This week, on Sunday Sub-Genres, we’re looking at Contemporary Fantasy. We actually already discussed one of the sub-genres of Contemporary Fantasy in this article on Urban Fantasy. But this week, let’s look at the sub-genre that started Urban Fantasy.
Defining Contemporary Fantasy
Contemporary fantasy is fantasy that’s set in the time period of the writer. For those of us writing today, it would be present time. For those who wrote contemporary fantasy in the past, it would’ve been whatever was modern day for them.
The key with contemporary fantasy, much like with urban fantasy, is that the magical elements and creatures are very rarely seen or understood as such. They live hidden in the shadows of our world or spill into our world from alternate worlds not known to the general populace. This distinctive take on magic is the hallmark of contemporary and urban fantasy both, which is easy to understand since urban fantasy branched off from contemporary fantasy in the first place.
Of note is the fact that the setting for contemporary fantasy does not have to be in a city or the outskirts of one like urban fantasy does. In fact, often the only thing that makes something urban fantasy instead of contemporary is a city setting instead of a place that isn’t city or suburb.
Writing Urban Fantasy
One of the tricks with contemporary (also known as modern) fantasy is that the world of the fantastical is a secret. Somehow, it has managed to operate under the radar so that few, if any, humans know about it. How this works is something that each individual author must determine. But there must be an explanation, otherwise our suspense of belief or our willingness to accept things that we wouldn’t otherwise accept will be severely challenged.
There are many ways authors go about achieving this. You have methods like Cassandra Clare’s Immortal Instruments where the creatures disguise themselves as human or are able to cloak themselves from human eyes altogether. Other authors have utilized alternate worlds.
I myself am a fan of mixing the two and using both the element of disguise and the idea of travel between different realms to keep the mortal humans in novels from discovering the world of the fantastical.
These are all valid options, and what you choose to do is up to you and the story you want to tell. But before you do anything else, you should decide how this very key element of your story will work. Everything else hinges on this.
Systems of Magic
At some point, I’ll have an entire article that goes into this subject because it’s detailed and has many caveats to it. But for now, let’s just say that there are plenty of options available to choose from for your system. What you do is, once again, entirely up to you. But what you choose will also depend on the first element you discussed because how you keep things hushed up when funny, magical stuff happens will define, to some extent, what sort of magic you can have.
After all, it’s kind of hard to cover up two giants in the sky throwing lightning bolts at each other if a bunch of people see it and take pictures. Unless you have some explanation for how no one would see that or understand what was going on, this sort of possibility in your magic system just won’t fly.
So spend some time working out how magic works. Even if it’s hidden, it’s still going to be an undercurrent, or even a pivotal piece, in how your world operates. Just because it’s under the radar doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Creatures and Mythology
Inevitably, modern or contemporary fantasy authors seem to want to include werewolves, vampires, and the rest of that crew. While there’s nothing wrong with this, if your story is going to feature them, you need to define them. I think, after seeing the myriad of supernatural shows and books that cropped up both before and after Twilight, we all understand that no one has exactly the same take on vampires, werewolves, or really any supernatural creature. So make sure you’re clear about what your creatures are and are not up front.
Along with this, the idea of including gods and mythology in contemporary fantasy has become more and more popular over the years. There’s not something that’s necessarily wrong with this, but it does raise a few questions. If they’re there for name recognition only, it’s probably not a big deal. But if they’re going to be a main part of the story, you have to start asking yourself if they really need to be there and, if they do, why they don’t just solve all the problems. If you’re going to include them, you’d better answer these two questions. Otherwise, you may run into some serious problems with these types of characters.
Contemporary or modern fantasy can be a lot of fun for writers. It allows them to bring fantasy into a setting they know best: the modern world all around them. Often, it also allows them to use places or settings that are near and dear to their hearts, making the locations in the book that much more real and vivid.
I’ve given you just a few of the things you need to think about when starting into contemporary fantasy, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what you could go into when planning or working on modern fantasy. I encourage you to keep exploring. Read some of the books listed below to get a better grasp on the genre and what’s possible with it, and spend some time looking into how to write it if you’re just starting out.
Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to give it a try! It might be exactly the thing for you. And if not, that’s okay. You learned something new about yourself.
If you have suggestions for contemporary fantasy novels, please feel free to leave it in the comments! If it isn’t clean or YA-appropriate, please mark it as such so younger readers or parents looking for books for their children know to steer clear.
Have another tip for writing contemporary fantasy that I didn’t cover? Share that in the comments too! I’d love to see what those of you who frequently (or even not-so-frequently) have learned about writing in this sub-genre.
Further Reading and Resources
As always, I mark things that aren’t appropriate for younger audiences with a note on the age level (if it isn’t 18+) and one star. If I haven’t read it yet, I mark it with two stars so everyone knows I’m not necessarily recommending the content for younger readers.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
**Neil Gaiman’s American Gods
**Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files
Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (There’s a movie adaptation of this now, I believe, and it was pretty good. Suitable for pre-teens and teens. As far as I know, the book is also good. It’s YA.)
Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series
Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones (This is also considered urban fantasy since it takes place in New York and Brooklyn.)
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (This is one that’s actually suitable for little kids. It’s a kids’ picture book.)
C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time
Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series (If your younger readers like adventure and genius kids, this is a great series for them. It was, and honestly still is, one of my favorite children’s and juvenile fiction series.)