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Subgenre Bingo – Urban Fantasy

After epic fantasy and sword and sorcery (widely considered the staples of the fantasy genre), it is now time to breeze on over to something a little more modern. There are a few different main branches (both of whom are trying to get away from each other as much they possibly can), but for today I will put urban fantasy under the steamroller…erm…I mean under the microscope.

As before all the mundane business about how this isn’t a definitive list, opinions vary as to what makes up whatever subgenre I happen to be listing off aspects of, and so on and so forth are in effect. I’m rather anticipating a response of “But wait! Fellshot, you malevolent hedgehog, this doesn’t apply to [insert author’s name here]!” Just so you know, there are a few more of these planned and will likely cover whoever it is.

The Narrator

1. Is the main character female?
2. Does the hero/heroine have “specshul” powers?
3. Is the book written in first person narrative voice?

If one had to point at the first things that usually pops out of an urban fantasy novel, these three things will (in all likelihood) be in the first chapters. Actually considering how much of this particular subgenre seems to be migrating from the dregs of the romance genre (who would also like to stay as far away from urban fantasy as much as possible, hence the proliferation of paranormal romance sections in bookstores) a “speschul chickie” seems to be particularly popular at the moment.

Anyway, use of first person narrative gets particularly repetitive if overused. For some reason, women seem to be considered better candidates for main characters in urban fantasy. Call it a symptom of the “female mystique” and how women are considered more spiritual than men in some cultures. Alternatively, the authors have come to the conclusion that there are a host of things that go bump at night that can conceivably be set in opposition to a female character but not as much with a male character. Female characters have a slightly longer list of “or worse” conflict and threat outcomes when compared to male counterparts.

In any case, regardless of the gender of the main character, they generally have to be able to meet the supernatural on equal terms. Of course, in order to do this, the main character has to have some kind of neat powers themselves. Normal people being able to stake vampires or tell a ghost to shut up and get out? BORING. Although since we have specialists for everything else, why not exorcisms and nosferatu slaying?

Professional Life

4. Is the main character a private investigator or associated with law enforcement?
5. Do they manage to avoid doing their normal day job?
6. Does the main character have no life outside of their job?

Most of this part has to do with the introduction of the hardboiled detective novel into the fantasy breeding charts. If anyone tries to tell you that they are channeling film noir, I would ask that you swat that person upside the head. Film noir is an aesthetic style, not a narrative genre. That the two suit each other extremely well is beside the point. Noir works for horror (or things with horror elements) really well too.

Now, where was I before I went off on that sort-of related tangent…

Being involved with law enforcement grants a readymade situation in which conflict can be introduced (which is probably why it shows up so often). Occasionally one will find what I can best describe as “ghostbusters” without the awesome proton packs, but the idea of taking out the supernatural with things as overly complicated as science or expanding a narrative universe’s concept of science is less used. But that might be because once one knows the cause of something, it becomes less scary.

Granted in today’s job market a lot of people are working in jobs they don’t particularly like or find fulfilling for whatever reasons, but even if you like your job most people need a break from it now and then in the form of friends found through shared interests. Nah, we don’t need that at all.

Background

7. Does the main character have a tragic past?
8. Is that tragic past mentioned repeatedly but never manages to play a role in the events of the story?

For some reason, even though urban fantasy usually doesn’t have a hero’s journey going on, preferring to focus on a romantic angle (or less frequently a mystery or conspiracy) it feels the need to have trappings of the hero’s journey associated with it. Romance doesn’t need heroes, it needs lovers who want to be together. Mystery doesn’t need heroes either, it needs detectives who can solve things. Personality is secondary to the narrative requirements of those genres.
The pessimist in me says that this is probably to add to the “heroic qualities” of the main character because it is using elements of the fantastic, even though the meaning behind those qualities is lost or overshadowed by other things.

More Background

9. Does the main character have to prove badassery frequently?
10. Does the main character consistently ignore sensible advice?

Well for one thing, the sensible reactions of most people when confronted with big scary things that might use them as appetizers is to run very fast away from the whatsit. “Proving” that one is a badass frequently goes hand in hand with advertising characters as “strong” characters without the trouble of making those characters actually so. Being a badass does not automatically grant a character narrative strength.

As for ignoring sensible advice…well why would they be sensible if being a badass can make up for it? Clearly bluster and butt kicking can see one through every possible situation.

Setting

11. Is the story set in the modern day?
12. Is the story set in the US of A or Europe?
13. Is there a marked lack of explanation for why supernatural critters have revealed themselves to the world at large?
14. Are there more disadvantages than advantages to being human?

One of the big hallmarks of this subgenre is that the story is set in the present day and that there are supernatural critters around. Now sometimes, those supernatural critters want to keep normal people in the dark, since the beasties have acquired a healthy respect for angry peasants with pitchforks and a “KILL IT WITH FIRE!!” attitude. Given this (rather healthy) pervasive attitude amongst the peons, one would wonder why some stories chose to do away with the secrecy.

