Natalie’s Theory of Urban Fantasy

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton (cropped)

I’ve been reading urban fantasy since the early 1990′s and I’ve been watching it expand like whoa in the years since Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series were first published.

However, as Hamilton and Harris’s books became increasingly popular, the sub-genre metamorphosed into something very different from what I started reading: books with “strong female characters”, sometimes sympathetic monsters, extended action sequences, and a lot of dodgy worldbuilding.

I can usually tell within a handful of pages if an author I’ve never read before is writing from a SF/F or romance perspective. While it will earn me no love from certain quarters, I’ll say it anyway: The dodgier the worldbuilding and the more supernaturally hot the monsters, the more likely the author either writes romance or has read a lot of romance. And conversely, writers that come from SF/F  often fall short on characterization and emotional development. This isn’t a slur against either genre–I love both–it’s just that the emphasis tends to lead to different kinds of books.

In late 2005, when it came time for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominations, I requested a new category for urban fantasy. I was seeing more of these books show up–some were quite good and I didn’t want to use up all my nominations on them because I had other fantasy novels I liked, too. After a lot of discussion (I still have the emails), it was agreed that I could have a “modern-day fantasy” category as the general feeling was that the word “urban” was potentially confusing and that “contemporary fantasy” was too likely to be mixed up with “contemporary romance”. I was pretty unhappy about it but I took it–better than nothing, after all.  By late 2006, there was a separate urban fantasy section in the magazine and the “modern-day fantasy” category morphed into the urban fantasy one that we all know and love today.

So. Here’s the thing. Since that moment, that year before urban fantasy really burst onto the scene–damn near fully formed–I have been musing over a half-assed theory of urban fantasy.

See, I think these new style urban fantasies–I am going to call them paranormal fantasies to differentiate them from what came before–have a lot more in common with gothic novels and what I’ve always called romantic suspense–Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart–than they do with the initial iteration of the genre through the mid-1990′s.

All these type of books have, at their heart, a kind of anxiety about how women fit into the world and I don’t think it’s an accident that here in the United States, in a post-9/11 world, there is suddenly a proliferation of paranormal fantasy.

In all these genres, the protagonists are often women in a transitional phase in their lives. They find themselves with more responsibility–they have inherited property, they have supernatural abilities, they and/or those close to them are in peril. There are unseen and possibly magical enemies and difficulties that must be surmounted and dire consequences if they are not.

However, there is one thing these books are focused on in a way that romantic suspense is not–and that is the Other. The world has either changed or aspects of the world have become known that were hidden and there are monsters. Some of them are allied with the protagonist, but most of them are not. Alliances shift–a friendly monster in the first book may become an enemy by the end of the series and vice versa. You can’t count on what you thought you knew about the world because it is constantly changing. The speed at which things change in our world is, at times, frenetic, and this is reflected in paranormal fantasy. American society has–I am deliberately using a very broad brush here–deemed certain cultures to be monstrous (whether or not they actually are) and that tension is reflected in a lot of paranormal fantasy.

Despite the fact that these books are generally written by and for women and usually have female protagonists (and a headless woman in an unnatural pose wearing leather pants on the cover), these protagonists tend to not have a lot of agency. Their roles are prescribed by the kind of book they’re in and it is the rare book that deviates from the formula of kick-ass woman with a mysterious past and magical abilities.

Once in a while, the protagonist is delighted to be living this kind of life but it is typically portrayed as a duty, something to be gotten through until a heteronormative romantic partnership can be established while the enemy is getting its ass kicked. There is a persistent will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic running through many of these books that I find problematic and reductive and more than a little bit distracting–if the protagonist is trying to save the world from the evil vampires, why is she mooning over the nice vampire’s steely blue eyes and taut ass? I mean, I get that one can’t be all business all the time but does her non-ass-kicking time always have to be taken up with dating? Can’t she do jigsaw puzzles or knit? I hear that decorative gourds are very interesting, too.  If her role in this world is biologically determined by her having magical abilities, must it also be tied to her hormones? Are there any paranormal fantasies where the protagonist is bitten by a radioactive spider (or its equivalent)?  Or do bites from sexy vampires only count?

