Podcast

299 – The Masquerade

The Mythcreant Podcast
Shhhh, don’t tell anyone we’re recording a podcast about magic that no one knows about. We have to keep it hidden by putting on an elaborate deception to keep people from finding out. A masquerade, if you will. That’s right, in this episode, we’re talking about that urban fantasy (and sometimes scifi) trope that nearly everyone uses but very few authors seem to get right. We talk about why the masquerade is so difficult to explain, if it’s even worth explaining, and what you might try instead. Also, why magic isn’t real.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

The Masquerade

Urban Fantasy

Bright

Merlin

Neverwhere

Teen Wolf

Supernatural

Dresden Files

Oppressed Mages

Interview With a Vampire

Being Human

Madoka Magica

Stranger Things

Crescent City

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by Olivia SB. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

[Intro music]

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is:

Oren: Oren

Chris: and

Wes: Wes.

Chris: And make sure you keep your volume down, because you wouldn’t want anybody else to know you’re listening to this podcast. After all, us speculative fiction writers have to hide our existence from everybody else. Other writers can’t know that we’re here writing about magic, for, reasons.

Oren: They would just hate us. They would turn against us, Chris, we can’t trust them. We have to stay hidden.

Chris: It’s especially important that you hide this from your loved ones and make up lies.

Wes: They won’t understand.

Chris: We are talking about the masquerade. So, what is it? Because not everybody’s familiar with this term, although everyone who reads speculative fiction is familiar with the trope because it’s just that common. It’s usually an urban fantasy, and it means that most people do not know magical stuff exists. You know, we’ve got separate people or magical people or magical creatures that are in the know, and normal human beings think magic isn’t real.

Oren: And there’s different levels of it, sometimes the magical creatures have their own society, sometimes they mostly just are humans who have a little magic power, but the point is that magic is around, and people don’t know, but they should know, that’s what a masquerade is, as opposed to, say, this one person has just for the first time ever gotten magical abilities. Well, of course people don’t know about that because it only just happened. That’s not a masquerade.

Wes: By magic we can mean by extension super technology- I’m thinking of Men in Black.

Chris: Yes, Men in Black does have masquerade even though it is sci-fi, not fantasy.

Wes: lt’s less common in sci-fi but it still happens.

Chris: Yeah, it’s most common by far in urban fantasy, but it could appear in any speculative fiction genre. One of the interesting things to think about is it almost feels like superhero stories have a subset of the masquerade, where everybody knows that superheroes exist, but for some reason superheroes all have to hide their identity, and we’re not sure why.

Oren: Or how!

Wes: Which is so great. I think when we talked about Iron Man on a previous podcast, at the end of that first one, you know, Robert Downey Jr. is just like, “I am Iron Man”. It’s like, “Okay, great. Thank you for not trying to do that.”

Oren: I appreciate that most of the MCU heroes don’t have secret identities. Peter Parker’s maybe the only one. So we’ve covered what is a masquerade, and I’ll do you one better, why is a masquerade?

Wes: Cause vampire.

Oren: Cause vampire, is very scary.

Chris: The masquerade just solves a lot of the problems that an urban fantasy setting has but also lets people do what they want to do with urban fantasy. If we’ve had magic all along, why hasn’t it changed history? Trying to insert magic in the world as it exists would automatically by default completely change the world so that it’s unrecognizable. That’s not what we want when we’re doing urban fantasy. We want a recognizable world that we’re familiar with, but also magic.

Oren: And if you don’t do that, if you just try to insert magic into the world without changing it, you get Bright, and nobody likes Bright. Beyond everything that’s terrible about Bright, the world building just feels really weird. It’s like, wait, so there are orcs but the Alamo still happened? It gets weird. People want to have magic in the real world, particularly in urban fantasy, this is usually how that goes, and they want to have nightclubs. They always have nightclubs, and motorcycles and phones. But they also want magic stuff. It’s just kind of hard to believe that everything would have turned out the same and that Chicago would still be Chicago if werewolves had always existed. That would be kind of weird.

Chris: If we have magic and everybody knows about it why don’t we have magitek? But magitek has a significantly different aesthetic, and it’s not usually what most urban fantasy writers are going for. The other thing I’d add is that the main way to avoid having a masquerade and keep these things, is to have magic be recently introduced, you know- everybody wakes up the next day and suddenly there’s magic and it’s a weird phenomenon. When you have that it’s a very different feel. Generally when writing fantasy people really want to harken back to that history, they want things to feel ancient and mystical, and having magic spontaneously appear when it has never existed before makes it feel more like a technological innovation. You can use that solution if it works for you, great. But that’s why fantasy writers don’t typically want to use that.

