HOW TO WRITE YOUR VERY OWN URBAN FANTASY BESTSELLER IN 7 EASY QUESTIONS. YOU’RE WELCOME.
As genre’s go, urban fantasy is pretty simply defined. You take a modern urban setting, and throw in some paranormal element. Or, as TV Tropes defines it:
… generally speaking Urban Fantasy is known for showing the impact of modern society on the fantasy elements included in it. Elves carry guns, witches use microwaves and Leprechauns work at the bank.
Or, more cynically, a work is Urban Fantasy if it has a half-naked woman on the cover, and Paranormal Romance if it has a half-naked man on the cover
[Not sure why this video clip from 10th Kingdom starts from black screen, but it is pure urban fantasy!]
Of course, they say ‘write what you know’. The only problem is that if my own story was all that interesting, I wouldn’t be in the business of making up stories about other people for a living. (The “for a living” part is my little writer joke.) So instead, I’d like to start by stealing your stories. I mean, finding more about you. I’ve got two questions for each of you.
First Question: What is the third thing you’d put on your secret bucket list?
[Note: I don’t want you to write down your first two bucket list items because well, we know you’d tell your besties that you love them and really…you should just do that anyway, even the ones who aren’t your dog. And even if you ARE British… And second, we probably don’t need to know how you’ll get even with your Ex or your mother-in-law—unless it’s really good and in that case you can come sit over by me just as soon as we’re done here, and give me all the juicy details.] But number three on that bucket list? That’s the champion.
While you think that over, I’ll get you started with a little bucket listie I’ve already crossed off. I’m a huge fan of detective stories, from Agatha Christie to Murder She Wrote and I’ve always fantasized about doing the detective’s big reveal at the end. I was working in the TransAmerica building in San Francisco—48 floors full of bankers, lawyers, and people in Very Important Suits who never EVER made elevator eye-contact. One day I was on a particularly crowded elevator, filled with people who were aggressively NOT looking at each other (which was a lot harder skillset in those pre-cellphone days). So I turned around and said, “I’ll bet you’re wondering why I gathered you here today.” Without missing a beat, someone in the back said, “The butler did it.” Someone else replied, “No, it was Colonel Mustard, in the library with a candlestick.” The whole rest of the elevator trip, people laughed and offered suggestions of who killed who and how.
Of course, there are a few other bucket list things I’ve wanted to try, such as:
- Get in a taxi and say, “Follow that car!”
- Follow joggers around Central Park with a loudspeaker blaring the theme song from “Rocky” or “The Ride of the Valkyries”.
- Run into a store and yell, “What year is it?” When I get an answer, run out cheering “It worked! Yaaaay!”
- And of course, one that’s made it into more than one of my stories is to get kidnapped by pirates, learn to fly, and stay in Neverland.
- A major item still on my bucket list (and also waiting to star in a future book!) would be to take the Alaska ferry system up the coast of Alaska, and then the Alaska Railroad that crosses the Alaska wilderness.
How about your bucket list item #3? Skydiving? Attending the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Years Eve concert? Playing for Manchester United?
Second Question: What’s the most unforgettable vacation you’ve ever taken?
Every couple of years when I was growing up, my parents would stuff us ten kids into their enormous station wagon and head across the country to visit the relatives back east. One of the ways my father was able to swing the purchase of a car big enough to rate its own post code was to cut back on “frivolous” add-on features. Like a radio. So we didn’t hear about the tornado in Nebraska until it picked us up by the pop-up camper we were towing and dragged us across the interstate, shedding trailer bits until we finally came to a stop against the upside-down trailer.
This was in pre-seatbelt and carseat days, so I remember reaching up into the air and snagging the baby as she sailed past my head. That infant was my sister Eileen, who’s always led something of a charmed life. She says it’s because she’s the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. I don’t know if that actually makes her a witch or not, but years later she mentioned it her first night in Ireland. Facebook and Twitter have nothing on the pre-social media info-network in rural Ireland, because for the rest of her trip around Ireland, she couldn’t buy her own drinks before the entire pub was lining them up in front of her. [NOTE: I only mention this because these are excellent qualifications for an Urban Fantasy heroine.]
How about the most unforgettable trip you ever (or never) took?
[Already know everything you need about urban fantasy? Skip down to the form at the bottom of this post and show us how it’s done.]
