Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Urban Fantasy and Exaggeration

As everyone who follows this blog probably knows by now, I'm big into urban fantasy, both as a writer and reader. This means that I come across, and read, a whole lot of blog posts and internet articles about urban fantasy every week, as well as participating in #ufchat on Twitter. And I've noticed something. A lot of these sources exaggerate.

I know exaggeration generally occurs as a rhetorical device and is being used to highlight certain aspects of the genre. Thing is, this highlighting is frequently in a "my UF doesn't do that" or "we've moved past that as a genre" or "let's tone things down" vein, and I'm not sure it's entirely accurate in that regard. In fact, I think it may perpetuate myths and misunderstandings, and possibly turn people away who'd otherwise read the books in question. (I'm guilty of this highlighting too, by the way.)

I'm not exceptionally well-read in UF, admittedly. There are too many novels for me to even have read half of them. But I'd like to think I'm reasonably versed in what's going on in the genre, and I have to say, I've yet to see some of the heroines people discuss like they're everywhere. You know—the red-headed stick figure in leather, corset, and heels, wielding a longsword or high-calibre weapon without a realistic muscle or body mass. The busty bombshell who shags anyone with a six-pack and a Clint Eastwood voice. The woman who whines about how she's got it so hard when she breaks a nail in the middle of a case and wouldn't you know it but everyone's out of fake nails, not to mention her favourite color of nail polish.

Of course, there are protagonists who fit parts of these stereotypes, but in all the cases I've seen, it's just one part of their character and it comes from either a part of the world-building or in the character's backstory. Maybe they need to wear leather because that's the only thing tough enough to not fall off in a fight. Maybe they sleep around because they've got deep-seated issues about their body and the nature of sex. Maybe the girl with the broken nail is a beauty pageant contestant trying to find out who's been slipping vampire serum to the competition.

Okay, maybe that last one's stretching it.

I also don't see a lot of the broad-chested, sexist, quasi-abusive he-men who are supposed to run rampant through urban fantasies, or the highly-formulaic plots, or the excessively whiny vegan vamps. They're there, to a degree, but the exaggerations … well, exaggerate the character traits, and formulaic plots? UF is by and large a mystery genre. There's only so much you can do with "crime happens, someone goes to solve it, various bad things happen, clues appear, mystery solved". Even still, there's an awful lot of potential even in a single world. The series I follow, which, okay, most are only 4-6 books right now, haven't been played out yet, and the worlds are actually expanding.

These exaggerations of characters and tropes don't just come from haters, though there are certainly people who look down on urban fantasy and play things up to point out flaws. Writers and readers say these sorts of things all the time. "More real vamps!" they say. "More realistic characters!" they say. "More creative plots!" they say. If anyone's reading books with fake vamps and shallow characters and hackneyed plots, they're, I'm sorry to say, not looking hard enough. Not really looking that hard at all. As far as I can tell, good urban fantasy, with rounded, realistic characters, good romances, good mysteries, and complicated, layered worlds is all over the place. By exaggerating the genre, not that that's always a bad thing, we're making people think that it doesn't. Ourselves included.


Reece said...

I've been curious about UF for quite a while but don't know anybody who has read much. When I go to the bookstore and ask for UF, they point me to a section full of books that look (and whose teasers make them sound) exactly like the exaggerations you pointed the point that they all sound like paranormal romance to me and that's about as big a turn-off as there is, for me at least.

I'm serious about wanting to get into UF, but I could use some suggestions (i.e. sans BAMF chic, sexist male characters, or paranormal romance). Any suggestions?

Anassa said...

Ah yes, the shopping-in-bookstores dilemma. You can't always go by the covers, because marketing does try to play up the sexy parts and the covers are pretty notoriously off. Which is kind of unfortunate, because they make the good and the mediocre look the same. And there is a lot of blurring between UF and PR these days. (Hint: if you see most or all of a body on the cover, it's UF.)

As for suggestions for starting points, my picks, in no particular order, are:

Tanya Huff's Blood series
Jim Butcher's Dresden Files
Kat Richardson's Greywalker series
Seanan McGuire's Toby Daye series
Stacia Kane's Chess Putnam series
Mike Carey's Felix Castor series

They've all got rounded MCs, some male, some female, interesting plots and worlds, and good romances/triangles that don't take over from the mystery. The MCs are tough, but not BAMFs, and have limits and flaws and are human rather than Mary Sues. Carey and Kane are the grittiest on the list, but none of them are fluff.

Hope this helps you! Always pleased to convert people. :)

Amanda said...

AWESOME post!!! I get really frustrated with people who "claim" they know soooooo much about UF and spout all of these stereotypes that have absolutely NOTHING to do with the genre. If anything, the typical UF heroine is smart, sexy, and capable. She can take care of herself and and knows what she wants (romantically, sexually, career-wise, whatever). I think UF shows a good balance between male and female counterparts. They usually work well together and while there's always the power struggle, an acknowledgement of equality emerges.

A fellow writer once mentioned to me that she stayed away from UF because she hated female protags who whined about how they looked and obsessed over buying shoes. Excuse me?? My UF heroines own one pair of shoes. Boots. For ass kicking!

Anonymous said...

Some other good ones:
Last Vampire series (6 books)
Anita Blake series (16 books)
Patricia Briggs (Author, 2 series)
And for those truly lonely nights
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Abe Lincoln Vampire hunter
Those last two are regrettably off topic, so you can ignore them. (I just like writing the titles)