Werewolves with smartphones, vampires on motorcycles, mages with school in the morning, and nightclubs. So many nightclubs! We’re discussing urban fantasy today, revisiting a topic we first talked about way back in the olden days. We look at what makes urban fantasy so beloved, what the potential challenges are, and how some of the genre’s well-known entries measure up. Also, is it still urban fantasy if it takes place on a rural farm? Yes, but why?
Generously transcribed by Darian. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and before we start today, I want to make sure everybody knows that we are in fact looking for new transcription volunteers, if anyone’s interested. What we do is, we send you a rough copy of the transcript that was made by a piece of software, and you get to both see some hilarious mistakes in what we’re trying to say and also feel a sense of superiority over the machines. And I also want to thank all of the people who have already transcribed for us because that’s how we’re able to get transcripts on these podcasts. We really appreciate it.
Chris: If you want to transcribe for us, just go to: mythcreants.com/transcribe
Oren: That’s good advice! So, it’s just Chris and I again today, and we are going to be talking about urban fantasy settings. Which we talked about, in… episode 12, I think? But in our standard format, I did not listen to that episode, because I don’t care what I said in 2014. I didn’t know what I was talking about in 2014!
Chris: Also, our old podcasts are an hour long and I’m busy.
Oren: Yeah, no one has time for that.
Chris: And we chose this topic about four hours ago. [laughs] So, you know, that’s 25% of our time since choosing the topic.
Oren: You know who had time to listen to an hour-long podcast? Oren. In 2014. That’s not the time it is now.
Chris: All right. So maybe we should start with: what is urban fantasy? Because I know this makes some people mad. I know this at least used to make YOU mad.
Oren: Well, I mean, I wanted to call it “modern fantasy,” because a lot of these stories don’t take place in urban areas. And then you have high fantasy stories that take place in a city, that are NOT urban fantasy. And it’s like, NO. I’m grumpy, and I don’t like it.
Chris: We’re stuck with it though. That’s what everybody calls it. It doesn’t mean it’s in a city, it just means it takes place in a contemporary, real-world setting. And it is a fantasy.
Oren: There are some distinctions, but for the most part, it typically refers to a masquerade setting—although not always—and typically you have your standard lineup of urban fantasy creatures, like vampires and werewolves, but again, not always.
Chris: Yeah. I think that those are the things that really define it. Like, they’re very common, but I would still call something an urban fantasy even if it didn’t have a masquerade, or even if it didn’t have… witches, and werewolves, and vampires, which are probably some of the most common fantasy tropes that you see. There are also some interesting cases like Crescent City, which is not in the real world. It is in a different world, but it is an urban setting that FEELS very urban fantasy-ish because it has real-world, modern-day technology, like cell phones.
Oren: It’s got werewolves on motorcycles.
Chris: It’s got werewolves on motorcycles. So is that urban fantasy? Uhh… I would say, sort of. Right? It certainly creates the FEELING of an urban fantasy, but technically it’s not in the real world.
Oren: Yeah. And it gets around a lot of problems that I have because… I love urban fantasy, and I watch lots of urban fantasy TV shows, and I love to read urban fantasy books. I can’t WRITE urban fantasy, because I just can’t get past the logic problems, especially around the masquerade, and around issues of, like, which mythologies should I use? And should I address historical injustice? What did magical people think about that? I don’t know! But you can do the Crescent City thing, and just have a second-world urban fantasy. And that just gets much easier. Very good idea. Very bad book, but very good idea.
Chris: Well, the worldbuilding was not the weak point of the book. But, just to be clear, we’ve talked about the masquerade before, and basically the masquerade addresses a big problem with urban fantasy. Which is: if you have all of these magical elements, or you have werewolves and vampires walking around, how is it that the world is the same as the world we’re all familiar with? Why isn’t it very different, just by the fact that all of these things are there? And so the masquerade in which, “oh, they are all there, and they’ve always been there, but they’re… they’re hidden. So most people don’t know they exist!” is one way to explain that. Besides just also adding a lot of tropes that people really like, where you get to discover something that’s been secret! And then you have to hide your secrets from the people you know! It comes with some tropes that people love, but also solves a big worldbuilding problem that happens with urban fantasy. And so, you CAN have an urban fantasy without the masquerade. If all the magic just, like, shows up tomorrow. Right? It hasn’t always been there. But generally that’s less common, because when people do fantasy, they want something that’s like… super old, ancient, mystical magic!
