5 Things I Keep in Mind While Worldbuilding for URBAN FANTASY

Hey all, I’m a fantasy author, particularly in the urban fantasy genre. I just love taking the world we live in and twisting it into something that’s mine. However, on my journey, I have made a few mistakes. Particularly with my use of Wendigo. I have an author’s note on that page, but I did not realize at the time of writing it that, as a white woman, I should probably have avoided using it as a monster in my story. I explain myself more in my note, but going forward, I won’t be using it, and will modify it in my works if affected people come forward and let me know that I should. As of now, I left it in and am owning up to my mistake rather than hiding it.

I have seen arguments for the other side as well, where people say the creatures should not be restricted if used and credited properly, and demanding no-use is erasure. I think the best solution would be to properly research these matters and come to a decision, something I did not do responsibly at the time.

The point of me explaining that, however, is a lead in to number 1.

(1) Properly research your subject matter before writing about it.

The internet is a flurry of mixed opinions on this subject, whether a creature from different cultures can be used or not. Urban fantasy would be a point of contention, especially modernization of these creatures. I take the less popular view in left circles, to be honest, that proper research and respect of a culture and creature is an excellent path to walk as opposed to not using it at all. I have ancestry in the Norse, for example, and am always absolutely thrilled to see Norse mythology in modern fantasy.

This will not be the case for every culture, so sensitivity readers and research is important. However, I do think it is leaning on the ridiculous side to say “you can’t use a creature from ANY other culture other than your own”. Read the room. I saw a particularly nonsense post regarding the kitsune and how ‘it should not be used’ by western writers, and I’m not going to lie. I rolled my eyes. Many agreed with the sentiment. It’s like the kimono situation. Don’t get offended on behalf of someone else if you’re not from the culture, simply put. That is speaking over people.

Much like the vampire and werewolf, trolls, giants, we should write depictions respectful to the culture in our works. Otherwise, where is the diversity? We can’t just shut out every mythical creature from use if the culture itself is perfectly fine with the depictions of it in other media, and utilizes creatures from other cultures as well in modern fantasy. Again, this depends on the creature, and relies heavily upon research. If you truly think you stumbled upon something you should not use, then be respectful. Otherwise, talk to sensitivity and those from that culture to ensure you’re being respectful.

And, above all? Continue to support diverse writers, as well. Don’t just write about these creatures and take them for yourself. Go support and LEAVE A REVIEW on works by diverse authors. I think that’s the most important takeaway here aside from proper research.

(2) Make it different/unique

When it comes to fantasy, there really should not be a cookie-cutter way to write things. I see so many people, particularly in the World of Warcraft community, with set ways like “light always has to be good” or “Dark always has to be bad”, and “elves must be this specific way”. It happens everywhere else as well. It all comes back to people thinking, for some reason, that Tolkien’s world is law. Which it is not law. This is a western lens, first things first, which I personally write through, living in the United States–so my works will generally have more westernized monsters. HOWEVER that view not only alienates diverse authors, but puts other western writers into a ridiculous box!

I actually really am not a fan of the standard vampire myth. The whole ‘crosses, garlic, and mirrors’ thing is ridiculous to me. As is the notion of a single bite = being turned every single time. I like the idea of a vampire having control of that. FURTHER, I don’t even like ‘undead’ vampires. Mine are living vampires and I splashed some Biology into their concept (granted I now have my own version of undead ones too even though I told myself I would not. Darn it!). People would heavily criticize me for straying from common myth, perhaps, but… why, I ask? Why do all of us have to be confined to some stupid box?

As far as I’m concerned, whether I’m writing or reading something, I want to see the author’s voice and unique take on things–and I want people to see mine. I’m actually praised for my different takes on various mythical beings. The world, and magic, is our playground (as long as we keep (1) in mind). No singular writer or story should define how everyone writes something.

What I say is go wild. I want to see twists, things I don’t expect, natures of things that I would have never thought of. That’s why I read fantasy.

(3) Think about your location

Where, and when, on Earth does your story take place? To be honest, I (usually) stick to places I’ve visited to write about, and at the moment all of my work takes place in the United States. It’s my comfort zone, and if I want to stray from it, I will have to do heavy research on other areas of the world and consider if it’s even a good idea to write in them. I would consult friends or acquaintances of mine from those areas before making a decision.

But are you writing in the far past, or far future? You could combine cyberpunk with fantasy if you take the future route, a genre I haven’t seen utilized as much yet. You could make current political commentary in your works if it’s here-in-the-now or near future. You could write alternative magical history (be careful with this) if you pick the past.

