Urban Fantasy Characters: Rules and When to Break Them

Although I like focusing on fiction writing in general, today I want to hone in more on my preferred genre of urban fantasy.

Writing for certain genres, such as urban and high fantasy as well as science fiction, has additional challenges beyond those faced with literary work or thrillers. For instance, the authors must create the rules of their imaginary setting based off of the laws of the known world yet add changes that the audiences will accept as reasonable.

What do I mean?

Gravity must always work. You can have workarounds, such as magic or advanced technology, but things must still fall to the ground. Men form hierarchies and act in specific ways. Therefore, they are not likely to sprout flowers out of their chest or kill all their neighbors. We live in worlds, societies, and cultures that have established rules and practices that guide how we see our environment. Audiences expect those same regulations and restrictions in fiction and often rebel if the writer breaks them without a good reason.

How does this apply to urban fantasy characters?

Simple. Whatever creature you are writing about, elves, vampires, ghosts, or something else, you must respect the history, lore, and traditional facts that define these creatures.

“But,” you might say, “That’s ridiculous. They’re not real so I can make up whatever rules I want about them.”

No you can’t, at least not without stretching your audience’s belief to the snapping point. For example, the vampires in Twilight did not fit into some of the audiences’ belief about the undead. I’m using the movie interpretation since I haven’t read the books. The archetype vampires sparkled like diamonds in sunlight and were unaffected by the rays. The fans overlooked this fact, but the critics pointed to it as one of the irritating problems of the characters. The accepted rule was that sunlight kills two-legged tick-men.

To apply the idea of rules to other creatures is pretty easy. A ghost should never step back into an X-number of years-old body and come back alive without any repercussions. The audience won’t buy it because the idea is a cheap plot trick to get around an inconvenient truth: the person is dead. In the same vein (sorry for the pun), vampires are, by nature, predators, even if they drink synthetic blood. Therefore, no one will believe a vegan, passive vamp.

A little research will reveal that most creatures, monsters, or character archetypes have a history of beliefs and rules that the readers are aware of and comfortable with. The best writers continue to abide by them, expand on those ideas, and use the special features of these creatures to drive the plot along. After all, why feature a ghost in a story if they are just background decoration?

One of the queens of urban fantasy, Anne Rice, stuck pretty close to accepted lore for her early vampire books. They were simple, long-living bloodsuckers that couldn’t enjoy the sun, stalked prey, and were killable in certain specific ways. They didn’t fly, turn into bats, wear opera clothes, or mesmerize anyone. They also weren’t great sexual athletes either although her books were highly sensual in the settings and descriptions.

This brings me to my next point. When do you break the rules? Don’t make the creatures in your world a simple rehash of the same old, dusty monsters. What fantasy types are and how they act has evolved over time, largely because authors took chances and changed the archetype in thoughtful, methodical ways. The original film vampire was an ugly demonic man (Nosferatu 1922) but by Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi brought a more “everyman look” to the character along with a suave demeanor. Later renditions of the character became more handsome, highly sexual, and multi-talented as he took on aspects of changing to bats, wolves, or mists.

Rice followed this same idea. She firmly established the rules of her world and then began to expand them by breaking one or two. The one factor that comes to my mind is that some of the ancient vampires in Queen of the Damned could fly. She introduced this change in a very specific, plausible manner as a reasonable twist in the plot and limited the “new” abilities to a subset of her world’s monsters.

Jim Butcher, in the Dresden series, took a different and very imaginative approach. He embraced multiple versions of vampires by stating they were variations or “courts.” Each court represented some aspect of vampire lore with the White court being the succubus style, the Red being the more standard Dracula type, and the Black Court looking like the demonic characters.

The trick in breaking the rules is doing it in creative ways that make sense in the story’s world and then staying consistent within the new rules. If your vampire can leap high, like Lestat, then escaping most pitchfork-wielding villagers should be easy. However, even Lestat couldn’t jump so high as to scale the Empire State Building in one bound. He isn’t Superman and Anne Rice’s readers knew that.

So before you write your elves-in-our-world saga or werewolf lover story, really figure out your character archetypes. Know by heart their strengths, weaknesses, societies, and personality flaws. Explain to yourself how they fit into their own hidden society as well as inside the greater human environment. What challenges does that create? With all these factors in mind, you’ll find it easier to write a great story that won’t include any weak plot tricks that kill your audience’s interest.

I’ll expand more on urban fantasy archetypes in future blogs.

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