Wikipedia defines urban fantasy as having to take place in a city. But as we ought to know by now, Wikipedia is often wrong. If we are to strictly define urban fantasy as having to take place in a city, then we would be leaving out so many great stories, including Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series or Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series. This strict definition has prompted some to coin the term “rural fantasy” to describe books like Harris’s. I don’t think the distinction is necessary.
It’s not about the city.
Good urban fantasy, like any genre, does incorporate the setting as an integral character. It will be flawed, it will change over the course of the novel, the weather will shift to reflect the mood of the story. But as with any genre the setting is not the overriding characteristic of urban fantasy.
Characteristics of urban fantasy include a flawed protagonist, a mystery to solve or a murderer to catch, fight scenes, love scenes (or at least the allusion to love scenes), and fantasy creatures or magic. The thing that urban fantasy does so well is it borrows from other genres, most notably crime/mystery, action, horror, romance and fantasy.
Urban fantasy may not be the best name for the genre, but there are worse problems with the other names some have tried in place of urban fantasy.
• Modern fantasy – doesn’t work because the stories are not always modern. There are great urban fantasies set in Victorian times. Check out Colleen Gleason or Kristen Callihan. These stories are most definitely not traditional fantasy, but more closely resemble urban fantasy.
• Dark fantasy – doesn’t work because the stories are not always dark. Urban fantasy can also be quite humorous and light. Check out Mark Henry, Michelle Rowen, Stacia Kane. Especially in the case of YA, urban fantasy can very light.
Some characteristics that were used to describe urban fantasy no longer apply. Protagonists are not always female. Stories are not always told from a first person point of view.
The “urban” in urban fantasy is a metaphor. “Urban” distinguishes these stories as being different from “epic” or “traditional” or “high” fantasy. Urban fantasy is “urban” in the sense that a city is thought to be forward-thinking, advanced and contained– a sociological microcosm. In the way that a city is a separate society with its own culture, so too in UF, fantasy creatures live a separate society or separate culture. These hidden worlds are there for the protagonist to discover. But even this is not a requirement as there are plenty of urban fantasy stories where the fantasy world is exposed, even incorporated into the rest of society.
Urban fantasy is urban in the same sense as urban legend or urban myth. In fact, if you go back to Wikipedia and look up urban legend, you’ll see a definition that’s better suited to urban fantasy. “A form of modern folklore”, “does not necessarily orginate in an urban area”. “The compelling appeal . . . is its elements of mystery, horror, fear or humor.”
Part of the appeal with urban legend lies in not knowing if the story is true, but the possibility for its truth exists. The fun is in the plausibility. But in urban fantasy we know the story isn’t true, we know these creatures don’t walk among us. The appeal here is not the plausibility; it’s the imagination: wouldn’t it be fun if it could be true?
The fun lies in the wish. This is the “fantasy” part of “urban fantasy”. It’s “fantasy” for the creatures and magic, but also for the “daydream” or “make-believe” element. Take for example, the boss you’d love to confront in a dark alley but can’t because, well, it wouldn’t be legal. Wish fulfilled in urban fantasy, when that boss turns to be an actual vampire, and as the hero of the story you get to blow his head off. In a “straight” genre, this would be a tragic tale as your hero is carted off to jail, but in urban fantasy your hero might be part of a vampire extermination team. Wish fulfilled.
The definition of urban fantasy comes down to this: contemporary tales that borrow story-telling elements from mystery, horror, humour, romance, and fantasy, especially fantasy creatures and/or magic, with the setting often forming an integral part of the story, but not necessarily taking place in an urban area.
Urban fantasy is a growing, changing genre, and there’s lots of landscape still to be explored. With a few big names closing their series (Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison), I think we can expect to see the genre continue to reinvent itself. As Publisher’s Weekly noted about Vicki Pettersson forth-coming urban fantasy novel, THE TAKEN, “The resulting irresistibly good yarn proves that there’s still plenty of room for brilliant innovation in urban fantasy.”
If you’d rather call it “contemporary fantasy”, that’s okay, too. Just don’t look for urban fantasy to become a ghost town any time soon.