Writing Urban Fantasy: Making Weird Seem Normal

Horsehead Nebula by Trey Ratcliff from FlickrI don’t always write Urban Fantasy books. I’ve written in a few different genres, most of them trending far more towards real life as we know it. But this current series I’m working on is most definitely Urban Fantasy, and one of the things I’ve come to realize about writing in this genre is that none of this stuff makes any damn sense.

The very definition of Urban Fantasy means that you will have otherworldly elements running around in the present day. Maybe some vampires are involved, or zombies, or ghosts, or whatever. They’re going to be there. That’s the whole point. And these things are inherently nonsensical.

They can’t possibly exist in our world. A body cannot become reanimated simply because the brain begins functioning again on some level, as most zombies are described. A vampire would snap its own neck due to the forces it would encounter while travelling across rooms in the blink of an eye. And, I don’t know, you can’t go riding off into space on a pony…or something. The entire genre is built on a foundation of things that are inherently silly, and yet the genre contains some of the greatest works of fiction out there as well as some of the most moving moments in literature.

So how does one add gravitas to a world where lunacy is the foundation?

Well reality helps. Yes, in one sense reality gets abandoned near-instantly when writing in any fantasy genre. As I said above, none of this stuff can possibly exist. But there is another reality to consider, the reality of your characters’ point of view. Their reactions, or lack thereof, can do a lot to paint your world in the right hue. Take the off-the-cuff example from above of someone riding away on a space pony. If we write this in a surprising manner it won’t make a damn bit of sense. If the characters are as confused as everyone else about how a pony can ride in space, it just won’t work. Unless what we’re going for is humorous absurdity. That can be fun too. But take a look at the following:

Ranger Ramone looked over his deputies, the now-safe galaxy swirling on the comm screen behind them. “It’s time for me to go,” he said.

He turned to his pony, and rested a hand on the saddle pommel. Trying not to show any of the sadness he felt at departing, he set a foot in a stirrup and swung a leg up to sit astride his horse. With a twitch of the reigns he walked the horse towards the airlock.

Most of his deputies scattered in front of him. One was trapped, unable to move or react, only staring at the horse clopping along through the space station.

“We told you that your horse is against all safety protocols!” one woman screamed in vain.

Ranger Ramone reached the airlock. “Adios,” he said, giving one last look back at his now-former crew before extending a leg and reaching a booted toe towards the “Open Air Lock” button.

Wait what are you do-” one of his deputies tried to shout before the air lock opened, and with a ruffle of everyone’s clothing, all the air in the station emptied into the vacuum of space.

That was…well that was idiotic. Even for a passage about how idiotic something can seem. And that isn’t really Urban Fantasy seeing as how we’re in space. It’s Sci-Fi of some sort. And I don’t know why the airlock button would just open a door instead of a chamber where the atmosphere first gets regulatohwhocares whatever that’s not the point.

The point is this notion is inherently silly.

Why?

Because the reality for our characters has no room for this horse-in-space. They clearly don’t know what to do with it, have no idea why it’s there, and are generally scared of any repercussions it might bring about.

How can we fix this?

Easy. We make it normal. We make it common-place. We make it not an anomaly. A few quick fixes come to mind.

First, we make horse-space travel commonplace, which means that there will be others docking (stabling?) their horses and departing on horseback and most likely there will be a structure to facilitate this.

Second, I’ve already mentioned how our characters’ reactions can impact things. Well, they should react pretty much the same way I would react to someone driving a car out of a garage…which is not much at all. Maybe it’s an especially nice car but otherwise this is everyday stuff.

And, third, I always like to add a bit of lingo. If something happens every day, people tend to apply their own phrases to the various components of it: abbreviations, running jokes, wording that rolls off the tongue better than whatever the manual says.

So lets try that again:

Ranger Ramone looked over his deputies, the now-safe galaxy swirling on the comm screen behind them. “It’s time for me to go,” he said.

“Sir,” one man said, standing stoic at attention, unable to relax for fear of what his emotions might do to him. “Requesting permission to escort you to the Horse Docking Bay.”

Ranger Ramone eyed the deputy, a sad look drifting over his eyes as he slowly nodded.

“Me as well,” another deputy said.

“Might run into danger heading to the Ho-Dock,” another said. “You could use an escort.”

One by one all the men and women chimed in with the request.

Ranger Ramone closed his eyes as a smile, just briefly, played over his face. “Request granted,” he said softly.

