’s outcome.

A sure thing kills fiction.

Rule #3:  obey the rules you establish. It’s fun to set up a system of magic at first, but then in the story’s climax when your protagonist is cornered and desperate you may feel tempted to cheat a little and let the protagonist use magic in violation of the rules just this once.


Never fudge your rules to save your plot. That is the completely wrong thing to do.

Instead, you have a couple of options:

*You can rewrite your rules from the story’s beginning and give your hero an escape hatch.


*You can force your protagonist to pay the price that magic requires.

The second choice is terrible and difficult. It may upset you. Certainly it will be tough on your character. But it will leave you with a stronger, more complex story. Isn’t that a good thing?

Rule #4:  magic and its use should have consequences and repercussions. Maybe this should be discussed under Rule #1, but the point here is that magic shouldn’t be thrown casually into a story without consideration of how it will affect the plot’s unfolding, the characters involved, and even everyday life.

I’m thinking of the old television show BEWITCHED, where the beautiful witch Samantha promised her human husband that she would not use magic in their home. So these sit-com plots would revolve around some domestic crisis, where she would wrestle with trying to use a human solution for a while and then she might wriggle her nose and use magic to solve it instead. Samantha always meant well and tried to honor her promise, but audiences were aware of her inner struggle and determination to go against her natural proclivities. However, it’s like leaving a dish of raw hamburger out on your kitchen counter and expecting the cat to ignore it when no one’s at home.

In the classic film comedy, I MARRIED A WITCH (starring Frederic March and Veronica Lake), the witch Jennifer is much less ethical. But her evil plan backfires and she becomes the victim of her own potion.

In the next post, I’ll continue with plotting.


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World Building: Magic

Magic is to fantasy what hot fudge is to a sundae … sublime!

When building magic into a story world, determine the following:

Will your protagonist have magical powers?

Is magic common or unusual in your setting?

Is magic feared and despised or considered desirable?

How many and which characters will possess magical powers?

Who is the most powerful?

What is the source of the magic?

What are the limits to the magic?

What does the magic cost?

If you can answer these questions in terms of your story, then you’re well on your way to weaving magic intrinsically into the world and plot.  But let’s consider the last two questions in more detail.

Does magic carry a price?  I think it should.  At the very least it should bring a certain amount of responsibility for the character possessing extraordinary powers.  If she can do anything she wants, can turn her teachers into toads and conjure up limitless quantities of hot cocoa with real whipped cream without suffering any consequences, pretty soon we’re going to have an individual out of control.  Because power without restrictions leads to corruption, doesn’t it?

After the initial rush of delight, the fun fades pretty fast and suddenly we’re sated with hot cocoa.  So what else is there to get into?  Consider the SORCEROR’S APPRENTICE segment of Disney’s animated classic film, FANTASIA.  Mickey is lazy and wants to wield magic without putting in the necessary study and practice.  He conjures up a spell to animate a mop into doing his chores for him, but pretty soon the magic runs amok and Mickey lacks the skills necessary to stop disaster.

The best, most effective depictions of magic restrict it and set limits around its use.  And there need to be consequences to using magic.  That’s why the old fable restricts the genie in the bottle to granting only three wishes.  It’s the limitation on the magic in Aladdin’s lamp that creates the fascination with this very ancient story:  how will the wishes be used; how will they go wrong?

You can set any parameters around your story’s magic that you want, but once you do you’re required to abide by them.  This helps build natural suspense into the plot.  What if, of the three wishes, there’s only one left and now the protagonist must decide between saving her poisoned friend’s life or saving her own as the dark wizard tries to destroy her? See the dilemma?

Can you cheat through this, maybe fudge the magic a little so everything works out?  Absolutely not!  How can you enthrall readers if you cheat?  Set the limits, push the limits, shove your protagonist through an awful choice, and let her battle the consequences.  That keeps magic alive and vivid, woven through the very fabric of your story.


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World Building: Climate and Terrain

Who cares about weather in my fantasy world?  I do!  It’s going to affect my characters in what they wear, how and when they travel, what they eat — including whether they grow their food, hunt it, or buy it — and what kind of houses they build.

Today, with the conveniences of central heating, air conditioning, and Gore-Tex, it’s easy to ignore climate.  We can spend Spring Break snow skiing or cruise in January to Bermuda’s pink sand.  Mother Nature has to play rough to catch our attention.  The recent volcanic eruption in Iceland taught many folks that elemental forces don’t care if travel is canceled.

Unless fantasy characters control their weather through magic, they are very much at its mercy.  In a quasi-medieval setting, a knight huddles around his fire during the winter, sets his serfs plowing come spring thaw, and rides off to battle in summer.

If the setting is harsh desert, game and water will be scarce.  If your characters aren’t carrying provisions, they’ll have to take time to hunt.  Blazing heat and plate armor don’t mix well.  It’s implausible that desert warriors would devise heavy, European-style armor, and if invaders are wearing it they’ll quickly be melting under their breastplates.

If the climate is cold and snowy, then visibility is poor, travel is hindered, and there’s a danger of characters freezing to death.  I love Poul Anderson’s essay, “On Thud and Blunder.”  It ridicules stories where bare-chested heroes clad in fur loincloths stride around in blizzards with nary a goose-pimple.

People who are uncomfortable, thirsty, and hungry are going to be short-tempered, which leads to conflict, which leads to story development.

Terrain, of course, has as much effect on characters and plot as climate.  Is your story world going to be mountainous, heavily forested, desert, verdant valleys, islands surrounded by ocean, icy tundra, barren wasteland, volcanic lava fields, or somewhere under the sea?

Such factors will determine not only how the characters live but also how often they receive visitors.  Their degree of isolation in turn affects how narrow or open minded they are.


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