Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I: The Formula

January 5, 2009

Something I get asked a lot is, Why is urban fantasy (in its current popular definition of kick-ass heroines with vampires and assorted magic) so popular right now? I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I have some ideas.

This analysis comes in three parts because I’ve been thinking about urban fantasy from two different perspectives, and interestingly enough bringing those two perspectives together led to the third perspective. That is, I think I need to do some explaining before I get to what’s really the heart of my analysis. Also, this is really long, which is another reason I broke it up into parts.

Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I: The Formula

Urban fantasy in its currently conventionally defined incarnation is a formulaic genre. This isn’t meant to be derogatory: I’m talking about formula as a framework that identifies a thing as one thing and not another. That something is formulaic isn’t necessarily an indication of quality: the James Bond movie formula produced both the recent, brilliant Casino Royale and the nearly unwatchable Moonraker.

Apart from the presence of the supernatural and a kick-ass heroine (often wearing leather pants and wielding a semi-automatic), which are big parts of the urban fantasy formula and traits readers look for in these books, I’d argue that the framework boils down to two things: character and world-building. This genre is primarily character-driven: the main characters are at the hearts of these series, and readers keep coming back because of the connection they feel with them. And world building: readers want a world they can fall into, that they can believe in, often similar to ours but the fun comes in seeing the differences, in imagining what it would really be like if these things really happened. When these two things come together, along with the tropes that cause readers to seek out these books in the first place (vampires, kicking ass, etc), you have a successful urban fantasy novel and series. I believe this is what readers are looking for, and what writers in the genre are striving for.

It so happens that this framework encompasses lots of different stories — mystery, horror, romance, chick lit, action, adventure, humor — while still maintaining a solid identity as urban fantasy. These books are found — in one form or another, with variations — in the romance, science fiction, and horror sections of the bookstore. They cross over. They’re hard to classify, precisely because they manage to cover so much ground within otherwise strictly defined boundaries. This makes them accessible to a wide audience, and I think accounts for some of the popularity.

The trouble with formula comes when formula turns into cliché, becoming predictable, boring, and symptomatic.  Tomorrow:  My urban fantasy pet peeves.

Advertisements

25 Responses to “Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I: The Formula”

  1. Marissa Says:

    And, just like any genre, some books that are put out competely and utterly suck. Pun intended, as it usually invovles a love triange between a werewolf, a vampire, and a woman who just can’t accept that she wants to sex both of them.

    I’m looking forward to tomorrow, I know there are some big ones (peeves I mean) out there.


  2. […] Vaughn is giving us her opinion (or at least the first part of it) on why Urban Fantasy is so popular right […]

  3. SciFiGuy Says:

    You’ve certainly nailed the essence of what I find appealing about urban fantasy – character and world-building. SF has made some strides in the character arena but still has a long way to go which is why readers like myself have adopted the genre. Can’t wait for the Pet Peeves.

  4. Todd Says:

    I totally agree with you about the characters and world building. Which is why I so appreciate your stories and Kim Harrison’s. Not only are the characters kick-ass cool, but the worlds are amazing and make me want to live in ’em. I’ve even dreamed about the characters! Can’t say that about many books.

    Lookin’ forward to the peeves, those should be fun!

  5. Ray Says:

    People want to believe that there is the possibility that exciting supernatural things exist in their mundane world. This genre bridges the gap and is more believable than middle earth kingdoms of long ago. Most young people can’t relate to that. Many also want to believe that there are heroes and heroines out that do battle with the forces of evil. Unfortunately, there are plenty of human evil acts out there that no one is able to confront or prevent. Honorable mentions: Jim Butcher, Stephenie Meyer, Joss Whedon, and probably you (I haven’t read your stuff, so I don’t know).

  6. Griggk the goblin Says:

    Just because I don’t wanna be saying, “oh yeah, I hate that too” when you post your pet peeves tomorrow, here’s the cliche I dislike the most…

    “Hi, I’m Plucky Heroine! I’m terribly sexy, but because I was an ugly duckling as a child, I’m simply unaware of the fact that every male character wants to get in my pants. I have this boyfriend who’s the biggest and strongest…he’s the Master, or Alpha, or whatever his kindred call him, and he can kill anyone with just a snap of his fingers, but he’s so in love with me that I’m completely safe…he’s totally at my command. I guess technically I have a job, but I’m constantly smarting off to my boss, disobeying direct orders, and generally behaving in a way that would get anyone else fired, but because I always deliver the goods, there’s never been a letter of reprimand in my HR folder.”

    And that, my esteemed Ms Vaughn, is why I appreciate Kitty so much. She stumbles. She has regrets. She’d rather talk things out than kick ass and take names…though when ass-kicking is required, she steps up to the plate. In short, she infuses lycanthropy with humanity, and makes the fantastic utterly believable.

  7. Helen Says:

    Chracters and world building are exactly why I love Carries books and hate most other urban fantasy. Most other writers make their worlds too impossible to believe in. Kittys Universe is nicely grounded in reality and never gets preposterous.

