Over the June 3-4 weekend I had a lot of fun at Limestone Genre Expo 2017, held at St. Lawrence College in my hometown, Kingston. There are many things I may want to blog about later, but what I most want to record first is my experience at the “World Building in Urban Fantasy” workshop run by Alyssa Cooper. I’ve been struggling with writing an urban fantasy series since my first National Novel Writing Month more than a decade ago. Alyssa’s guidance and insights were very helpful; with her permission I'm posting my notes on her session.
The first thing Alyssa talked about was that it’s possible to characterize different fantasy subgenres based on their scale of interaction with our world. In high fantasy (such as the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, the world is a separate reality. In alternate history, the world was once the same as ours but branched off at some point in the past. In portal fantasy such as Narnia there is a self-contained world accessible through strictly controlled means; the action is often driven by the people who cross over. Urban fantasy takes place in what is supposed to be our real world; it doesn’t necessarily need a city. It has many subgenres of its own.
The key characteristic of urban fantasy is that there is some underground society, not visible to the mainstream. If the fantasy subculture changes the real world, the story becomes first-world fantasy instead of urban fantasy. At the moment urban fantasy is selling well. Today’s reader seems to want the story to take place in a realistic world they can picture themselves as part of. Portal fantasy starts in the real world but often the main character is a “chosen one;” many people can’t see themselves in such a character.
There are four things to work out in your urban fantasy.
First, you need the real world setting – a physical location and time period. You should choose a real location; if you create imaginary countries the story might cease to be urban fantasy. Pick something you’re familiar with so locals know you’re getting it right. You can make up a city, but not a province or country. You must also pick a time period, including the past, and do enough research to get the details right. Setting the story far enough ahead in future may depart too far from urban fantasy, and become science fiction.
Second, you need magic and/or creatures separate from the real world. These elements tend to drive the story. There are a huge number of options for creatures. They can have their own fully developed society, with an economic system, social structures, and cultural cohesion (unless anarchy is desirable). They could be a smaller coven-like organization; they wouldn’t need a separate economic system, relying on the larger world’s instead. They might have packs or families, in which case you need to think about how small groups interact when they’re far located from each other.
Magic can be anything you like, but you should stay consistent. Possibilities include traditional witchcraft, faerie (often based on glamour and illusion), or some invented system.
Third, you need to work out how the real world and the fantastic interact; this is the biggest central feature of urban fantasy. Possibilities vary based on how who (and how many) know about the fantastic.
Wide knowledge (the least common). This is heading towards high fantasy where the real world changes. Robin McKinley’s Sunshine (where the fantastic was forced back underground after exposure) is one example.
The government knows, but the public doesn’t. There might be a secret agency protecting the mainstream from the underground (maybe working with some of the creatures). It takes much research to ensure the agency is realistic; you need to explain how it became aware, why it is investing energy into hiding the fantastic instead of killing off or exposing it; basically, why are they interested in the hidden world?
Invitation only. The fantastic is not a complete secret; it is revealed to certain individuals or groups but secret to the general populations. This is the commonest alternative in creature fantasy. Think through what are the repercussions if someone exposes the secret, and how it’s decided who to invite.
Total secrecy. Often the PoV character(s) are within the secret world, and the plot is driven by the need to keep the secret. Alternatively, a human accidentally discovers the secret, and the plot is driven by the peril of escaping or keeping the secret for the PoV character’s new friends; this works better for smaller groups of creatures.
Fourth, what is the history of the fantastic? Probably much of this is not overtly in your story, but you need it so you can write the story effectively. You can insert details that allude to the history, making the world more real, deep, and nuanced. In particular, you need to think about whether the secret society is as old as ours, or whether it appeared more recently. History has an overarching effect on the whole fantasy world.
The workshop continued with a hands-on exercise to identify these elements for our own urban fantasy settings. I begin to understand more of what I need to redevelop those old stories – and I have a lot of work ahead of me!