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.
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.
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?
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.