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[GUEST POST] Alan Baxter on Defining Urban Fantasy

Alan Baxter is a Ditmar Award-nominated British-Australian author living on the south coast of NSW, Australia. He writes dark fantasy, sci-fi and horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He is the author of the dark urban fantasy thriller novels, RealmShift and MageSign, and over 40 short stories which have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

Urban Fantasy — Or is It?

Genre definitions are always very slippery things. I was recently asked by the wonderful folks here at SF Signal to take part in a Mind Meld. It was a pleasure, as I’ve always enjoyed reading those thought-provoking posts. The subject we discussed was The Intersection Between Gothic Horror and Urban Fantasy and the subsequent answers really gave me pause for thought.

The concept of the question, based on this year’s World Fantasy Convention theme of “Northern Gothic and Urban Fantasy”, is that Urban Fantasy represents the new Gothic; castles and haunted locations have been replaced by the Modern City. There was a lot of variation in the responses and I realised it was largely due to the definition of urban fantasy being considered. Many people didn’t think there was a connection between gothic and urban fantasy, which really surprised me. Among those who thought urban fantasy might well be born from gothic horror, there was an implication that it’s somehow lighter in tone, or that it needs to have a romantic element or female lead to be urban fantasy. Are any of those things true?

It’s not news to anyone that urban fantasy is regularly used to refer to that branch of modern paranormal romance where there’s not necessarily a happy ending (whereas, to be a romance, the lead couple have to get together in the end). I’ll explore the romance aspects below. But to me, especially in the context of the Mind Meld question posed, urban fantasy is a far broader term. It’s in the broader context of the genre definition that I answered the Mind Meld, as did many others, but it still raised problems with just what urban fantasy is.

If we go to that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, we get this definition:

“Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of contemporary fantasy that are set in urban landscapes. Its use of existing contemporary locations like New York and Los Angeles set this genre apart from other sub-genres of fantasy and even science fiction also set in cities.”

So that’s not much use at all. I don’t think urban fantasy needs to use existing cities. When we invent cities for our urban fantasy we’re still writing very much in the same genre. If it’s fantastical and set in a city, it’s urban fantasy. For me, the very heart of the definition is right there.

My own writing is largely dark urban fantasy, and that’s how I usually refer to it when people ask what I write. However, this is becoming a problem because more and more people are immediately thinking of romantic elements when the words “urban fantasy” are mentioned. This really bothers me, for two reasons. One: it extensively narrows what is actually a wide and diverse genre. Two: what can I call the kind of thing I write?

Romance is certainly not a major element in my work. I write horror and dark fantasy, playing with religious and other mythologies, magic, demons, monsters and more — all in a contemporary, usually urban, setting. What can I call my work if not dark urban fantasy? I add the word “dark” to make it clear my stuff is not very light in style and tone; it’s not simply magical realism, and I explore some pretty horrible things in my stories sometimes. But it’s not just horror either, even though there are horror elements often front and centre. I’ve sometimes defaulted to the term “contemporary dark fantasy” to describe my work, but it annoys me, because I actually write, largely, urban fantasy. But I don’t write romance. Any romantic aspects to my stories and books are incidental sub-plots, not primary movers of the narrative.

Author Jeannie Holmes offered this distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance in a blog post:

“The best litmus test to determine if a story is urban fantasy or paranormal romance is to ask the following question: ‘If the romance between Character A and Character B were removed, would the plot still stand as a viable storyline?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ chances are good it’s urban fantasy. If the answer is ‘no,’ it’s most likely paranormal romance.”

But that still assumes there is a romantic element to the story and, for me, that’s far from essential for a work to be urban fantasy.

As for the lightness of tone, I don’t think that’s an essential element of urban fantasy either. I add the word “dark” in reference to my own work because I often venture into very horrific territory. But, to me, urban fantasy doesn’t have to be light and superficial in tone or content. We should be able to refer to a work as urban fantasy without implying anything about the degree of horror in that piece. There could be hardly any or an awful lot. I make a point of indicating that, with my work, it’s better to err on the side of “an awful lot”.

And urban fantasy defined by existing cities? I don’t always write about cities that exist, as good old Wikipedia seems to suggest I should to be an urban fantasy writer. A lot of the first half of my novel RealmShift takes place in a big, dirty city. The city is a very important part of the story, integral the plot and the events that follow, but it’s quite deliberately never named. That’s because it’s “the city”. It could be any city. Readers in London might well think it’s London, while readers in New York or Sydney could easily think it was their city they’re reading about, which is exactly what I want people to think. It’s actually a conglomerate of many cities I’ve known, with aspects taken from each, and a healthy dose of a totally fabricated city.

The term urban fantasy has been in use for nearly 100 years. Various urban fantasy tales have explored and integrated many other genre tropes – noir, hard-boiled, romantic, YA, horror and more – but they’re all urban fantasy (and I do believe they are born from the Gothic horror which came before). My own work, as discussed, also uses many of these things but doesn’t seem to fit well with the definitions of urban fantasy explored above.

So while I answered the Mind Meld in the positive, that I did think there was a direct correlation between Gothic and Urban Fantasy, other respondents, whether answering in the positive or the negative, seemed to have a wide view of what urban fantasy actually means, and many of the distinctions above seemed prevalent. It seems quite likely that urban fantasy could end up meaning only contemporary fantasy with romantic elements and/or a female lead, set in a known city. I think that will greatly limit the genre’s scope.