And while I’m talking about radioactive spiders, what about the responsibility that comes with these magic powers? There is an awful lot of killing of people who, apparently, deserve to die because they are evil due to their inherent abilities or who they are related to. There are rarely any repercussions for these murders and while the protagonist may pay lip service to feeling bad about it, there is rarely any true atonement for these actions. These characters typically live in worlds that are black and white with very little nuance. The minute one discovers one’s magical ass-kicking abilities, one loses whatever moral compass that one may have had previously.  The reader rarely, if ever, sees these characters wrestling with any kind of moral dilemma regarding these actions which they feel they must take. All too often, protagonists descend into moral bankruptcy through the course of a series–they become less human, less relatable, less heroic. And at the end, they’re all used up–and then all they’re good for is making a commitment to their supernatural lover and (if possible) having babies.

There are only so many books I can read about a kick-ass woman with a mysterious past and unexplained magical abilities and her adventures (and possible sexy times) with supernatural creatures while fighting evil before hitting overload. After a while, they all start to feel like the same book. Even making your protagonist a dude doesn’t really help much.

I want to see characters who struggle with the choices they have to make, who know that all their choices are shitty choices, and who have to live with the consequences of the choice. I want them to lose friends and allies and gain enemies. I want them to have to fight for their survival and I don’t want the happy ending to be assured from the get-go. I want unhappy endings and ostracized protagonists whose only consolation is that they did the best they could with the lousy cards they were dealt. Most of all, I want stories that are honestly written by authors who know what kind of fire they’re playing with and who understand that demonizing those that are different from the mainstream hurts actual real people in this world. In a world that is changing so quickly, today’s friendly vampire is potentially tomorrow’s bad vampire, and who gets to make that decision anyhow?  When the world in a book is defined only in shades of black and white, what happens to everyone in between?  And what happens when another Other comes along and redefines everything again?

If the protagonist is going to don leather pants and kick ass in order to save the world, I’d like her to stop and think about what she’s doing and why–because someday she might find herself on the other side of the ass-kicking equation because someone, somewhere, has decided that she is Other.

And I sure would like her to rethink the leather pants and high heels, too.

(Many many many thanks to Donna and Fran for their help hammering this into shape. Without them, this would be a crazy train heading into crazy town with a boring history lesson at the beginning. Fran would also like the record to reflect that she doesn’t know diddlysquat about urban/paranormal fantasy and that her primary role in this was to help me get the train on the tracks, to belabor the metaphor.)

Comments

  1. Amy Suggars says

    Although I haven’t read many of the earlier crime novels featuring female detectives, I think are probably many parallels to your coherent theory.

    I started in the “modern detective” category with the tough, independent women like V.I.Warshawskj, Sharon McCone, Kinsey Mil hone, etc. These women were tough and could protect themselves and others. They did have outside interests like exercise, having a dog, flying, etc.

    What I find with the modern female detective is that there is always a male who helps them significantly and often provides muscle or safe haven. Typically the male provides key information the detective can’t get herself. Well, she could if she.did some detecting.

    I have not read every novel in the genre so perhaps I’m missing the current embodiment of the tough, self-sufficient female detective.

  2. says

    Okay, I just read the tags, and I had to laugh. Sounds like we read a lot of the same things :-)

    I often wonder about the definition of urban fantasy–not even going to wander into paranormal romance–it’s so darned loose. You have Laurell K. Hamilton, who has turned her kick-ass heroine into a succubus exploring polyandrous relationships on one end and you have Lilith Saintcrow in her Dante Valentine and Jill Kismet series whose heroines find support through one-on-one relationships. And urban has become so loose that it seems to mean set in a city (not always a very modern city). It’s odd, but doesn’t urban fantasy also include things like Simon Green’s series, and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books? How would those fit into your theory?

    (Not enough coffee for me to be very coherent!)

  3. says

    When I read do read mysteries, I tend to prefer cozies, so my knowledge of the types of books you’re describing is extremely limited.

