The Fact and the Fantastical – 5 Tips for Creating an Urban Fantasy World

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fantasy cityThis article is by Michael Cairns.

Fantasy is an expansive genre in which the reader can be transported to far-off lands. Urban fantasy does something quite different, laying the fantastical world over the one in which we live.

This can be a tricky thing to get right. Too much fantasy and the realism can be lost. Not enough fantasy, and the wonderful sense that anything can happen disappears, and the story becomes humdrum.

Following the writing and copious editing of my Urban Fantasy Trilogy, the Assembly, I’ve identified a few pointers as to what works and what doesn’t. Here are my top five tips to help you blend the real with the fantastical, and create a world your reader will become lost in.

1. Let the Reader Know

If you want your reader to buy into your world, it’s imperative that they know from the outset the following things:

  • What is real, and what is fantasy – These things can be blurred, but don’t let it get frustrating. Clever is good, but readable is better, so don’t keep secrets unless they further the story. So, for example, if the ‘beautiful’ town of Slough* is being secretly invaded by alien beasties, make it clear that the mind-numbing dreariness and depression is real, but the beasties less so.  You can do this through your protagonist’s POV, and/or that of the everyman (see below). Or, of course, use an omniscient narrator to paint the scene.
  • What people know – Who knows about the fantasy world that sits beside the real, and how much of it do they know about? We don’t need to know what they know, just whether they know it or not. Hmmm, no easy way to say that sentence.

*Slough is the original home of ‘The Office’. It is a terrible place, a place of traffic lights and industrial parks, where fun goes to die, and everyone else runs away from.

If you aren’t sure, ask yourself: Have you made it easy for the reader to imagine the magical world existing in tandem with the real? The less they have to question how the two things fit together, the more involved they will be in the story.

2. Create a Safe Place

In Harry Potter, much of the action takes place at Hogwarts. This is the safe place, not so much for the characters, but for the author. Here, she doesn’t have to worry about pesky muggles turning up and people being secretive; she can throw the magic around and have broomstick battles galore.

Having a safe place within urban fantasy isn’t essential, but it gives the author a place to build characters and relationships, without worrying about the balancing act that occurs throughout the rest of the story.

3. Create a Language

Many a fantasy world is enriched with wonderful names and phrases, and Urban fantasy can be just the same.

As well as the pure enjoyment, giving your fantastical characters their own language can be very useful. It enables you to clearly label those parts of the story that take place in secret through the words used in the dialogue. Similarly, it makes signposting the changes into the real world easy, simply by changing your character’s use of those same words.

Also, let’s be honest, having your own language is just plain cool.

4. Create the Everyman (and use him)

One of the things that work so well in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy is the use of the everyman, the innocent bystander who reacts just like the reader would.

When faced with a flying beetle the size of a house brandishing a flaming sword and singing an Irish Lament, our hero may well shrug, whip out the sword of Hrannnthattt, and take a swipe. However, without the reaction of the terrified onlookers, we may as well be in a normal fantasy.

From the reader’s perspective, the lack of the everyman will jar.  They may read this sort of book because they like the idea of Slough being destroyed by giant half-lizard, half-ape lions. If Slough is simply a sketchy backdrop with no reality to it, no real people reacting in real ways, then the impact is lost.

5. Always Plan for the Aftermath

Should the aforementioned half-lizard creatures rampage through the streets of Slough, what happens next, (aside from the national day of celebration of course)?

Urban fantasy has an impact on the characters, but also on the world around it. Many books narrow their focus and affect just a few people, but if you’ve gone epic, like I did, make sure you show the effects of your hero/villain’s deeds on the rest of the world.

So there you go, a few things to be thinking about when writing that ‘terrible beasts attack Slough’ novel you’ve been dreaming of for so long.

What are your top tips for creating an urban fantasy world?

About the Author:

Chocoholic Michael Cairns is the author of the real-world epic fantasy trilogy, ‘The Assembly’. Book One, ‘The Spirit Room’, is available on Amazon now.

His science fiction adventure series ‘A Game of War’ is also available from all good e-retailers with part one, Childhood Dreams, available for free download from cairnswrites.com.

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16 comments
JenniferDarnell
JenniferDarnell

After reading this, I'm thinking of all the instances 'everyman' was used to great success and I didn't even realize that technique was being employed.

Emily
Emily

Interesting you should mention creating your own language. I just read a piece detailing three well-known examples of fictional and alien languages in fiction. Tarzan's ape-speak, Klingon and Kryptonian. I think it's a great literary device and helps readers get past that "oh, sure, how convenient they speak English" feeling.