He turned and walked to the HDB, his team spread out in an echelon behind him, every one of them beaming as all eyes in the space station turned towards them. The line of ponies leading off into space was sparse at this time of day and Ranger Ramone reached the Pony Request Desk quickly. He didn’t have to say anything, his pinto Lazerquark was waiting, the clerk on duty having spotted his approach from across the bay.

Ramone hooked one foot in his stirrup, Lazerquark whinnying in barely controlled fury, only calming down as Ramone patted his mane. Then with silken movement Ranger Ramone climbed into the saddle. Lazerquark stepped onto the inertia stabilizing walkway, her hooves syncing to the moving conveyor belt with no break in stride.

His deputies remained at attention as the horse rode towards the HDP portal.

“Deputies,” Ramone said, his voice gravelly, his eyes looking straight ahead, unwilling to look back, “dismissed.”

And with that he was out the portal and into space. As one, the deputies all broke stance and rushed to the comm screen. At first Lazerquark was easy to pick out in the horse-traffic moving to and from the space station. But as Ranger Ramone drew further away the horse’s characteristic gait became harder to pick out, Ramone’s sheriff’s jacket harder to see. And eventually he became just another speck on the main horse trail out of the station, lost in the blackness of space.

Now that?

Well that was still pretty dumb. I’m not saying you can cram anything anywhere and make it fit. And I don’t know why a sheriff was using military language…

But still, you can get away with a whole lot more if you approach your weird moments through the eyes of your characters and make those moments seem boring and mundane.

Remember if it’s weird for them, it’ll be weird for your audience.

And maybe that’s what you want.

But if weirdness is constantly crowding out your characters, it’s difficult to let them have any real emotional weight.

Sometimes it’s best to let your characters be bored by your strangest inventions.

Dead Tired of Traditional Horror Books

Who among us can really say whether we could face the same fears that we read about in a book? Well-written horror books can take a small piece of reality, and distort it in such an extremely believable way that we find ourselves shaking as we turn each page.  A good writer will offer an entertaining story; a great one will develop and flesh out the characters involved, allowing us to be taken along for the ride of their development.  Horror stories are especially frightening, as we all too often become attached to a particular individual; their eventual loss of life, in most stories, shocks us.

Do you have particular memories of a past event that keep recurring, or some sort of story that keeps playing in your head? You don’t have to be a Pulitzer winning author in order to give it a go; put your thoughts down on paper and write your own horror books and stories.  There is a new trend hitting the internet where the object is to write a terrifying story with just two sentences.  If you think that writing an entire horror novel is difficult, try getting a complete storyline completed with just two sentences!  It makes for a fun and interesting concept, and is a great way to take a nugget of an idea and whittle it into what would basically be a mini novel.

 
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If you aspire to be a great horror writer, consider several quick points: first, remember that horror isn’t automatically blood and gore; some of the more terrifying things in the world, real or imagined, are of a spiritual and other-worldly nature.  Another aspect is to make sure that you develop a thoughtful storyline with some unexpected twists.  It can be sometimes be very easy to write yourself into a corner, so make sure to plan your story out, and have a vision of where you want it to end.  Finally, never ever give up! You could be close to having a major breakthrough if you give up too quickly, so push through and you will eventually have a story you can be proud of.

Deconstructing Urban Fantasy

The fantasy genre is something of a mystery to those who aren’t familiar with it. A lot of people dismiss it as nothing but wizards and dragons, but to do so is to oversimplify something that is incredibly complex. While, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit function as a sort of standard-bearer for the genre as a whole, they are flanked by an army of stories that are no less worthy of our attention.

Departing from the traditional forms of fantasy has taken a long time, and has resulted in rich subgenres that stretch the boundaries of what magic in fiction can achieve. From Alice in Wonderland and schools for the magically gifted (a la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson) to urban fantasies such as Sandman Slim and the Anita Blake series, there’s literally no end to the variety. There are even zombie and Steampunk works that would qualify as fantasy, provided that they have an element of the supernatural in them, such as Probability Angels, which features ghosts and zombies.

It's not just about fighting dragons anymore.

It’s not just about fighting dragons anymore.

