Definition: The story must contain magical/fantastical elements within the real world, but these magical/fantastical elements must remain unknown to the majority of the world’s population. (Paraphrased from: Fantasy Book Review)
Often, people consider Contemporary Fantasy the same as Urban Fantasy. Urban Fantasy requires that the story take place in a city; Contemporary can take place anywhere on the real Earth.
The Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl series’ are both examples of the Contemporary sub-genre, since both are set in the real world with fantastical elements added in.
This article isn’t just to tell you what the Contemporary sub-genre is; I hope to help you with writing it. In order to do this, I will be using my experience in the genre. I have written a few short stories and am writing a novel in this sub-genre, and have tried many different ways of using it.
The first thing you need to decide is what fantastical element you are going to introduce to the world. As a rule of thumb, you should introduce no more than 5, preferably no more than 3. The reason for this is that you need your reader to believe it is happening in reality on Earth they know.
You could add, as I did in The Greater Grater, fantasy creatures (element 1) and a hidden fantasy world accessible only by a select few (element 2). The creatures gave the story a definite fantasy feel and by adding the hidden world I stretched the reader’s imagination as to what reality can hold to its limit. I also pushed the definition of Contemporary to its absolute limits; having a hidden world perhaps doesn’t strictly count as Earth. Though the characters and entrance were on Earth, so it still can count as Contemporary.
A more subtle fantasy element could be angels. Angels can define the culture in your story through their association with religion. Angels don’t have to be good; you could, as I did in Trick or Treat, make them evil. The fantasy element goes deeper when the angels affect your main character directly. If the chosen element changes the protagonist, then you are showing the reader how the element affects reality.
Of course, the most-known element for you to add is magic, which I have used in most of my work including The Magician’s Tattoo. Now, I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but I think the magical system I have is unique. Excess magic is urinated out or converted into grey hair. The magic is stored in ear wax, and if this is eaten by another it is transferred to them. All of this occurs in a world where ‘magic doesn’t exist’. Normal people like you or me don’t see this magic – this is because the magicians have measures in place and humans are just plain ignorant. A line that I plan to write for one of my characters goes something like this:
“The majority of humans are ignorant and unobservant. If they saw bright purple lights consistently fly past, they would say it was a charity event; if they saw a person disappear, they would say they never saw a person there at all; if a whole car changed colour, they would think someone’s a really fast painter. That is why we can hide in plain sight.”Remember, magic has been done to death over hundreds of years of literature. Before using magic, stop and think whether what you have in your head is creative and unique. If it isn’t, you have three options:
1. Don’t use magic
2. Make your system unique
3. Keep the system, but use it uniquely.
Of course, common systems can still work, but you need to be sure that your story has other unique elements to make up for it.
The key lesson in this article is that Contemporary is a wide sub-genre and there are almost limitless things you can do with it. The only reason it isn’t unlimited is because physics dictates there are not enough particles in the universe to allow limitless options!
The article can also be found here: Contemporary Fantasy on WDC