Oren: And there is also some appeal in just the very concept of having magic but it’s hidden in the shadows. To some people that in itself is appealing. I don’t think that’s the primary reason for masquerades, but in some stories you can tell that’s something the author cared about.

Chris: In some stories, the masquerade is just in the background, it’s a necessity, we’re just going to have it there, the best thing we can do is not call attention to it, it’s just needed to make our setting work. And in some stories it’s very much, “Hey, I want to make this main character learn about these people working in the shadows and then struggle to hide what’s happening from other people,” and it’s central to the conflicts that are happening, in which case it’s, a lot of times it is leaning on that. There is a lot of appeal, there’s a lot of drama in “I have magic, but I have to hide it.” We were just talking about Merlin. Merlin does not have a masquerade but it gets a lot of drama out of the main character pretending that he doesn’t have magic when he does.

Wes: Is it still masquerade or is it like masquerade-y? If the veil is broken so early in the story, and then you just spend all the time in the rest of the story in the masquerade, does that count?

Chris: That’s still a masquerade story, it’s just not leaning on it so heavily. That’s actually easier to do. This is like Neverwhere, for instance?

Wes: That’s exactly what I was thinking. Because it’s almost like the first chapter he just meets Door and boom, he’s gone. He doesn’t go back to regular London really at all. But then Men in Black, they’re actively trying to keep people from not knowing what’s going on.

Oren: Well Neverwhere does have a masquerade, but it’s also a portal fantasy. Most masquerade stories that I’ve read are not portal fantasy, because if you’re going to make portal fantasy you might as well just say that the magic is in a completely different world from ours anyway. So there’s no need for a masquerade. Neverwhere’s a little unusual in that it’s sort of both.

Chris: Even if you don’t have magic in a completely separate world in a portal fantasy, it’s a lot easier to pull off the masquerade, just because a lot of times the focus isn’t on those interactions between the magical and the non magical. Usually we’re in the magical space, in which case we don’t have to worry about ignorant people walking around who could see magic, or, oftentimes when we go to the mundane space, we mostly leave magic behind, although there’s more conflicts there. The burden on trying to make this show work is just a lot less if you have a separate magical world where only magical people go.

Wes: Like in Teen Wolf, it’s like, “Oh, I guess it’s just another animal attack.”

Oren: Teen Wolf and Buffy and Dresden Files and Supernatural all fall into the category of: there is no explanation for the masquerade. They just don’t have one, shut up and enjoy your urban fantasy. That’s easier to do sometimes than others. Buffy in particular is very bad at it, because Buffy can’t keep from drawing attention to its masquerade. And it has conflicts over the masquerade. The military shows up because the military knows about vampires. “Oh my God, you’re making me question the masquerade. Please stop doing that.”

Chris: Buffy is really interesting in that by the seventh season they actually break the masquerade, at least in that town. We have a band that comes in- I think it’s in season four- to the Bronze. A vampire falls and like hits some wood stake or something and just vaporizes in front of them, and they stop playing and stare at it for a second, and then they just start playing again. And then later we see the band leave and they’re like, “Oh, I hate these vampire towns.” By season seven everybody knows something bad is coming, and they’re all fleeing the town, which is interesting, we don’t see that a lot, but it comes with its own problems, which, okay, if the world is about to end, and people know, why isn’t anybody coming to help? Why don’t we have a military presence? So there’s other problems that not having a masquerade can create, especially when you need your scrappy heroes to be the only line of defense.

Oren: Buffy invites that question by having the military show up to fight vampires at one point. That’s actually I think the most common one, is that there just isn’t an explanation, or a variant is that there is an explanation, but it’s so weak that you’d actually be better off without one. Stories that are like, “Well, humans have forgotten about magic,” and it’s like, “What?”

Chris: Let’s back up a little bit and talk about why the masquerade is incredibly unbelievable. Because a lot of people just don’t understand this. And it does depend on how closely you look at it in the story. Not having an explanation, as Oren said, is not a bad way to go, it depends on how much you’re going to be scrutinizing it. If you’re not going to be scrutinizing it too much- if you have a Neverwhere setting, especially, then you’d probably be just fine, although Neverwhere does have an explanation. The idea that people wouldn’t know about magic, especially flashy magic, like the kind of magic we have in a typical urban fantasy, where there’s flames in people’s hands and other just really large effects, that’s just so easy to prove. If you have just one person, one person who wants to use their magic for profit then that’s all it takes, that’s all it takes to just blow it wide open.