Oren: I’ve actually seen recently an example of an urban fantasy story that did not have a masquerade, and it kind of showed why a masquerade is useful. And that was the novel Mystwick, which is about a musical magic school. And it’s not a terrible book, but one of the problems that it has is that the magic just feels very mundane. It’s just… kind of everywhere.
And yet, somehow the world is basically the same as it is in real life? And so there are some small things like “oh, well, you know, in World War II, we had musicians playing to, like, stop German bombs.” It mentions that. But, you know, all the countries are the same. The various orchestras are still the same. The musical traditions are the same, which doesn’t make sense considering the rules of how music works, but that’s another problem. And there’s just… people around, doing music magic everywhere, and it just really takes away from the mystique? But at the same time, it’s not, like, a full on fantasy world which does have magic everywhere. And in that case, the novelty can come from just how different everything is.
Chris: So I would say that’s almost like magitech, which is what it’s usually called when we have a setting where the technology is actually based around magic. And in that case, it gets novelty in the same way that a sci-fi story normally would, where now it’s not the fact that magic is mystical and wondrous anymore, but now we have cool tech! That’s based around magic! And so it’s… the world is different because we have this cool tech, and that adds all the novelty. We don’t need the magic to be super mysterious and mystical. But… [laughs] if we don’t have either of those things, if the world looks exactly the same, and magic is everywhere, then we just have mundane magic, and then where does the novelty come from? So, yeah, certainly the masquerade helps with that.
The other thing that it helps with in many stories is explaining why the protagonists need to solve big problems. Because if we don’t have a masquerade, and there’s some big villain threatening the world, then we have some question of why the government is not involved in solving this problem.
Oren: Why haven’t we sent the Navy SEALs to deal with the Dark Lord yet?
Chris: Now, at best, we might have a superhero story, right? And it’s almost like the superhero is the place that this ends up going. [laughs] Where we have these people who openly do magic. We don’t call it magic a lot of the time, but it’s obviously magic. And they’re the only ones qualified to handle these villains. Not really, but we’re going to pretend they are, because they’re the only ones that can do magic. [laughs]
Oren: That’s the premise of the MCU, right? It’s like, “yeah, well, only Iron Man can solve the problem of this bad guy!” And I mean, I’m pretty sure a targeted airstrike could do the job, but whatever. We’ll send Iron Man! That’s the conceit we accept in these superhero stories. Whereas in most urban fantasy stories, the protagonist is not THAT powerful. Like, they’re not supposed to be so strong that it makes sense for the government to send THEM in, instead of, you know, the army. And so at that point, the masquerade helps because then you can be like,
“Yeah, sure. We’re in Boston. But the part of Boston that matters are these two werewolf clans, and we have to make peace between them. And like, it’s the masquerade! So we can’t, like, get the mayor involved. That wouldn’t work out. So our protagonist has to do it!”
Chris: I think if you had an urban fantasy story that basically didn’t have a masquerade, and you were using magic to explain why the protagonists needed to solve problems, it would end up feeling like a superhero story. And superhero stories are strange, because they have the weird superhero identity thing, which is almost like a mini-masquerade.
Chris: So they have various levels of their own masquerade because, again, they love the tropes around keeping secrets! But yeah, that’s definitely one thorny problem that happens with urban fantasy. You were just talking about the cultural appropriation element, which can become a big deal.
Oren: Yeah. And it definitely feels… awkward. Because… if I only use the cultural inspiration from stuff that I KNOW isn’t appropriative, then it feels weird. Like, it feels like I’m saying that… other cultures’ mythologies aren’t as real? But that’s better than the alternative, of using sensitive material that hurts people to see it used incorrectly. So there’s clearly a better option between the two, but I don’t LIKE either of them?