    I think there are a lot of female characters out there who appear to be strong and self-sufficient but one you start to really look at them they aren’t. It’s frustrating.

  4. says

    Making up funny tags is one of my favorite things to do.

    Urban fantasy is…a big amorphous thing. (YAY I GET TO GIVE MY BORING HISTORY LESSON NOW.) When I started reading it around 1992, it was mainly things like Emma Bull and Charles de Lint–books where the setting was recognizably the world you and I live in but with magical elements, too. Definitely not secondary world fantasy and not portal fantasy (although I suppose de Lint’s Moonheart and Spiritwalk are kind of portal fantasy-ish with Tamson House being the portal). You can also make the argument that Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and John Crowley’s Little, Big also fit into this category–where the numinous or magical overlaps or intersects with “reality”.

    The first Laurell K. Hamilton book came out in 1993 and while she claims to have invented what is now called urban fantasy–what I call paranormal fantasy–I don’t think that’s quite fair because there was a tradition of these overlapping realities already extant when she began writing. The early Anita Blake books are horror-inflected private detective novels and it was only after ten books or so that they became super-popular and changed into what they are now (I think the earlier books are definitely the better and more interesting books in the series). The first Sookie Stackhouse book came out around 1998 or so (I remember because I was still living in Michigan at the time–I left Michigan in early 1999) and it was marketed as a mystery novel–and even though people call them urban fantasy, they’re set in a small town.

    I really like Saintcrow’s Jill Kismet series because there are consequences for Jill. She isn’t a good or moral person and she knows it. She knows she has a bunch of bad choices and she makes the best ones she can and accepts the consequences. Another series where that’s the case is Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason series–Marla is also notable for kicking ass in sweatpants and sensible shoes.

    Interestingly, I think paranormal fantasy series with male protagonists often have greater leeway to explore the moral grey areas–both Simon R. Green and Jim Butcher do this in their respective series, as does Kevin Hearne in his. These three series are also all written by men, which I find interesting although possibly not significant. Conversely, you have Kim Harrison’s Hollows series where there is an attempt to make her morally ambiguous and where that attempt, in my opinion, fails–Rachel doesn’t ever seem to suffer permanent consequences for her decisions and the series really lost me when it took multiple books for her to track down who killed her vampire boyfriend (I will be a fan of Jenks FOREVER, though).

    Does that make sense or have I muddied the waters even further?

  5. donna says

    Amy, I think you’re absolutely on to something with your idea. Somehow in the last 10 years the tough, self-sufficient woman in both mystery and urban fantasy has morphed into what we were calling “kick-ass Barbie” last night–she’s become more sexualized, and more reliant on men. Whereas someone like Kinsey Milhone really is self-sufficient (she’s paying the bills, she’s responsible for her own safety, and she makes decisions based on her own definition of justice and morality), these women look that way at first–because they can kick ass thanks to some inherent biological construct like vampirism or witchcraft–but once you start scratching the surface, you realize how dependent they are on their various partners and often on men.

    For me, the big difference between the tough 90′s PI woman and these post 9/11 women are the end game they’re after. VI and Kinsey and Sharon want the world to be a safe place and help to make it so, and they don’t need a man to complete that world. The women Natalie is talking about know the world isn’t a safe place, but their battles are more about personal attacks on them or their loved ones and less universal–their endgame is a satisfying and safe love relationship. And while I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with that myself, that doesn’t have to be the only end game in town.

  6. says

    It’s almost like saving the world is a side effect–it might appear that saving or protecting the world is the primary goal but it seems to be achieved by way of the protagonist’s interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal relationships are important, as is learning that one can rely on and trust other people to have your back, but when the female protagonist simply cannot achieve her goals without the assistance of a male character, it’s problematic.

  7. donna says

    It absolutely comes across as a side-effect. I mean, how can Rachel overcome her attraction to Ivy if she has to go out and save The Hollows from a demon, for pete’s sake.

  8. says

    Or her unending angst over Kisten. While leveling up in power at the end of each book.

