Navigating the World of Urban Fantasy: Tropes and Clichés to Watch For
Navigating the World of Urban Fantasy: Tropes and Clichés to Watch For
By Neal Martin/ March 31, 2023
Last Updated April 26, 2023
Urban fantasy has long held a special place in the hearts and minds of readers, skillfully blending the fantastical with the familiar to craft immersive worlds where magic, mythical creatures, and supernatural beings coexist seamlessly with our modern reality. Familiarizing ourselves with the common tropes and clichés that often appear in these stories can enable us to more fully appreciate the creativity and depth that the genre has to offer.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into some of the most prevalent tropes in urban fantasy, exploring how a diverse range of books and media have made use of these elements to weave unique and captivating tales.
It’s worth noting that tropes exist in all fiction, serving as the building blocks of storytelling. As M.D. Massey aptly points out in his article on the subject, employing tropes in one’s stories doesn’t equate to ripping off other authors who have utilized the same tropes. The key to using tropes effectively lies in putting one’s own distinctive spin on them.
For example, my work draws significant inspiration from comics such as Hellblazer, known for their dark, gritty worlds and unyielding narratives. Characters like the unforgettable John Constantine also inform my own creations. However, while my characters, like Ethan Drake and August Creed, certainly take cues from Constantine, they possess their own unique personalities and approaches to problem-solving, setting them apart as distinct individuals.
It’s true that Constantine has left an indelible mark on the urban fantasy genre, but most authors don’t directly copy him, contrary to what some readers might allege. Instead, authors take the tropes established by characters like Constantine and rework them in their own innovative ways. They breathe new life into these familiar elements, ensuring that urban fantasy remains a dynamic and engaging genre for readers to explore.
Magic in the Mundane World
Hidden Magical Communities
Urban fantasy frequently showcases secret magical communities that thrive just beneath the surface of our world, hidden in plain sight. These communities captivate readers by offering a tantalizing glimpse into a hidden reality that exists alongside our own.
For example, Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” plunges readers into London Below, an enigmatic underground world that exists beneath the city streets. Populated by a diverse array of supernatural beings, London Below is a realm that operates under its own unique set of rules and customs, offering a stark contrast to the ordinary world above.
In Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” trilogy, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is a hidden institution where gifted students are trained in the magical arts. The series also reveals the existence of Fillory, a fantastical realm that exists parallel to our own world, accessible only through a series of secret pathways and portals.
In Deborah Harkness’s “All Souls” trilogy, we find a clandestine society of witches, vampires, and daemons that live among humans while adhering to their own ancient traditions and maintaining a delicate balance of power. The trilogy delves into the intricacies of this supernatural world, including the politics and conflicts that arise from the different factions coexisting.
Cassandra Clare’s “Shadowhunter Chronicles” unveils the secret world of Shadowhunters, Nephilim warriors who protect humanity from demons and other supernatural threats. This hidden society, with its own complex hierarchy and traditions, exists alongside the mundane world, largely unbeknownst to ordinary humans.
These examples demonstrate the allure of secret magical communities in urban fantasy. By presenting worlds that exist just beyond our perception, these stories invite readers to imagine the extraordinary lurking in the shadows of everyday life, adding an element of wonder and excitement to the genre.
Magical Creatures in Disguise
Shapeshifters and other magical beings are a staple of urban fantasy, often blending in with their human counterparts and adding layers of intrigue and complexity to the narratives. These characters provide a diverse range of perspectives, abilities, and challenges that keep readers engaged and invested in their stories.
In the “Mercy Thompson” series by Patricia Briggs, the protagonist is a coyote shapeshifter named Mercedes Thompson, who navigates a world populated by werewolves, vampires, and fae. Mercy’s unique abilities and heritage place her at the center of conflicts and power struggles within this supernatural world, while she strives to maintain a semblance of a normal life.