StephanieVega
StephanieVega

I enjoyed this post. One thing that always turns me off when I'm reading fantasy fiction is the way some authors jump right into the fantasy elements instead of easing the reader in. In those situations, I feel like the author assumes I already know certain elements of the story that I may not know.

sanchezsez
sanchezsez

Very good tips here in the article and comments!  I think one of the important things (and challenging things) in creating an urban fantasy world is dreaming up enough creative differences from the real world to keep the reader fascinated.  At first blush it might seem easy because all the rules can be re-written, but thinking out of the box is always more difficult than it sounds.  I'm always delighted when I read fiction that realistically imagines a fantasy world that is so different than our own, but one that I can still relate to in other basic ways.

aisu825
aisu825

Thanks for the helpful tips Michael!  With regard to #5 ("Plan for the Aftermath"), I always like it when there is some hint that it might not be over after all.  Slough may be destroyed and the lizards may be having the celebration of the century, but the suggestion they missed something, and plans are already underway for Slough to rise from the ashes can be very powerful.  It also leaves the reader looking forward to the possibility of a future story.  

Jacob Aguilar
Jacob Aguilar

I think the idea of an everyman is one of the most crucial factors for that epic effect of urban fantasies. The reader needs to be able to appreciate the distinction between the hero’s prowess and an ordinary man; if the reader perceives that everyone in the fantasy world can fly, then there’s nothing to be impressed about. We need ordinary people gazing up at the hero in the sky in awe!

L Tickle
L Tickle

I’d normally incorporate some unique form of communication technology, not necessarily a mobile phone. I mean if you’re surrounded by urban technology, the world should be advanced enough to telecommunicate in some way instead sending messenger pigeons.

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

@JenniferDarnell 

Hi Jennifer

Thanks for your comment, I'm glad it got you thinking. 

I keep reading blogs and discovering things about the writing process that make me go 'ahh, so that's what they're doing, ace, I'll pinch that.' :) Hope it helps.

cheers

Mike

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

@Emily 

Hi Emily

Thanks for your comment. 

It's a great way to really bring something to life. It's also brilliant for adding that magical touch to fantasy grounded in the 'real' world. The only downside is that it takes a ludicrous amount of work to do well :) 

I have huge admiration for authors who go the whole hog and create the complete language. For myself, I must confess to focusing more on particular words, particularly for geeky things like technology, or magical items or skills. Also, character shorthand, so new swear words, or unusual abbreviations. They can add colour, so long as you do them subtlety and they don't interfere with the reader's experience. 

thanks again

Mike

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

@StephanieVega 

Hi Stephanie

Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the post. :)

I agree entirely. Every now and then, you find a book that throws you in and it works, normally because the writing's fantastic. But if it isn't, it can be so frustrating. I normally persevere with books, but that can really turn me off if nothing is explained.

thanks again

Mike 

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

@sanchezsez 

Hi, thanks for your comment, glad you found it useful.

I couldn't agree more. How can you make it magical, but still root it in reality, in something people can relate to. Funnily enough, it's also getting tougher to create certain sci-fi tweaks, as things become more advanced. Thirty years ago, mobile phones and glasses that could scan stuff were pie-in-the-sky, now they're common place, or on their way to becoming so. So yeah, it's about the balance. 

I find that characters can be a good place to start. Many of the successful modern urban fantasies have succeeded because they are so mundane, except for the people in them. It's the juxtaposition of those people within the normal world that creates the magic.

cheers

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

@aisu825 

Hi

Thanks for your comment, glad you found it helpful. 

Yeah, it's always exciting to get to the end and have that hint that it might not all be over, even if it is Slough :). Plus, of course, there's the fact that the story never ends, you just leave it at a certain point, so getting a sense of what comes next, and that something does, can be so much more satisfactory for the reader. 

cheers

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

@Jacob Aguilar 

Hi Jacob

Glad you liked that point. My struggle is to create an everyman within a superhero environment and have him as an integral part of the story, without coming across as 'normal guy' or 'sidekick dude'!

I think playing with the POV can help, to give you as a writer the chance to use the everyman without necessarily creating a full character. 

I'm still working on it though :)

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

@L Tickle 

Hi L, thanks for your comment.

Absolutely, good thinking. often, it's the everyday things that we take for granted that, when upgraded in a fantastical way, can add real depth to a world.

Cheers

Mike

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

@Mary Enck 

Hi Mary

thanks so much for your comment, glad you found it useful :)

cheers

Mike

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