    Or Anita Blake’s monstrous sex abilities that require her to have sex multiple times a day or else. While being the target of the biggest baddest vampire of them all. Using monstrous deliberately–in the earlier books, Edward tells Anita that if she ever becomes a monster, he’ll kill her like he does all the other monsters. Based on how the text define monsters, Anita has become one–and yet Edward lets her live because of reasons I’ve never quite understood. Not that Edward is a paragon of morality, because he isn’t, but he does have a code he tried to lives by and he knows that sometimes you don’t get the good cards–and for Hamilton to not have him try to kill or even just distance himself from Anita is a total betrayal of his character and it’s the one thing I really can’t forgive her for.

  9. says

    I’m probably the wrong person to comment on this topic because I know next to nothing about UF. But I must say that what you mention about kick-ass heroines with mysterious pasts getting jiggy with supernatural creatures, could describe every UF book I’ve read (not that I’ve read that many, so take my opinion with a grain of salt). I prefer Paranormal Romance, because unlike UF, it doesn’t try to pretend it’s not really a romance, although half the time I have a hard timed differentiating between UF and PNR. And I guess that once you stop pretending you’re not a Romance author, you can explore different conflicts within the world you’re creating and the characters that inhabit it, or you can focus on the romance and no one will feel cheated because of the lack of story beyond the romance.

    I keep talking about Meljean Brook’s Guardian series, because yes, the romance features heavily in her books, but there’s a recurrent theme of good, evil and the grey areas between them. We have these god-like characters in charge of protecting humanity, but sometimes their actions are as manipulative and evil as that of the Demons they are supposed to be fighting, and they are aware of it and it creates conflict. So it features something else besides kick-ass chicks doing kick-ass stuff.

    Another thing I find very interesting is your point about how these heroines lack agency. I guess that because the lack of agency seems so incongruent with the idea of a kick-ass woman, that I never stop to think about it, but you’re right. In these books everything seems to happen to them. I do wonder if that’s also the case in UF with male protagonist, are they just as helpless?

    Great post! It has given me much food for thought and the next time I read an UF I’ll do it with a more critical frame of mind.

  10. says

    My general definition of the difference between paranormal romance and paranormal fantasy is that if the romantic plot is self-contained in one book, chances are good it’s a paranormal romance. I tend to not read many of them because if the worldbuilding in paranormal fantasy is dodgy, the worldbuilding in paranormal romance is generally even worse.

    A recent PNR I read that I really liked was Thea Harrison’s Dragon Unbound (I think that’s what the first one was called). I liked the way Pia negotiated the power differential between herself and her love interest tremendously–that also seems to be fairly rare, an acknowledgement that these supernatural creatures are by their very nature so much more powerful than humans–even humans with magic abilities.

    Male protags also often have stuff just sort of happen to them but in the books I’ve read, they do seem to be more adept at charting their own courses and not necessarily accepting the lousy hands of cards they’ve been dealt (to mix metaphors all over the place).

    I’ll have to check out Meljean Brook’s Guardian series–I tried reading The Iron Duke a year or so ago and bounced right off it, possibly due to a surfeit of steampunk (which is another rant for another time).

  11. Elissa says

    The thing that always bothered me about urban fantasy is that the heroines are so darn dour! Even Buffy had a laugh once in a while, and Buffy had FRIENDS. Sure, I get that you’re saving the world a lot, but also can you please lighten up a bit and have a buddy or two? I got tired of the crotchety girl against every one except that one hunky guy right quick.

  12. says

    Edward, I think, doesn’t kill Anita for being a monster because she’s sort of part of his family and she has saved parts of his family. In all honesty, the only ones of these I read these days tend to be the ones with an Edward focus because they’ve become weirdly pornographic. I would rather read her silly Merry Gentry series which has no real pretense other than Merry has lots of sex with hot guys, and accidentally saves the world.

  13. says

    But saving the world because it’s your destiny is SRS BSNS. Jokes not allowed!

    Good point about Buffy, though–she, too, had her role thrust upon her.

  14. says

    No not muddied :-) Let’s see where do I want to start–I’ll start at the end. I think you’re on to something with the men have more room to move about in the moral grey areas. Afterall, men don’t have to be either kick ass or in need of help, they can be both, allowing them much more latitude in character exploration.

