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Agent Miriam Kriss On: Is There Still Room in Urban Fantasy?

Urban fantasy has become a catchall phrase for contemporary-set fantasy and magical realism. It draws on many traditions of fantasy, horror, hardboiled crime fiction and even romance, blending them together in differing degrees to give us new stories with old tropes. It first really broke out with Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series in the 90s and has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since, cross-pollinating additional genres as it goes, including of course young adult. By this point, it’s a mature subgenre and very crowded. So can a new author still hope to break out? Of course! Here are a few things to keep in mind as you go about breaking out.

Miriam Kriss is an agent with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency representing commercial fiction and she represents everything from hardcover historical mysteries to all subgenres of romance, from young adult fiction to kick ass urban fantasies, and everything in between.

Miriam’s co-agent, Irene Goodman, offers manuscript critiques on eBay every month, starting on the first day of each month, with all proceeds going to charity. Click on the link for more details on these critiques and charity auctions.

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Urban fantasy has become a catchall phrase for contemporary-set fantasy and magical realism. It draws on many traditions of fantasy, horror, hardboiled crime fiction and even romance, blending them together in differing degrees to give us new stories with old tropes. It first really broke out with Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series in the 90s and has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since, cross-pollinating additional genres as it goes, including of course young adult. By this point, it’s a mature subgenre and very crowded. So can a new author still hope to break out? Of course! Here are a few things to keep in mind as you go about breaking out:

1. Make the tropes your own. The key is to pick up on archetypes that resonate readers and then make them your own. Keri Arthur, for example, put her own stamp on werewolf lore with the mythology in her Riley Jensen series. Her werewolves go into heat every full moon and must make love or risk falling into a mindless killing frenzy.

2. Keep it familiar. This may be counterintuitive, but if you make your world too foreign, you lose a lot of what makes Urban Fantasy so accessible, especially to the casual fantasy reader. For instance, Vicki Pettersson made up the entire mythology for her Zodiac Series a Vegas set battle between good and evil. But she based it on the centuries old zodiac, the familiar star signs her inspiration for her character’s personalities as well as the rules for her world. Likewise, Lilith Saintcrow set her Dante Valentine series in the future, but her place names let us know something of how the geography of her world relates to our own and she gives us hints of the history of how our world turns into hers sprinkled throughout the books.

3. Keep your characters human, even when they’re not.
Your characters, especially your hero or heroine, need to be people readers can relate to, with motivations that make sense. A great example of this is Jackie Kessler’s heroine Jezebel in her Hell on Earth series. Jezebel is a succubus, a demoness who’s spent the last few millennia bonking guys to death so their souls will be damned to hell. But her story starts when she falls in love and becomes human. Her struggles to make a life for herself and to figure out just what love is about are things we can all relate to.

4. Nobody’s perfect, at least they shouldn’t be. One danger for authors writing Urban Fantasy to is make sure your hero or heroine doesn’t get too powerful. It’s the old Superman problem. If you’ve got a man of steel, you have to invent kryptonite to just to keep things interesting. And you can only do that so many times before it starts to feel forced, so out of the realm of what we can relate to that you’ve lost your audience. Far better to keep your characters always vulnerable, always human enough that failure seems possible or even probable. Rachel Vincent’s character Faythe Sanders is a great illustration of this. She grows tremendously over the course of the series but not because she gains fantastic new powers. After all she’s an able bodied werecat when the series starts. She’s also a whiny, sheltered recent college graduate who hasn’t really grown up. By the end of the series, she’s still a werecat—but moreover she’s a seasoned fighter and a leader.

5. If you love it, throw it in the pot. One of the great joys of Urban Fantasy is that for all that it’s a mature genre, it isn’t a rigid one. Oh, there are a lot of kick-ass chicks in tight leather but there’s also the smattering of kindergarten teachers (OK, so sometimes they end up wearing motorcycle chaps, but they're not happy about it). There are lots of vamps and weres, witches and demons but there are also aliens, steampunk mad scientists, and voodoo prom queens. Most of it’s set in the here and now but there are a few near futures and Victorians as well. Even the here and now encompasses everything from Australia to China, going the long way around. Bottom line, if it’s fun to read and there are characters who we want to root for, if it has the magic to take us out of our everyday lives, chances are there’s room for it on the Urban Fantasy shelves.

And remember: If you're looking for a professional manuscript critique for a good cause, go to irenegoodman.com for more details.

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