Urban Fantasy vs Other-World Fantasy

Creating a world, if you do it right, is time-consuming work, but can be extremely rewarding. On the other hand, urban fantasy has a lot going for it–despite being a bit disorienting for some readers when they encounter it for the first time.

In some ways, it’s easier. You can take descriptive short-cuts. If you mention a silver mini-van, your readers are going to visualize it without needing extensive details. Characters can drop by the fridge for a drink, or the hospital emergency room for a crisis. When you’re using a setting in another world, you’re going to have to provide considerably more detail about the vehicle used–what’s powering it, how many wheels, covered or not–or the food storage facilities or the emergency medical services available. The more inventive you are with your world (and being inventive is, as far as I’m concerned, a good thing), the more you may need to describe.

Your readers are (presumably) familiar with real-world culture, so you don’t need to find a way to convey the reaction to or meaning of many events or revelations: graduating from secondary school leads, depending on socioeconomic circumstances, to a given set of paths; an engagement announcement can be assumed to be happy news and the result of a free choice (at least, in modern Western society); that someone has killed someone else, barring a military or law enforcement context, can be taken as a bad thing even if it was in defence. In a world you’ve created, you’d have to explain what now lies ahead for the graduate of whatever educational institution, you might need to clarify whether an engagement is voluntary or arranged and how the parties feel, and one’s first kill could be symbolic of, say, adulthood.

On the flip side, urban fantasy can be tricky simply because your readers are intimately familiar with the setting. Mistakes are very likely to be noticed. In other-world fantasy you can tweak the setting to match the story; in urban fantasy, the setting is what it is, and there’s a limit to the potential tweakability.

Many of the same questions that we have to face in real life need answers. Where does your character live? Where does the money come from to pay the rent, if any? What about food, clothing, health expenses? Canada, where I live, is somewhat easier on that last one, as long as your character has a provincial Health card, and even without one a true emergency can’t be refused basic help at a hospital, but that doesn’t cover prescription meds or many other things. Speaking of ID, in this increasingly paranoid age, do all significant characters legally exist, and if not, how do they work around that?

Unless a substantial part of the story takes place at or around the character’s workplace, or during a finite period while s/he is on vacation, having said character working 40 hours a week can be a problem. Speculative fiction of any kind is about transgressing boundaries and exploring possibilities, but face it, it’s also about escaping for a while from real-world stresses. No one reads fantasy in hopes of details about someone’s 9-to-5 office job. We all know how hard it is to balance a full-time job with a life outside of that. You’re probably going to have to stretch your ingenuity to come up with a living situation that won’t eclipse the story. Part-time jobs if there are other factors to help cover expenses, freelance or work-at-home jobs which are usually not going to lead to a life of luxury… you can only have so many characters come from a wealthy family background or win a lottery. Of course, magic may be a factor as well, but living entirely off fairy gold usually stretches plausibility.

Despite these difficulties and more, there’s a kind of power in urban fantasy that other-world fantasy lacks.

You can create situations that your readers can relate to readily from their own experiences or those of people they know, even if your details may vary and include the impossible. Then you can create a resolution, or a victory, or offer a different perspective. Of course people can relate to situations in an other-world setting, since some experiences are so common–finding yourself unemployed or rejected or ill, falling in love or reaching a goal or enjoying a moment of beauty–but the experiences are, I believe, a step further removed. Sometimes that’s a good thing, or at least of minimal importance. Sometimes the whole point is to explore the possibilities of a completely different world, and that can lead to amazing results. Sometimes, though, that’s not the case.

There’s also the strong contrast of the everyday mundane ordinary world around us with something impossible, which can help bring into focus the wonderful aspects of the world that are actually quite real.

Personally, since what I write is emphatically about people and their experiences, I find that urban fantasy works better. I’ve tried creating worlds with the essential dynamics I need, but they’ve mostly failed so far to have the intensity that the same characters and concept can have when set in the real world.

I believe that’s an intrinsic aspect of other-world settings. Once your reader has accepted that the story is taking place in another world, they’ve suspended much of their disbelief. The presence of magic or of supernatural beings is easier to accept as simply part of that reality and can never have the kind of high contrast that they gain against a real-world backdrop. In a real-world setting your readers know the stakes if your character has a financial crisis; in an other-world setting, the reader is aware that they don’t know every aspect of the society and there might be other factors to the situation.

Both are viable and valid; the tricky part is sometimes just to decide which is better for what you want to say.


  1. Metaphors can also be tricky. I’m writing a future-history type SF novel, which takes place mostly in low-to-no-gravity situations, and in places like dome cities on asteroids. Such places are both familiar, in that they’re human-built societies and structures, but unfamiliar because of the setting and the time gap (a few thousand years, when we’ve colonized the whole solar system). I find it can be difficult to have characters describing things to each other, since they’d use different metaphors than we do here, today, on Earth. For example, driving metaphors are mostly out, since you don’t need a car in a small dome city with good public transit options, so most characters wouldn’t relate to the anxieties of traffic or the feel of driving a car. But if their true situations are plausible and well thought-out (I’m trying to make it as consistant with reality-as-we-know-it as possible), the reader can easily enough understand why a character would refer to negotiating through a crowded room or cafeteria line, for example, rather than through traffic, when making a comparison in conversation. But it makes writing such conversations and developing such characters all the more difficult.

    • Absolutely. Language nuances and idioms vary hugely just across real-world Earth, let alone a massive jump in time and location like that. Experience alters language, which is why ours has changed even in the past couple of decades as tech and society change rapidly. And those language nuances are going to tell the reader how to feel about everything unfamiliar.
      You’re talking basically about a part of what I mean: some things are going to be familiar. At the same time, even if a particular bit of technology startles the people in the story because it’s particularly advanced (or particularly retro, for that matter), the reader isn’t going to have the same kind of response that your characters will. They’ll be accepting that it’s a high-tech environment and at that remove, they’ll have only the reactions of characters to go by as to specifics. They may be able to relate to advanced and/or retro tech, but they’re going to have to take cues from your characters as to which something is. The same thing for social situations: presumably there’ll have been some very major changes in social rules and conventions. Is something shocking to them, or is it meant to be perfectly ordinary and accepted as such? That micro-lag caused by one extra step as readers check with characters for the appropriate response creates a different feel than if readers were going by their own experiences. Not a worse feel, just a different one. I think you’re right, the language the characters use is going to be really important. Expressions are going to say a huge amount about their attitudes towards things.
      Sounds like a fascinating idea to explore, definitely (although I don’t envy you the headache of the research involved to make it plausible scientifically!).

  2. Great, great points and an interesting read. These are good questions, many of which I hadn’t considered. One thing I’d suggest to those wanting to build a new world: become obsessed. You should know more about your world than your reader will ever know. When your mind wanders or drifts throughout the day–on a drive, in the shower, while killing time–it should often return to plotting out your world, even after you think you’ve created it. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to draw upon it when you’re writing.

    • Thank you. :-)
      As for building worlds: I agree wholeheartedly. Live in it and make it real. My mind spends a really startling amount of its time in the primary other world I’ve created! Of course, since I do that with the urban fantasy works too, maybe it’s just that my mind hates coming back to the unmodified literal real world. :lol: I’m not sure I’d call it plotting, though, more just sort of wandering around exploring…

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