    Oh, I can’t stand the Harrison books! I’ve tried, but Rachel is such a horrible character! I just can’t deal with her constant whining. And the fact that whining is the major form of characterization. I find them unreadable! But I have much the same problem with the Sookie Stackhouse books; but then there’s something like J. R. Wards Black Dagger Brotherhood series, and her major characters are usually well thought out and complex, but this gets called paranormal romance because the love story is more important than the plot (which I don’t find to be true in these).

    And Laurell K. Hamilton siiigh where to begin. Anita used to be a strong fascinating character in part because she was prudish, now that’s she a polyandrous succubus who has to have sex what seems like all the time, she’s less interesting. And invented? Heh, as you mentioned de Lint was working this and even Mercedes lackey who has her Diane Trgarde Witch series come out in 89 and then her Elves on the road series which starts in 93 as well–what Hamilton did was add the gothic/noir touches, but even in that she clearly drew on Anne Rice.

    One of the most intruiguing paranormal fantasy (I like that genre label!) series for me right now is Kat Richardson’s Graywalker series. Harper Blaine’s character isn’t static–she keeps growing and learning her powers, and learning about her relationships–and those relationships aren’t always with the most stable people. And literally the stories take place in the grey!

    And then there are even more that make one question–this morning after I commented and was the way to work, I was like, and how does Steampunk fit into this? This stuff fascinates me, but then I’ve always loved the schlocky side of literature–I might have finished my doctorate if I had chosen to do fantasy LOL.

  15. says

    One definition I read somewhere on the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal was that the plot of a paranormal romance existed only to get the main characters into bed with eachother, but urban fantasy the sex was second to the plot–which is a veryproblematic definition.

  16. says

    It’s problematic but it’s also kind of true–in a paranormal romance (in anything labeled and marketed as a romance), there must be a self-contained romantic plot in each volume: so you’ll see a series all set in the same world but there will generally be a different couple in the spotlight in each book. In paranormal fantasy, the romantic plot can extend over multiple volumes and you usually have the same female protagonist. There are also differences in POV: first person is much more acceptable in paranormal fantasy than in paranormal romance.

  17. says

    Men also don’t have an obligation to look good while they’re kicking ass and getting help from bystanders. They can be tough and battle-scarred and kind of ugly and it’s okay. Whereas female characters seem to have an obligation to be attractive–even in books written by women, there is the problem of the male gaze.

    How could I have forgotten Lackey’s Tregarde books? And there’s P.N. Elrod, too–I know I was reading her in high school. And Anne Rice as well, even though her vampire books don’t have quite the same sensibility but I think she was one of the first to have to outright sexy vampires as opposed to the kind of creepy but sexy despite the creepy vampires.

    Steampunk. OH DO NOT GET ME STARTED. Ahem. With some exceptions, as far as I can tell, steampunk books are a way for white people to indulge themselves in all the casual racism, sexism, homophobia, and cultural imperialism that permeated the Victorian age without feeling guilty about it. I find it to be deeply troubling in many ways and at this point I won’t read it without specific recommendations.

    I love genre fiction–it probably is a good thing that I never tried to go to grad school because they’d’ve drummed me out for not being serious enough! (Although if you ask me, literary fiction is also a genre with its own conventions, too.)

  18. Jan the Alan Fan says

    Ah, I remember back in the early ’90′s when UF was Diana Tregarde, Charles de Lint plus Anita Blake, who in the early days wasn’t someone you looked sideways at.

    What I like about Charles de Lint’s books is that the characters would feel more comfortable in jeans, rather than leather trousers / short leather skirt. The great Jim C. Hines did some posts on his blog where he posed as females on UF covers, then as men on their covers. No prizes for guessing which poses would send him off to the chiropractors ASAP…

    A paranormal romance series I like reading is the Guild Hunter series by Nalini Singh, think of it as an alternate, paranormal CSI: New York. The series can be dark at times but I think the world building is good – I can end up thinking ‘of course there are 3 species; angels (non-heavenly), vampires and humans’. She is good with her plot twists too.

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