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Tag Archives: N. K. Jemisin

The Two Types of Urban Fantasy

Looking at the genre from one angle, there are two types of Urban Fantasy, Type-P fantasy and Type-D fantasy.

Type-D, named after Harry Dresden–because he is awesome and I saw the TV adaption on the Sci-Fi channel (before they came up with that ridiculous re-branding “SyFy”), and because someone over on AW used it– is fantasy where the MC is aware of the story’s supernatural elements.

Type-D can further be divided into stories where magic is “out of the broom-closet”, and known to the world at large, and the much more common set of stories where it’s a Big Fuckin’ Secret. You might guess which one I prefer. It’s probably due to my bias from secondary-world fantasy, where even if it’s a distant existence, both physically and mentally, magic is usually known to the general populace.

Type-P, named after Harry Potter–which is one of the more famous examples currently–is fantasy where the MC discovers that magic exists.

These stories come in two common varieties, stories where the MC does have magic, and stories where they don’t. The latter are usually the most popular.

Both types have their advantages and disadvantages:

Type-D can throw you right into the action. The plot is to the fore and it is where most of the attention is focused. Demon-hunting, vampire cabals, changeling conspiracies. A great example is Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire. MC knows about magic, is involved in magic, and is going to have a great time hunting down the “bad” kind.

Type-P is different. You might have some action at the beginning, such as the kid-napping or murder of someone close to the protagonist–or of the protag themselves. But then you have to deal with the fact that, “ZOMG! Magic!” Whether you’ve got a reluctant protagonist or one who Jumps at the Call, they have to process their reaction some time. You get a lot inner dialogue, friction with more worldly allies, and a great deal of shock and awe. All of these contrive to distance the beginning of the story from the real plot.

Which could go either way. Sure, their twelve-year-old sister got kidnapped, but… “Level 12 Fireball!” How can that not be cool? And that’s one of the major differences.

Type-D is often about the surface events, the plot, even though it is likely to be quite “character-driven”. Type-P is often more about the character arcs, the themes. Of course, these are only generalizations. You can still have fantastic character arcs in Type-D UF, and run around collecting plot coupons and fighting bad-guys in Type-P.

But if you look at my examples, you might notice something. How old are the characters in Dresden Files and Child of Fire? How old in Harry Potter? What about, dare I say it, Twilight? You can argue that it’s PR, not UF, but the genres are pretty close, and there’s a great deal of crossover. If you look back at most of the recommendations in my original post, you’ll see that the trend continues.

Now, I’m not dumping all Type-P UF in the YA category–although if you look at the whole Fantasy genre, you’ll see it follows the trend closely as well. There are counter-examples, naturally. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, for example, has a discovery plot and an adult MC. And it is not alone. Nor do younger characters always qualify a story as YA (or MG). But it’s a trend.

And one of the reasons for it is the ability to use magic as a metaphor for just about anything we don’t know about, or are uncertain of. Including growing up, love, getting out of the school environment, learning that life isn’t so simple as you thought, etc. And Type-P UF, and Type-F for that matter, handles these themes very well. Issues of self-discovery, personal identity, social identity, cultural identity, sexual identity. All of these have been addressed within Type-P. Being a wizard, a shifter, a vamp. These are all things that separate someone from the rest of humanity, just like being gay, or black, or female might set someone apart.

In Type-D, characters are usually more stable in their identity, more confident. They aren’t dealing with so many first, so many new things. They’ve already honed their skills, learned their lore, chosen their profession. And this allows for all sorts of stories that you couldn’t have in Type-P. It makes for different approaches as well. Whereas a twelve-year-old is not going to go undercover in an ab-dead dreamshit ring, a thirty-year-old were-falcon cop could do so easily. And vice-versa. Middle-aged investment bankers aren’t going to be wandering around in the attic, or playing hide and seek in the wardrobe. 9-year-olds certainly won’t be hunting down strange sorcerers who turn children in burning piles of grubs that burrow away into the soil.

There are many other ways to divide or classify urban fantasy. There’s N. K. Jemisin’s Stylistic vs. Contextual UF, over on Jeff VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days. You could classify by protagonist type: “Kick-ass broad” vs. suave vampiric playboy. Or smart, tough, magic detective. There’re the various lineages and influences I mentioned in the last post. The list goes on. They all provide some insight, and some context.

Next time, we might talk about those lineages a little more in depth. I think the term “lineage” in general makes for a great sub-category of “sub-genre”, unless you’d prefer “sub-sub-genre”? Either way, we’ll explore the idea soon.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2010 in Authors, Fantasy, Genre of the Week, Themes

 

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