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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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Noir Fest!

One of the more positive outcomes of injuring my back is the opportunity to sit still and watch old movies.

Through the month of June, TCM is serving up noir films every Friday night. If you’re a fan, then you know what a treat this is. If you’ve heard of film noir, but haven’t ever acquainted yourself with these pictures, here’s a terrific chance to dive in.

Last Friday’s programming was Dashiell Hammett night and included the first film version of THE MALTESE FALCON. I missed the initial 5-10 minutes, but the “stagey” delivery of dialogue from some of the actors makes me think it had to be very early among the talkies. I’m guessing about 1930 or 1931. The plot makes more sense in terms of the way it’s laid out, compared to the later Bogart version, but of course my heart will always belong to Bogie. TCM also showed the Humphrey Bogart/Mary Astor version later that night–too late, though, for me to stay up for it. (Drat!)

Sandwiched in between the two TMFs were other delightful films: AFTER THE THIN MAN with William Powell and Myrna Loy and my all-time favorite, THE GLASS KEY. Starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, and William Bendix, THE GLASS KEY is violent, quick, edgy, and full of sharp dialogue. Romance criss-crosses beneath the mystery. The taut triangle among the three principal players works well, but the relationship I like better is the deep, long-standing friendship between the characters Paul and Ed. That friendship, and the temporary rift of it, fuels their motivations. Man, it’s a good movie.

The most powerful scene comes very late in the film, in a confrontation between Alan Ladd and William Bendix. Bendix plays the edge between thug and madman perfectly, and when he crosses that line he is scary. Ladd’s character–having barely survived a beating from this man–is afraid, but forcing himself to go through with the encounter. His fear–under the cool, seemingly brave façade–is what makes this scene so intense.

AFTER THE THIN MAN is the second of the famous series centered around married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. I think it’s a bit too comedic and sparkling to really be classified as noir, but I’ll never argue with the chance to watch it. If you’re new to this series, start with the first THIN MAN film and then watch AFTER because their story chronology is tightly linked. The next-to-last, THE THIN MAN GOES HOME, is another charmer. The rest in the series are okay, but lesser efforts. Nick and Nora portray one of the best, most delightful married relationships ever presented on-screen.

The witty dialogue is amazing, especially when it centers around wordplay. My favorite moment is when Nick is pontificating about illiterate spelling, and one of the suspects snaps, “What d’ya mean, illiterate? My mother and father were married before I was born!” Nick pauses long enough for the movie audience to get the joke before he turns to Nora and asks, “Having a good time, dear?”


I haven’t looked at the TCM Web site yet to see what’s on this coming Friday, but I can’t wait.

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