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The Problem With Urban Fantasy

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 8, 2021
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Sooo… I love some good urban fantasy. I think I've always had, even before I knew what I liked was called that. The idea that a world full of magic exists behind a thin veil of concealment, the idea that wizards or elves or fairies could walk among us in disguise, that wondrous adventures could take place at any moment captivated my imagination as a child, and later on as a teenager.

Don't get me wrong- classic high fantasy of the LOTR persuasion had their own allure but urban fantasy held a different spell over me (pun intended I guess).

Urban fantasy delivers on the sensation of the fantastical potentially being real which can make for more intense engagement. The setting in which it is taking place is familiar- it is our own world, or at least a good bit is our own world. Even if the characters are whisked away to a secondary parallel dimension a la Harry Potter, they originally start off their journey in our pedestrian, mundane reality. They're aware of it and they have experienced it. Some of the action even takes place in it, if not all.

If done right, urban fantasy grants the readers better, more intense immersion…

…until they start questioning things.

You see, the problem with urban fantasy is that it is taking place in our world. Its very asset is its weakness. If it's taking place in our world, it is taking place in our timeline, with our history, our issues, our problems. All things that beings with supernatural powers would absolutely impact dramatically.

Just consider how differently any colonialist invasion would have gone if the indigenous people could master the elements, or command the earth, or the weather, or the minds. There's also the easy pickings of virtually all major events of human history, from the devastating wars to the devastating plagues, famines, natural disasters, and more.

An author doing urban fantasy needs to either find a plausible explanation about why the magical people of the world did not partake or interact with their non-magical counterparts or handwave it all and present wizards or magical people as aloof and disjointed from the world beyond their territory.

Needless to say it's a very narrow balance that has to be kept, often with a lot of problems when the author wants the magical people to interact with the non magical world they're supposed to be aloof to, and yet manage to navigate without (serious) problems.

I'm not saying that urban fantasy with a solid explanation for why the magic element is hidden can't be done. But in order to be done, the actual history of the world has to be accounted for. If I remember right, surprisingly enough the Grimm series did this quite well: whether non-magical people knew it or not, magic and magical creatures were all around them, part of history, the whole time.

What I am saying is that often, urban fantasy is done the ‘easy’ way- worldbuilding is done in vitro of the real world that makes it urban, with the handwaving of a ‘parallel dimension’ or ‘invisible shield’ or ‘platform 9 3/4’. This effectively completely separates the magical world from the non-magical world. In fact, I'd even suggest that a world like Harry Potter could easily work without the real world at all, as an alternate universe or different modern high fantasy that has nothing to do with 1990s Britain.

But this creates a world that doesn't hold up to scrutiny, and readers eventually will ask the uncomfortable questions and are unlikely to get satisfactory answers.

Does that ruin the experience of such an urban fantasy work?

Eh, not if you turn off your brain a bit.

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comment

anonymous?

PaulEberhardt at 11:11AM, May 9, 2021

I "solved" this problem by completely ignoring it. My witch is so blatantly open about what she does for a living, she's even listed in the Yellow Pages under "W", and it's for the readers to decide whether this kind of thing is normal in this particular cartoon world or whether she's cleverly hiding in plain sight, people being generally too daft to notice anything that's staring in their face (cf. Douglas Adams' SEP fields). One strong hint towards the latter is that she can take her tiger for a walk in the city and nobody seems to mind (unless it's good for a laugh). Granted, I imagine that outside of a humour comic it would probably be very hard to make any of this work properly.

Tantz_Aerine at 5:14AM, May 9, 2021

Kou the Mad: that sounds fascinating. Will check it out.

Kou the Mad at 10:04PM, May 8, 2021

Shadowrun handled it pretty well. They went 'Real World is the exact same up until 2012 where the Mayan Calander ended'.............Then the Mayan Calender happened. Turned out it's not end of the world......It's the Return of Magic to our world. Indigenous Tribes Shamans started gaining real powers (Also it's heavily implied Animism, Shamanism, and ESPECIALLY Totemism are all correct.), Women started giving birth to Elves and Dwarves, people start 'Goblinating' and turning into Orcs and Trolls, The Nations are heavily changed and borders are redrawn (Most Notable Native Americans reclaim a large chunk of territory and form their own Nations.). Crazy shit, but they explain it all is such a fun and creative way.

usedbooks at 9:36AM, May 8, 2021

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010) is one of my favorite fantasy movies. Honestly, I don't hold fantasy to the same level of scrutiny as other types of stories. I have an easy time suspending disbelief and enjoying them at face value. I recognize my "double standard" and even have what I have dubbed my "mediocre fantasy movie collection." My favorite genre, though, might be magical realism because it isn't an all-encompassing fantasy world. It's a real world setting with one small thing or character who is extraordinary. It makes it extra relatable and also extra magical (as opposed to a setting where magic is commonplace and therefore mundane). Raising Dion sticks out as a really excellent example of the genre. The video game Life is Strange is another. Cryptid or a magical animal can make for a compelling magical realism story too. Although it skirts creature feature or sci-fi genre depending on very minor nuances. (Boundaries of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror are exceptionally fuzzy.)

Corruption at 5:17AM, May 8, 2021

You are right about the fact magical groups would not just stand by and do nothing, even if there are rules. Heck, I can just imagine something like: Hmm, why don't we just curse these people who plan to kill us all off? What are they going to do to punish us for that. I have found a few good example of how it can work: hidding from others who want them dead, and history being rewritten to hide things, the plauges being too powerful to stop, magic users being part of covert military groups and the government hidding all evidence of magic to prevent people learning if it (and using it to resist their control), and much more. (hmm, imagine a sniper rifle enchanted for better aim and distance with enchanted explosive bullets.) El Goonish Shive for example has a good system where magic itself takes steps to avoid being well known and used, and even that does not always work. Maybe the magic users have a cost to their power that stops the using it for large things, or often.

KAM at 3:51AM, May 8, 2021

Pretty much any fantastical series set in the "real" world, superheroes, science fiction, has the same problem with the world not changing because of these things existing.


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