Seeing as I just finished up Nano and November, I find myself once again with the urge to fling myself sideways from everything I’ve already started and begin something wholly new and exciting. This is not really a smart thing to do, because I have plenty of stories that need work, polish, and just plain finishing, including last month’s novel. Yet, like clockwork, the urge strikes me every early to mid December. We’ll see what, if anything, comes of it this year.
But it does get me thinking about one of my favorite writing past times: World Building!
In most fiction, a certain amount of world building is necessary. Where is the story set? How will the story show that it is set in that specific setting instead of anywhere else? But when you’re talking speculative fiction, world building takes on an important place in storytelling. Is there magic in this world? Does the magic have rules and what are they? What kind of creatures live in this world, alien or fantastic? Is it set in space? How does travel work between solar systems? And these are just a handful of the kinds of questions that might get asked that fall under the vast umbrella of world building.
Now, it isn’t required, even in speculative fiction, to have every little detail hammered out before you begin writing. But having answers can help keep a coherent world, as well as giving an author directions to explore in more detail.
Today, I want to blog about some world building basics in setting up an urban fantasy story.
Now, defining genres is difficult, as stories have a tendency to cross boundaries and blur genres together, especially when you start talking sub genres. Whenever you start shoving everything into neat, tidy categories, you discover slime molds that can walk and platypuses that still think laying eggs is really cool. But I use the following definition for urban fantasy: a story with magical (often but not limited to supernatural or paranormal) elements, set in a modern urban setting that is often a recognizable place from our own world. Generally speaking, urban fantasy authors are not crafting a world out of nothing. They’re modifying what we know and throwing in werewolves, vampires, fairies, and anything else they can possibly think of. That doesn’t mean its without world building though.
When you’re building an urban fantasy world, there are many things to consider, like if you want vampires and if your vampires are going to be allergic to garlic or have a bad tendency to sparkle in obtuse situations. But before you get there, you have to decide what normal people’s relationship is with magic in the world. And I see four major answers to this question.
1) Magic Lives Under the Hill:
Magic is closeted and completely secret and separate from the normal world. Your average joe on the street knows nothing of the secret inner workings of vampire politics. In fact, your average joe firmly does not believe in vampires, werewolves, and magic. And the people on the magical side do everything in their power to keep it a secret, hidden from the normal world.
Advantages: People know nothing about magic, giving the narrative a lot of advantages to explain magic to the new kid on the block. There’s also potential for suspense and intrigue as the new person falls down the rabbit whole discovers the magical world, as well as drama around keeping the secret, especially if we have a character that crosses between the magic world and the normal world. Keeping secrets can damage anyone’s relationships, after all.
Disadvantages: This option is common and therefore cliché. Can be done and done well, but mostly just feels like the writer fell back on a trope rather than actually building much of a world. In a multiple book series, you have to regularly rehash the idea that magic is secret and establish your world. It’s also easy for an author to get lost playing in the magic side of the world that they forget there’s a perfectly ordinary one. The result can be A) wondering why I’m reading anything urban fantasy when I may as well just be reading high fantasy, and B) breaking the suspension of disbelief. If the plot and happenings in the magic side of the fence get too complicated and elaborate, your reader may be left wondering HOW this is all being kept a secret. Things are exploding! There’s a war between vampires and werewolves! Angels have started sleeping with demons for maximum sexy times! And… nobody seems to notice? Really? Suspension of disbelief can be strained or broken just by the author having a ludicrously complicated and broad magical world amongst the normal world. How are they hiding whole under water cities? Is there really that much space under New York City? The thing with world building to remember is that the excuse of magic will still only take you so far with some readers.
2) An Open Secret:
While your average person does not know about the existence of magic, the information isn’t a jealously guarded secret. Most people don’t know that there is a magical world, but finding out about it isn’t a guaranteed death sentence. Often, writers play with some form of Weirdness Censor that automatically keeps normal people from noticing the weird. This can be a magically induced one but is often just passed off as humanity’s impressive ability to ignore things that don’t square with how we think the world should be. Either way, it means that either someone crossing from the mundane world to the magical has to be special themselves or have some event that triggers pulling them into the mundane. Governments may know that magic exists and have special forces who are assigned to deal with them in this setting, though those forces may be secret or have little respect as ‘weirdos’ who study X-Files-esque subject matter.
