There are things I just don’t understand about urban fantasy, at least not on a gut level, not where it counts when it comes to writing it myself.
I finally started reading a series I’ve meant to pick up for ages. I’d heard good things about it and I had hopes that it would be closer to what I write than a lot of -paranormal romance- urban fantasy is. And it started off quite well, if with a literary slowness. And it’s competently written and I don’t dislike the protagonist, so it’s way up on some Book 1s I’ve read. I’m not very far into it yet so maybe I’ll love it yet. So this isn’t just about this Book 1, which is why I’m not naming it explicitly.
But at 10% of the way in, I’m thinking “Haven’t I read this story before?” This book came before those other ones so I’m trying to be fair.
But I keep hitting… tropes, I guess, and they _bug_ me and I don’t understand why they keep happening in the genre, because they’re weak and lazy, even if they’re obviously effective.*
I mean, you’ve got your shifter, and she’s estranged from her pack so she can live her life but something sends her home to the pack and there she meets an old flame. Oh, and she’s rare or unique in being a female shifter. And the men in her life pretty much start off their interaction with her by telling her she’s not behaving as they expect her to behave, even though they’ve made it impossible for her to do so.
They are never sorry.
Lots of other people have talked about the tendency of the men in these kinds of books to be unrepentant assholes; I don’t want to do too much of it here. But a little bit– I guess it’s an alpha male fantasy? And hell, I like tough competent men who know what they want and know how to get and who don’t let other men push them around. But what I don’t like are men who make me feel bad, especially about myself. I don’t like it so much that it’s the default magical attack of one of the monsters in my Senyaza setting. He’s a… complicated character and I won’t say he doesn’t have some appeal, but he’s a monster, he isn’t safe and the only way to have a healthy relationship with him is to get far away from him as fast as possible.
Men who are coded as ‘good guys’, who are marked as ‘loves the protagonist in some fashion’, yet whose initial actions are to try and make the protagonist feel bad about herself make me want to stop reading, right away.
So that’s that. What I actually wanted to talk about, though, is this tendency toward making shifter females rare or unique. I understand, intellectually, that it’s a way of giving the protagonist intrinsic specialness, and of making her immediately interesting to a lot of men. I mean, intrinsic yet explicit specialness is better than informed generic specialness or exotic good looks or whatever. Strength of character or skills the protagonist worked for are even better. But if I have to pick intrinsic specialness to make a protagonist the protagonist, I’m going to pick something other than her gender, every time. Especially with werethings. Especially.
The reason in-world is never particularly impressive. It’s a bit of magic and a bit of ‘biology’. You know: women are weaker. They don’t survive being turned into a werewolf very well. If they do, they’re probably now barren. And male werewolves, well, they mostly view females as sex dolls. Again, just biology, right? And of course out-of-world, werewolves are just a metaphor for the passionate man, driven by his animal urges, always resisting the urge to wolf out and kill or fuck anything in his path, right? Being a werewolf is a metaphor for constantly resisting the demands of nearly overwhelming hormones. Except the biggest surge in ‘hormones’ comes on a monthly rather than daily cycle.
Waitaminute… I’m suddenly thinking here that maybe men and women have an equal claim on being werewolves, at being constantly pulled by their base natures to lash out.** And there have been good stories told about woman-as-werewolf, certainly. But… it’s not the trend in urban fantasy. Intellectually, I understand. I understand about making the woman special, making her femaleness special, about appealing to as many readers as possible, about giving her lots of pretty men and no friendly women to interact with. It sells. Clearly it sells. But it feels like such a waste of potential.*** There’s so much that could be done with a pack of female werewolves, or a race of werewolves where gender doesn’t matter, where the wolf-alpha myth wasn’t so slavishly adhered to, where the magic of transformation didn’t fail women over and over again. There’s so much possibility. There’s so much possible speculative fiction.
But in urban fantasy, you’ve got central packs, and they have a single male leader and females are rare and men fight over her and it is hot. And the protagonist doesn’t have any true friends of her own gender. She is alone; no wonder she often comes across as self-absorbed.
They’re partial stories, all of them, designed consciously or unconsciously to appeal to one small part of a heterosexual woman’s life: “be wanted by the mens.” It’s a story. It’s a form of fantasy. It sells. But I don’t like reading it and even when I try and try, I just can’t write it.
*Why I will probably never be a bestseller. Gotta feel it in your gut, you know?
**Unless you take the approach that women don’t resist their base natures and are always at the whim of their hormones, in which case, um congratulations on buying into institutionalized misogyny?
***I played in an online Werewolf game for years, which gave me a lot of opportunity to think about werewolves.
i could write about vampires sometime too