Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part II: When Things Go Wrong
January 6, 2009
Because urban fantasy tends to follow a common formula, we see the same things over and over. A book gets judged by how well it uses common tropes. Or how badly.
When the formula takes center stage rather than serving as a framework, the story ends up being a jumble of pieces, parts of the formula lined up in a row as if marked off on a checklist with no depth or meaning, no coherent story to support them. Character motivation falls apart. What were once acceptable parts of the formula become annoyances.
Which brings me to my pet peeve list. Things I see over and over, whether or not they have anything to do with the story. Not all current urban fantasy novels have these traits. Some of them don’t have any. But when I do encounter them, it’s a big red flag, because I’ve seen them so many times before.
I expect this list to get me in trouble. Someone will call me a traitor to the genre. Someone will try to name what specific books I’m talking about and will run back to those authors to tell on me. I expect a bunch of comments from people telling me how the Kitty books violate my own pet peeves. But I’m posting this anyway. C’est la internet.
1. The label urban fantasy. 15 years ago, urban fantasy was what we called stuff like Charles DeLint and the Borderlands series and all those rock ‘n’ roll elf stories. There was a whole other group of just plain vampire novels. Stuff like Tanya Huff’s “Blood” series, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and P.N. Elrod. About 3-4 years ago, the label started getting used by marketing folks for “books with a kick ass heroine, vampires and/or werewolves in something resembling the real world, usually with lots of hot sex, and a cover showing the backside of a leather-clad woman with a tramp stamp.” Count the tramp stamps. On the other hand, I don’t know what to call this stuff. Bit lit (you know, like chick lit but with vampires? Harhar.) was proposed and thankfully seems to have died. Paranormal fiction. Paranormal romance. Supernatural fiction. Supernatural is actually the one I’ve been leaning toward, since romance writers use paranormal to describe anything that’s science fiction or fantasy.
2. The tramp stamps on the covers. This is that tattoo on the small of the back that low-rise jeans seem specifically designed to show off. This pisses me off because tattoos as a symbol of alternative lifestyles and/or rebellion have been co-opted by the mainstream to such an extent they don’t really mean anything anymore, except to tell readers, “Hey! Sexy kick-ass lady here!” Also, covers that show naked female body parts. (I’m happy with the Kitty covers because you get to see an entire woman, instead of just naked bits. Also, Kitty doesn’t have a tattoo. I’d have told you if she did.) Kudos go out to the authors who are starting to make tattoos a part of their stories.
3. The kick-ass heroine straps stiletto blades to her forearms — strike one! She does it in the first chapter — strike two! She never actually uses the stiletto blades — three strikes, you’re out! I think this pisses me off so much because stilettos strapped to forearms are not a very practical choice of weapon. Rather, it’s a badge that says, “Look at me, look at how kick ass I am!” Honey, if you have to TELL everyone you’re a kick-ass heroine, well…
4. When a novel includes transgressive sex that isn’t really necessary for the plot, and is only there to make the book seem edgy. What gets me about this is it’s not really edgy because when it’s not necessary for the plot, the reader isn’t invited to engage with the transgressive sex, to imagine themselves as active participants and thereby make the whole thing uncomfortable and eye-opening and interesting. The reader is just there to watch and go “ooh.” This is called voyeurism, which is the only real sexual kink some of these books are engaged in.
5. The novel mistakes the ability to inflict violence for strength. There comes a point where the ability to inflict violence — and the downright glee in doing so — doesn’t make you strong, it makes you a bully. Some of these kick-ass heroines are actually bullies, and not very much fun to spend time with.
Corollary #1: The heroine isn’t really a powerful, confident kick-ass heroine. She’s a woman who uses aggression and violence to mask a variety of dysfunctions, insecurities, and stereotypical low self-esteem issues, like believing she doesn’t deserve a nice boyfriend because he’s too good for her. In fact, one of the warning signs of domestic violence is the victim’s belief that her abusive significant other is too good for her and she deserves the abuse. I’m just waiting for the nervous breakdowns to start. Maybe we can have a whole anthology of kick-ass heroines going through nervous breakdowns.
Corollary #2: There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of character. Flawed heroes, including the flawed heroine who uses violence to mask her dysfunctions, are fascinating. What I don’t like is when these characters are presented as idealized heroines, better than everyone else around them, and the only capable character in the book. Their aggression excuses their dysfunctions rather than explains them. Um, not.
6. The book has a strong woman character. But only one. You’d think a genre that supposedly celebrates kick-ass women ought to be able to have more than one per series. You’d think a genre that’s supposed to be all about empowering women would be able to pass the Bechdel Test more often. The test: The story in question has 1) at least two women, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than men.
7. When the heroine is insecure about her appearance and ability to attract men, and talks about this by comparing herself to her best friend who is a blond bombshell. You would be amazed how often this happens in these books. I take this one personally, for obvious reasons (I am, in fact, blond). “Blond” seems to be a code word in some of these books for “not the heroine.” Or even, in at least one book, not that I’m going to name names or anything, “bimbo.”
Corollary: The heroine is insecure about her appearance and ability to attract men. And yet every guy she meets in the whole damn book falls over himself trying to get her into bed. I mean, does this sort of thing ever really happen? There’s definitely an element of fantasy to wanting every guy you meet to get you into bed, I totally understand the appeal of that. But when coupled with the “I’m so homely and just got dumped and didn’t go to prom etc.” rhetoric, it smacks of protesting too much.
8. The movie Underworld. The whole damn thing. My favorite review of Underworld includes the line, “The Vampires sit around having parties that look exactly like those live action role playing events you see at every sci/fi, fantasy or movie convention, but without all the rock, paper, scissors.“
9. Stories that take place in the “real world” that don’t actually have anything to do with the real world. As in, the world they’re in sure doesn’t look much like the world I’m in. No politics, no pop culture, no current events, no day jobs, no families, no relevance, nothing.
10. Metrosexual alpha males. I don’t know how else to describe this. You know, the male romantic leads who are hot, manly, romantic, snappy dressers. They shower regularly. They’re totally built. Rich. Good cooks. Did I mention hot? Ready to come to the heroine’s rescue and dominate her in totally hot sex. (Because kick-ass heroines love being dominated in bed, the one place they can let go of the rigid control that pervades the rest of their lives. Right? Right?) And yet sensitive enough to express their true feelings. They’re usually vampires. All I can say is Lord Byron has a lot to answer for. Now, if these guys could do all that and still come across as actual real people, I wouldn’t have a problem with them. As it stands, they’re usually played by Fabio.
Whew. I’ve been wanting to get all that off my chest for a long time.
This is all meant to be observational rather than judgmental (okay, maybe a little judgmental), which is why I avoided specific textual examples (like a good English major would have given). This can all be turned around to my own work easily enough. What’s revealing to me: I think many of my pet peeves are symptoms of a deeper issue. Which brings us to Part III tomorrow: Deconstructing Urban Fantasy.