There are fads in literature as in anything else. For a number of years now, in the fantasy genre the sub-genre of contemporary fantasy has been a fad. I’ve written some of it myself (my Star Mages trilogy is contemporary fantasy), huge popular series built around a single character (too many to list) have been published in the contemporary fantasy sub-genre, and so it deserves some thought.
Contemporary fantasy is fantasy that’s set in our own modern world, with fantasy elements changing it to one degree or another. It’s distinct from other-world fantasy (or, as it’s more commonly called, “epic” fantasy — a somewhat misleading term) which is set in a world other than our own. Since most fiction is set in our own modern world, contemporary fantasy can easily be cross-genre and one sees fantasy detective stories (e.g. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series), fantasy romance (e.g. Twilight), and so on.
It’s always difficult in fiction to establish clear and definite boundaries. One is engaged in a creative enterprise and the tendency is to push the edges of the envelope, defying simple categorization. In writing contemporary fantasy, one begins with our own world as it is today — at least as well as the writer can understand it, which of course is never perfectly. But one begins with today’s world — and then one introduces changes to it.
Perhaps one moves the story a bit in time, into the past or into the future. Barbara Hambly once wrote a two-volume story (The Rainbow Abyss and The Magicians of Night) which began as an other-world fantasy and then transported the main character from it into Germany in 1940. How does one categorize the second volume? Is it contemporary fantasy or historical fantasy? My Star Mages series is set some 50-150 years in the future. Is it contemporary fantasy or is it science-fiction-fantasy?
How much is the world we know changed by the fantasy elements? Are they present in the world around us, unseen and unrecognized, so that the world of the story is exactly the same as the one we know, but our attention is drawn to a part of it we haven’t experienced up to now? Or is this a changed world, not really the same as the one we know because magicians or vampires and werewolves or the gods or whatever have changed it dramatically? At what point should we say that the world has changed so much that we are now dealing with other-world fantasy and not contemporary fantasy at all?
Contemporary fantasy carries a subtle hint that other-world fantasy does not. It suggests that these magical things and beings are (or at least could be) part of our own world. It is therefore less “safe” than other-world fantasy, which allows the mind to explore magical realms without challenging the boundaries of the real in our own lives. There is magic to sing to our spirits in other-world fantasy, but it is safely there and not here. In contemporary fantasy it is here. If I were more of an optimist and less a cynic, I might suppose the popularity of contemporary fantasy to signal a development in human social evolution and a new readiness to allow the magical into our lives. That may be so. We’ll see.
Does contemporary fantasy make world-building easier or harder? On the one hand much of the world is built for us by nature and history and all one has to do is add fantasy elements (along with characters and plot, of course). On the other hand, writing in a world that everyone already knows and that some people are guaranteed to know each part of better than the author presents challenges of its own. In writing The Star Mages, I was very grateful for the existence of Google Maps, which let me say things about cities and places where I have never been as if I knew anything about them.
Ultimately what distinguishes contemporary from other-world fantasy is a feel. The world being depicted may depart radically from the one we know, but it should have a contemporary feel to it. What is the feel of modern life? Fast-paced? Uncertain? Moral values in flux? Everything changing so fast it’s hard to feel rooted? All of that, together with reactions to it that range from denial to exuberance. A contemporary fantasy should have that feel. It can come from the things that give us that feel today, or it can come from the fantasy elements themselves — a similar sense of conflict and change can be woven into the new material as into the old. Add enough elements from life in the world today to give the reader a sense of familiarity and you have it, even if the night is populated by vampires or there are wizards advertising their services in the phone book.
Perhaps the final question not just about contemporary fantasy but about all literary genres is this. Do we want to set out to write a particular category of story? One of the beautiful things about fantasy that distinguishes it from some other genres is that there is no strict formula for writing it. A fantasy story is just a story with fantasy elements. Other than that, it can be any sort of tale at all. I’m not sure it’s a great idea to sit down and say, “I’m going to write a contemporary fantasy novel.” Better to have a story in mind, or a character or several, and if the story or the characters belong in today’s world then place them there. No matter how successful a certain type of story is, you won’t write your best by imitating it.
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