The television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” features a wide array of supernatural beings masquerading as humans, including vampires, demons, and witches. The show’s protagonist, Buffy Summers, is a “Slayer” who is tasked with protecting the world from these creatures. Over the course of the series, Buffy and her friends face numerous supernatural adversaries, as well as form alliances with certain magical beings, including the vampire with a soul, Angel, and the reformed vengeance demon, Anya.
The “Kate Daniels” series by Ilona Andrews introduces readers to a post-apocalyptic world where magic and technology clash, giving rise to various magical beings such as shapeshifters, necromancers, and vampires. The protagonist, Kate Daniels, is a mercenary with a mysterious heritage who works to protect Atlanta’s citizens from supernatural threats while uncovering her own past.
The “Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” series by Laurell K. Hamilton presents a world where vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings have been revealed to the public and coexist uneasily with humans. The titular character, Anita Blake, is a vampire hunter and necromancer who frequently encounters these beings in both her professional and personal life, often blurring the lines between friend and foe.
The “Night Watch” series by Sergei Lukyanenko is set in modern-day Moscow, where supernatural beings known as “Others” live among humans. These Others, which include shapeshifters, vampires, and sorcerers, are divided into two factions: the Night Watch, who uphold the balance of power and protect humans, and the Day Watch, who seek to subvert that balance in their favor.
These examples illustrate the diverse ways in which shapeshifters and magical beings are incorporated into urban fantasy. By featuring these characters in their stories, authors are able to explore themes of identity, belonging, and power dynamics, all while immersing readers in a world where the supernatural exists just beneath the surface of everyday life.
Everyday Objects with Magical Properties
Urban fantasy frequently endows ordinary objects with magical abilities, allowing characters to harness extraordinary powers in subtle and creative ways. This fusion of the mundane and the magical adds a layer of excitement to the genre, inviting readers to envision the hidden potential that lies within seemingly commonplace items.
In Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” series, the Shadowhunters—warriors who protect humanity from supernatural threats—use magical runes drawn on their skin to enhance their abilities. These runes grant them various powers, such as increased strength, agility, and the ability to become invisible. The Shadowhunters also wield weapons infused with magical properties, like the Seraph Blades, which are especially potent against demonic foes.
The “Dresden Files” series by Jim Butcher revolves around Harry Dresden, a magical detective who employs an array of enchanted items to assist him in solving supernatural mysteries. Among these items are a force ring that accumulates kinetic energy, a blasting rod that focuses his magical energy, and a magical staff that serves as a conduit for his power. Dresden also has a magical duster that provides him with protection from both physical and magical attacks.
The “Bartimaeus Trilogy” by Jonathan Stroud is set in an alternate version of London where magicians rule and summon powerful spirits to do their bidding. These magicians use magical objects called “focuses” to enhance their powers, such as amulets for protection, scrying glasses for seeing distant events, and magical seals for summoning spirits.
In the “Iron Druid Chronicles” by Kevin Hearne, the protagonist, Atticus O’Sullivan, is a 2,000-year-old Druid who wields a magical sword called Fragarach, which has the power to control the wind and force opponents to speak the truth. He also possesses a magical amulet called the “Iron Amulet,” which provides him with various abilities, including healing, shape-shifting, and protection from magical attacks.
These examples demonstrate the inventive ways in which urban fantasy authors imbue ordinary objects with magical abilities. This fusion of the everyday and the extraordinary not only adds a sense of wonder to the genre but also challenges readers to see the world around them in a new light, where the possibility of hidden magic lurks around every corner.
The Chosen One and Prophetic Quests
The Chosen One Archetype
The Chosen One trope, which features a protagonist destined to save the world or achieve some great purpose, is a prevalent theme in urban fantasy. This narrative device offers a compelling framework for storytelling, as it allows authors to explore themes of destiny, sacrifice, and personal growth, while also creating high-stakes scenarios that keep readers engaged.
In Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series, the titular character, Percy Jackson, learns that he is a demigod—the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Throughout the series, Percy embarks on a series of quests to prevent the gods’ wrath from destroying the world, fulfilling ancient prophecies and embracing his destiny as a hero.
