A 4-Step Urban Fantasy Guide for Writers to Get it Right

Posted on Nov 30, 2023

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Written by Bella Rose Pope

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For any writer looking to make a living writing urban fantasy, the news is good. It’s a highly popular book series that’s only continuing to grow, which means your readership is awaiting your next book! But that readership is also specific in their tastes and if you write urban fantasy, they’ll want just that.

Many authors make the mistake of melding genres or writing what they think is urban fantasy, only to produce something that doesn’t quite hit the right notes. Reader expectations are important, after all.

That said, I’m here to walk you through the important pieces of urban fantasy so you know what you’re getting into and will know how to write it well.

Here’s what you’ll learn about urban fantasy:

  1. Definition
  2. Examples
  3. How to write urban fantasy

What makes a book urban fantasy?

Urban fantasy is a genre that combines elements of magic, supernatural creatures, and fantastical adventures with the urban landscape we know so well like cities and other highly populated locations.

Unlike traditional fantasy settings, urban fantasy unfolds within familiar cityscapes, blending the extraordinary with the everyday that readers can recognize and even relate to. This differs from magical realism in that urban fantasy stories are often about the magic, with the use of it and its rules at the center of the story.

Many are using the term “contemporary fantasy” to describe books that are similar to urban fantasy, but lack the city-specific location while still taking place in our world.

Popular Urban Fantasy Examples to Emulate

As I always say in the blog posts I write about fiction, reading what you want to write is crucial. Examples, are crucial. They can show you nuances and specific details that are hard to encapsulate in a single blog post and are better felt than learned, anyway.

For that reason, here are some examples of urban fantasy books, some you might not expect to see on this list, to show you what this genre can do:

  1. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: Set in the depths of London Below, Gaiman’s novel introduces readers to a hidden world beneath the city streets, populated by fantastical beings and ancient powers.
  2. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher: Following the adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard detective in modern-day Chicago, this series seamlessly integrates magical elements into a gritty urban setting.
  3. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare: The first book in The Mortal Instruments series introduces readers to the Shadowhunter world, where demon hunters navigate the supernatural dangers of New York City.
  4. Paradise Lost by Ramy Vance: Taking place in the real world, except after the Gods have left and the creatures you thought were just from legend have now joined the people of Earth.
  5. Marked by Magic by Linsday Buroker: In this world, a farmer needs to raise money to save the farm…but hunting down a dragon creatures and marking it with a tracking device as it roams the city.
  6. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwab: You may think this one is historically based at first, but the bulk of Addie LaRue’s story takes place in the modern world, in a nice big city, hundreds of years after Addie was actually born, because she made a deal with the wrong person and has to live forever with no one remembering her after she meets them.
  7. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: In this one, the main character, who has had a rough life with drug dealing boyfriends and is the sole survivor of an unsolved multiple homicide, is offered a full ride to none other than Yale, of all universities. She accepts but is aware there has to be a catch. And there is—a magical one.

How to Write Urban Fantasy & Do the Genre Justice

There’s a lot of flexibility within the urban fantasy genre, even though you might feel stuck with writing about magic and a city. Try to keep those examples in mind as you come up with your own, and see how many of these pieces of advice you can subvert and truly make uniquely your own.

1. Build a Strong Urban Foundation

Ground your fantasy world in a vividly described urban landscape. Whether it’s a bustling metropolis or a small town, make the setting come alive with details that readers can connect to. The key with urban fantasy is to make it relatable to the large majority of people who have experienced life in any sort of city.

Don’t just pick “city” and have your characters walking the streets. Think about the hidden corners of a city you can zoom in on and highlight with your novel—and more so how that can be connected with something you know deeply.

Oftentimes, by choosing your main character’s job or immediate role, the setting will create itself. It can trigger ideas of when and where to craft the story around.

Here are a couple examples of jobs that create setting backdrops that fit into the “urban” label:

  • The delivery truck driver of baked goods for a grocery store chain
  • A member of the cleaning crew of white collar homicide investigations
  • The intern of a law firm specializing in cases of abnormal occurrences
  • The stablehand of the park ranger’s horses
  • The apartment complex’s handyman

Note that a common thread with all of these is specific. It’s not just a delivery driver. It’s not just a cleaner.

2. Integrate Magic with Purpose

Consider how magic operates in your world and how it affects both the characters and the society they live in. Is magic hidden or widely known? How do magical elements coexist with the mundane aspects of urban life?

Most of the time, you’ll be able to connect the magic with the character’s job or purpose, and therefore the setting.

Take the intern of the law firm specializing in cases of abnormal occurrences for example. The intern, a woman, tried to get into a different internship at a different law firm. But certain circumstances led her to this one. Soon, she realizes that the world is more complex (and filled with magic) than she realized.

You could take this plot anywhere because the magic will be tied to her cases. She can even witness the wrong thing while tailing someone involved in the case (as she was instructed) and be swept up into a world of magical crime.

The point is to make sure the magic is significant to the main character and connected.

3. Develop Unique Supernatural Beings

Create a diverse array of supernatural creatures that inhabit your urban fantasy world. Whether it’s vampires, werewolves, or entirely original entities, give them distinctive characteristics, histories, and motivations. This can be from already-known fantastical creatures, or ones you create and make up yourself.

These, of course, are optional. You don’t need creatures for your book to be considered urban fantasy, but it’s a great way to root your story in something readers already know and love.

4. Explore Themes of Dualities

Urban fantasy often thrives on the tension between the magical and the mundane. Explore the dualities inherent in your world—light and dark, order and chaos, magic and technology—to add depth to your narrative. Don’t just make your story about magic in a city.

It should be deeper than that. Take the stablehand of the park rangers example. That story could be about any number of magical things, but it could also thematically be about never underestimating someone just because of the job they work.

5. Craft Relatable Protagonists

Ground your story with relatable characters who navigate the challenges of both the magical and real worlds. Readers should connect with their struggles, relationships, and growth throughout the story.

The first step here was to figure out your character’s job. That can help trigger the rest of how you create them. Of course, give your characters a background and have it give them weaknesses that will make it harder for them to succeed in reaching their goals. This will make for a more satisfying and realistic character arc, and that’s usually what makes characters feel well developed.

Take our law intern, for example. Let’s give her a goal and dream of becoming a lawyer. But then let’s give her a backstory that makes public speaking dreadful for her, to the point that she freezes and shuts down. That would make becoming a lawyer really difficult, right? Right. Doing this gives her something to improve upon during the rest of the story and makes her feel more real.

6. Build a System of Rules

Establish clear rules for how magic works in your world. Whether it’s through ancient tomes, magical artifacts, or learned skills, consistency in the rules of your magical system adds credibility to your narrative. It also gives you rules to follow as the author.

Which will just keep your books and world more consistent, and prevent plot holes from cropping up because there are no rules at all.

A good urban fantasy book can be difficult to get right, and you’ll have to add these tips to the overall process of writing a quality novel. If you want to learn more about doing that, we have a one-hour free class that’ll teach you the construct of a good book people will love:

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