Urban fantasy has become one cliche after another, from cover to story. Here’s what’s wrong, and how it can be fixed.
Sometimes I hate urban fantasy.
I feel horrible even saying it. I want to tell you it’s my ideal genre. You get what’s great about traditional fantasy (magic and magic users, someone having a big adventure,) mixed with modern settings, human characters you feel like you’ve met before in real life, and you can still develop your own magic system. It also blends well with other genres (particularly horror and mystery/thriller). It seems like you can’t go wrong.
There lies the problem. An author tries something original and becomes successful. Future authors look at her success and say to themselves, “If she can do it, so can I.” Suddenly, you have an explosion of same old same old, where you wouldn’t know what novel you’re reading unless you look at the cover. Even then, you can’t always tell. Let’s take a look.
First, we have to address the covers. I’m all for the concept of not judging a book by its cover, but I’m also all for the concept of accurate and unique cover art. The first urban fantasy cover I saw was impressive: a woman dressed in a belly-baring tank top, body covered in tattoos, standing in front of a background of red cracked rock. I had never seen a book with that type of cover model pose and background and I thought to myself, “Wow, this is going to be a great read!” Fast forward to a year later. The one hundredth time I saw an urban fantasy novel using this design, I became frustrated. I read that cover designers use stock models and there’s not many options, but that’s no excuse.
If urban fantasy covers were better, that would solve half the problem right there. Couldn’t we have the scenery front and center, instead of the woman? The setting is, after all, just another character in the novel. And while we’re talking about the cover model, what is up with the idea that the woman must always be wearing the same type of clothing (belly-baring or bra-as-shirt and low-rise jeans) and always be covered in tattoos? If we have read more than one urban fantasy series, we get that she’s supposed to be tough. Not to mention, if these tattoos have no significance to the novel ( such as, they don’t serve as a connection to the supernatural, or they aren’t a mark or calling card), they really aren’t necessary. These complaints pale in comparison to this: Why is it that on the majority of urban fantasy covers, you get a shot of the woman’s butt and back up to her neck, and then she’s headless. I’ve heard it’s because readers want something left up to the imagination. If it was such a big thing for readers to use their imagination on what she looks like, how about there is no woman on the cover?
While we’re talking about cover models, we should look at the urban fantasy main character. The majority of the time, she is a woman between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, working as a supernatural law enforcement agent. Somehow, she is always the one that saves the day even though her interest in the supernatural is “Must survive this one incident and get paid.” She will have magic-enhanced skills to fight any evil supernatural creature, but she will have few non-magic skills. Some other character will step in for those things she can’t be bothered to learn.
I don’t understand this concept. Her age (being an adult so readers feel like they can relate to her but young enough that everything she does is believable) is fine, if not another cliche. But why does her career have to be in law enforcement? You can say “Well, that’s the best way to be involved in the supernatural.” Yes, there is truth to this. If you are a supernatural law enforcement agent, you will eventually encounter the supernatural. But why should this be an unwritten requirement? A good novel could just as easily have the main character work in a grocery store, come home at the end of the day…and gasp, there’s something unusual in her house. Or she works in a restaurant, and she’s walking home one night (with a friend or by herself, it doesn’t matter either way) and gets the strange feeling that someone or something is following her. A good writer can take a usual job and work in an unusual situation.
Something that has been bothering me for quite some time is the dialogue in an urban fantasy novel. The characters are unusually quippy and sarcastic. I could believe one character always having a snippy comment, given there’s always someone in a crowd with that type of personality. It’s become an unwritten requirement that “Thou shalt have every character be sarcastic.” Even worse, when the novel is in first person and it’s the narrator being sarcastic, you get something like this: Couple paragraphs about my morning routine, sarcastic comment, how I get to work, sarcastic comment, meeting someone I work with, sarcastic comment, chapter ending with how I got through the day, sarcastic comments all throughout that.
The fix is simple. Use sarcasm and quips to their full potential, but don’t abuse them. Have the majority of your characters be hesitant and reserved about saying what they’re thinking. This doesn’t mean all your characters have to say “Um, uh, um,” while struggling to find a different phrase. You could have a blunt character that says exactly what they’re thinking without it going into sarcasm. Readers will actually buy this. Make the one ultra-sarcastic character have common sense and the wonderful ability to know when to make a comment and when to keep it to themselves.
Finally, and the most important thing that has gone wrong, is the use of romance in an urban fantasy. Personally, there’s nothing wrong with well-placed, well-written romance. Problem is, urban fantasy has become paranormal romance. There may be a bit more blood and gore, there may be an equal amount of time given to the supernatural happenings, but at the end of the book characters who aren’t compatible with each other end up together for the obligatory paranormal romance happily ever after.
I got into a social network based discussion with a paranormal romance writer, who said urban fantasy is not paranormal romance because they’re in two different genres at bookstores (urban fantasy in fantasy/sci fi and paranormal romance in romance). She made a legitimate point; You can safely assume that any published novel has been carefully placed in the genre it belongs in. However, I wasn’t convinced. If your urban fantasy novel has main character romantic relationship as a major plot point (instead of the supernatural and magic elements front and center and a relationship is hinted at), and the ending of your novel has your main character successfully in a relationship, I’m still going to call it paranormal romance.
The way to improve the overuse of romance is not so easy. Nobody can tell a writer, “Okay, this subgenre should never mix with this other subgenre, so remove it!” It just makes them sound entitled, like the writer should be writing for them and only them, never mind the hundreds of readers who like the direction of their novel or series. That being said, I am not the only urban fantasy reader who is frustrated by this. All you have to do is spend time in an urban fantasy community (general discussion or book reviews) and you’ll see there are people who don’t want to give up on their urban fantasy, but they want a change.
This might in fact be the best fix for all of these. Future urban fantasy writers, join a community and see what it is readers want. Ask questions. “Is this idea too overdone, too unappealing, too unrealistic? Would you reject a new series because of the covers? What do you want to see more of?” It takes time away from writing, but if it helps your novel or series stand out and be the one readers have been waiting for, why not?