In the “Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, inadvertently becomes the symbol of hope and rebellion for the oppressed districts of Panem. As the Chosen One, Katniss must navigate the treacherous world of political intrigue, all while inspiring others to rise against the oppressive Capitol.
In the “Mortal Instruments” series by Cassandra Clare, Clary Fray discovers that she is a Shadowhunter—a warrior destined to protect humanity from supernatural threats. As she uncovers the truth about her heritage, Clary is thrust into a world of ancient prophecies, demonic forces, and a destiny that she must embrace in order to save the people she loves.
In the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman, the young protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, is prophesized to be the one who will bring an end to the oppressive rule of the Magisterium. Along her journey, Lyra discovers her unique ability to read the mystical alethiometer and encounters various otherworldly beings, all while grappling with the weight of her destiny.
The “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth introduces readers to Tris Prior, a young woman who discovers that she is “divergent”—possessing traits of multiple factions in a strictly divided society. As the story unfolds, Tris becomes the key to overthrowing the oppressive government, embracing her unique abilities and fulfilling her destiny as a catalyst for change.
And, in my own series, “Gods & Monsters” the main character, Corvin Chance, finds out he is the Chosen One, chosen to go up against the Dark One, a demigod who wants to plunge the world into darkness.
These examples demonstrate the enduring appeal of the Chosen One trope in urban fantasy. By placing protagonists at the heart of world-altering events and prophecies, authors create captivating narratives that explore themes of destiny, personal growth, and sacrifice, all while immersing readers in richly imagined worlds where the stakes are higher than ever.
Prophecies and Quests
Prophetic quests play a prominent role in the urban fantasy genre, with protagonists embarking on perilous journeys to fulfill ancient prophecies, save the world, or uncover hidden truths. These quests not only drive the narrative forward but also allow authors to explore themes of fate, destiny, and personal growth.
In the “Iron Druid Chronicles” by Kevin Hearne, protagonist Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,000-year-old Druid, must navigate a series of supernatural challenges to protect both the magical and mundane worlds. Throughout the series, Atticus confronts powerful deities, unravels ancient prophecies, and forges alliances with various mythological beings, all while attempting to maintain a low profile in the modern world.
The television series “Supernatural” follows the Winchester brothers, Sam and Dean, as they undertake quests to combat supernatural threats and ultimately avert the apocalypse. Over the course of the series, the brothers face numerous prophetic challenges, from battling the demonic Yellow-Eyed Demon that killed their mother, to preventing Lucifer’s release from his cage, and ultimately, navigating the complex machinations of God’s plan for their world.
In the “Dresden Files” series by Jim Butcher, the protagonist, Harry Dresden, a wizard and private investigator, often finds himself embroiled in prophetic quests as he attempts to unravel supernatural mysteries and protect the people of Chicago. One such quest involves Dresden working to thwart the machinations of the mysterious Black Council, an enigmatic organization working behind the scenes to bring about chaos and destruction.
In the “Bartimaeus Trilogy” by Jonathan Stroud, young magician Nathaniel is thrust into a prophetic quest when he inadvertently summons the powerful djinni Bartimaeus to steal the Amulet of Samarkand. As the series unfolds, Nathaniel and Bartimaeus become embroiled in a larger conspiracy that threatens to upend the magical world, forcing them to confront ancient prophecies and the nature of power itself.
The “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series by Laini Taylor follows Karou, a young art student living in Prague who is suddenly thrust into a centuries-old conflict between angels and chimaera. Throughout the series, Karou discovers her true identity and embarks on a prophetic quest to restore balance between the two warring factions, all while grappling with the challenges of her newfound destiny.
These examples highlight the importance of prophetic quests in the urban fantasy genre. By weaving these quests into their narratives, authors create high-stakes scenarios that challenge their characters to grow and evolve, while also exploring themes of fate, destiny, and the consequences of choices made. This narrative device not only captivates readers but also invites them to consider the role of prophecy and destiny in their own lives.
