Defining the Urban Fantasy Genre

(WARNING: If you’re hoping for a definitive definition of what exactly constitutes urban fantasy, you’re not going to find it here!)

This past weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of moderating a panel at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. Our topic: Defining Urban Fantasy. There we were, six intrepid authors and editors, boldly taking our seats before a packed house, determined to wrestle the urban fantasy beast into submission once and for all…

Or not.

To be honest, I don’t think any one of us expected that we would pin down an absolute definition — certainly not in the hour allotted to us. While we all either wrote or edited in the genre, we did so in wildly diverse ways…and we held equally diverse opinions on what exactly constitutes an urban fantasy. As one of the audience put it to me later, my job as moderator was rather like herding cats!

Some panelists felt that the word urban automatically suggested a city setting, but not necessarily a modern one. For them, a fantasy set in London in the 1800s would still qualify as urban. Other panelists preferred urban to mean modern day or real world, but not necessarily city (think Charles de Lint and Tanya Huff, who both write modern day fantasy in rural settings). Still  others pointed out the paranormal romance connection to the genre, which came about when marketers realized the voracious readership potential of the romance crowd a few years ago.

Interestingly, another panel on the following day (The Road to Urban Fantasy) digressed into much the same discussion…with much the same result. While Tim Powers (who had been on my own panel the previous day) felt that urban fantasy should have a contemporary setting, author Farah Mendlesohn from Britain noted that “modern” in UK terms was very different from American thinking — going back, in fact, as far as the year 1750.

After much discussion, about the only thing panelists (for the most part) could agree on was that urban fantasies should have a real world setting, though not necessarily a contemporary one. Beyond that, however, editor David G. Hartwell may have said it best: “Urban fantasy is a state of confusion, not a state of clarity.”

So there you have it. Urban fantasy is a huge melting pot of a genre “hijacked by the publishing industry in order to reach a wider female audience,” (Hartwell)  into which we toss historical, contemporary, real-world, paranormal, city and rural settings, and pretty much whatever doesn’t fit somewhere else.

We’re all clear now, right? 🙂

(With huge thanks to my fellow panelists: Ace/Roc editor-in-chief Ginjer Buchanan; author Tim Powers; author S.M. Stirling; author David B. Coe; and author & editor Adria Laycraft.)



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5 responses to “Defining the Urban Fantasy Genre”

  1. Sean Cummings Avatar

    I think I read a ways back that Laurell K Hamilton suggested she invented urban fantasy – personally I believe it started with a comic book in the 1970’s called “Werewolf by Night”.

    1. Linda Avatar

      And this is where SO much of the disagreement begins, lol! While Hamilton certainly was in on the PNR crossover, there are an awful lot of authors who were writing “real world” (and contemporary, for their time) fantasy long before that. Some argue that UF goes all the way back to Dracula, and I think they make a good point. 😉

  2. SharonS Avatar

    the more UF I read the more defined it becomes for me. Romance is only a facet of the main character it doesn’t define them Their personal journey happens over many books in a modern contemp setting that brings in a fantasy one. They are usually first person POV. The world building is important and detailed when it comes to everyday events. It has always been my favorite genre. I’ve gotten to the point where Paranormal romance just irritates the mess out of me because they ignore world building and I need there to be plausible external reasons why things happen.

    1. Linda Avatar

      All good points, Sharon, and yes, the world-building factor definitely came up in discussion, too. As for the distinction between PNR and UF, the editors among us felt that this boiled down to whether or not the plot would survive without the romance (making it UF)…and whether or not there was a happy-ever-after. Personally, I liked Charles de Lint’s summation when he called UF “the bastard child of romance and horror!” 🙂

  3. SharonS Avatar

    That is very true! I tell everyone I like DARK urban fantasy because the word horror tends to scare people off .

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