Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month

City as Character

She’s one of fiction’s most famous enchantresses—capricious and charismatic, capable of breaking the heart and enriching the spirit. She demands her place as the center of attention, the axis around which a writer’s world spins, the protagonist in any web of fiction a writer might weave.

Spend all the time you like on goals, conflict and motivation. Build worlds and populate them with vivid characters doing heart-rending, world-saving things. But if you set your urban fantasy—or any other fiction—in New Orleans, prepare to welcome the Crescent City as a character in her own right. She will demand it.

With her history of voodoo and pirates, yellow fever and heat-fueled violence, insular populations and their perpetual juxtaposition of poverty and opulence, New Orleans has been home to a Who’s Who of classic Southern authors: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellmann, Truman Capote—they’re only a few on this mind-boggling list. Long before Anne Rice laid one of the cornerstones of the modern vampire/urban fantasy empire, authors linked New Orleans with the paranormal, the vampire, the loup-garou, the ghost of the infamous Madame LaLaurie, the cities of the dead.

One of my favorite stories is of an early twentieth-century construction crew that went into an old New Orleans dowager of a mansion, planning to refurbish it for a new owner after years of neglect. In an upstairs bedroom, hidden in a cache beneath the floorboards, was a human skull placed atop two crossed human femurs—a “real” Jolly Roger, believed to protect one against vampires.

How can any writer of the paranormal resist New Orleans, I ask you?

Urban fantasies are, by definition, set in real locations, places where we live and work and, if we peer into the right corner, where we might come across some stranger-than-usual citizens or a portal into an alternate world. Yet, strangely, few make deep use of their settings. Jim Butcher drops in enough Chicago spots to ground his series, and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series needs its setting in Washington State, with its rich Native American history and geography, to make us feel as if we’re in the middle of Mercy’s world.

Some of the biggest urban fantasy series, however, use location as more of a prop than a character. Would anything really change if one plucked Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake from St. Louis and moved her business to Toledo? Would Kim Harrison’s alternate version of Cincinnati work as well if Rachel Morgan were chasing demons through an alternate version of Louisville? Even Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, which feels well-placed in its imaginary town near Shreveport, Louisiana, is more generically Southern than uniquely Louisianan. (Not so the HBO adaptation True Blood, but that’s a subject for another day.) The settings provide a general feel, a subtle ambience that doesn’t appreciably affect the story or its direction. That’s not a bad thing, just a curious thing.

Which brings us back to New Orleans. Whether because writers fall in love with it or because some paranormal spirit implants pods in the brain of any author who wanders too close, New Orleans is never just a placeholder. There’s nothing subtle about her.

A journalist once wrote that only five cities in the United States were truly unique. Only five where, if you were dropped blindfolded into their midst, you’d automatically know your location. I don’t remember the order, but the list included New York, Boston, San Antonio and Washington, D.C.

And New Orleans. Which is the beauty and curse of using NOLA as a setting. People know New Orleans, or they think they do, and they feel strongly about it. It’s either the coolest, eeriest, most wonderful city in the world—or it’s a hotbed of evil and sin and stupidity (because who would build a city below sea level anyway?).

People who’ve lived in NOLA have heard it all. They are proprietary and weary of bad portrayals of silly accents, mangled vernacular, marginally sane characters, and bizarre clichés. (Locals still make merciless ridicule of the accents in “The Big Easy” a quarter-century after the Dennis Quaid movie hit the theaters.) New Orleanians, and fans of the City That Care Forgot, love their city with a passion usually reserved only for other people.

Which is why an urban fantasy set in New Orleans has to get it right because the city WILL be a character, like it or not. A story set in NOLA can’t be lifted and plopped down in Los Angeles. Bury your story in cliché and careless geography, and your story will be lost. But give New Orleans a starring role—well, at least a co-starring role—and she’ll love you forever.

Think about your own favorite urban fantasies (or other fiction)—who do you think makes good use of setting as character? And is using a distinctive setting like New Orleans effective or distracting?

Photo by And all that Malarkey

A longtime New Orleans resident and veteran journalist, Suzanne Johnson writes urban and rural fantasy and spends too much time on Facebook. Her book Royal Street, scheduled for release in April 2012 by Tor Books, has the gall to be set in New Orleans, which plays a starring role.


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