Understanding the “Urban” in “Urban Fantasy”

I’m a writer (obviously). My favorite genres are fantasy and sci fi. I’ve written in both, though nowadays I write in a genre that could be seen as blending the two together: Urban Fantasy. There’s tons of magic, monsters, and supernatural mysteries in my stories, but at the same time there’s scientific elements to the way magic works, there’s advanced (though not futuristic) technology, and there’s even times where the magic and the technology work together (that’s something commonly referred to as “magitech” or “magitek”).

But not everyone seems to “get” urban fantasy. Take my father (…please!). I was talking to him about my writing the other day, and I tried to explain to him that my new novel, Manifestation, is urban fantasy. He asked me what makes it “urban.”

“Does it take place in a city?” he asked.

“Some of it,” I explained. “Some is in the suburbs.”

“So why isn’t it ‘suburban fantasy’?”

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that question, especially when I mentioned that “urban fantasy” is mostly synonymous with “modern fantasy,” as opposed to traditional fantasy that typically takes place in a medieval world. Then he asked me about fantasy stories that take place in farmlands or other areas that don’t count as “urban.”

So what does make something “urban”?

For starters, dictionary.com defines “urban” as “of, pertaining to, or designating a city or town,” “living in a city,” or “characteristic of or accustomed to cities; citified.” So clearly, an urban fantasy story that takes place in any populated area big enough to be a “city or town” could count, though by this definition, a small rural town with a sparse population probably wouldn’t really count.

We might get a little more leeway if we search deeper into the etymology, which tells us “Urban” is also a male name, meaning, “refined, courteous.” But I have a hard time finding much of anything courteous about wizards and dragons rampaging through the streets of New York, so I think I’m going to have to reject this answer.

To make matters worse, Wikipedia defines urban fantasy by saying that “The prerequisite is that [the story] must be primarily set in a city.” So is my dad right? Does it not count as urban fantasy if it takes place on a farm, or in the suburbs? And with such a vague definition, does a medieval city meet the criteria? I certainly don’t think of urban fantasy as being medieval fantasy that is “set in a city.”

Fortunately, there’s a bastion of knowledge that can help us solve all of these problems by offering undisputed wisdom about the nature of fiction: TV Tropes.

The TV Tropes page for urban fantasy offers a definition that I think is pretty accurate (and which contains a footnote that discusses the very problem we’re trying to define here):

Urban Fantasy, also sometimes called “Modern Fantasy”, is a genre that combines common fantasy conventions with a modern setting (Note: That is to say, a setting which is significantly more advanced than the Medieval European Fantasy popularized by Tolkien. Around the Enlightenment or Industrial Revolution is sometimes considered the absolute earliest an Urban Fantasy could take place, though it may depend on portrayal). The name “Urban Fantasy” is sometimes taken to imply that all works in the genre must take place in a large city, but this is not the case. Rather, the name implies throwing fantasy elements into our urban society. Still, it’s very common for Urban Fantasy stories to take place in a large, well-known city, all the easier for their fantasy elements to hide themselves in.

I think the key phrase in that definition is “our urban society.”

The idea of an urban society is a fairly new one, historically speaking. There was a time, not so long ago, where most people lived in rural areas and worked farms for a living. Sure, there were plenty of city-dwellers, and have been for thousands of years. But it’s only in fairly modern times that we have metropolises filled with millions of people, and we see many farms being operated as corporate plantations instead of family-owned fields of crops. There are still, and always will be, plenty of farmers in the world. But a huge portion of the population (at least in my country) get their food at the grocery store, their milk at a convenience store on the corner, or their meat at a deli.

Another way of saying it is that an urban fantasy story takes place, not necessarily in a city, but instead, in a world where most people are city-dwellers.

Though I doubt my dad will actually accept that answer. But since he doesn’t read my blog, we’ll just keep this one between you and me.

And of course, I can’t discuss urban fantasy without talking a bit about my own urban fantasy novel, Manifestation, which most definitely takes place in a world where most people are city-dwellers. For now. If I keep throwing catastrophe after disaster after cataclysm at them, I might need to redefine “urban” all over again. But the two main characters, Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, do live in a modern-day city and its suburbs. As for the kind of trouble they get into in the streets of San Lorien, well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. But I can tell you that there’s danger, excitement, kissing, and a whole lot of magic.

They also explore questions that is another big part of the nature of urban fantasy: Where did the magic come from? How does someone manifest an ability? What causes it to spread from one person to another?

And for Gabby, the most important question of all: How do I survive when I’m surrounded by the arcane and supernatural, by things I can’t understand or control?

How would YOU survive?


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding the “Urban” in “Urban Fantasy””

  1. Thanks for this! I took it for granted that people would know the term until I started using it to people who don’t read the genre.

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