Tag Archives: Jim Butcher

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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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:

 

Politics

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.

BOO! HISS! CHEAT, CHEAT, CHEAT!

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.

Or

*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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Building Urban Fantasy–Part I

Ready to construct the fantastical, the supernatural, and the magical?

Come with me as I list numerous elements that go into the creation of this subgenre. There’s no particular order to determining them. Whatever works for you and your imagination is fine.

 

Protagonist

Usually this character is mortal or human. The protagonist may possess some magical powers or be partially supernatural–think of Percy Jackson, demi-god, in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. The protagonist is often less powerful magically than the supernatural creatures he or she is dealing with.

The point is that whatever the protagonist is, or whatever the protagonist can do, he or she has to be vulnerable. In other words, capable of being killed.

Often, the protagonist is a hunter–e.g. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden is a wizard private investigator; Kim Harrison’s witch protagonist is a bounty hunter. Such occupations give the protagonist license to track and pursue rogue supernatural baddies.

Of course, sometimes the protagonist is involved through proximity and sympathy for a supernatural group. For example, in Patricia Briggs’s novels, the protagonist Mercy is a car mechanic who also happens to be a shapeshifter. Her other form is a coyote. Because of that, she is acquainted with several werewolves living in her community and sympathetic to them. As a coyote, she is no threat to the wolves, which also helps them accept her friendship and assistance when needed.

 

Villain

Let’s not be sensitive or PC about this. I’m not going to be nice and call this role the antagonist, as I do so often in my writing posts. In this genre, we need a villain, a foe that’s seriously, seriously bad beyond the bone.

Now, urban fantasy will often serve up antagonists for the hero to contend with in addition to the true bad guy, but there must always be a dangerous, nasty, evil, supernatural villain causing the primary trouble.

Because the villain is supernatural, this character possesses the advantages of possible immortality, very dangerous powers, and a lot of magical strength.

It’s important for the hero and villain to be unevenly matched–at least on the surface or initially. Give the advantage to the villain. Otherwise, what’s the danger for the protagonist?

City

If urban fantasy was going to take place in a meadow, why would it be called urban? Okay, goes without saying but I said it anyway.

While occasionally I encounter a modern fantasy located in the suburbs or a small town, for true urban fantasy the setting needs to be a large city. The larger it is, the more diverse its population will be, which lends itself to more types of conflict and trouble as cultures, goals, and misunderstandings collide.

The city needs to be old enough or financially stressed enough that it has some ghetto flavor, some inner-city decay, a collapsing infrastructure, and a lot of crime. This is much more useful for story purposes than a city that’s clean, renewed, bright, and upbeat.

Know Your Town

It’s one thing to pick a city by closing your eyes and pointing at a map, and another thing to know it well enough to present it as a character in your story. Because the setting matters. It will play a large role. It will color the plot and affect the cast. It will influence the tone you achieve.

So you have to know it, understand the pulse of it. You should know it well, or at least have visited it more than once.

Never pick a city that you’ve encountered only through film or television because you’ll never get the details right. Hollywood is notorious for shifting streets and combining landmarks to suit a director’s vision. Remember the films that supposedly take place in New York City but feature a Canadian skyline?

Even if you choose a setting that you’re very familiar with, do you know the inner city, the derelict dangerous parts of it? Do you know where the tenements are? Rusting, abandoned train tracks? Empty factories abandoned when labor went off-shore? I’m not suggesting that you venture into physically dangerous places where you might come to harm, but research them. Look at photos of them. Talk to the public information officers at your police station about the problematic areas and ask questions. Find safe ways to glean the details you need. They will bring your setting to life on the page.

I will continue with more elements in my next post.

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Kindle at Last!

I’m pleased to report that my editors at Manchester University Press have–after much persistence–come through. The mysterious and perplexing glitch that’s been delaying the ebook publication of THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA is now “un-glitched.” TFFF is finally available on Kindle. Woo-hoo!

Some of you have been waiting quite a while for the ebook version. I’m sorry about the long delay, and thank you for your patience.

Sometimes there are gremlins in the house, but at last they seem to have gone away.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula Final

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Kindle Version Coming

For those of you who have been wondering if THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA will be available in a Kindle version as well as print, the answer is … YES.

It’s in process, and should be live very soon, perhaps next week.

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Count Down …

Having a book come out is always exciting and a day to celebrate, but it’s been a while since a real, tangible, printed-on-paper version of my work landed on my doorstep in a box. I peeled off the tape and pulled out the packing, and behold, there it was. My author’s copy of THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA–a long time in the making–all shined up and ready to launch.

February 1 is its street date. I’m told by a friend that Amazon at least will be shipping on February 3. Big breath. That’s when we’ll see if the anticipation has been justified, if all you wonderful supportive purchasers will get your money’s worth.

Meanwhile, I’m emotionally pacing the floor like a mommy watching her five-year-old ballerina run onto the stage for that first dance recital.

Fingers crossed.

We’ll see.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula Final

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Bubble Bursting

When readers settle down to enter your story world and meet your characters and become caught up in your plot, those readers are making an effort to suspend disbelief in the whole thing. They are trying to believe in what you’ve written. They want to make believe with you. They have come willingly to play with you.

It’s a writer’s job then to help readers continue to suspend that disbelief from start to finish.

