Last weekend, someone asked me to define “Urban Fantasy”. I already don’t remember the answer I gave, but I know I missed an opportunity to mention Contemporary Fantasy.
This bothers me, because Urban Fantasy is often a subset of Contemporary Fantasy, and I do have a habit of identifying stories as Urban Fantasy when they are actually Contemporary Fantasy.
Here’s the difference.
Contemporary Fantasy is Fantasy set in the present time (that is, in our time) and in our world. Perhaps to emphasize the setting, stories in this sub-genre often refer to pop culture.
Some Dark Fantasy, as well as Urban Fantasy, rolls into this sub-genre.
An alternative definition is that Contemporary Fantasy (also known as Modern 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.
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 woman focused on her own thoughts or feelings. A man is rarely present. You can tell the difference between these covers and similar Sci-fi 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.
Obviously, genre and sub-genre definitions are subjective. The line between Fantasy and Science Fiction, Horror, or another genre is hazy, and so are the lines within Fantasy. Within the definitions above, however, here are examples.
Examples of Contemporary Fantasy:
- Harry Potter – fiction series by J.K. Rowling; movies
- The Spiderwick Chronicles – children’s book series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi; movie
- Hellboy – comics, animated series, and movies
- Much of Neil Gaiman‘s work, including Neverwhere (TV series and novel)
Examples of Urban Fantasy:
- The Dresden Files – fiction series by Jim Butcher; TV series; comics
- The Kitty Norville series by Carrie Vaughn
- The Mercedes Thompson series by Patricia Briggs
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer – TV series, novels, and comics
- Forever Knight – TV series and novels
- Pushing Daisies TV series
- The Twilight Saga – novels by Stephenie Meyer; movies
Is your favorite Contemporary Fantasy not included above? If you share, you’ll provide someone (including me!) a work to consider. If you don’t read or watch stories in these sub-genres, then please tell us why not.