Chris: I mean, you might be able to do something where it’s like, “yeah, there are these other groups that exist, but we’re going to mention them very vaguely.” [laughs] And then the story is not ABOUT them.
Oren: That’s generally what I do, is I imply that, yeah, there’s definitely urban fantasy going on in various non-Western cultures, but we’re not gonna go there today. We’re doing THIS thing instead. And like… that’s your best option, but it’s also kind of limiting, right? ‘Cause we live in… you know, part of the advantage of an urban fantasy is that you live in the modern day. With airplanes. And things that let you travel. So it’s not unreasonable that your story would go to a place where it would make logical sense for your characters to go somewhere, that then you’re going to have to make some serious choices about what you want to do, right?
Chris: Certainly a lot of urban fantasies—if they’re not doing something that’s, you know, blatantly appropriative like using skinwalkers or something—there’s always that, like, one Irish person who’s a leprechaun. It’s like, AHHH. Just don’t. Don’t. [laughter] So if you’re, you know, a Western white person, you should probably just stick to the European stuff. It’s okay!
Oren: It’s less of a problem if you’re using specifically pop culture things. Like, werewolves and vampires are so divorced from their mythological origins that… yeah, whatever, it seems fine that there could also be werewolves in Hong Kong. Why not? But a lot of urban fantasy draws on more… direct mythology, and it’s still not precise. Like the Greek gods that you typically see in urban fantasy stories are not actually that much like the Greek gods of traditional myth. But, you know, they’re closer to them than modern werewolves are to original werewolf myths. And so that’s when it starts to feel weird.
Chris: So yeah, you can work around the cultural appropriation problem, but it certainly is an issue that urban fantasy can have if you’re not careful, because usually you’re sampling people and creatures from so many different folktales. So you have to be careful which folktales you use.
Oren: American urban fantasy writers also have a problem, where part of the draw of fantasy is discovering super old ancient stuff. Well, America is very new, in terms of a country populated by a lot of white people. And if you go back any further than that, you’re running into your appropriation problem all over again. So that’s something you need to consider. There are still ways to do old ancient stuff, right? I’ve had setups where there are, like, old ancient ruins, and they got there as part of the explanation for the urban fantasy existing. There’s, like, a merging of realms, where the magic realm is merging with the human one. And so those ruins are from the magic realm. So they’re both ancient and also kind of new. Or, you know, you could go to Scotland. Or go to England. Right? [laughs] If you want your ancient ruins. Those are options. It’s just something, if you’re an American urban fantasy writer, I recommend planning ahead on that one. Because you don’t want to get into the Buffy situation where it’s like, “you know, somehow we’re constantly finding ancient ruins in Sunnydale, California!” [laughter] This town is maybe a century and a half old. There are just not that many ancient ruins that could be there that aren’t going to be Native American. And you just don’t want to do that. You don’t want any part of that.
Chris: Another challenge of urban fantasy is just that it’s difficult to theme. Certainly, storytellers have more problems theming their world when they’re using the real world. And you CAN build a distinct atmosphere for your urban fantasy, but I think people aren’t in that mindset by default. And a lot of times they want to reuse a lot of the same people and creatures that are in other urban fantasies, which is very eclectic. And folklore is very eclectic. So if you’re sampling creatures from all the folk stories, you might end up with a very eclectic collection. You might want to be a little more selective about which folktales you’re using, and try to take ones that have similar themes and elements in them, so that you get something that feels a little bit more cohesive, that makes your urban fantasy feel different from other urban fantasies, because that’s a selling point.
Oren: I was really impressed with Teen Wolf. It’s not as themed as something like Avatar, but it’s better than most urban fantasy. Most of the creatures that you run into are shifters of some kind, and they never meet vampires. I was so happy about that.
Chris: We were continually impressed that there were never vampires in Teen Wolf.
