What is Contemporary Fantasy?

Last weekend, when someone asked me to define “Urban Fantasy”, I neglected to mention that it is a subset of Contemporary Fantasy, which is problematic because I have a habit of identifying stories as Urban Fantasy when they are actually Contemporary Fantasy.

Let’s talk about the differences.

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.

This book cover screams “Urban Fantasy”

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:

Examples of Urban Fantasy:

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.


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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