Revisiting some of Jim Butcher’s rather fun Dresden Files books has made me realise something that’s always bothered me about urban fantasy fiction:
In most fictional worlds where vampires, werewolves, and the like really do exist, most people’s attitudes towards them are exactly the same as in the world where they don’t exist.
That is, this world.
I should perhaps define some terms before getting into this. By “urban fantasy”, I mean stories which are essentially set in the real world, but with a certain fantasy twist. So, we’re not talking Middle Earth here: The Dresden Files are set in Chicago, Sunnydale is fictional but could be any regular town in California, that sort of thing.
There are important and obvious differences between these two tropes. In a completely fictional realm, living with orcs and elves and dwarves is the norm for your characters; with urban fantasy, the protagonist might be one of very few who can give you a glimpse of the magical aspects of your own world.
This isn’t always how it works – there are plenty of stories which take place in a slight variant on our planet, where most geography and history and culture are the same, but some aspect of fantasy has become mainstream, and witches in London are now as populous as hobbits in the Shire. But, in my experience with the genre at least, this is less common.
Most regular people Harry Dresden meets in Chicago thinks he’s crazy for advertising his professional services as a wizard. Awareness of Buffy’s vampire-slaying seems limited to a very exclusive clique, outside of which nobody seems to notice or believe in any of it.
Here’s the thing, though: In the real world, the majority react this way for a very good reason. In this world, if you meet someone who claims to be an actual wizard or to slay vampires, you’d have to be reasoning extremely poorly if you took them wholly at their word.
But in the world of urban fantasy fiction, there really are vampires and wizards and magic.
So why are there still skeptics?
Or perhaps I mean: why is the skeptical position so often depicted almost identically, when you’ve completely changed a crucial aspect of the context – namely, the actual evidence of the phenomenon in question?
The role vampires play in the lore of our world is pretty much exactly what you’d expect to see if vampires weren’t real. If they were really out there, they’d have had a much more significant impact. There ought to be numerous verifiable reports. They shouldn’t be such an elusive unknown quantity if they were real. It’d be like trying to pass off wasps as just an urban legend.
Harry Dresden conjures fire from the air at a single word of command. He summons the wind to do his bidding. He deflects machine-gun bullets with a magical shield. He’s a genuine, powerful wizard. Why is he still having trouble convincing anyone?
I don’t remember if Buffy ever really dealt with the skepticism thing. She knows damn well there are vampires. Most other people don’t, but they tend to come around to the idea pretty quickly when presented with evidence, often in the form of a set of fangs plunging toward their neck.
This is something I’m really struggling with in the urban fantasy novel I’m trying to write my second draft of at the moment. At first I just ignored it, and assumed as cavalierly as many authors do that all the magic and undead creatures wandering around have just been flying under the entire world’s radar for a few centuries. But the basic implausibility of that idea is probably going to be too much for me to comfortably ignore. I’m going to have to find some way to integrate the supernatural into the world at large, or explain its general absence. It’d probably still work as a story if I didn’t, and it wouldn’t bother too many people, but it’ll bug the crap out of me.
I don’t really have an end to this post, so I’m just going to stop abruptly in the mi