What is Contemporary Fantasy?

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Someone asked me to define “Urban Fantasy” last weekend, and I neglected to mention how it fits within Contemporary Fantasy. There’s a problematic habit of identifying stories as Urban Fantasy when they are actually Contemporary Fantasy.

Let’s go over the differences here, shall we?

Contemporary Fantasy is Fantasy set in our present time and in a world that mostly looks like ours.

Stories in this sub-genre often emphasize the setting by referring to pop culture. It’s also known as Modern Fantasy.

Note: Some Dark Fantasy rolls into this sub-genre of Fantasy.

An alternative definition is that Contemporary Fantasy is all Fantasy written, not necessarily set in, modern times. Personally, I don’t know why anyone would use this classification except for research, but I’m mentioning it as one argument.

Fantasy Subgenres

On the Prowl anthology cover
Note the markings of an Urban Fantasy book cover

In my mind, Urban Fantasy is a sub-set of Contemporary Fantasy set in a current city or densely populated area that would be recognizable to the area’s real-life residents except for the fiction’s addition of magic or fantastical creatures (e.g., vampires, werewolves, and ghosts).

A more common, albeit more confusing, definition of Urban Fantasy is action chick lit involving sexy, magical creatures. In bookstores, the covers are identifiable by a well-proportioned, scantily-dressed, but introspective woman.

You can tell the difference between these covers and Science Fiction Romance covers by the details. A tattoo or something sharp (e.g. knife or a known, fanged animal)? That’s Urban Fantasy. Spaceships or a really big gun should clue you in that the book is Sci-fi, not Fantasy.

Published Examples

Genre and sub-genre definitions are subjective. The line between Fantasy and Sci-fi, Horror, or another genre is hazy, and so are the lines within Fantasy. Here are examples that fit into the definitions above.

Contemporary Fantasy:

Urban Fantasy:


8 thoughts on “What is Contemporary Fantasy?”

    1. Thanks for visiting!

      I think Magical Realism is used more for paintings and Latin American, or Depression-era, fiction. I rarely hear or see it used in discussions of modern literature.

      The examples I’ve seen of Magical Realism are more about surrealism than fantasy. The point of either is to cause wonder, but surrealism can occur within the reality most of us agree exists–either through dreams, ignorance, or a desire to be weird– while fantasy is about another reality.

      That said, the phrase “Magical Realism” is sometimes used in place of “Contemporary Fantasy”. In this use, it is Contemporary Fantasy showcasing more style than story. That is, it is “Literary” Contemporary Fantasy.

      Recommendations for further reading:

  1. hmmm. one of my all time favorite fantasy writers is Guy Gavriel Kay. I suppose he writes a mixture of sub genres not always contemporary. Here, I just thought of one that i read not too long ago, the Mortal Instrument Series. Not a favorite, but a good series I thought. Are these your favorites that are listed, Ann?

    1. Ooh, I’m not familiar with Mr. Kay’s work. That needs to change.

      The list includes my favorites. The other items were chosen for (what I perceive as) their popularity.

  2. Hi, I’m trying to figure out the genre of what I’m writing, and contemporary dark fantasy seems to be the best fit. However, there is very little of a magical realm in it, moreso spiritual undertones that have a key defining place in it, as well as the protagonist turning into a supernatural being at the end. The prologue, which is set after the story, is horroresque, but in it’s entirety, it’s not a horrific story.

    1. Hi, Lena, and thanks for visiting Shadows! Some writers like to know their story’s genre while the story is in progress, but it isn’t necessary. When you’ll need to pick a genre is during the submission process. You’ll need some idea of who to query and how marketable your story will look to them.

      To more directly answer your question, your story might be Magical Realism. I’ve seen more of that label in the past five years. However, it’s difficult to tell the genre without reading at least a bit of your story. Contemporary Fantasy and Urban Fantasy tend to use the same literary techniques. They use metaphors sparingly, offer straight-forward physical descriptions, and include pop-culture references just for the fun of them. Magical Realism is generally considered more “serious” and “literary”; fantastical elements are downplayed to emphasize conflicts that are common in the real world.

      My suggestion: Take a look at how similar stories are labeled online and in bookstores. That’s the fastest way to determine the genre.

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