Urban Fantasy Tropes, How They Define Genres, And Why All Genre Fiction Is Derivative

Colin McCool book 1-8The Colin McCool series (a.k.a., the Junkyard Druid series) is becoming ever more popular as time goes on, and for that I am very, very grateful. However, lately I’ve been running a lot of ads on Facebook and Instagram, and of course that brings with it the odd comment trolling the series.

Invariably, when trolls comment on my ads and posts, it’s something to the effect of “this series is a rip-off of (insert their favorite author/series here).” Usually either Jim Butcher or Kevin Hearne are mentioned.

Such comments are always good for a laugh, but sadly they can also influence and mislead potential readers. And while I don’t mind the comparisons (Jim Butcher is a legendary urban fantasy author, and Kevin’s books are fantastic), I do think it’ll be an interesting intellectual exercise to fisk my critics.

So, here goes.

“These Books Are a Rip Off of That Other Druid Series!”

Joker lose their minds memeHere’s my two cents on this…

First, the druid trope is nothing new. Terry Brooks, Morgan Llywelyn, & Marion Zimmer Bradley all tapped druidic and Celtic mythology in their works, long before any modern UF authors set pen to paper.

And there are over 2,100 books with the word “druid” in the title, subtitle, or series name on Goodreads. Some are non-fiction, but the vast majority are fantasy or historical fiction novels.

Second, most modern druid fantasy fiction leans heavily on the mythology created by Gary Gygax and the good folks at TSR. The druids of history were more like sages than magicians, although one could easily argue that the druids of Celtic mythology were wizards of a sort. But that whole trope regarding druids as caretakers of the land mostly originated with the character class in D&D.

Third, Atticus O’Sullivan is a great character, but strip away the Celtic mythology and the series is straight-up urban fantasy, complete with common tropes. This includes magic spells and items, magicians (druids), witches, vampires, werewolves, gods of various pantheons, and tons of mythological creatures to boot.

That’s not a criticism of Hearne’s books, however. I only mention it to point out that all urban fantasy novels share tropes to some extent. Which brings me to the next common criticism…

“Get This Jim Butcher Rip-Off Shit Off My Feed!”

Dresden on a T-RexAh, yes… admittedly, my books have several tropes in common with The Dresden Files.

Well, guess what? Tropes define genres. And if you’re going to write genre fiction, you have to include tropes.

Every diehard urban fantasy reader knows that Jim Butcher’s books set a lot of urban fantasy tropes in stone. The Dresden Files set the stage for literally hundreds of urban fantasy series that followed. The truth is, anyone who writes modern urban fantasy is borrowing heavily from Butcher’s ideas, concepts, and settings.

Wizard for hire? Thank Jim Butcher for that.

Magic-wielding protagonist who solves supernatural crimes? Also Jim Butcher.

Magic in the modern world? Popularized by Butcher, for sure.

Wizard protagonist taking on denizens of the paranormal world, or confronting supernatural races who wish to do humans harm? Definitely a common theme in Butcher’s novels.

Ancient gods updated and adapted to a modern setting? Well, that’s Neil Gaiman’s thing. But Dresden definitely runs into his fair share of mythological deities, for sure.

Bottom line? Tons of UF authors are riding Butcher’s coattails, and it’s damned hard to find a truly original concept in the genre. And as I’ve always said, the trick to creating fiction readers actually want to read is to take familiar tropes, character archetypes, and settings, and then weave them into stories that revisit those familiar touch points in new and interesting ways.

Hopefully, I’ve done that with The Colin McCool Paranormal Suspense Series. But if it comes off as derivative to some, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Side note: Emma Bull’s groundbreaking 1987 work, War for the Oaks, was among the very first urban fantasy novels ever published. And to my knowledge she was the first UF author to weave Celtic mythology and the Fae into her stories. That work introduced many such tropes into the genre, while at the same time serving to help create it. It can be argued that Butcher’s inclusion of the Fae in his novels was a trope borrowed from Emma Bull’s work. Again, that’s not a criticism—I’m just pointing out that all urban fantasy novels share tropes.

“Colin McCool? Really? What A Stupid Name!”

Well genius, McCool is the anglicized version of “MacCumhaill,” as in Fionn mac Cumhaill. The character in question is a descendant of said mythological person.

However, nobody spells it that way anymore. In the U.S. and Ireland, the “McCool” spelling is more prevalent, although “MacCool” is sometimes seen as well.

Pick up a book that’s a more challenging read than your standard urban fantasy novel, and you’d know that.

“Isn’t Colin McCool Just A Carbon-Copy Of ‘X’ Character?”

Colin McCool and the Vampire Dwarf book coverUm, no.

I created the main character for my druid novels in 2010, when I started writing “Colin McCool and the Vampire Dwarf,” a YA novella. That story featured a young man who is the descendant of Fionn MacCumhaill, who battles unseelie fae, and who is mentored by the druid known as Finn Eces (Finnegas). You can read that book today in its current iteration as Druid Blood, one of two prequels to the Colin McCool series.