Advantages: This is one where you can have it a little bit both ways. You can get the painful newbie who needs it explained, but also the jaded cop whose dealt with one too many vampire attacks that no one believes are vampire attacks. There’s elements of secrecy to add tension, not wanting to reveal to your family that maybe the reason you can’t bring your boyfriend by for Christmas morning is because he’s a vampire. But it lacks the same hyper drama of magic being so closeted that anyone revealing the secret must die. Thus, such scenarios are often good for more humorous urban fantasy works. Not that this is only used for humor, but freeing up characters from having to keep a secret, it frees up energy for said characters to pursue their plot.
Disadvantages: Some sort of element must be inserted to explain why normal people don’t notice the supernatural, otherwise suspension of disbelief is strained again. Even then, again depending on what you’re doing in the novel, you may strain what your reader believes the average person will not notice.
3) The Closet Is No Place To Be:
Magic is coming out, either recently or in the course of the series. It has been hidden in the past, but now is open. This may be a very recent thing or this may be something that happened within the last hundred years or so. But either way, mundanes are working to adjust to the idea that there are magic things and the magic world is adjusting to the uncramped societal spaces of not the closet and everyone is working to integrate magic society with non-magic.
Advantages: Can grant a very complex social and political climate for your characters to interact within. Laws are unclear or changing on the rights of supernatural entities. You can have antagonists on the magic side and the non-magic side in the form of people who are uncomfortable with magic and may see it as a threat or curse. All of this gives immediate and easy spaces for conflict that are interesting and not explored enough in urban fantasy in this blogger’s opinion.
Disadvantages: It’s a complication that a writer might not want to deal with. And a complication that isn’t dealt with can become a dangling thread that drives your reader up the wall, wondering why you never went where you could have. Backstory must be in place to explain both when the magic world came out and why it came out. An all organic blood substitute that means vampires don’t have to prey on normal people? Enhanced forensics making it impossible to pass every werewolf attack off as a dog attack? Technology is often used as an excuse for why the magic world has come out in the modern world and can be very clever. But if you go for this kind of world, you will need some reason and you may want to revisit said reason as you go through the novels, which can add tiresome exposition.
4) Granny Was a Warlock And I Bank With Dracula
Magic is a given. Everyone knows magic is real and that unicorns exist and just anybody could get bitten and turned. In fact, you probably know some guy who is trying to turn and your neighbor is a very nice middle aged witch with three kids and a dragon sleeping in her garage. Nobody is surprised by magic and even the more bizarre magical creatures know where to go to get a decaf no whip mocha and not get stared at too terribly much.
Advantages: No need to explain, no need to deal with constant surprise. It’s easy to jump right into a story and start throwing around supernatural elements. No waiting around for the real of the magic world, bam, let’s start out with a werewolf baker and see where we go from there. Get creative, go big and elaborate with your magic, because the little things aren’t going to stop your plot.
Disadvantages: You set up a fantasy world, you’re going to need to explain some amounts of your fantasy elements to your readers. And in a world where magic is a given, explaining how it works becomes less natural. Characters stopping to explain the rules of magic to each other becomes a forced plot device for the sake of the reader, because no one really stops to explain how electricity works. There are ways around this, especially in prose. Magic as a given, however, does make for a more complicated world building. If you’re setting the story in a modern version of Chicago, only Al Capone was actually an immortal vampire who took over the city where he then abolished prohibition because drunk people are easier to track down… what does that actually affect? How does history change? If you make choices for things that happened and then don’t think them through all the way, your world becomes a shaky and unbelievable.
All of these types of urban fantasy world have something to recommend them and things to remember when pursuing building your world.This is also how I like classifying urban fantasy novels. Since you can run into almost anything fantasy in an urban fantasy, whether the novel has werewolves, vampires, or dragons in them seems a weak classification system. Instead, how the fantastic interacts with the mundane is something every urban fantasy has to deal with.
Blog readers, do you have an advantages and disadvantages you think I left out? Leave them in the comments!