So You Want To / Write a Believable Masquerade
Ah, the Masquerade
. The basic of vast majority of Urban Fantasy stories, as well as many in the wider Fantasy genre. The general concept is simple: there exists the magical, and it hides from the mundane. However, once you put down the book and open the fridge
, you stare into it and suddenly realize... something doesn't make sense here. A whole lot of things, actually. So to fix that in your own work, let's go over problems Masquerade
would face in reality.
Why do your extremely powerful wizards, immortal vampires and other supernatural creatures do this? If they are so powerful, couldn't they just reveal themselves and take over the world? Who's to stop them? And even if they don't wish to become our new overlords, it's conceivable that they could make a ton of money with their power, were they allowed to make it public. How much would government pay a wizard soldier? How much could an earth wizard make working for a construction company? Why don't they? Here are some possible reasons:
- Pride: The wizards are too proud to mingle with the muggles. They feel superior and as such believe that revealing themselves would mean stooping to muggles' level, and that mixing with muggles would somehow make them weaker. Don't use that if you want to present your Wainscot Society in fully positive light, though - the Unfortunate Implications should be obvious.
- Fear: Perhaps the magicals aren't all that powerful. Muggles Do It Better could be in play. The wizards fear that they'd be locked up and cut open to see what makes them magical; that they'd be all but enslaved by government or corporacies to use their magic for their purposes; that they'd be outright killed. They can fear open persecution, torches-and-pitchforks mobs, prejudice. Of course, this opens the question of whether this would matter back in the Dark Ages, where power gap between wizards and humans was presumably bigger than today.
- Law: The life of a supernatural is rife with law-breaking, and going public would mean that a lot of cases dismissed by muggles as random murders or other mundane crimes would be connected with supernatural world, which magicals do not wish to happen. Especially effective in vampire stories.
- Magic: Something about the nature of magicals makes it impossible to go public with it. Perhaps magic is Invisible to Normals, maybe there are some deities that forbid you doing magic when muggles may see you, or it could be that magic works on Clap Your Hands If You Believe and thus someone who doesn't believe won't see any effect of magic.
- Tradition: "We've always been hiding from the populace! Why change that now?" But why did they go into hiding in the first place? Witch-burning seems to be common explanation.
Sometimes, writers don't really think their numbers over, which results in Masquerade that's downright unbelievable, not to mention unsustainable. This manifests mainly in three ways:
- The amount of people with magic blood: It sounds really nice if you say "only one percent of population has magic". However, you need to remember that there are 7.4 billion people in the world, and one percent of that is 74 million people. For the record, that's more than the entire population of Great Britain. It's pretty much impossible to keep this many people hidden from the outside world, so think about how many people your masquerade encompasses.
- Unusual culinary needs: Vampires eat people, as it's commonly known, but again, you have to sit with a calculator and do your math. If you say that your vampire needs one whole person per weeknote , this means 52 people going missing every year - per vampire. If your story has a coven of ten, this puts it at over five hundred, and even if you justify it as "they only feed on poor and unwanted", half a thousand homeless people going missing every year is going to attract attention. So either tone the numbers down or picture how this would realistically function: vampires would have to quickly flee the city after several weeks, as to not attract the attention of authorities.
- Breeding: For species to successfully survive, they must breed, which means increase in numbers. It doesn't have to be birds-and-bees kind of breeding - it could be muggles introduced to wizardry, or vampires creating more vampires. Even if we agree that supernatural beings breed slower than humans, they are more often than not immortal. For example, assume that a vampire creates an offspring every ten years, and this offspring also creates offspring every ten years. What we've got here is sort-of Fibonacci sequence, and if your "initial" vampire was born in 0 AD - and assuming vampires don't die - in year 2010 there'd be 2,26*1041 vampires, which is actually more than number of stars in observable universe. This is an overblown example, of course, but does illustrate the importance of doing math before stating numbers.
There are several other questions you should ask yourself when designing a Masquerade.
- How do you convince thousands of superhuman beings to hide? Many stories say that supernatural has always been in hiding, other than they went into hiding because of something. Why, though? What's stopping a wizard from taking control over cavemen? Why haven't we been ruled by immortal vampire god-emperors since Ancient Egypt? Why would witches decide to hide upon seeing Church's witch burning if they could punish the would-be burners with their magic? What kind of medieval king would persecute werewolves rather than have an elite army of super-strong soldiers who can turn into wolves?