The stories and character are unique, original creations, albeit with the inclusion of standard genre tropes. So if you want to compare my works with those of other UF authors, fine, that’s fair. But just because I write UF books with “druid” in the title, and just because the main character is a magician-type who sometimes solves supernatural crimes, don’t assume that they’re not unique works that stand on their own merits.

The truth is, if I’d have written Colin as a woman (Coleen McCool, anyone?*) no one would be making these comparisons. Instead, they’d be comparing my books to those of Kim Harrison and Faith Hunter. I suppose when I write a spin-off series featuring Belladonna or Fallyn (two female characters and love interests in the Colin McCool novels), I can expect to start hearing those comparisons as well.

Which just goes to show, no matter what you write someone is going to say it’s derivative. But, I don’t write for my critics. Instead, I continue to write new stories for the readers who enjoy the characters and worlds I’ve created.

To those of you who love and support my work, thank you. You are appreciated.

~MDM

 
* Footnote 02/2023: Someone actually did this a couple of years ago; that is to say, they created a UF series featuring a female druid character named McCool/MacCumhaill and called it a day. Can two authors have the exact same idea at different times? Certainly. Is it probable that this person wrote an entire novel in the very same genre, not knowing someone else had already created a popular druid character named McCool? Possibly. The McCool myths are in the public domain, after all. Meanwhile, I’m still here trying to write a better book at every go, and coming up with fresh ideas and new twists on familiar tropes with each new release. However, it’s quite possible that someday I’ll unintentionally do the very same thing that author did. Besides, grace is better for the soul than resentment. That’s why authors shouldn’t get too caught up in the notion that other authors are “stealing” our ideas. Better to continue to create while striving for as much originality as genre fiction allows, instead of focusing on what others are doing.

30 Comments

  1. Alisia on April 28, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    Rightly said. Not a writer myself, but a long time voracious reader of most any genre. Doesn’t matter the genre, the basics are always going to be the same. I can think of dozens of authors in each genre I read and they’re not ripping each other off. All of the stories stand on their own. I’m glad there are multiple authors writing in the same genre.

    • M.D. Massey on April 29, 2020 at 7:22 am

      I honestly think some of the criticism derives from the fact that many of these armchair critics are not well read, in that they’ve not read much urban fantasy beyond their favorite author’s works. Fans of the genre recognize that urban fantasy authors often use the same tropes.

      • Scott on February 10, 2023 at 11:27 am

        Love your stuff. Don’t listen to the haters. The time you spend reading their crap is time spent not writing the next book for me to buy. Don’t be like George Martin. Keep writing and don’t let the internet suck you in.

  2. Robert L Mandell on April 29, 2020 at 9:37 pm

    Well I’m a fan of Butcher,Jacka, Hearne, Aaronovitch,King,Olsen,McHugh,Doucette,Coulson etc., etc. I enjoy them all some more than others, but all are different. I enjoy the Junkyard Druid series as well. Blame Amazon, which sends emails that says if you like this author, then you might like this one as well. So I did try The McCool series and I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the Them series as well and the crossover McCool Them novel.

    So, please keep writing The Junkyard Druid series!

  3. Matthew Ingram on May 1, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Keep on going with Colin’s story it’s entertaining and that’s what reading is all about, forget them clowns they are just keyboard warriors and have no real place in normal society! I’ve tried the ‘Them’ series and it’s not my cup of tea but that’s the beauty of what an author can do with different characters in similar genres. Thanks for all your work keep it up.

  4. Kathysedai on May 1, 2020 at 11:57 am

    I think the biggest barb was using a fae who was a very specific person and the antagonist as Colin’s mentor was a shock for readers of Butcher. Maeve is one creepy bitch, it took some interaction with Colin for me to get a separate picture of your Maeve. I give no criticisms, the mythology is closer to your version. I personally follow a druid path, and follow the mythology of our gods for direction. So I have read quite a lot of mythology myself. I give you kudos for your application of characters.
    Keep writing, I enjoy your stories. And I applaud your picture of Johnny Cash and agree with the message.

  5. DebiRose on May 2, 2020 at 5:52 am

    Somehow I don’t believe the people of which you speak are critic’s, rather trolls sitting at their ease burning up more than their keyboards.
    At least, I refuse to acknowledge such comments as having come from critics.

    • M.D. Massey on May 2, 2020 at 3:26 pm

      “…burning up more than their keyboards.” 😀

      I wasn’t referring to them as being professional critics, but rather, as people who are being critical of another’s accomplishments, pursuits, etc. Casual critics, if you will.

  6. ChemistKen on May 2, 2020 at 8:33 am

    Tropes are necessary so fans of that genre can feel comfortable with a story, but it’s the way a writer weaves the story together that makes all the difference.

    BTW, when you say that people commented on your Facebook ads, were they able to comment directly on the ad or did they go to your website to whine? I haven’t tried Facebook ads yet, so I don’t know all the ins and outs.

