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Subgenre Bingo – Modern Fantasy

When I put forth the urban fantasy installment of the varying subgenres of fantasy, I’m sure some of you thought, “But so-and-so doesn’t fit into this list! Fellshot, you malodorous wad of llama spittle, what is wrong with you?!”

While there are a great many things about my character that could probably stand for some improvement, the answer to this particular conundrum is rather simple: I am snobbish about fantasy set in the modern day. I’m also pretty sure that I’m not the only one who finds themselves prone to this particular form of snobbery. It’s possible to find candidates for this category that aren’t usually found filed in the fantasy section of the bookstore. To be fair, while urban fantasy seems to attempt to channel the detective novel, modern fantasy is the most likely of all the fantasy subgenres to aspire to being literature (whatever that means). Some specimens may even go so far as to deny that they qualify as a fantasy at all but they are deluding themselves and there are a number of unpleasant things that I would wish upon them and the high horse they rode in on.

Fortunately this identification checklist doesn’t really care where you found the suspected modern fantasy. All previous disclaimers as to opinions and how they differ and that this list is probably incomplete are in effect.

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The Dreamer Next Door

1. Does the main character have a minor talent, but is otherwise normal?
2. Does the main character have a special legacy that they were born into?
3. Do they acquire a special legacy?

If the rest of fantasy is all about the super special badasses doing various things for various purposes, modern fantasy takes the opposite end of the spectrum. Characters tend to resemble people one might meet walking down the street or at a café. A lot of people have talent at something or other and average people are frequently underrated in fantasy as a whole.

“Special legacy” is something of a misnomer, since if you go far enough back into anyone’s family tree you will likely find some ancestor who did something unusual or heroic that someone in the present day could get compared to. That and a lot of people can do really amazing things if properly motivated to do so. There’s a rather old corny song about running away from a bear, jumping into a tree and missing the first branch but catching it on the way down. It isn’t exaggerating. Everyone suddenly becomes Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps when looking at something that meets two qualifications: omigod bigger than me AND GREAT BIG TEETH.

“And how do you feel about that?”

4. Is the main character going through a rough patch in their life?
5. Does the conflict in question appear to be internal in nature?
6. Is a journey though a dream involved somehow?

One of the big things about modern fantasy is that internal conflicts seem to be spotlighted more than any external conflicts. Alternatively the external conflicts are directly tied to an internal conflict so the one has to be solved before the other.

Of course I would think that once those internal conflicts have external stand ins it might be easier to overcome them by the judicial use of something like a cricket bat to the substitute’s noggin (or somewhere), but that that might just be me speaking the crazy talk again. My recollection is that for internal conflicts one resolves to make a change and then does it… Although with my very brief forays into non speculative fiction, this is not always the case (but it might be a side effect of bad luck and a very small sample size). Were I being generous I could say that the tough spot in the characters’ lives is the external kick to change something about one’s behavior or general outlook, but really it’s easier to feel awesome and capable of doing things internally after kicking the oversized buttocks of something outside oneself.

Since dreams are the everyday fantasies that we make for ourselves, it sort of makes sense that they get used to illustrate internal conflicts and lend a bit of the fantastical to the story. Otherwise we have a book about normal people having normal problems in their normal lives. Sorry, but I have a blog for that and so does just about everyone else.

A Touch of Weirdness

7. Is there a slight element of the surreal in the beginning?
8. Does it grow over the course of the book?
9. Are the lines between reality and dreams/underworld/surreal blurred at any point?
10. Is there the possibility of a dream turning deadly?

Well, there has to be some element of the strange and extraordinary else it wouldn’t be considered a fantasy novel, now would it?

Elements of the surreal are probably what would be mentioned if the book was getting filed in a “new fiction” section of the bookstore rather with the dedicated genre books (i.e., mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy, and romance). Of course, it isn’t as if the surreal and the fantastical have anything in common. These must be two completely different things.

The idea of a dream turning deadly is rather an interesting one. In my reading experience, it functions as a stand-in for the exterior limitations (both physical and social) placed on the characters and the price that may be extracted for crossing them without sufficient reason and motivation to do so.

Frequently there’s a theme about boundaries shifting as well. Whether one thinks of these as personal boundaries or physical blockades is strictly incidental, but at least some of the time the barriers are considered as impregnable as the Great Wall of China. Or how certain American politicians wish the border fences were. In any case, it is well known that these borders can be breached by great need, the right herbal charm, various mind altering substances (not recommended), falling down rabbit holes, near death experiences (also not recommended), and the appropriate scribbles around a doorway

Setting bits and pieces

11. Is it set in the present day?
12. Is there a distinction between the real world and the dreaming/spirit/other world?

If the dreaming world was just like the real world how would you tell the difference between the two? Also, given the choice, wouldn’t we want the dreaming world to be different from the real world? First you get to highlight the “otherness” of it and then you get to go playing in it. Trouble frequently ensues shortly thereafter.

13. Are there supernatural whatsits?
14. Are the supernatural whatsits used to normal humans?

To quote one of my favorite non linear, semi narrative books, it is a curious and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. This would be especially applicable you have supernatural creatures that are fully aware of the power of terrified peasants with pitchforks. Blending in and acting like normal people or at least being able to avoid their notice are good survival skills for any [insert creature of legend of reader’s choice here]. After all, not everything has sex appeal working in their favor.

15. Does everyone treat the weird goings on as if they were normal everyday occurrences?
16. Do you get the feeling that this could possibly be an episode of the Twilight Zone?

Ah Rod Sterling, what would we ever do without you? Both modern fantasy and urban fantasy can really benefit from an eerie atmosphere, but it seems that modern fantasy actually uses this particular element of horror most often. Since modern fantasy tends to feature normal people (at least they start off that way) it is somewhat easier to give the audience a better measure of uncertainty regarding their ability to get out of strange situations.

– – –

You may have noticed that there were fewer general aspects to this subgenre than there were for others. This is because this is probably one of the more nebulous of the fantasy subgenres and there is quite a bit of variation across the spectrum of possibilities.

Results

So the final tally for those of you using this as an identification and/or bingo card…

1-4 “yes” answers – Probably not a part of this subgenre. You may want to use a different bingo card.
5-8 “yes” answers – Contains elements of the subgenre. Might be classified as a part of the subgenre by some, but it’s more likely a rather thorough mix of two or more different subgenres.
9-12 “yes” answers – Will generally be considered part of this subgenre although it deviates in some ways.
13-16 “yes” answers – Congratulations! You got subgenre bingo!

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