Imagine Sookie without Bon Temps and Fangtasia. Mercy without wolfpack politics, fae intrigue or vampire vicissitudes in the Pacific Northwest. Rachel Morgan without Cincinnati or the Ever-After or the Hollows. Hard, yes?
Now, imagine Mercy without Adam. Sookie without Bill, Eric, Alcide, Eric, Quinn, Eric, and Sam. Or Rachel without Nick (the slimeball), Kisten, Marshal, Pierce, Trent, and Al. (Or Anita Blake without every male character who’s ever appeared in any of the series books–LOL.)
Good worldbuilding is vital to urban fantasy, whether it’s truly urban or is set in the wilds of Arkansas. Even if it’s set in the “real” world, it’s not the world we live in. We want complex, well-constructed worlds with interesting people (“people” being a relative term) and dangerous situations that our hero or heroine must escape.
Most readers today in these genres also expect romance in their books, and authors work to find the right life-to-love ratio between relationships and the external plot. After all, romantic elements and personal friendships need to be a part of our stories because they’re a part of life. If our characters are well-rounded, or at least one day hope to be, they should learn to navigate personal relationships as well as swordplay or zombie-slaughtering techniques.
If the fictional pendulum swings too far toward the romantic end of things, it becomes paranormal romance without a happy ending—not a good thing. Too far in the external plot direction and the story loses one of the most important elements with which to hook its readers: passion. Most urban fantasy seems to stay in a 60-40 life-to-love ratio; some even 70-30.
Only a couple of series come close to straddling the UF/PNR fence with a 50-50 split. Where would you place Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series? Technically, it’s urban fantasy. There’s no HEA at the end of the book. Mysteries or external plots are wrapped up, at least temporarily. Yet the series wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the relationship of Cat and Bones, and it’s given plenty of page time in each book.
Is Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire series paranormal romance or urban fantasy? God knows it has plenty of sex, and again comes close, but not quite, to a 50-50 split. Sookie changes partners the way most of us dither in a cafeteria line. (Let’s see…I’ll have two servings of big, blond Viking vampire with a small side of boring snoozefest vampire, two hunks of werewolf..no, make that a double helping of weretiger…well, you get the idea.)
But again, technically, it’s urban fantasy. Sookie didn’t get her HEA in any book until, arguably, the last one. And what did people argue over the most? What did they care about so much that Ms. Harris endured threats and harassment? It sure wasn’t about who would end up Queen of Louisiana or Sheriff of Area Five. It was all about Team Eric.
So, it’s clear that urban fantasy needs to not only present the strong worldbuilding necessary to sustain a series; it also needs enough romance to bring out the passion in readers. And God forbid there’s an unexpected turn.
Consider the case of Rachel Morgan and Kisten Phelps in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series. (Warning: spoiler ahead.) Kisten, introduced as a shallow, arrogant vampire who oozed sexuality and scared Rachel out of her boots, turned out to be almost, well, human. He and Rachel fell in love, and we loved him as much as she did. He was vulnerable and heartbreaking. He was brave and beautiful. He was even noble. He was perfect for Rachel. Trouble was, it was only the third book of the series and it wasn’t time for Rachel to have an HEA. The relationship was threatening to take over the author’s vision for the series with an overdose of happy. There was only one thing to be done.
Kisten had to die.
There were many loyal Hollows readers who snatched up the next two or three books and inhaled them, convinced that Kist would somehow be revived. (Good thing about paranormals. Someone can be dead one minute, alive and raising hell the next.) But it was not to be. Now, with grumbling in our hearts, we await the end of the series looking skeptically at Trent Kalamack, the morally ambiguous elf who seems Kisten’s most likely romantic heir. Oh yeah, and to find out how she resolves the whole issue of being a day-walking demon. But it’s the Rachel-Trend dynamic we want to see.
In other words, while urban fantasy fans love the worldbuilding and the action, it’s the relationships, up to a nice 35 or 40 percent of the story, that create the passion.
What about you? Do you like a little romance with your fantasy, or a little fantasy with your romance?