Love and Romance
Dark urban fantasy often focuses on the gritty and sinister elements of the story and its characters, delving into themes of moral ambiguity, personal struggle, and the harsh realities of a world where the supernatural lurks in the shadows. While romance can certainly play a role in these stories, it is not always the primary focus, allowing authors to concentrate on the darker aspects of their narratives.
In the type of dark urban fantasy that I write, romance may be present, but it is typically a secondary plot element or used to enhance character development. This approach allows me to maintain a focus on the more intense and mysterious aspects of the story, such as uncovering hidden secrets, battling supernatural threats, and exploring the complexities of the characters’ inner lives.
However, there is no denying that romance plays a significant role in many urban fantasy stories, to the point where it often crosses the line into paranormal romance. This subgenre combines the elements of urban fantasy with a strong emphasis on romantic relationships, creating a unique blend of action, adventure, and emotional connection. Some popular examples of paranormal romance include the “Sookie Stackhouse” series by Charlaine Harris, the “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series by J.R. Ward, and the “Night Huntress” series by Jeaniene Frost.
While both dark urban fantasy and paranormal romance share many common elements, such as the presence of supernatural beings and a modern, urban setting, the emphasis on romance is what sets them apart. In dark urban fantasy, the focus is often on the protagonist’s personal growth, the conflict between the magical and mundane worlds, and the exploration of moral and ethical dilemmas. On the other hand, paranormal romance prioritizes the development of romantic relationships, often using the supernatural backdrop to heighten the stakes and explore the challenges that the characters face in their quest for love.
In conclusion, romance can play a significant role in urban fantasy, but it is not always the primary focus, particularly in darker iterations of the genre. By acknowledging the diversity of the urban fantasy landscape, readers can better appreciate the rich tapestry of stories that this genre has to offer, from the grit and suspense of dark urban fantasy to the passion and emotional depth of paranormal romance.
The Dark and Mysterious Antagonist
Urban fantasy stories frequently showcase dark and mysterious antagonists, often possessing magical powers or supernatural origins. These adversaries create high-stakes conflicts, pushing protagonists to their limits while also allowing authors to explore themes of good versus evil, redemption, and the complexities of power.
The “Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher introduces a variety of magical villains that challenge the protagonist, Harry Dresden, a wizard and private investigator. These antagonists range from rogue sorcerers, such as the warlock Victor Sells, to malevolent faeries like the Winter Queen, Mab. Additionally, the series presents powerful supernatural factions, including the vampiric Red Court and the enigmatic Black Council, which create intricate webs of conflict and intrigue for Dresden to navigate.
In the “Sandman Slim” series by Richard Kadrey, the protagonist, James Stark, faces off against various supernatural foes, including powerful angels, demons, and even Lucifer himself. As Stark seeks revenge for his wrongful imprisonment in Hell, he encounters a host of dark and mysterious adversaries, each with their own unique powers and agendas.
The “Kate Daniels” series by Ilona Andrews presents a world where magic and technology constantly clash, and the protagonist, Kate Daniels, must confront a variety of supernatural antagonists, such as rogue shapeshifters, power-hungry necromancers, and ancient gods. These adversaries not only test Kate’s physical and magical abilities but also challenge her understanding of loyalty, family, and her own identity.
In the “October Daye” series by Seanan McGuire, the half-fae, half-human protagonist, October “Toby” Daye, encounters a wide array of supernatural enemies, including treacherous faerie nobles, malevolent spirits, and twisted magical creatures. As Toby investigates crimes and navigates the complex politics of the fae world, she must confront her own personal demons and the nature of her dual heritage.
In my “Ethan Drake” series, the protagonist, Ethan Drake, a demon hunter and private investigator, faces a multitude of supernatural adversaries in his fight against the forces of darkness. These antagonists include powerful demons, rogue witches, malevolent spirits, and even ancient gods. Each foe presents a unique challenge for Ethan, as he is forced to confront his own inner demons and the personal cost of his relentless battle against evil.