Oren: I just kept expecting vampires to show up. There is a strong temptation, and a lot of urban fantasy stories do this, so I understand why authors want to do it themselves, to just throw in basically any creature that White Wolf has ever made a sourcebook for. So you have vampires and mummies and werewolves and demons and changelings, and they’re all in the same soup pot, as it were. And then that just starts to feel kind of random.
Chris: Again, think ahead about what you want your theme, or feeling, of your urban fantasy to be. And if you want it to be very folktale-based, you can do that too. A lot of urban fantasy, it doesn’t necessarily actually seem that… folktale-ish. So you can definitely emphasize those elements more. But, giving it SOMETHING, I think, is helpful for making your urban fantasy stand out and making it feel like a cohesive world.
Another thing we’ve talked about before: we had a whole episode talking about teen—you know, high school—supernatural stories. So one of the big reasons that people like urban fantasy is because it’s in a familiar real-world setting, which means that they can have all of those fantastical elements alongside very relatable problems, like trying to ask that cutie out. [laughs] Or arriving late to work, or struggling with your homework, or what have you. But those two things can be really hard to have alongside each other.
Oren: Yeah. And it’s really easy to feel like the more mundane problems don’t matter, and that you should just ignore them. And I’m not only talking about Buffy, but I am talking about Buffy. [laughter] Where it’s just… the idea that the Slayer needs to get a job is just… ugh. It’s very frustrating. Like, come on guys! Just take up a collection to pay her mortgage. You all need her out there slaying 24/7. She doesn’t have time to work a night shift at the local fast food joint!
Chris: This is why Supernatural is really refreshing. ‘Cause all of the practical things that we need to explain how they get along? It’s like, “oh, they just commit fraud.”
Oren: Yeah. I loved that.
Chris: They pay their way by committing fraud, they get people to answer their questions when they’re investigating a crime by committing fraud… [laughs] It’s just… any practical limitations, fraud! But like, at the same time, Sam and Dean also don’t have a lot of those really relatable storylines, right? They have, you know, family drama, but we don’t see them struggle with their homework.
Oren: I think that the best balance there is to—not to continually toot Teen Wolf’s horn here—but it’s to basically do what Teen Wolf does, in which you can play up the relatable problems of, like, needing to study for a test that you couldn’t study for because you were out slaying or whatever, but only for a little while. Right? Eventually that stuff IS going to stop feeling important, and you have to be willing to transition into full-time fantasy-book mode.
Chris: Just to clarify: Teen Wolf, as it goes on—it’s six seasons, or six and a half seasons—in the first season, there are a lot of high school-related problems. This one episode, that I think was especially memorable, there was this conflict where he’s on the lacrosse team—the main character—and on one hand, his coach is insisting he absolutely HAS to make that game, especially if he wants to keep his position. And then his werewolf sort of… mentor… is like, “you had better not go to that game, because you’re going to lose control and basically become a wolf in front of everybody or possibly hurt somebody.” And so he’s facing dual pressure on either side, and trying to decide whether or not he should play in this game. And so that’s part of his personal… transformation, of like, in the beginning he has to get used to being a werewolf, and make that adjustment. And so that personal conflict plays really well into that. And it has some… they are really good at setting up the stakes about how he’ll disappoint his coach, and he’ll disappoint his mother, [laughs] if he doesn’t go to this game. And so they do a great job.
But as it goes on, especially as he’s adjusted to being a werewolf, the plot gets higher stakes. By season three or so, the high school problems are basically just not in the show anymore. And we just have less… but slowly. So it’s not a huge shocker, but we just feature less and less of them in each episode until… he’s still going to high school, and sometimes he has to do some difficult balancing between doing schoolwork and dealing with his werewolf stuff, but we see that he’s kind of managed to balance. He’s handling those things. So we don’t need to focus on them anymore.