- How do you enforce hiding? If your supernatural society numbers in thousands, how do you make sure every single one of them agrees to hide? How do you deal with dissidents who want to show off, take over a city or country, or simply believe that it's muggles' right to know? How do you stop them before they show magic in front of TV cameras? What's stopping your supernaturals from going to one of many foundations that offer tremendous amounts of money for a proof of psychic powers?
- How do you cover up public displays of supernatural? Slip-ups are going to happen, no matter how hard you try, so what does the damage control look like? What do you do when a man changing into werewolf is captured by someone's camera and the video posted on Youtube? How do you hide a wizard battle in streets of a big city? What do you do when an aerial battle gone wrong knocks a top off a skyscraper? This is especially important if your story takes place in twenty-first century, when almost everyone carries a camera with Internet access in their pockets. If there's a video on Youtube, by the time you take it down, there could be dozens of copies and stills from it circulating the Internet. If you wipe somebody's mind after you accidentally throw a fireball in front of a witness, there's a chance they've tweeted about it already. And what about CCTV cameras, or satellite surveillance?
- How do supernatural beings function in modern society? While even a hundred years back, you could be nobody and pass unnoticed, again, twenty-first century has some problems in store for magical beings. This is a two-fold problem.
- Immortality: To function in modern society in any capacity beyond "homeless bum", you need to have things such as ID, medical care card, passport, bank account, driving license and probably dozens of other things, depending on where you live. Above all: birth certificate. At some point, you have to start existing in the great bureaucratic machine. How does an immortal vampire forge its birth? How does it fake its death? How, after faking death, does it hold onto its money? How does it stop people from noticing it doesn't age?
- Employment and money: Government wants you to pay taxes, and won't take no for an answer. Consider a witch who sells potions and charms to wizards. How does she fill in her tax return? What source of income does she state? Consider a vampire who's rich because it used to be a nobleman of some sort. While in supernatural world having money out of nowhere simply means you're immortal and amassed it, to muggle officials it means you're probably engaged in some sort of criminal enterprise. Consider a wizard who predicts the future to win lottery, or worse - conjures the money from thin air. At some point, this will become suspicious.
- How do you keep authorities in the dark? Exsanguination by two small holes or death by fireball are unlikely to be passed off as mundane deaths. How do you hide supernatural murder? You can't pay everybody off. Do you have somebody on the force who'd cover up for you? How does this person keep the secret, and how does this person cover it up? On non-criminal angle, how do you stop people from noticing you don't age? If you forge documents every fifty or so years, how do you explain suddenly popping into existence with thousands in cash or bank account? If you pass it off as being your own son, where has this son been hiding for the last decade or two? Why didn't he exist before his miraculous appearance a few days after his father's death?
- How do you keep the knowledge of supernatural from spreading? If you have to tell a few muggles about existence of magic, what stops them from telling others? If you give every witness of your supernatural exploits a crack course and plea for secrecy, do you think they won't tell their families? How many people do you have to let in on the secret to cover up a murder? Ten murders? How long, then, before half the city knows about the Masquerade? And if you chose the opposite option, if you kill to uphold the Masquerade, you've got the same problem the "How many" section has covered.
- How do creatures in hiding communicate? If there's a Masquerade, how do you know who else is part of it? If you live in the British Masquerade and travel to China, how do you know where to search for Chinese wizards? If you want to share news, or call a meeting, how do you contact everyone?
- How do you deal with new supernaturals? For that matter, how does recruitment works? If a vampire turns someone by accident, how does this person find the Masquerade? How do seasoned members hide newbie's exploits? How do they find such people? How do they convince them to continue living in secret?
There are other problems and cliches that can show up and seriously threaten the Masquerade.
- Vampires and nightclubs: This is one of those things that sound cool, but aren't very practical. The theory behind it is that Vampires Own Nightclubs, because nightclubs attract dozens of young people who are just waiting to have sex (and, by extension, exsanguination) with random strangers. But seriously, how many people come to nightclubs looking for partners, and how many come with to have fun with friends or partners they already have? Despite what movies and TV would have you believe, the ratio is seriously skewed towards the latter.
- The problems of being invisible: Sometimes, supernatural is invisible on camera, or doesn't reflect in mirrors - this is another of vampiric problems, but not only. For vampires, if you extend the "doesn't reflect in mirrors" part to photo cameras, how will such a vampire get an ID made? Hyperrealistic painting? The other part of this is, of course, that even if your dragon isn't visible to muggles, the car it's lifting and crushing with its jaws very much is.