Beyond that, I think about the climate, one of my weak points. I was terrible at describing whether and setting, but lately have been improving. I now generally pick a season and let the story carry out from there, bearing in mind how the seasons change in my area. Other helpful questions I ask myself are what the buildings look like, how people generally act, and how I think they would react when given a huge change in their day-to-day lives.

One of my stories will be taking place in Las Vegas at some point, which is something I will need to research, as I’ve never been there. Many authors don’t have the monetary means to physically go to places, but this can be accomplished by research and discussion. It’ll be a large project, but one that is worth it. Especially for describing really colorful scenes.

(4) Utilize the technology in your time period

So this is mostly targeted toward current-time writers and futuristic writers. Granted, for the latter, I think you’d end up having to invent some tech for your story. But I tend to write in our current time, so I utilize television and newscasting a lot. I don’t mention social media as much as I should, however, even though mine take place in the 2020s. However, I do sometimes show live broadcasts of my dystopic events and vampires talking about it. This is seen in one of my segments below (GORE WARNING):

Eventually, I landed upon a news station. The reporter had a deep crimson gaze, and when she opened her mouth to speak, I caught the sight of her dagger-like fangs. Wincing, I closed my eyes and willed myself to calm down. I needed to be able to handle this. 

“In other news, the blood trade is booming. Livestock trades are at their all time high, the business is rather profitable. If you’re looking to get into the market, there are some high price tags on the livestock from self-proclaimed kingdoms of harmony. They protect their livestock very well, and rumor has it that their blood will be mana-enriched soon due to magical training. Some kingdoms advise against antagonizing, what do you think, Eric?”

The camera panned over to a pale man with slicked-back black hair, a prettied-up suit, and a weasel-like smile. He drew his tongue along the pink of his lips, pondering the question for a moment. “Well, Jane, as you know, we strive to be neutral on these matters, but if I were to pick sides, we-he-hell I would most definitely enjoy a good hunt.” 

The reporter woman laughed along with him in an eerie manner, and the screen flashed over to a different scene. Jane’s excited tone rang out over a dark landscape with corpses littering the pavement. Tall buildings loomed over the dozens of bodies like a city cage, the dull lights of the street just barely touching on the grisly scene. Fresh crimson stained the street, and off to the side, vampires could be seen ripping into one another with claws and fangs, spilling blood like a river of gore and despair. 

My breath caught as I watched what looked like a horror movie scene, but was actually my reality. The reporters went on about the various vampire battles still occurring in major cities that used to be owned by humans, casually laying out those with the current upper hand and predictions about which kingdom would win over which city. All of the cities they showed footage of were previously bustling with human activity, but not anymore. 

Des M. Astor; Cobratongue University: Professors & Kings

As you can see, I characterized both the reporters and the setting of the television being used. Social media and phone calls can be used in this fashion to strike fear and emotion. It’s all about what you’d like to show your reader and how you’d want to show it. Urban Fantasy and tech opens up interesting avenues for storytelling and information.

Also, if your species is hidden in an urban setting with all of this, how do they remain hidden? That is also something to bear in mind.

(5) How do people act when presented with a problem

Are you creating a life-changing events for your story? If so, how will people in your area react, and what will they utilize to fix the problem? If you’re in modern era, are your guns more powerful than magic, or vice versa? There are powerful weapons and sciences at play when it comes to the modern era–so how will you allow that to blend with the fantasy you add to our world?

This is all important when it comes to characterization and how they navigate their world, whether it be keeping things hidden or putting it on display for the world. How your characters react is world building in it of itself–and you can use dialogue to express various bits of world building, particularly when it comes to questions regarding creatures or events.

When it comes to my story, I ended up with a dystopia, where billions were slaughtered in a vampire war (Seen in Red Viper or The Dancing Crow.) This led to a tidal wave of stress for the survivors of this (humans), and a mountain of responsibility on their shoulders if they ended up in areas of harmony. It’s a point I bring up throughout my books, and emphasize that in this setting, there is little rest, but no peace. It makes the good times better, however.

Also, how do the laws change and general accepted morality? Throughout history, we see what’s accepted changed on the regular. Does your story make an impact where this changes, along with how people react now to their fellows?

Some people might find what I said to be controversial, especially (1). But respect and sensitivity is very important, as is not just speaking over other people to tell everyone else ‘no’. All in all, I do apologize if some people found what I said to be upsetting, but they are indeed my opinions, and I am eager to explore mythical beings/worlds from many different authors.

Published by Des M. Astor

Heya, I'm an author. Typically I write Urban Fantasy, and I only usually read in that genre as well. My author's website is both a writing blog and a showcase for my work. Check it out if you'd like.

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