Urban fantasy is a particularly up and coming sub-genre that has recently garnered a growing following. But what exactly is urban fantasy? The common denominator here is that it usually takes place in an urban or semi-urban setting, often in the present day (though not always), and has fantastical qualities. In other words, if there are ghosts or vampires in New York City in a story, chances are the work would qualify as an urban fantasy. A good example of a popular urban fantasy is the Dresden Files, a noir-inspired series by Jim Butcher, which details Harry Dresden’s investigations into supernatural crimes that take place in modern-day Chicago.

While many of these works of fiction lack the lofty tones and formality of Tolkien and his many enamored imitators — most of whom sound really unnatural spouting his dramatic language — they make up for that with engaging storytelling, interesting characters, and general readability that some of the most “literary” works usually lack.

With a large number of fresh readers exploring the fantasy genre, aspiring authors will rise up to meet the growing demand. Additionally, the emergence of the Internet as a means of reading, distributing, and selling works will only make access to these new voices more convenient. Readers who are looking to see how the genre and its sub-genres will evolve next can keep an eye out online, in bookstores and on movie screens to see the far-reaching influence of this new world of fantasy.

Writing Urban Fantasy or No I Don’t Write Porn

During the course of an average conversation with someone I’ve just met, the fact that I write books usually comes up. This is always followed by the question, “Oh? What do you write?”

I always respond, “Urban fantasy.”

Why do I respond in that way? Because that’s what I write. Urban fantasy. Here is the definition straight off of wikipedia:

Urban fantasy describes a work that is set primarily in a city and contains aspects of fantasy. These matters may involve…coexistence between humans and paranormal beings.

That’s Matthew and Epp for certain, and I’m so used to clicking off that box in the hundreds of forms I’ve filled out over the years, marketing and publishing these books, that I no longer think twice about it.

At least not until the words come out of my mouth during one of these conversations and something flickers through the other person’s eyes. Something fleeting, a little giggly, and absurdly skeptical of what I’ve just disclosed.

Then I remember. For the vast majority of people, the phrase “urban fantasy” means “porn.” Or at least “porn with ghosts.”

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the covers of some of the best selling urban fantasies going today.

Urban Fantasy Cover

We can assume that this is set in a city…I guess. I mean there’s a treasure chest so surely there’s a town somewhere and, yes, there are demons and they apparently prefer blonds. So check and check, urban fantasy.

The little teaser paragraph on that one is truly amazing, managing to borrow those old Mastercard ads as well as get across that our main character pays a sufficient amount for her haircuts so that we know she’s not boring or poor or anything.

Moving on.

Urban Fantasy Cover 2

At first this one seems deceiving. There are woods in the background! This can’t be taking place in a city! However, were these two out camping they would probably need some sort of protection from the elements. Like clothes. Thus, we can infer that they are merely out sunbathing with their automatic weapons and that their apartments where they keep their clothing, and therefore a city, are nearby.

Plus…oh fuck it that one just makes fun of itself.

Urban Fantasy Cover 3

Now…this one is…there’s a city…is that dude wearing make up?

And is the chick a vampire too?  Those look like fangs.

So basically this is vampire sex? And even if we presume the chick was human, I don’t think I’d label her as scared by this encounter. Granted, dating back to the earliest legends, the notion of vampires has often been interpreted with sexual overtones.

But this is just sex. Sex with biting. Which some would say is the only kind of sex worth…you know what let’s just move on shall we?

Here we’ve got a little something for the ladies.

Urban Fantasy Cover 4

Now, I know what you’re thinking (god help me). You’re thinking, “There isn’t a single thing in this cover anywhere that’s fantastical or urban.”

Well as for the urban part, we can assume that the ship in the background, being a small vessel, is unable to travel very far from port, so there’s a city around here somewhere.

And the fantastical part? One word: merman.

Now check out this one.

What? Am I supposed to be talking?

I really like green eyes (note to self, add Green-Eyed Envy to Amazon wishlist).

At any rate, I’m not entirely sure how this happened to my genre or when it happened. Maybe porn with ghosts came first and then the genre urban fantasy was defined and *I’m* the newcomer here. Or maybe urban fantasy was defined as a genre and for some reason it happened to draw in a lot of porn writers…it does sort of sound dirty. Or maybe these books are all literary masterpieces that are just trying to be heard in a crowded market by putting some eye candy on their covers.

All I know is, right after the words, “I write urban fantasy,” come out of my mouth, I immedietly follow it up with, “that means it takes place in an urban landscape, like New York, but has fantastical elements in it.”

Or something.

Whatever I’m going to stare at that green-eyed one again.