- Daylight, iron and other weaknesses: Fair Folk are often vulnerable to iron, which you may've noticed is one of most common substances in modern cities. Vampires have it even worse, being susceptible to daylight. How do you explain to a muggle that no, you can't go to the police station to give your statement at midday, because you'd burn to ashes? How do you justify wearing hat, sunglasses, coat and scarf on a warm summer day?
- Muggles don't want to believe: Supernaturals will often dismiss muggles as preferring to believe into mundane explanations rather than supernatural. The Internet will prove you, time and again, that it's actually the opposite. People will latch onto supernatural explanation even when mundane one is there and far more likely.
- Let's move in with the pack: You're a werewolf! Now, of course, you have to move in with the pack! We all live in a warehouse by the woods, have this strict structure of who's he boss, are insanely loyal to one another, obey the alpha without question, and fight to death if need be for our position in the pack! But... why would you want to leave your old life behind?
- Magic doesn't like technology: Two things: for one, people will notice if you're Walking Techbane. For other, why do so many supernatural creatures - Harry Potter is just one example - refuse to acknowledge modern technology? A vampire who doesn't use computers is severely handicapped these days, and if Hermione lived in twenty-first century rather than the nineties, do you think she'd agree to be parted from Wikipedia or her smartphone?
- When police takes interest: These days, we've got fingerprints, DNA analysis, advanced forensic medicine and the like, which will make hiding harder. Many substances used in supernatural world could be forbidden by regular government. Carrying a sword in the open is actually not legal in many nations, as is carrying weapons without permit, if you happen to have a gun with silver bullets. If a supernatural creature that looks like a young girl starts to travel the world alone, there chances are high she'll attract the attention of child welfare services.
- Supernatural bars: Where do you meet with other supernaturals, share a drink, talk freely about your day job of dragon slaying and blood sucking? In a supernatural bar, of course. Do keep in mind it's still a bar, though - a muggle may wander in.
Crafting Masquerade that conforms to all the above is hard
, which is why it's often Hand Waved
by authors. There's nothing bad about it, of course - your reader doesn't have to know all the minutiae of maintaining global Masquerade. Some, however, figure other options:
- Very small number of supernaturals: A cabal of twenty wizards will have much fewer problems hiding from mundane world, and smaller chance of being accidentally discovered.
- Complete separation of normal and supernatural world: Supernaturals have their own companies, shops, towns, services and others, and they are incredibly hard to reach. As such, they don't leave paper trail for "official" authorities to follow, and there are very few people who supply things only muggle world can provide. Still runs the risk of someone accidentally wandering in.
- Actually different universes: A step beyond the above, supernatural lives in a world adjacent to our own, but ultimately separate, so that a muggle can in no way stumble into a witch's shop or a wizard battle. An example would he Fae living in some Hidden Elf Village, or the Diagon Alley, with people at Leaky Cauldron serving as gatekeepers.
Writing tips and ideas
- Accidentally stumbling upon the Masquerade is a staple of Urban Fantasy - what about a reversal? A story about a seasoned member of the Masquerade desperately trying to stop people from discovering it?
- Refrain from giving numbers, and you'll stop some enterprising reader with a calculator from calling foul. Speak in vagueness - quite a lot, very few, pretty rare, this kind of thing.
- Portray people in charge of the masquerade as competent. They doubtlessly have long practice hiding supernatural from muggles, so there's no reason for them to be idiots and fail at their job at every step.
- Try to give even a cursory explanation for cover-ups. It will stop people from asking questions of "how can they possibly hide it?"
- Explore the problems arising from Masquerade. Show that vampires have to either starve or move cities every few feedings. Have Fair Folk avoid cities because of all the metal. Make wizards hesitate to use magic in crowded areas.
- Have your Wainscot Society invent contingency plan in case they are discovered. It'll make them look more professional and acknowledge it's not easy to hide supernatural for too long.
- What if a muggle does, indeed, wander into a supernatural bar without knowing it is supernatural?
- What happens when somebody decides that it's time to break the Masquerade and show muggles who's the boss?
- We've mentioned many times throughout this article that these days, it gets downright impossible to maintain the Masquerade. What happens when it breaks? When a video on Facebook proves without doubt the existence of ghosts? Where a vampire burns to death in sunlight and is caught by dozens of phone cameras? How does the supernatural world deal with that?