Now that we’ve shared those things, please let me say that I write urban fantasy with what I like to think of as humor thrown in. And what we’ve just done is pretty much the way I start each story. I take a character I’m prepared to treat like crap, and send them off on a quest that combines a trip like the one you described with a do-or-die MacGuffin quest, again like some of my bucket list things. [NOTE: I know, I know… you’re all about writing as art. But those bucket list things make some very fine tax deductions if you put them in a book. One writer’s googled research might be another writer’s trip to Paris…] Then, since it’s fantasy, I might throw in the odd dragon or witch, add in some favorite tropes and subvert others, and off I go to
call my travel agent whip up plots, character, and settings.
Urban Fantasy Plots
I know! You could have a world where the Dark Lord, once thought defeated, now returns to gather his [why is it always his?] dark forces. The end of the world—or at least the end of the bits we like with, you know, dashing heroes, and good sanitation, and of course ice cream…— is at hand. But wait! Although raised in secrecy with no knowledge of his true destiny, our Hero gathers a devoted but motley band of helpers, some Craptastic Artifact/ Ring of Power/ Awesome Sword-thingie, and they all proceed to kick Dark Force butt. Then Hero manages to personally defeat the Dark Lord, probably in one-on-one combat. [Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Belgariad, …]
Is anyone familiar with Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces? In 1949, he published his study of comparative world mythologies in which he proposed The Hero’s Journey, which is roughly divided into three parts. Act One is the call to adventure. Act Two is the initiation into the world of the quest. Act Three is the return to whatever is now home. And it’s a sure-fire winner, whether it’s applied to Mount Olympus, Asgaard, or Chicago. Or to Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Narnia, Star Wars and the depressingly huge number of lesser efforts sent to my book review blog on a daily basis.
If you’re a pantser, you can even escape outlining completely by going online and downloading Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey chart. Just add in your characters’ names and maybe the odd dragon or sorcerer, and you’re good to go. Even better for people who prefer their heroes to be feminine and kickass, download the chart for Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey and all you have to figure out is what subgenre of fantasy to shoot for.
For me though, the actual writing always starts with the characters. I think characters are like icebergs. Only the tip of what the author knows about them might ever be revealed. But that 90% is what drives the 10% we see. For example, author J.K. Rowling knew that Harry Potter’s mentor Dumbledore was gay. She never mentioned it in the books, but it informed the way she wrote the character. When a fan tweeted her disbelief, Rowling’s reply was perfect.
What do I want to know about my characters before I start writing?
The Character Development Template I use for my main characters is long—well over a hundred questions—which is pretty funny for a confirmed pantser like me. When I’m starting a new book, here are some things I like to know about my characters:
- What do you know about this character now that s/he doesn’t yet know?
- How does this character take his/her coffee?
- What music does this character sing to when no one else is around?
- What would this character say is his/her biggest problem, and what would s/he say is the solution to that problem? [note: not necessarily the solution that the author would write for them!]
- Describe this character’s most embarrassing moment.
- Describe this character’s bedroom. Include three cherished items.
- If this character had to live in seclusion for six months, what six items would s/he bring?
- What wakes this character in the middle of the night?
- What does this character resolve to do differently every morning?
- If this character knew s/he had exactly one month to live, what would s/he do?
[By the way, if any masochist—I mean writer—would like a copy of my character development list, I’d be absolutely delighted to send it your way.]
Luckily, there are a few established urban fantasy tropes to get your characters started.
- If the main urban fantasy character is a hero, he’ll probably be a blue-collar warlock with a muggle best friend and a mysterious pet.
- If she’s a heroine, she’ll have a (possibly gay) paranormal best friend, and at least three super-hot guys after her, which she won’t be able to understand because she’s just a normal, average girl who has long red hair, and is loyal to her friends and family even though she has issues with one or more parents who (despite being dead) are trying to kill her. Plus she just happens to like to wear leather, fight vampires, and be a martial arts expert.
- If your character uses magic, you need to say where that magic came from, what limits it, and what the rules are. And don’t use BIG magic for little effects or provide your characters with new powers for each plot point obstacle. For example, instead of waving a magic wand, your character might only use magic on alternate leapyears. The rest of the time she’s a software developer who comes up with a new App for that.
There are three elements that apply to my genre, urban fantasy, specifically (although not exclusively):
First Urban Fantasy Element: World Building
In 1637, René Descartes postulated cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) as the first step toward demonstrating that certain knowledge was attainable. [And before you purists get on my case, yes, I know that his real intent was “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” You purists really need to get a life…] Other philosophers developed that as an existence proof for a god, cogito igitur esse potuit. And though Sister Mary Latin Class is going to come after me waving that ruler she used to bang on the desk while we were supposed to be conjugating verbs if she hears my pronunciation, I think it means : “If I can think it, the universe can build it.” Or it can build the universe. What-evs….