Various things, however, can bump that fragile suspension. Writer errors, inconsistent characterization, implausible plot events, jarring dialogue, slow pacing due to too much description and explanation, weak scenes, and shoddy viewpoint management are all factors that can jar readers right back to the real world. Jar them too often, and they may give up on the story with impatience, frustration, or a sigh.

After all, they’ve paid good money for the entertainment your book or short story promised them. And that money will be seen as wasted.

So let’s consider these problems one at a time and see how they can be avoided or remedied.

Writer Errors

Sometimes known in the business as “gotchas,” these are factual errors or anachronisms that readers catch. Although writers make valiant efforts to research settings, procedures, history, skills, situations, clothing or gear, etc., mistakes can and do happen.

Years ago, I was listening to best-selling thriller novelist Ridley Pearson talk at a writers conference about how he had researched the city of Seattle as a setting for some of his crime novels. He pored over maps. He consulted with Seattle law enforcement. He tracked down every detail he could think of, and then discovered–after his book was published–that he’d gotten the tides wrong and the victim’s body wouldn’t have washed ashore in the way he described. How did he discover it? Readers–maybe even readers from the Seattle sheriff’s department–let him know.

Ouch! Years after his book’s publication, Ridley was still wincing. Because he cared.

Some gotchas are fatal to a book. Others are not.

The fatal ones occur when the storyline is implausible because it’s heavily based on serious writer ignorance. For example, a writer wipes out a plane’s pilot mid-flight and then has a passenger flying the plane to a successful landing … incorrectly. So incorrectly that the plane would crack up if someone actually did what the character executes. Such extreme error occurs when writers fail to research at all, hoping lazily that no one will catch it.

Another form of fatality is to write a string of implausible character actions that leave even lay readers saying, What? Why doesn’t she just …  Wouldn’t they do …  Shouldn’t it be different than this?

A nonfatal gotcha can often appear as a goof in the setting detail, such as a character threading his car through afternoon rush hour traffic, with the author unaware that the street in that city at that time of day is one-way only. Locals would know it, but the majority of readers probably would not catch it.

A few months ago, I introduced a student to Jim Butcher’s first novel, Storm Front. She really enjoyed the story events, but his minor errors with the Chicago setting bugged her terribly, as she claimed to be very familiar with the locale. So she read the story because I assigned it, but itching and twitching all the way.

Naturally, some gotchas are dependent on the level of reader tolerance. Some readers will find mistakes but shrug them off. Others are bothered, or distracted, or annoyed, or offended. And some readers are themselves wrongly informed about your topic or setting and are too stubborn to believe you’re right.

Recently I read a historical romance set in the French Revolution. The plot was quick and engaging. The characters were likable. The historical period is a favorite of mine. It was evident that the author had done a considerable amount of research on her setting and period details. Since I used to write books in this time frame and have researched it, I was glad to be able to enjoy the book without gotchas.

Until the hero came into his room at a roadside tavern in 1792 France and “set a mug of coffee on the dresser.” It was so anachronistic, so wrong for the period and time, that it jolted me out of the story. I liked the plot and characters enough that I kept reading. But every time they drank coffee on the road or in a house or wherever, I remembered that phrase. Worst of all, I found it progressively harder to suspend disbelief.

You might be thinking, over a tiny detail like coffee? Lighten up!

Yeah, I do try. But you see, in the 1790s, coffee was expensive and hard to come by. It wasn’t available at modest roadside inns and most people couldn’t afford it. And people didn’t have dressers either. They used other types of furniture, but not dressers which came along in the 19th century. Worst of all, the phrase was just too modern. It was perfect for a story set in the 21st century, but not for a story set in the late 18th.

A lot of readers wouldn’t catch this and most might not care. But for me–for this reader–it was a distraction. I read books set in historical times for the flavor of the setting. A modern phrase destroys that ambiance, and it disappoints me. It also made me doubt other details the author was using. It made me doubt the story. I became wary, and my antenna went on alert for more errors that might be lurking in those pages.

Too much doubt, and readers will dump the book. I didn’t stop reading the historical because its author was pretty sound on everything else. But had I caught another glaring anachronism or error, I would have tossed the book aside.

Are you thinking, why didn’t the editor catch it?

Because editors these days are overworked and rely on writers to get things right. This particular author is successful and popular with her readers, so evidently the majority of them aren’t bothered by mugs of coffee on dressers in an era when people drank coffee rarely, went to coffee houses to partake of the beverage, didn’t use mugs unless they were peasants–and even then they were called tankards instead of mugs–and didn’t have dressers because they used wash stands, dressing tables that we would call vanities today, chests of drawers, and wardrobes instead.

Nitpicking? You bet! In all fairness to the author, she was just having the guy bring his lady love some breakfast. But I would have been happier had he whisked a tray from the hands of the chambermaid and put it on the bed so his lady could partake of a dish of tea and a morsel of ham. The lady was English and I don’t think she swallowed tea in the entire novel. And while I’m no tea drinker myself, I do know that it was the beverage of choice in that time period. If the character disliked tea, then the author should have said so and I would have loved her for it.

As a writer, you can’t be 100% perfect, but you should always strive to be as accurate as you possibly can, because you never know who’s reading your fiction or how it’s being interpreted. When you do get things right, readers notice and they are incredibly appreciative that you cared enough about their area of expertise or knowledge to check and double-check.

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