The dark and mysterious adversaries in the “Ethan Drake” series not only create high-stakes conflicts for the protagonist but also serve as a backdrop for exploring themes such as sacrifice, redemption, and the often blurry line between good and evil. As Ethan struggles against these formidable enemies, he must also contend with the consequences of his actions and the impact they have on his relationships with family and friends.
These examples highlight the importance of dark and mysterious antagonists in urban fantasy, serving not only as formidable foes for the protagonists but also as catalysts for exploring deeper themes and character development. By presenting protagonists with powerful and enigmatic adversaries, urban fantasy authors create rich, engaging narratives that delve into the complexities of power, morality, and personal growth.
Secret Societies and Hidden Agendas
Shadowy organizations with hidden agendas are a prevalent trope in urban fantasy, providing an additional layer of intrigue and complexity to the narrative. These clandestine groups often operate in the background, manipulating events and characters to further their own goals, and revealing the darker aspects of the magical world.
In the “Mortal Instruments” series by Cassandra Clare, the Circle, led by the antagonist Valentine Morgenstern, aims to control the magical world by overthrowing the existing power structure. This secret organization of Shadowhunters conspires to eliminate Downworlders—werewolves, vampires, faeries, and warlocks—and reshape the world according to their vision. As the protagonists uncover the Circle’s nefarious schemes, they must also confront the moral ambiguity and hidden dangers lurking within their own community.
The “Illuminae Files” by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, although primarily a science fiction series, contain urban fantasy elements and feature a sinister corporation, BeiTech, which pursues its goals through manipulation and subterfuge. In this series, BeiTech is responsible for a deadly attack on an illegal mining colony and the subsequent cover-up, which sets the stage for a high-stakes conflict between the protagonists and the shadowy organization. As the story unfolds, the characters must unravel the layers of deception and intrigue surrounding BeiTech’s hidden agenda while fighting for their own survival.
In the “Kate Daniels” series by Ilona Andrews, the secret organization known as the Order of Merciful Aid plays a pivotal role in the narrative. Though the Order’s primary goal is to protect humanity from supernatural threats, it becomes clear that some of its members have ulterior motives and are willing to manipulate events to further their own ambitions. As Kate Daniels navigates the complex politics of this shadowy organization, she uncovers a web of secrets, betrayals, and hidden agendas.
In the “Dresden Files” series by Jim Butcher, various secret societies and organizations operate within the magical world, often with hidden agendas that impact the protagonist, Harry Dresden. One notable example is the White Council, an ancient organization of wizards that enforces the Laws of Magic. While the Council is ostensibly committed to maintaining order, it becomes apparent that there are factions within the group with their own goals and schemes, creating a labyrinth of political intrigue for Dresden to navigate.
In the “Ethan Drake” series, the story world is chock full of cults and shadowy organizations, the main one being Blackstar. For the first six books in the series, almost every problem Drake encounters arises from Blackstar in one form or another.
These examples demonstrate the importance of shadowy organizations with hidden agendas in urban fantasy, as they provide an additional layer of conflict and intrigue for the protagonists to confront. By including these clandestine groups in their narratives, authors create complex and engaging stories that explore themes such as power, loyalty, and the often murky morality of the supernatural world.
Blending Mythology and Folklore
Incorporating Traditional Tales
DARK URBAN FANTASY
HIRE MY COVER DESIGNER
STUFF I WRITE ABOUT
Audiobooks Author Updates Blogging Book Cover Design Characters Clive Barker Conspiracies Dark Fantasy Fiction Dark Fiction Dark Urban Fantasy Deadson Confidential Drakeverse Ethan Drake Series Fiction Writing H.R. Giger Hellblazer Horror Humor Influences Internet John Constantine Marketing Mastery Motivation Movies Music Mythology Negativity Non-Fiction Writing Personal Development Productivity Purpose Reviews Sandman Slim Self-Publishing Short Stories Social Media Spirtuality Subconcious Tropes TV Shows Urban Fantasy Writer's Doubt Writing Writing Voice