In this article:
- A subgenre of fantasy fiction, urban fantasy blends real-world urban settings with fantasy elements to create more grounded, relatable magical worlds.
- The genre dates back to the 1930s when Charles G. Finney published The Circus of Dr. Lao.
- Finney’s novel places fantastical creatures in a small Arizona town, making it a precursor to contemporary urban fantasy.
- To be considered urban fantasy, a story needs an urban setting, fantasy races, and magic. But above all, these fantasy elements need to be part of the normal reality in the story.
- For a better sense of the genre, check out these urban fantasy books, movies, and shows.
Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction that combines modern urban settings with fantasy elements that give the setting a unique groundedness in the real world. This helps make it more believable to readers and allows writers to make direct parallels between fantasy tropes and real-life situations.
This quality of urban fantasy makes it a great way to enjoy fantasy fiction and write it. But there’s more to urban fantasy than just plopping elves in the middle of New York City and having a skyscraper-packed version of Middle Earth.
What Is Urban Fantasy?
Let’s start with the basics.
Urban fantasy is a fantasy subgenre that adds fantasy tropes to urban settings. While most fantasy stories use a medieval European setting, urban fantasy fiction often picks a major city in the real world and adapts fantasy conventions to respond to the new environment.
This results in fresher takes on common fantasy tropes that allows for commentary on both the implications of a trope and on real-life social conditions.
A good example of this is Vampire: The Masquerade, a tabletop role-playing game where players are vampires trying to survive in the modern world while co-existing with humans. Well, co-exist in the sense that they try not to be discovered by humans.
A more popular, though not ideal, example is Netflix’s Bright (2017), a movie where humans live in the modern world alongside other species such as elves and orcs.
The movie uses orcs as a stand-in for a racial minority and plays with the implications of having magic in a real-world setting where the state has an interest in having a monopoly over the means of violence. Does it deliver? Not exactly, but you get the idea.
Despite the modern settings that define what is urban fantasy, the subgenre actually began years before megacities as we know them today. The Circus of Dr. Lao, a 1935 novel written by American novelist Charles G. Finney, is a precursor to modern urban fantasy.
In it, a character named Dr. Lao arrives at a fictional Arizona town where he sets up a circus of fictional creatures that confront the residents of the town with their personal anxieties.
Urban fantasy may also contain elements of science fiction or steampunk mixed into the story.
If that seems like an odd combination, imagine a setting where elves exist and are as long-lived and beautiful as they are in traditional fantasy — except their haughtiness comes not from a magical sense of superiority, but because they’re part of a wealthy elite of genetically modified humans.
That said, it’s still not a proper urban fantasy story as we know the genre today. The question of what is urban fantasy and whether a piece of media can be counted as urban fantasy ultimately comes down to whether it has the following elements.
What Are the Elements of an Urban Fantasy Story?
The elements of urban fantasy tend to differ depending on what other subgenre tropes are being introduced to the plot. Think of how different romantic comedies are from gothic romance despite them both being romance subgenres.
If a novel, TV show, movie, or game has most or all of these elements, it’s probably an urban fantasy story.
Urban settings are a key element of urban fantasy. While other elements can be included or excluded depending on the other subgenres involved in a story, it’s not exactly an urban fantasy without being set in a city.
This is why urban fantasy stories will typically make use of major cities such as New York, Chicago, London, or Tokyo. When the characters need to travel around the world, they will typically end up in another city. If they don’t, they will at least spend most of their adventures in cityscapes.
Fantasy races are another common part of urban fantasy. They typically provide the fantasy in urban fantasy because they can easily be incorporated into an urban story setting.
While elves, orcs, dwarves, and the like are common, it’s not rare for the fantasy “race” to be a magical “other.” An example of this are the demigods of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The demigods are half-human, half-god, but not exactly belonging to either world.
You can’t have fantasy without magic.
You may have heard of terms such as high magic and low magic settings. These terms distinguish settings where magic is common and/or powerful from settings where magic is rare and/or limited.
High magic is more prevalent in traditional fantasy settings while low magic is common in urban fantasy stories.
There are stories where magic is common and/or powerful in an urban fantasy setting, but there are reasons that keep the characters from using it openly such as needing to “protect the veil” between the mundane world and the magical world.
Fantasy Elements Are Part of the Normal World
Urban fantasy stories incorporate fantasy conventions into the fabric of an urban setting, making them inseparable from each other even if regular people are kept in the dark about the magical world existing within their city. Because of this, stories like Harry Potter are not considered urban fantasy.
How Does Urban Fantasy Differ From Other Fantasy Subgenres?
Breaking genre conventions is a good way for a story to set itself apart from other stories within the same genre, but this also makes it harder to identify urban fantasy and separate it from other fantasy subgenres.
In a nutshell, it really just boils down to having fantasy beings existing within an urban setting. This can make it similar to noir fantasy, a genre that adds supernatural elements to noir detective stories, and supernatural romance, which typically has romantic leads fall in love with a non-human being in a modern setting.
What sets them apart from each other is their tone and focus.
Noir fantasies will be darker and more serious than urban fantasy and they will focus more on the detectives/mystery solvers in the story. Urban fantasy will typically focus more on an adventure and “saving the world as we know it” plots.
The same goes for supernatural romance. In a supernatural romance, the focus of the story will be on the lovers and it’s not uncommon to see a love triangle in the mix. Think of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.
5 Urban Fantasy Stories and Media You Can Check Out for Reference
1. Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a 5-part book series revolving around Percy Jackson, a twelve-year-old boy with ADHD who comes to learn that his neurodiversity is just a sign of his divine heritage and that his friendly high school teacher is more than just a disabled man.
Percy goes on adventures with his newfound friends as they retrieve magical items, fight monsters from Greek myths, and confront their divine relatives.
2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a fantasy novel that mixes several mythologies together, namely Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology. Of course, this also means that all their divine drama coalesces into one big mess up that the main characters have to solve.
The story contains many subtle references and fresh interpretations of the world mythologies it features.
3. Vampire: The Masquerade
Vampire: The Masquerade is a tabletop role-playing game where characters play as vampires and try to live in the human world without being caught while also competing with other vampire groups. The game mixes gothic horror with superpowers to create a fun adventure that keeps the horror theme of the game’s vampire-infested setting.
Vampire: The Masquerade also has video game versions that you can check out if you don’t have time or people to play with.
Dishonored is a video game from Arkane Studios that puts the player in Dunwall, a city where modern technology and fantasy tropes such as magic blend together. The story has many major fantasy conventions, namely a monarchy that rules the “kingdom” with near-absolute authority.
The setting also has steampunk elements such as analog machines and the rediscovery of oil.
5. What We Do in the Shadows
What We Do in the Shadows is a comedy horror that follows the lives of vampires Nadja, Laszlo, and Nandor. Much of the comedy comes from the vampires being living historical artifacts that are struggling to adapt to modern technology and habits.
The vampires meet with people from their past, resulting in hilarious moments where they have to deny being immortal and come up with a way to convince others they’re really just lookalikes or relatives.