Oren: Yeah. And you can also make that work better with a premise where the characters are being introduced to the supernatural in isolation. ‘Cause if there’s a whole supernatural society that they can just go and, like, talk to people, then there’ll be expectations. Surely there are protocols for handling this sort of thing, right? So it’s harder to have drama based around needing to go do werewolf stuff and then study for a test, if you’re part of an established werewolf community. Because that community would definitely have procedures for doing that. So if your characters are introduced to the supernatural in a place that doesn’t otherwise HAVE a lot of supernatural, then you can spend a while with them just trying to balance, you know, magic, school—magic AND school, not magic school, that’s different—but, like, a magic life and a school life. And then you will sort of naturally, as you explore the supernatural world more and add more elements to it—either more creatures show up, or they discover more who are already there, or what have you—at that point, it’s going to feel less important to have the school stuff. Just go with it. That’s the natural flow, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to fight it.
Chris: And when you have a high-stakes storyline in a personal story, you just have to make sure that you’re not creating a situation where there’s a high-stakes problem—that is, DOOM is looming on the horizon—and the protagonist could be working on averting doom, but is instead choosing to deal with their personal problems. ‘Cause that really ruins the fun of dealing with their personal problems, if it feels like that comes at the cost of, you know, letting some people die because you didn’t work hard enough to prevent the villain from killing them. [laughs] Right? Sometimes this means building up that high-stakes plot slowly, so it doesn’t actually seem like an urgent plot in the beginning, or doing other things so it doesn’t feel like the protagonist should be working on that when they are instead, you know, taking that cutie out on a date.
Oren: Oh, one other tip that I found very helpful is: one of the things that you’ll run into as a problem is that if you go with this natural idea—that the further you go into the story, the less time you’re going to spend on the mundane, relatable problems—you may realize that certain NPCs that you liked from those conflicts are no longer really relevant in the story. So, for example, if the main character had a teacher who helped them through their school problems, and that teacher was a really popular character, and maybe you really liked that teacher, but now you’re sort of shifting away from the school problems… that teacher is going to lose some of their relevance. So this can be a good time to introduce THOSE characters to the supernatural. Or reveal that they were supernatural the whole time, or what have you. And so you can keep that character as you make the transition into a more supernaturally-focused story.
Chris: Little did you know that that teacher was actually sent to keep an eye on your protagonist because they secretly knew your protagonist had magic powers! [laughs] Something like that.
Oren: And you need to be careful with it, because you don’t want to end up in a situation where it’s like, “well, why didn’t you use your magic powers two seasons ago, coach!”
Chris: But yeah, urban fantasies. Those are all the challenges. Do you have any other challenges before we move on to some of the advantages?
Oren: I think that’s basically covered it.
Chris: Obviously we talked about how [urban fantasies] are very relatable, and that’s a lot of the fun. There’s a lot of fun in the contrast between the real world and things that are from a fantasy world. And because of that, they also have really good wish-fulfillment, right? Where anybody can imagine that the next day they’ll run into that fantasy world, and very much… place themselves in it. And so that’s tons of fun. They also make the world easier to explain. Especially if you have a masquerade, and your character starts out not knowing about the magical and then discovers it—which is true in many urban fantasies, not all of them, but many—it’s like you automatically have the advantages of a portal fantasy built in. ‘Cause your protagonist needs everything explained to them, so it’s easy to explain to the audience. And you don’t have as much to explain, because the world is mostly familiar. You only have to explain the ways in which it’s different. And that also often means you don’t have to do as much worldbuilding. You only have to focus on the super-fantastical parts. You’re not just making nations and deciding what their governments are, for instance.
Oren: And the contrast is just very cool. Just the built-in contrast of like, “this is an ancient fairy from the old country, and they work at a cell-phone shop.” Or they run a coffee shop—as every fanfiction likes to do—you can actually just have them run a coffee shop, right? You don’t even have to wait for the fanfic authors to do that.
Chris: Yeah. You can have a bunch of… fantasy people, running a coffee shop together, if you want.