What it boils down to is that we writers are gods. We can build worlds and say how things work in them. This is the seduction and the problem with writing fantasy. If we say that a thirteen-year-old boy can wave a little stick and magic happens, then we had better build a world with some pretty severe limitations on that kid’s stick waving. If not, our story will be lucky to make it as far as a novella, let alone seven volumes and eight movies.
Unlike SciFi, urban fantasy almost always takes place on what is recognizably this earth, either back as far as alternate history set in Victorian times, or a slight bit into the future. Urban fantasy can have magic as part of everyday life, or as a deep secret that must be kept at all costs. The important thing here, is that whatever world you build has to have rules. If someone pops up with a new power every time one is needed, you won’t be able to build tension or drama. If your character is a witch, then where did his or her powers come from, and how are they limited? If they can travel through time, then how does that work on a scale from hard science to magic wand? Do your characters love their powers, take them for granted, or resent the way it sets them apart?
And how are your monsters different? If the dragon is working on a PhD in nuclear physics, the werewolf is forming an organic farming coop, and everybody just cracks up at the thought of vampires, then readers get to step outside of preconceived notions. Maybe your vampires actually need sunlight to survive. Maybe your werewolves can shift whenever they want, but they do it by moonlight because it’s noisy and ending up naked is a little embarrassing.
One criticism often leveled against fantasy world builders (aka writers) is that they take this too far. If someone, somewhere thought up a god, mythological creature, or patently unscientific explanation, into the fantasy kitchen sink it goes. The fantasy kitchen sink approach has gotten a bad rep. But actually, as I say about most tropes, in the right hands it’s a good thing. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter gets his Hogwarts admission letter and suddenly his world includes witches, trolls, and a huge cast of magical beings. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, Chicago’s first (and only) wizard P.I., faces down vampires, werewolves, gods, Valkyrie, fey, sidhe, and angels. The list goes on and on, from Marvel’s Avenger lineup to any Discworld tale. And Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is pure genius.
Second Urban Fantasy Element: Willing suspension of disbelief
The first and most basic thing any artist asks of their audience is to buy into the artist’s version of reality. In theaters, audiences watch a boy teach three children how to fly to Neverland. Movies feature animated rodents who sing, do housework, and sew wedding dresses without ever pooping on anything. Readers follow the adventures of a boy wizard, all the while wondering what’s become of their own letter from Hogwarts. Space vessels hop wormholes to cross entire galaxies.
Of course, willing suspension of disbelief happens in real life too. People buy lottery tickets. Fans of the Chicago Cubs and the Norwich Canaries buy seasons tickets, sure that this will be “their” year. American voters actually cast ballots for Donald Trump. [It’s possible that last one represents not so much a willing suspension of disbelief as all-out assault in which disbelief is bludgeoned to death and its bloody corpse kicked to the curb…]
Third Urban Fantasy Element: Genre-Mashup
Genre mashups are a great way to breathe life into established genres. And it’s fun: just pick a genre—any genre—and then mix with one or two more that have nothing to do with it. Writers of urban fantasy regularly mash with romance, thriller, mystery, and sci-fi. Two quick and easy ways to do it:
- add zombies—Historical Fiction + Zombies = Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
- And/or do it in space—Western + Space = Firefly
Want to mash more genres? How about what these movies did, all vaguely within the urban fantasy guidelines?
- King Arthur + magic + motorcycles = Knightriders
- SciFi time travel + romance + tragedy + dramedy = Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- Philip K. Dick scifi story + Ridley Scott neo-noir + crime thriller = Blade Runner
- Comedy + fantasy + western/scifi/nostalga/time-travel + coming of age + rom-com = Back to the Future series
- Romance + apocalypse + humor + YA + zombies = Warm Bodies (zom-rom-com)
A lot of people ask what the best part of being a writer is. Obviously, I’m not in this for the money! But the people I’ve met through writing are the third biggest reward I could possibly get. (Second biggest reward would be Hogwarts admission letter, and first is of course Daniel Craig whisking me off for a weekend of very naughty stuff…)
So…ready for your very own urban fantasy prompt?
[NOTE: I have absolutely no idea how to make WordPress interactive, so if you are kind enough to fill out the form below, I’ll wave my magic wand (which anyone who knows my limited tech abilities will know is LOADS more likely than this actually working) and send your personalized urban fantasy plot logline to your email address. Then I’ll beg you to paste it into the comments below.]