The city setting is a crucial component of the urban fantasy genre. After all, what’s urban fantasy without the “urban?”
And yes, I know you can have urban fantasy books set in small towns, but that doesn’t make setting any less important. Urban fantasy readers like to see a mix of the magical and mundane, the contrast of supernatural creatures living in ordinary modern-day places. And for that, you need a realistic, well-developed setting.
But how do you develop a city (or small town) to set your story in?
Using a Real City vs. Inventing Your Own
Using a Real City
Setting your urban fantasy in a real city can be tons of fun, because you get to drop supernatural creatures into real-life places and famous landmarks.
Sinister Magic by Lindsay Buroker, for example, is set in Seattle, and the story involves a kraken in Lake Union. That’s an awesome concept with some great imagery (though it’s not great for the terrified houseboat residents on the lake).
Use the city right, and you’ll delight readers who live there or have visited. It’s a special treat to read about familiar sights getting overrun by zombies or trashed by a dragon.
Use the city wrong, and you’ll get angry readers complaining about inaccuracies.
If you live in or near the city where you’re setting your book, you probably have all the insider information you need to write it accurately and in detail. But if your setting is a city you’ve never visited, all hope is not lost. The internet is a fantastic resource for research. You can read blogs written about that city and follow local newspapers to get a feel for daily life there. Doing a web search for [city name] and “memes” can often show you the inside jokes that residents share.
And it’s not like everything has to be real. You can invent a vampire-run nightclub in the downtown area or add a new skyscraper to the skyline that’s the headquarters for an evil CEO who’s secretly a necromancer. That’s half the fun.
Inventing Your Own City
You might think creating a city from your imagination would be easier than using a real one, because you can just make up everything. That’s not necessarily the case, because you need to make things up logically and believably.
The Angry Noodle has multiple articles on questions you should ask yourself when building a fictional city, and these apply just as well to urban fantasy as any other speculative fiction subgenre. For urban fantasy, the question “What kind of technology does the city use?” may be easiest to answer, since it’s often the same technology we use in the real world today. But then you need to consider how much magic has affected life in your city.
One of my favorite urban fantasy cities is Luma from Diabolical Sword by Melissa Erin Jackson. A haven for paranormal beings that’s hidden from the mundane world, Luma has all the modern technology of any other city. You can catch a taxi, surf the internet, and watch TV. But Jackson has put a lot of thought into how magic would offer improvements or alternatives to current technology.
For example, instead of a subway serving as the primary form of public transportation, Luma has telepad stations that can magically teleport you to another station in the city. You still have to wait in line to use the actual telepad, and of course it costs money. There’s also a slight chance the telepad might malfunction, and you’ll end up at your destination missing a vital organ, but isn’t the convenience of teleportation worth the risk?
Luma has lots of other cool magical features, and I could easily write an entire article about it. Speaking of magic…
Is magic secret or out in the open?
Magic is secret
Often, magic is hidden from most of the human population in urban fantasy. The protagonist is part of a small minority that’s aware of it and can use it. This means your setting looks exactly like the cities we know in real life—at least on the surface.
There might be a secret door in the back of a bar that leads to a magic-only hangout. Or that perfectly normal-looking office building could be a front for a cult of evil sorcerers. Or maybe, like in the comic Blackbird by Sam Humphries and Jen Bartel, characters need magic to even see where other magic-users reside.
But then you have to consider how magic remains a secret. After all, we live in a world where almost everyone has a camera phone, and a satellite can take a picture of your front yard. Is there some kind of massive mind-wiping spell that makes humans forget the magic they’ve seen? Does the magical government meticulously scrub all evidence of the supernatural from the internet?
And then you need to consider your magical government: are they mostly benevolent or horribly corrupt? Do they ruthlessly execute anyone even suspected of exposing magic’s existence? You can put even more pressure on your protagonist if they have to dodge government agents in addition to fighting the novel’s villain.
Magic Is Out in the Open
You can create a lot of fun imagery when magic is out in the open: fairies fluttering around streetlights like moths, mermaids trapped in massive fish tanks, vampires drinking wine glasses of blood at bars. Take Netflix’s urban fantasy movie Bright, for example. It… isn’t very good in my opinion, but the worldbuilding is fun. I’d say its primary draw is the cool set design and visuals of all those extras in fantasy makeup walking around the city.
There’s a wide variety of tone you can work with. Your main character can watch the morning news and see a humorous report of a troll blocking traffic on a local bridge, or maybe they’ll catch a more sinister story about missing people and a mysterious supernatural cause.
Consider how else magic has impacted life in the city. Can anyone buy a magic potion at the store, or does the government highly regulate who can access magic? Is it extremely common, or does the average person rarely encounter it? You’ll also want to consider how long the supernatural has been common knowledge. It could have been out in the open for all of history, or an earth-shattering event a decade earlier could have forced supernatural beings out of hiding.
How are supernatural beings treated? Have they used magic to become the ruling class, or are they repressed by humans and treated with scorn? Your main character could be a human who accidentally pissed off their violent vampire overlords, or they could be a vampire hiding their true nature for fear of prejudice. Setting can have such an enormous influence on plot, so you want to ensure you’ve put enough thought into your worldbuilding.
Building an urban fantasy city is a lot of work, but it’s also a fun creative exercise. What are some of your favorite settings in urban fantasy? Let me know in the comments!
If you love urban fantasy, visit TheShadowJournals.com, where Kristen posts short fiction and articles about the genre!