    • M.D. Massey on May 2, 2020 at 3:23 pm

      Pretty much anyone who sees your ad in their feed can comment. Comments from trolls just come with the territory. They can be pretty funny at times, so much so that I’ve responded favorably to a few of them.

  7. Michael Johnson on May 2, 2020 at 10:56 am

    As a consumer of 5, or so, novels across multiple genres, I agree with everything you said. Tropes are not only common, I would argue they are necessary for the continuation of the genre. Keep it up! And please continue your chats on character development.

  8. John Ware on May 2, 2020 at 3:25 pm

    You could have skipped right to the picture at the end. Everything is derivative, its a part of the human condition (and a strength). What do they want, books that were written by someone whose never read anything else. I’m sure that would work out well.

    • M.D. Massey on May 2, 2020 at 3:28 pm

      Yeah, I could have… but that wouldn’t have been as much fun. 🙂

  9. Craig on January 9, 2021 at 9:24 pm

    Just discovered this thread, as I’m about to start book 11. We’ve exchanged words before, I initially thought Colin was a bit whiny in book one. But I have to say I’m thoroughly enjoying each and every novel. I also just discovered your THEM series, & I’m loving them too! Scratch is awesome, & I’m liking the alternate Colin very much

    • M.D. Massey on January 14, 2021 at 12:16 pm

      Thanks Craig! He is a bit of a whiny punk initially, but I had to give him room to grow. Glad you’re enjoying his character arc as the novels have progressed.

  10. Anne on June 3, 2021 at 10:04 pm

    I haven’t read any Emma Bull, but Charles deLint has been publishing UF since 1984’s Moonheart.

    • M.D. Massey on June 5, 2021 at 10:27 am

      Yep, that’s correct.

      • Robin Cruce on February 10, 2023 at 11:57 am

        I agree with your statement with one exception…Fionn MacCumhaill is the ancestor. Colin is his descendant. And I love these books!

        • M.D. Massey on February 10, 2023 at 7:52 pm

          Yep, I see the typo now. Fixed. Thanks!

  11. Shannon on February 10, 2023 at 12:03 pm

    I think those negative posts come from readers of the mindset, “(Insert author) is the best in the genre and no one else compares.” So essentially, they only enjoy the author rather than the genre – if that makes sense. Your post got me thinking about my own history of reading urban fantasy. Could one argue that Anne Rice started the UF genre in 1976 with Interview with a Vampire? She wrote about vampires, witches, and ghosts in the modern setting. I actually got hooked on the genre with the Anita Blake novels. Laurell K. Hamilton started that series in 1993. Vampires, werewolves, and the whole gamut. (I stopped reading her worked when it essentially… changed genre.) Then next it was of course, Jim Butcher, who made his debut in 2000. Then I’ve devoured pretty much everything else in the genre. I read this genre ‘because’ of the tropes and I look forward to how a different author builds a world with those character types. Melds the familiar with something unexpected. You’re absolutely right – an engaging UF story takes the standard tropes and does something new – moves them in a new direction. Some or more creative than others. I absolutely HAVE read very blatant Dresdren rip offs (wizard for hire, spelled trenchcoat, staff, has a spell lab in the basement with a metal spell circle built into the ground, and owns a cat.) I won’t name that author – they’re on my do not read list, but I don’t bother to leave negative comments whenever I see their FB ads…..

    • M.D. Massey on February 10, 2023 at 7:59 pm

      There’s a very strong argument for Anne Rice’s books being among the first urban fantasy novels, except that they fall more into the gothic horror genre. But there’s obviously a ton of crossover. Laurell K. Hamilton figured out that she could sell a lot more books if she went a slightly (???) different direction. More power to her, I guess. I hear you on your disdain for authors who are a bit too on the nose with the tropes. There’s a not-so-fine line between integrating tropes and heavily borrowing ideas from other authors. Believe me, the authors who do it know exactly what they’re doing. They know that for every reader who despises them for being unoriginal, there are a dozen who will read their stuff just because their fave author can’t pump out books like that to satisfy them. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying they know what they’re doing.

  12. Marie Gai on February 10, 2023 at 7:51 pm

    “Star Wars sucks; it’s just a big rip off of The Lord of the Rings” , lol

    When I first started reading Junkyard Druid, I thought, hang on; this reminds me of … and then I was too busy enjoying the story to bother going there. This series well and truly stands on its own two feet. Or paws. Or wings . Whatever.

    • M.D. Massey on February 10, 2023 at 8:00 pm

      Thank you for saying so, Marie!

  13. Robert L. Mandell on February 11, 2023 at 9:09 pm

    Could we consider Dean Koontz and early almost Urban Fantasy writer? Thinking of several of his early novels The Watchers being an example or would we consider his writing as suspense?

    • M.D. Massey on March 9, 2023 at 8:57 am

      His stuff falls more neatly into the category of magical realism, but I think you could make that argument.

Leave a Comment