Genre 101: Urban Fantasy

So I know I said last week that we were going to dive into some of the small, specialty genres of fantasy today, but actually we’re going to talk about another fantasy subgenre giant.  (Don’t worry, we’ll still get to the specialty subgenres at some point.)  What giant is this, you ask?

Urban fantasy.

#27 Urban Fantasy

This is a relatively new genre, only cropping up in the last 2-3 decades.  For one of the newest subgenres, it’s one of the fastest growing.  It’s also somewhat tricky to define because while it has a technical definition, in common use it has evolved to become something rather different and specific.  I’ll discuss both for your convenience.

Technical definition:
Fantasy set in an urban area, i.e. the chief setting is a city.  Any time period: past, present, future.  Any world: real or fictional.

Common use definition:
Urban setting, our world, magic added, mythological and folkloric beings present

Thus, in common use, urban fantasy has to a degree replaced the designations of ‘low fantasy’ and ‘magical realism’; from simply being ‘a story with an urban setting’ to now meaning ‘a story set in our world but with the addition of magic’.

Some elements and tropes you’re likely to find in Urban Fantasy:

  • A more gritty atmosphere than other genres of fantasy, including heavy influence from the genres of horror and mystery
  • Folkoric creatures such as vampires, werewolves and other shape-shifters, witches, doppelgangers (in a large part thanks to American phenomenons Twilight and The Vampire Diaries)
  • Mythological beings such as fae or elves
  • Romance, often between humans and ‘inhumans’ or between ‘gifted’ humans and ‘ordinary’ humans
  • Law enforcement or surveillance agencies
  • Organizations that watch over and protect folkloric or mythological creatures
  • Organizations whose mission is to hunt down and/or eliminate ‘inhuman’ beings
  • Humans with paranormal or supernatural abilities
  • ‘Gray’ storylines, where there are few actual villains or heroes and the focus is more on everyone just trying to survive and make the best of bad situations


So there you have it: the who, what, and why of urban fantasy.  Stop by next Friday for a breakdown of the differences between paranormal fiction and urban fantasy (a common confusion).

Have you read or written urban fantasy?  What do you like/not like about the genre?

Until next time… Merry Writing!


4 thoughts on “Genre 101: Urban Fantasy

  1. Elijah Carnley says:

    My favorite urban fantasies are Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Charles de Lint’s Newford stories. I have a few other authors in the genre on my shelf to try out, but those are the two that keep me coming back.

    My John Valley stories are closer to the magical realism definition, but I suppose you could call them urban fantasy if you wanted. Albion Academy isn’t very urban. I tend to think of it more as contemporary fantasy (though I don’t know that anyone else would make the distinction). I do have a true urban fantasy in the works that features vampires and phoenixes in conflict set against the backdrop of the Chattanooga, TN, area.


  2. Christine says:

    Oooh, this is good! I’ve actually always gotten urban and paranormal mixed up. I’m slowly starting to know the differences, but I can’t wait for your breakdown of each of them!

    (And I know I’m the WORST at never commenting, but I read every single one of your posts and love them ALL. You always get right to the point and are so informative!)


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