If you’re interested in writing urban fantasy, just know this: urban fantasy books ruined my trip to New York City. There weren’t any goblins under the Brooklyn Bridge, the lions outside of the 5th Ave library remained motionless, and none of Manhattan’s graves turned undead in the night. Worse, no matter how many subway rats I interviewed, none of them could point me toward the portal to Hell. It was a waste of my Spring Break.
In all seriousness, the urban fantasy genre makes real-life cities feel magical—both metaphorically and literally. By introducing fantasy elements in urban settings, the best urban fantasy books tell entirely new and wonderful stories.
By introducing fantasy elements in urban settings, urban fantasy books tell new stories.
What is urban fantasy, and how do you write it? Let’s take a train through this fun and contemporary genre.
What is Urban Fantasy?
Urban fantasy has an odd, not-well-understood history, in part because it’s always hard to define a genre. In short, urban fantasy is simply fantasy set in a contemporary metropolis. The fantasy genre is historically pastoral and mythical, so the monsters of these stories prefer rural landscapes to modern architecture. Placing fantastical creatures in an urban setting causes a lot of conflict for these monsters—and for the humans living above them.
Urban fantasy is simply fantasy set in a contemporary metropolis.
That conflict sucks for the city, but it’s great for us writers—conflict is a story’s lifeblood!
The urban fantasy genre could not exist without industrialization and modernity. Even in the 1800s, less than 10% of the world lived in urban settings, so there was no need to explore the goblins and demons of big cities when most people lived agrarian lives.
As a result, urban fantasy books are a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries. Many authors of the genre consider Charles de Lint to be a pioneer of the genre, as much of his work since the 1980s has involved some form of urban fantasy.
Some books can be considered urban fantasy post hoc, like War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, which pits genocidal Martians against the citizens of 1890’s London; even then, the novel isn’t trying to explore modern urban life, just the fallout of an alien invasion.
What are the rules of urban fantasy? Successful novels in the genre will use some or all of these urban fantasy tropes:
- Anything considered “mythical” is accepted as true in the story, whether the magical creatures are monsters, demons, gods, or something equally supernatural.
- Human society and magical society are equally developed.
- Magical creatures have coexisted, secretly, with humans throughout history.
- Humans cannot know about magic, period.
- Alongside humankind, magic has seen great technological advancements; sometimes, whole cities are filled with fantastical creatures.
- If the story isn’t set in a city, it may be set at a boarding school or high school—especially if the audience is young adults.
- Sometimes, the story’s protagonist falls in love with either a fellow monster hunter or with a monster itself. This is especially true for paranormal romance stories.
- Magical murders are special and hard to solve. This is especially relevant for noir-tinged novels.
- Hidden within the city, a portal.
The Urban Fantasy Genre in the 21st Century
If you take a look at the best urban fantasy books on Goodreads, you’ll notice that virtually all of the titles fall under Young Adult (YA) Fiction. Why is that?
Part of the genre’s teenage readership has to do with the nature of YA books. Young Adult literature has only been a book category since the 1970s, and it almost disappeared in the 1990s—until educators reignited the genre to boost teenage literacy.
That resurgence of YA Lit led to some of today’s best known urban fantasy titles, including The Immortals by Alyson Noël and Fallen by Laura Kate. Magic sells, and it often sells best to teenagers.
Urban fantasy books can certainly be written with an adult audience in mind, like American Gods by Neil Gaiman or the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. However, the genre owes much of its rise to the YA Renaissance, as readership (and writership) of the genre skyrocketed after YA’s newfound success.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to be a YA author. Adult urban fantasy novels continue to publish and find success in the market, such as these new releases by Penguin Random House. But, audience is an important consideration for your novel, especially as you edit it and move toward getting it published.
Regardless of your target audience, let’s dive into how to write an urban fantasy novel.
How to Write an Urban Fantasy Novel
Before diving into writing urban fantasy books, make sure you understand the basics of novel writing.
The best urban fantasy pairs the realities of modern metropolitan life with the terrors of fantasy and the supernatural. Remember when we said “conflict is a story’s lifeblood”? Defining the core conflict in your novel will provide a solid base for your story to flourish. Once a conflict is established, characters and settings and plotlines will quickly follow.