Of course, people like myself will still be writing contemporary dark urban fantasy with elements of noir and horror, set in recognisable and imagined urban environments. But that’s really quite a mouthful in response to the question, “What do you write?” So the question then becomes, What do we call what we write if urban fantasy is no longer a clear enough descriptor?

11 Comments on [GUEST POST] Alan Baxter on Defining Urban Fantasy

  1. Thanks, Alan, for extending the conversation of the Mind Meld I did, and what the WFC explored as well. 🙂

  2. No problem. You got me thinking, so I thought it worth exploring further. Nothing like a whole bunch of answers to trigger more questions.

  3. Thank you for this fascinating insight Alan. I’m not really a genre writer of any kind, but what you have explored here seems to point up the strengths and the weakness of trying to categorise literature. On the one hand it attempts to place each book in a recognisable realm that has a ready, willing and hungry readership waiting to devour it. Yet it also seems to shiver and shred that very categorisation and artificially divide readers and fans. The raw material of a book for the writer determines the novel; not pre-determined tick box definitions, I don’t believe any writer starts out with that in mind. I ask myself is there any value in demarcating Urban Fantasy, Urban Horror, New Weird, Dystopian, Speculative, even Steampunk? I can’t help feel that they each threaten to leave some readers outside because of a label. Readers are smart, they can come to their own decisions, so long as they are not hammered over the head by how books are pitched to them in narrow bands. I salute you for not seeking to reduce your books to easy labelling.

  4. Thanks Marc. You’re right, trying to fit genres is always a problem. They’re there for a couple of reasons, really. The foremost is a bookstore thing – stores need to know where to shelve our work and, as they have strict stocktaking software these days, it’s difficult to place in more than one section. For example, my own books could easily go in the fantasy, horror and thriller sections, but the book store has to pick one. That’s becoming less and less of an issue as more people buy online.

    The other aspect is the natural human need to categorise and pigeonhole things. We need to understand and we often understand by applying labels. I certainly try to avoid that in my writing. I never set out to write a horror, or an urban fantasy, or a science fiction, etc. story. I just write the story that I need to tell and wonder what genre it might be once it’s finished. I once wrote what I was sure was a horror story, until two horror editors rejected it, telling me it was a crime story. I sent it to a crime publisher and it sold immediately!

    Thanks for you comment.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer // November 8, 2012 at 7:13 pm //

    I don’t know if this has been addressed anywhere, but the term “urban fantasy” applied in the last six or seven years to material with a romance element (to some extent, elements of paranormal romance) was started by a publicist at a major publishing house who deliberately changed the context of the term. Before that, it had a different meaning. For better or worse.

    • I’m glad you mentioned that Jeff. It’s one of those important points that gets lost in the effort to form a cohesive definition – it points back to a deliberate effort to blur the definition to allow one sub genre to misappropriate another to lend credence to a new stream of fiction, stealing from an existing genre to ameliorate a perceived cultural cringe or to benefit from an existing ‘status’. For me that makes it for worse, because of the impact on the existing sub genre.

      Self published authors, in calling themselves “indies”, raises my hackles for the exact same reason. I have nothing against self publishing per se, self published authors work their butt off, but it feels like they are actively shrugging off the the historical “bad taste” of self publishing by acquiring the name “indie” and in the process muddying the waters for existing independent publishers (who now have to find a new name to avoid the new assumption they are self published authors).

      The divide between paranormal romance and urban fiction seems, for me, to be distinct and obvious, even though the two share some characteristics.

  6. I struggle with genre definition as well. Though the first novel in my current series fits partially within the popular urban fantasy definition (strong female lead, romantic element w/o the happy ending), much of it takes place in the wilderness rather than in a purely urban setting.

    With an MC whose coping mechanism tends more toward violence than the sassy humor typical of most UF female protagonists, it seems to fall even further outside the urban fantasy label.

    Most of my stories contain horrific elements, but are not true horror. Yet they are definitely dark, with conflicted, non-human characters struggling to survive on the edge of human society.

    I’ve decided the term “dark fantasy” best describes what I write. Perhaps those of us whose works don’t fit the popular urban fantasy mold should campaign to establish dark fantasy more firmly as an accepted genre label.

  7. Jeff – is that right? I didn’t realise it was down to a single person. Because I always *used* to write urban fantasy. What I write is still that genre, but the definition has changed around me. Can you name names?

  8. Jodie – I think all independent press can just call themselves small press and avoid the situation altogether. Or just refer to themselves as a publisher, which is exactly what they are.

    Roh – the problem with dark fantasy is that it doesn’t reference the contemporary, modern setting that urban fantasy does. You can have dark fantasy in completely imagined, “medieval” worlds.

    • Very true, Alan. I hadn’t thought of that.

      With the emphasis on “contemporary, modern setting,” rather that a purely urban one, guess my stuff is urban fantasy after all – even if it does take place in the Colorado mountain forests!

      Except, of course, my historical (Old West & Civil War) stuff – that tends to sit a little more squarely over the horror side of the line.

      Is that considered historical horror? Is there such a thing in all this genre-bending talk? Or is this leading back to the original Gothic horror? (seems weird when writing about haunted saloons and vampire Indians!)

      As usual, my stuff strays outside the boundaries, preferring to ride the line between several genres, though it’s nothing I ever plan. I don’t think about it – I just write.

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