From November – December 2020, we ran a series discussing variations on common fantasy and science fiction tropes. This article begins a two-part revival focused on Urban Fantasy. Start at the beginning if you’re interested.
I’ve been thinking lately about the unique challenges of writing supernatural tales in modern settings. Whether it’s werewolves, aliens, witches, superheroes, shapeshifters or a thousand other fantastic options, introducing magical creatures to a setting familiar to your readers places an extra hurdle before that all-important suspension of disbelief. If you’re writing about another planet or in a standard pseudo-medieval or faux-renaissance fantasy setting, readers don’t inhabit that world. This simple division takes the reader by the hand and leads them directly into comfortably accepting the supernatural premise.
Not so with a modern setting. Often called ‘urban fantasy,’ these tales contend with both technological plot complications and the nagging subconscious jibe telling readers the story isn’t possible: Readers walk out their front door and see it isn’t so.
That brings us to today’s discussion: Masquerades.
To get on the same page, here’s how we’ll define a masquerade: Any plot device that facilitates keeping a supernatural world hidden from the mortal world. Let’s look at a few options:
The Sword of Damocles –
This is basically the no-system system. With power comes danger. Fear of discovery forces the supernatural protagonist to take precautions at every turn. However, fear runs both ways. Perhaps non-magical witnesses are concerned about being labeled crazy conspiracy theorists for going public with their supernatural secrets. Maybe they are afraid of supernatural retaliation. In either case, there is no formal system keeping the secret – it’s all on individual human behavior.
The strength of this option is that it lines up the most closely with the ‘real’ world. Readers don’t have to accept a whole secret society to hop in and enjoy the ride – just a few special anomalies. The fearful sword facilitates stories about supernatural characters on the run; exploring the fear of being ‘other.’ The challenge is that the no-system is writing in hard-mode. At every turn, it is the author’s responsibility to clarify on the page how the protagonist avoids exposure.
Example: Stranger Things, Supernatural
The Cleanup Crew –
Chances are high the magical world has thought through the tragedy of the commons as it applies to their masquerade – if secrecy is everyone’s responsibility, then it’s nobody’s responsibility. Not trusting the individual to be perfectly responsible in every situation, a service is provided. That service must be well-resourced to respond to every worldwide security leak.
Where does the money come from? Do they have to be called to the scene, or does the crew monitor everything? If the cleanup crew has perfect surveillance, how? Do they stop at serving and protecting supernatural citizens, or do they also police and punish them? The answers to these questions will shape your supernatural cleanup crew.
The benefits of the cleanup crew are twofold: First, you know how the secret is kept – the protagonist doesn’t have to constantly think about it. Second, it gives you a flexible plot element to play with. I can imagine the cleanup crew running the gamut from faceless background props to helpful supporting characters, to full-blown antagonists.
The downside is that the cleanup crew introduces a complicated piece of worldbuilding that threatens to overshadow the story you want to tell. Our friends over at Writing Excuses suggest that every location, character, or action adds about 750 words. How many words does an entire hidden bureaucracy need?
Examples: Monsters Inc, Men in Black, Artemis Fowl
Passive Magical Subversion –
This is the trick where magic scrambles technology and/or supernatural creatures exude a plot-aura of isolation. They may make mortals forgetful, turn silent and invisible at will, or just mysteriously escape their notice. Whichever option you employ, the distinguishing feature of this masquerade is that it is automatic.
The strength of this option is that it shifts the masquerade into easy-mode. You explain the mechanism once, and the reader understands that mortals will never notice or detect magic in their presence, forever and ever, amen. You essentially create two parallel worlds – the magical and the mortal – which overlap when viewed from a certain angle, but never touch. The downside is that passive secrecy might come across as too easy, losing reader buy-in.
Examples: The Dresden Files, Grimm
Active Magical Subversion –
A blend between the no-system of Damocles and passive subversion, active magical subversion equips characters to protect the secret even as it lays the responsibility on their shoulders. Rather than hide the secret world using intrinsic properties of magic, applications of magic facilitate secrecy. Perhaps this manifests as invisibility, illusions, or mind-control.
This option comes with both the strengths and the challenges of its two parent-systems. On the one hand, your characters are active participants in the secret. More agency is always a good thing. On the other, that same active participation falls on the author. You must demonstrate supernatural characters maintaining the masquerade in every scene.
Examples: Harry Potter
Government Conspiracy –
Let’s call this one the ‘Ministry of Magic’ special. Perhaps the masquerade is too big a secret to keep from everyone, but if the supernatural powers-that-be strike a deal with their mortal counterparts, then you have the resources to cover up the big secret without putting everything on your protagonist. It shouldn’t be too hard for mortals to get over their fear of ‘the other’ if a) they fear the unruly mob more, and b) they grease the wheels with a little quid-pro-quo.
While it cannot stand on its own, the conspiracy system pairs well with the cleanup crew and/or active subversion. A benefit of this option is you have a secret-keeping force beyond the main characters which can take care of things off-screen. Also, overbearing and protective governments are great sources of conflict. On the downside, supernatural-mortal bureaucracy is another worldbuilding piece to juggle. Use with consciously, deciding how your characters relate to that power-structure.
Examples: Harry Potter, The X-Files
Parallel Worlds –
Each masquerade system so far assumes supernatural and mortal societies overlap. The masquerade exists to minimize conflict and misunderstanding. What if the supernatural world has the resources to avoid interaction altogether? Perhaps they live in an extremely remote location, such as the center of the earth, the bottom of the Marianas trench, or the far side of the moon. Perhaps it is not physically present on earth at all, inhabiting an alternate dimension or parallel plane.
Either way, it is worth asking whether your characters are aware of the mortal world, how they feel about it, and what happens if the impassable gulf is bridged.
A strength of this option is that your world can reach new heights of supernatural chicanery, unburdened by the need for all this secrecy. If a problem weighs your story down, sometimes the best solution really is to just cut it out. On the other hand, you do lose the magic of the masquerade: that sense of wonder born of the irrational, dreamy corner of consciousness that loves to think “maybe… juuust maaaaaybe… it could happen.”
Examples: The Chronicles of Narnia
That’s about twice what I give you most weeks. “Sorry” or “you’re welcome,” depending on how you feel about that. I hope this gives you writers out there food for thought when it comes to marrying your supernatural and “real” worlds. Come back next week for our discussion on Magical Guilds.