Other times the supernatural is sometimes revealed to the world at large. By and large the reasoning for putting up with things such as vampires is the assertion that “monsters are people too.” This is not a healthy attitude to have towards something that sees living people as tasty snacks. Also, Norman Bates would like everyone to know that there are plenty of monsters around that have nothing of the supernatural about them…but they are still monsters and predators no matter if they have fangs or not.

Old legends of a lot of things that go bump in the night frequently have some significant disadvantage that normal people don’t have, like not being able to stand silver, not being able to go out in daylight, being stuck at crossroads… Anyway, the point is that normal people had sanctuaries and advantages over the creepy crawlies. In urban fantasy, these seem to be downplayed or ignored outright. Instead, the fascination with the predator seems to run rampant and normal people are inferior to them. Just ask the saber-toothed kitties. Of course, since all too frequently the main character has some special power themselves, there’s that little separation and temptation to become as big a monster as the beasties.

And then there’s still that focus on Europe. Although for urban fantasy, the United States is quite possibly more prevalent as a setting than any other place.

Creepy Crawlies

15. Are there vampires?
16. Are there werewolves?
17. Are there faeries?
18. Are the supernatural critters predominantly European in origin no matter where the story is set?

It must be some sort of subconscious comment on European colonialism or imperialism or something, that published fiction seems so locked onto European creatures of myth and legend and forcing everything else to fit into that one singular mold. I suppose it makes writing so much simpler when one doesn’t really have to do such silly things as research and note the differences between Inuit vampires and Romanian vampires, but when you have prey that can breed like bunnies, why would there be so few predators using them as a food source? Bunnies have a wide variety of creatures that find them delicious (hence their ability to breed).

The Terrors Who Flap in the Night

19. Are the threats/antagonists usually supernatural?
20. Are all females except for the main character portrayed as shrewish (to put it mildly)?

Since normal humans are clearly inferior in every conceivable way, it would make sense that all the bad guys would of course be the boogiemen. The Marquis de Sade is quite pleased by this development and would like to thank those who are perpetuating it. If I were feeling charitable I might say something along the lines that the supernatural bad guys are stand-ins for various awful things that happen outside the narrative universe but cannot be dealt with in a straightforward manner…but I leave that up to the readers of each particular specimen to make that determination.

In a case of sad irony, female characters (particularly those who fall into the badass trap with a “specshuul” talent and ignore sensible advice) tend to have a very bad view of women who are not the main character. The source of this problem is frequently a structural one: the main female character is held up as a paragon of some kind who can never be wrong. Since the main character is rarely wrong, anyone who dares contradict them are sometimes dismissed as “jellus” of something about the main character. Although why anyone would want to associate with some of these characters is utterly beyond me.

It is slightly disturbing to note that the shrewish female secondary character seems to appear more frequently amongst female authors. Perhaps male authors of urban fantasy (and they do exist!) feel more leery about that particular character trope for fear of being labeled misogynistic. I believe listing the Bechdel tests for this sub-genre might be very interesting.

Errata (not to be confused with another word that begins with the letter “e”)

21. Is there a vampire/werewolf/human love triangle?

Because the burning question that everyone has when reading an urban fantasy novel is which squicks you out less: bestiality or necrophilia?

If you want the immortal lover boy/girl/hermaphrodite I would think that there are better choices to be had.

22. Does everyone and their dog want to get in the pants of the main character?

Since frequently the main character is being held up as a paragon, of course everyone and their dog is going to find that character desirable, to the exclusion of anyone else who might be more attainable, more pleasant to be around and/or less of a badass.

23. Is there a romantic angle between a human and a supernatural creature?

I think this has deeper roots in how we find the exotic sexy, rather than wanting to be with someone who can’t go out in daylight. I would like to note that it is very possible to find “exotic” people who don’t like the daystar and are capable of love, but are not supernatural whatsits.

Someone might decide to bring up the Hedgehog’s dilemma, but I think that the Very Hungry Tiger’s problems might be more applicable, particularly in romances between a human and something that should see humans as breakfast, lunch or dinner depending on the time.

Results

So those of you who read the last installment of subgenre bingo will know what this section is, but for those of you new to the game, count the number of times you had to answer “yes” regarding the suspected urban fantasy story and check your totals below to see how typical a specimen of the subgenre you have.

1-6 “yes” answers – Probably not a part of this sub genre. You may want to use a different bingo card.
7-12 “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.
13-18 “yes” answers – Will generally be considered part of this subgenre although it deviates in some ways.
19-23 “yes” answers – DING DING DING! Congratulations! You got subgenre bingo!

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar missoularedhead says:

    Ha ha ha! This is CLASSIC!

  2. Avatar Ben Aaronvitch says:

    Damn – I failed Urban Fantasy Bingo – I’m going to have to find myself a new subgenre.

  3. Awesome article. Though I only scored a 9 for mine. That’s what I get for having a male protagonist and no supernatural love triangles, I guess.

  4. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Another hilarious article. Keep em coming, Liz! Thanks!

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