The best urban fantasy pairs the realities of modern metropolitan life with the terrors of fantasy and the supernatural.
An author of the genre will likely navigate one or more of these conflicting elements:
|Urban elements:||Fantasy elements:|
|Population||People are everywhere—how do the monsters survive? Where do they hide?||Monsters are everywhere—how do the people defend themselves?|
|Recreation||The people love the city: it’s where they work, play, live, love, and prosper.||The supernatural loves the city: monsters can hide, feed, conspire, and strengthen.|
|Politics||The city is corrupt, and it’s clear the Top Brass cares little for its citizens.||The monsters must choose: do they infiltrate the city’s leadership, or overthrow it?|
|Education||The students at Urban University work for their degree while learning from the city itself.||The monsters at Urban University are much happier as teachers and faculty than as science experiments.|
|Architecture||The city is a poem.||The city’s dark underbelly is prose.|
|Economics||The people worry about paying rent, supporting their kids, and finding upward mobility in an unequal society.||The monsters worry about finding sustenance and surviving. Urban sprawl and industry often displace mythical creatures.|
|Arts & Culture||The city has thousands of art pieces, artefacts, and cultural emblems…||…but some of those emblems are too powerful to be caged in a museum. Other emblems were stolen altogether.|
|Tourism||The city folk know to stay away from the monster nests. The tourists? Not so much.||Listen, nobody likes tourists, so it’s much easier to feast off of a family of 4 from Nebraska than it is to feast on the neighbors in 11B.|
|Public Services||Thanks to modern infrastructure, the city can rely on its libraries, fire departments, hospitals, and transit.||Public services ensure that cops, police cameras, and other means of surveillance are everywhere. How do the monsters sneak past?|
|Sport||It’s the final game of the Grand Series, and the New York Mets are up against…||…the Minneapolis Monsters?|
Now, urban fantasy stories don’t need to be political. However, the investigation of urban life often leads to social activism. Replace “monsters” with “minorities,” and these conflicts become metaphors for inequality, urbanization, wealth disparity, gentrification, de facto segregation, discrimination, etc. As the author, you have control over where you take your narrative, but don’t be afraid to use the urban fantasy genre as a metaphor for today’s social ills.
Replace “monsters” with “minorities,” and these conflicts become metaphors for inequality.
Characters and Point of View
One of the most inviting things about the urban fantasy genre is its lead protagonists. The most popular urban fantasy series have well-developed characters with unique-yet-accessible points of view.
In other words, teenaged Ciara Gardner makes the Unearthly series much more accessible to teenage girls, while Officer Peter Grant makes the Rivers of London series perfect for mystery-loving, pulp-hungry readers.
Your characters can also represent something important to the story. N. K. Jemisin’s novels The City We Became and The World We Make represent the 5 boroughs of New York City through 5 different human avatars, each of which showcase New York’s vibrant diversity—and the conflict that comes from packing that diversity so densely in one place.
As you craft your characters, consider the type of personality best-suited for your setting, conflict, and intended audience.
A Note on Urban Fantasy Tropes
The advice in this article relies pretty heavily on urban fantasy tropes. Are tropes cliché? And is it better to write these tropes, expand upon them, or avoid them altogether?
First, let’s draw a line between tropes and clichés. A cliché is a phrase, character, or idea that has lost its originality—either because too many people have used that idea or because the idea wasn’t complex to begin with.
A trope, by contrast, is complex enough for writers to use without plagiarizing each other in the process. Tropes are recurring themes or structures in a genre, and writers use them because there’s more to say on the matter.
For example, one of the most common urban fantasy tropes is the idea of a magical society secretly parallel to this one. These five examples all come from novels written within the past 15 years:
- The Leopard People in Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor.
- The Cavaliers in the eponymous novel by Georgiana Derwent.
- The Downworlders in The Shadowhunter Chronicles by Cassandra Clare.
- The Pax Arcana, a spell in the eponymous novel by Elliot James that redirects people from magic. (see also: masquerade)
- The Rivers of London series, which has fairy worlds, wizard societies, and countless masquerades.
Each of these magical societies have different laws, members, ideologies, and challenges. In other words, each society is complex enough that, despite sharing some similarities with other novels, no two societies look identical. Such is the beauty of tropes, that writers build off of each other while still telling their own stories.
