Tag Archives: Patricia Briggs

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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Self-Training

In my blog entry, “Filling the Well,” I included a long list of ways in which to keep your imagination humming. The last entry on that list suggested that you pick a favorite novel and type the first three chapters.

Sounds like drudgery homework, doesn’t it?

It’s not.

Years ago, I came across a quote that I can only paraphrase now. But it was something along the lines of you can judge whether you’ve found your true calling if you enjoy even the tedious aspects of that profession or task.

It’s important to keep your writing skills honed. We work so hard to acquire them, yet they can go rusty in two weeks. So writers must always be practicing and learning the craft.

In doing so, you will also keep your imagination toned and ready to supply you with ideas.

Now, you don’t type another author’s story to steal it. You type it to get a close feel for how this writer puts sentences together, how the words flow, how the paragraphs link, how the scene conflict unfolds, or how the dialogue rambles or snaps.

You may be thinking, Is she out of her mind? Type three chapters? Use hours of potential writing time, typing some rich author’s work? I can see what Arthur Author’s doing without going to all that trouble and effort!

Can you?

You’ll see something, but you won’t get close enough until you practice it.

Case in point: earlier this summer I wanted a strong opening hook for a story I was working on.

The best novel-opening hook I can think of is the first sentence of John D. MacDonald’s DARKER THAN AMBER.

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”

There it is. A simple, effective, well-written sentence that conveys just enough to grab your interest and make you want to read the next paragraph.

Now, sure. I can read and reread that sentence. But I wanted the cadence of the words. I wanted that rhythm for my own. So I typed the sentence several times, then I placed my own opening sentence next to it and tweaked and edited until I achieved the effect I wanted.

Plagiarism? Not at all. I’m not writing the SAME sentence. I’m not writing the same plot, or setting, or genre, or characters.

All I took away from Mr. MacDonald was the rhythm, cadence, and pattern of how the sentence flows.

(Am I going to share my sentence with you? Sorry, no.  Chalk it up to an old superstition of mine–no sharing until publication.)

If you want to learn how to launch a novel, type the first three chapters of the best book you can think of. Get a feel for it, where the breaks are, how the scenes or description move.

If you want to learn how to write good description or good dialogue, type the best examples you can find and compare your efforts to them.

This exercise doesn’t work if you don’t type the excerpt from the published material.

Opening sentence: The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car.

If you want to teach yourself how to plot, type the whole book that you’ve chosen as your template.

Yes. From start to finish, type the thing. It will teach you more than you can imagine.

Opening: I didn't realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn't at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil ...

Opening: Bailey was not surprised when the doctor's first incision drew up something darker than blood.

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