We all have favorite tropes. Whether it’s fated mates or robot wizards, a particular trope in a book description can make that book an auto-buy.
Urban fantasy has its own common tropes and elements. Obviously there has to be magic and a contemporary setting, or it’s not urban fantasy. But tropes like magical academies, vampires vs. werewolves, and the trenchcoat brigade have carved out a home in urban fantasy, some more popular than others.
Here are my five favorite urban fantasy tropes. While I don’t love every single book that has them (It all comes down to execution.), they show up in a lot of my favorite reads.
Is this the perfect urban fantasy trope or what? The protagonist is a private detective with one foot in the mundane world and one foot in the magical. Each book in the series features a new client with a different case, with an overarching plotline or looming big villain tying the books together.
This works in universes where magic is a part of everyday life, such as in the Alice Worth series where Alice is an MPI, or mage PI, and is known for specializing in magical cases. And it works equally well in universes where magic is hidden from the general population. Arden Finch in the Shadows of Otherside series takes on mundane cases from regular humans who don’t know the supernatural exists, but she also deals with problems in the magical community.
Muggle with a Degree in Magic
This trope has instant conflict. The protagonist has vast magical knowledge, which is possibly the reason they get pulled into the plot. But they have zero capability or experience when it comes to casting spells or using magic to defend themselves.
One of my favorite examples is Robin Page from the Guild Codex: Demonized series. A total book nerd, she’s studied magic but never practiced it because it’s so dangerous. When magical danger eventually comes for her, her book smarts aren’t nearly enough of a defense.
Dr. Greta Helsing from Strange Practice is another example. She uses her medical knowledge to treat “vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights, and entropy in mummies.” It’s a great skill set, just not one that comes in handy when you’re getting attacked by evil cults or eldritch monsters.
I’m a sucker for a badass heroine wielding a magic sword. Whether it’s Kate’s sabre Slayer in the Kate Daniels series or Val Thorvald’s mysterious dwarven blade Chopper in Death Before Dragons, a cool sword is the ticket to awesome fight scenes throughout a book.
Which is probably why Leigh, the heroine of my Dark and Otherworldly series, ends up getting a magic, sentient, and very angry sword.
The blade doesn’t even have to be a sword. Kira’s lightblade and the Dagger of Kheferatum in the Shadowchasers series are awesome (and in the dagger’s case, ridiculously dangerous), and I love reading about the protagonists slaying bad guys with them.
It takes skill to wield a sword, and a hero/heroine who uses one instantly comes across as a badass. And when that sword has magical properties such as letting them deflect spells or slay dragons? Even more badass.
Hitman with a Heart
Assassins are bad in real life, but in fiction they’re so much fun to read about. They also make for an engaging antihero in an urban fantasy series.
Gin Blanco from the Elemental Assassin series is an infamous hired killer known as the Spider. She has elemental magic but takes pride in killing her targets without it. She also only takes jobs where her targets are murderers, rapists, and other horrible people.
Val Thorvald from Death Before Dragons works as a contractor for the US government taking down supernatural threats. She has a reputation as a ruthless killer in the supernatural community, but in truth, she only targets supernatural creatures who have killed humans and will kill again if she doesn’t stop them.
I See Dead People
The ability to see ghosts is such a handy skill for an urban fantasy protagonist. Solving a murder case? It helps if you can talk to the ghost of the victim. Need arcane knowledge lost to time? Summon the ghost of a wizard who died a hundred years ago. Ghosts can be super helpful when they’re not trying to murder you.
And if they are trying to murder you, it helps if you can see them.
Sometimes the ability to communicate with the dead is a rare skill, like with Cassiel in By Earth. In other urban fantasy universes, like the Alice Worth series, anyone with magic can see them. Either way, it’s a helpful skill to have.
These five tropes show up in many of the books I read (and write). But it’s not an all-inclusive list, and I’m sure that five minutes after I post this, I’ll remember another trope that I absolutely love.
What are your favorite urban fantasy tropes? Let me know in the comments!
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