Finally, urban fantasy tropes are optional. The only thing your story must accomplish is the convincing juxtaposition of fantasy elements in an industrialized setting. If you think you can write a story outside of tropes, go for it—but first, be familiar with the many tropes in the genre.
Are All Urban Fantasies Set in Big Cities?
Technically, no. The “urban” part of urban fantasy describes an out-of-place, technologically modern society that runs anathema to fantasy’s traditionally bucolic setting. So, while many novels in the genre are set in London or New York, urban fantasy novels can also traverse a national landscape—including the strange emptiness of small towns or the horror or a rural gas station.
Are All Urban Fantasies Dystopian?
Definitely not! Urban fantasy has a lot of crossover with other genres, including detective fiction, paranormal romance, and horror. It’s rare for any fantasy novel to be strictly one genre, as many works of contemporary fiction try to bend and blend different genres.
Do Adult Urban Fantasies Require Romance?
Romance is not a requirement of urban fantasies, but it is often a subplot. Since urban fantasy books tend to cross multiple genres, it makes sense for authors to insert a romance narrative, some detective pulp, or other genre fiction tropes into their novels.
Explore the Genre at Writers.com
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When I saw the title of your article in the email subject line and then read the article…I wanted to jump up and yell…HURRAY!
Your article was great, but let me explain the “yell”. I’m writing a screenplay and have submitted it several times for a critique from script readers under the genre’ Adult Urban Fantasy. Each time the reader said the genre’ is too far out and should be changed to fantasy drama or something else just as basic. I disagreed with them and thought I was alone in this opinion.
I’d like to give you a little description of my story to give you some context. It’s set in Chicago and uses the various settings in the city along with mysterious elements with some religion mixed in. One reader suggested I use Supernatural/Mystery as my genre’. I like yours better.
Again, great article and you have made my day!
I’m delighted to hear this article made your day–your comment has made mine! Please write an adult urban fantasy screenplay, and please keep us updated on its success. 🙂
I’m in what I think is my final rewrite…I appreciate your vote of confidence!
I’m having trouble fitting my latest WIP into a comfortable genre. The title is THE CURIOUS JOURNEY OF EMILY BRECK. Emily dies 7 times in the course of the book. Each of her deaths take place in a different town, and all are tied to a different genre. Without giving away any spoilers, she encounters witchcraft, ghosts, homicidal farmers, MIB and several cryptids, all of which cause her demise.
My question is concerning Urban Fantasy. While there are monsters and magic, they aren’t everywhere, waiting to pounce on people. It’s just Emily’s bad luck to run into them, and her curiosity.
Can I consider this work Urban Fantasy with regard to these elements?
First, let me just say that I love the premise of your novel, it sounds fresh and entertaining, and I love what possibilities present themselves in terms of borrowing from different genres and tropes. I hope to see this in print someday!
The elements you mentioned are definitely urban fantasy, but the work as a whole would not be considered urban fantasy–it sounds like some major events take place in rural settings, and the story isn’t consistently impacted by an urban landscape.
Genre titles are, first and foremost, marketing tools. When it comes time to publication, your novel would likely be categorized as fantasy, though book marketers will have a keener sense than I do on what genre label will sell your novel. Nonetheless, don’t worry too much about your work being “definable,” that’s a question to ask during the stages of revision and querying.
Wishing you the best of luck on your novel!
Nice article. I plan on providing my Intro. to Lit. students this link.
A couple of things, though:
An article on urban fantasy without a mention of Charles de Lint, widely considered to be one of the founders of this genre (hell, he could even be considered a progenitor)? That’s kind of like talking about Gothic Horror without mentioning Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker.
Also, I’d like to mention N.K. Jemisin and “The City We Became” and “The World we Make” (Great Cities books #1 and #2), two urban fantasy offerings without the slightest tinge of YA.
Thanks for a convenient way to help my students understand a bit about genre.
Darla R. Hitchcock
Thank you very much for this! I’ve included those thoughts in this article. I hadn’t heard of those N. K. Jemisin novels, but love this opportunity to further celebrate her work. I didn’t realize Charles de Lint was so celebrated in the urban fantasy world, so your note is really useful for my understanding of the genre, too. Thanks again for this!