  8. Jenn Says:

    I’d actually argue that you’re going too narrow. Urban fantasy is a lot of things since the term covers any work with fantastical elements set in the “real” world. The current manifestation with the kickass heroine (it is usually a woman) is more of a subgenre or relative of it. I usually term it urban gothic.

    But then it’s what I’m devoting all my scholarly attention to at the moment, so I’m kind of self-interested. My New Year’s resolution is to finish that &*#$ paper I’ve been working on. I’m really interested and curious about your thoughts on the current trend.

  9. carriev Says:

    Every discussion of urban fantasy I’ve seen includes a debate about what constitutes urban fantasy, because the term’s been used for lots of different things over the last twenty years and it’s very confusing. These days, publisher marketing departments are using it pretty specifically, which confuses people.

  10. Jenn Says:

    No argument that the terminology confuses people a lot. And I don’t disagree that the current trend can be classified as urban fantasy, it’s just not the only thing that’s urban fantasy. It doesn’t cover Peter S. Beagle’s stuff or Neil Gaimen’s American Gods and Good Omens, which are also urban fantasy.

    It’s kind of amusing to me to hear that the industry is starting to use the term so specifically, since it would make my writing somewhat easier if it were that specific and I didn’t have to spend my time isolating this trend. I’ve seen people confound this trend with paranormal romance more often, despite not being a romance by modern standards of the term (no happy ending and no basing every decision off of what the effect will be on the romantic relationship).

    Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts from the inside.


  11. […] Vaughn’s analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I: Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I: The Formula Filling the Well Part II: Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part II: When Things Go Wrong Filling the Well […]

  12. easol Says:

    Awesome dissection of the urb fantasy genre, which is currently suffering an overload of cliche (sort of like ghastly S&S fantasy).

    I think the root of the popularity of such books is the availability of self-inserts. Maybe they’re not even Mary Sues, but they are characters that the readers might desperately wish they were.

    That said, it does somewhat shy away from the genre-breaking urbfan efforts like Jim Butcher, Simon R Green, etc. And I would consider yours as breaking the mold as well, since it does not have the pat immediate love triangle and the heroine is not a fearsome kickass.


  13. […] Carrie Vaughn on Urban Fantasy Carrie Vaughn has a very cool series of posts up about the Urban Fantasy sub-genre, why it’s so popular these days, and how a genre that grew out of feminism is, at times, oddly anti-feminist.  (This last one is my own words, not sure if Carrie would exactly agree with that characterization, but that was how I read it.)  Check it out here. […]


  14. […] Carrie Vaughn has an interesting three-part analysis of urban fantasy. (The link is to part […]


  15. […] defining the genre and talking about some problems she sees with particular examples, CV goes on enrich her c.v. (as […]

  16. Calystia Says:

    Well, I wouldn’t say a kick-ass female character is a staple. Rob Thurman’s series has a male main character and it’s my favorite in the genre. I know a lot of people that feel the same, and a few won’t even pick up an urban fantasy with a chick on the cover because Laurell K. Hamilton completely ruined it for them.


  17. […] Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I: The Formula Apart from the presence of the supernatural and a kick-ass heroine (often wearing leather pants and wielding a semi-automatic), which are big parts of the urban fantasy formula and traits readers look for in these books, I’d argue that the framework boils down to two things: character and world-building. This genre is primarily character-driven: the main characters are at the hearts of these series, and readers keep coming back because of the connection they feel with them. And world building: readers want a world they can fall into, that they can believe in, often similar to ours but the fun comes in seeing the differences, in imagining what it would really be like if these things really happened. When these two things come together, along with the tropes that cause readers to seek out these books in the first place (vampires, kicking ass, etc), you have a successful urban fantasy novel and series. I believe this is what readers are looking for, and what writers in the genre are striving for. […]


  18. Carrie:

    I liked your treatise so much, I wrote my own riff and linked to yours at the end. Thank you for letting me know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

    Cheers,
    Jesse


  19. […] line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy is blending, but I don’t think that “a kick-ass heroine (often wearing leather pants and wielding a semi-automatic)” is a necessary part of the formula.  There is merit to said kick-ass chicks, but urban […]


  20. […] on the world, or at least on the world most of its protagonists move in.  Oh, and it has a lot of kick-ass female leads, too–but that’s veering back towards the gender issues debate.  We’ll leave […]


  21. […] Honestly, most everything else I could say, she pretty much covers in that blog post, and this other one here. […]


  22. […] and Philip Marlowe.  Harry Dresden owes a lot to this tradition; however, he also fits into the Urban Fantasy genre, which emerged in the late 1980s.  As do many of works in this newer genre, TamLynn:  PI focuses […]


  23. […] blog “Filling the Well” and her three-part analysis of urban fantasy, starting with The Formula, where she briefly explains what’s involved in an urban fantasy novel. Carrie’s part II […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s