Oren: Yeah. And that’s just very valid. I think that’s the part I like the most. Like, that’s the reason why I decided to run my latest roleplaying game as an urban fantasy instead of high fantasy, is like… I wanted those backdrops. I wanted you guys to go to a nightclub and go to a library and take out a fishing boat and stuff like that.
Chris: Wait, there’s a library?
Oren: Uhh, well. Hang on…
Chris: [laughs] So, should we talk about some urban fantasy stories? We talked about Teen Wolf, we talked a bit about Buffy…
Oren: Unfortunately, there still aren’t… the TV show landscape of urban fantasy is not fantastic.
Chris: I think the problem is just with budget. I mean, definitely there’s more urban fantasy TV shows than medieval fantasy TV shows, because, I think, of budget reasons. But even so, a lot of shows, I think, struggle with the special effects that are required.
Oren: Yeah. Or they just end up feeling kind of campy, and like… some camp is fun, is fine, maybe, but I’ve struggled to find high fantasy shows that I’ve enjoyed. And I really like Teen Wolf, and it’s a little disappointing that Buffy is still so high on my list after this long. But, you know, it still is. I liked the Dresden Files TV show. It was very short.
Chris: I agree. Despite the fact that it was clearly low budget and is pretty campy, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and I really wish it had gone for longer.
Oren: It had almost no budget. It was amazing how in the first episode, when, like, Dresden needed to use magic, they would cut the camera away and show some flashing lights from off camera. [laughter] And it was like, “wow, this is low budget.” And by the end they had enough budget for him to throw a CGI lightning bolt. But I still liked it. I thought it was a good show. I was disappointed that it was canceled. I guess just… don’t be like Grimm. I guess that’s probably less of an issue for written stories, because Grimm’s problem is clearly budget-related.
Chris: Grimm… It starts off with a specific aesthetic, and it doesn’t manage to actually carry it out. One of the interesting things about Grimm, and I think this is a budget reason—this one wasn’t a bad thing—where almost all of the fantasy peoples in Grimm—and they all have, like, German names, because they’re trying to go with a Germanic theme, although they don’t feel fully committed to it, unfortunately—but most of the time they just look like normal people. And then we only see flashes of their disguise fading sometimes. So that means that they don’t have to continually have everybody dressed up in makeup and costumes, or using special effects all the time. They would just do it a little bit. And I think it works pretty well. The show has some other problems that make the fantasy elements just feel very superfluous, but it’s not that.
Oren: Yeah. I guess I misspoke. It’s really not the budget. It’s the… really, the issue with Grimm, especially in its early episodes, is just that it’s, like, a police procedural that… occasionally they remind us there’s magic stuff happening? And I just want to know about the magic. I’m not really that interested in your police procedural. Just tell me about the magic stuff.
Chris: Have you considered—because the main character is a cop, which is not great—it’s like, have you considered quitting your job and instead just committing fraud? Like Sam and Dean do?
Oren: [laughs] Yeah, just take a page out of the Winchester boys’ book, okay?
Chris: So that way we don’t have to make every plot fit… something that you could put in your report to your boss. [laughs]
Oren: Right. We just… what we have is bad guys committing MUNDANE crimes with MUNDANE means, but they also happen to be supernatural creatures. And so then he catches them ALSO using mundane means, and then they go to mundane jail. For the mundane crimes they did. And it’s like… ugh, okay, I guess.
Chris: The issue here is that he’s a cop, and it’s like… why didn’t we just… we needed to NOT have him be a cop, so that we didn’t have to shoehorn all the fantasy things into something that could… allow him to justify why he needs to arrest these people.
Oren: Yeah, I would agree. And supposedly they do eventually stop that later, but we’re a ways into the first season and it’s still going strong.
But I do think we’re about out of time. So if people have more urban fantasy shows that they want to recommend to us, I think I’ve tried basically all of them, but there might be some I haven’t heard of. So please recommend them in the comments. Otherwise, I’ll just say thank you for listening!
And I want to thank a few of our patrons before we go. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber; he is an urban fantasy writer—speaking of which, very appropriate—and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week!
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?