Oren: There are two basic issues with why masquerades don’t work. There is the ability to even pretend that humans wouldn’t know about it. And then there is the why humans wouldn’t know about it. Neither of them ever work. Humans are very good at making use of things that are practical and useful to them. We are tool users, we are incredibly good at tool using. If magic exists and is useful in any way- which it always is in these urban fantasy stories, because if it’s not, who cares, I don’t want to read a story about magic that doesn’t do anything- people will use it, even if it’s bad, like in Call of Cthulhu, for example, all the magic is evil and will cause bad side effects. Fossil fuels exist, okay, unscrupulous people will still try to use this.

Chris: Yeah, it’d be like covering up the existence of electricity.

Oren: Then of course you get into, in the modern world everyone has a cellphone- a few people uploading werewolf attacks to YouTube, people would assume it was a hoax, but after like the five hundredth very convincing werewolf attack, people with reputations would look into it. They would investigate and they would find werewolves.

Chris: Also if lots of people are dying …

Wes: “These animal attacks have just gotten out of control, you guys!”

Chris: “What’s going on with these animal attacks?”

Wes: “This cougar is out of control!”

Oren: The number of people who die in the average Buffy or Supernatural episode, just the people we see- at least Supernatural moves around, in Buffy it’s all in one town. Can you imagine if this small California town had a murder rate where twenty people were being murdered a week? There would be task forces, there would probably be the national guard, it would be ridiculous, especially because it’s full of middle class white people.

Chris: I think the scenarios in which it especially comes under scrutiny are scenarios in which either big magical things are happening in front of crowds of people, like Buffy season three, when the mayor becomes this huge ginormous demon and the entire high school has to fight him, or the main character has to make personal sacrifices to maintain the secrecy of the masquerade. That really brings into question “why?” Both of these things are found in Buffy, Buffy continually hide things from her mother for quite a long time and has to make personal sacrifices there, she’s grounded and has to sneak out, and she has lots of problems that she wouldn’t have if people were just like, “Oh yeah, the reason Buffy couldn’t do her homework is because she had to save us from the vampires last night.” And so those things make for extra scrutiny, which means that you need an extra robust explanation. Unfortunately, most explanations for the masquerade- because it’s a really unbelievable thing- just don’t work. They’re not compelling enough for how unrealistic the masquerade is.

Wes: I think that’s why they’ll focus a lot of attention on the characters who know about it. Whatever happens to that character serves as like a, “This is why the masquerade is, or isn’t.”

A character discovers it- there’s this great list on TV Tropes of this: character discovers masquerade and decides to just fully embrace it. “I go in and this is me now, and I don’t tell anybody.” Or they join like the Men in Black and they police the whole place, or they die, or they get their memory wiped, and whatever happens to the character will implicitly serve as some explanation for how the masquerade has perpetuated. It’s like, “Oh, well, people who find out about it, only these few things happen to them. So therefore that’s how it’s kept secret.” It’s like an implicit understanding and it’s not great when you push on it, you obviously see through it.

Chris: I think it helps that Men in Black is a comedy. The main character, Jay, doesn’t actually make personal sacrifices to maintain the masquerade. He’s just on the other side. He leaves his old life behind, it’s fine, he didn’t care. Now all the people that he develops relationships with already know about all this stuff happening. His job is to cover things up, but it’s always humorous, because he gets to make up what their memories are, and those are always humorous lines. So there’s no actual personal sacrifice happening for the masquerade there, and it’s funny how it’s maintained, and so we’re not really inclined to think too hard about whether that’s really a good idea.

Oren: I prefer literally any explanation, including no explanation, to the “Humans forgot magic”. That always comes bundled with some anti-science nonsense. And there are people who believe this in real life. There are people who believe that magic is real and that science is bad because it destroys magic. That belief can be literally harmful, and I just don’t think we should be encouraging it. Really irritates me whenever I see that.

Wes: What if we forgot about magic, but we forgot about the time before we forgot about magic when we had all this great tech?

Oren: I had an answer but I forgot.

Chris: To me it’s just funny because, you’re really going to tell your fantasy audience that people forgot about magic or that people don’t want to believe in magic?

Wes: Or they’ll try to pull the, “We had to collectively choose to forget because it was too dangerous, we kept getting oppressed.”

Chris: Oh yeah, oppressed mages, we’ve talked about oppressed mages.

Wes: “They let King Uther out and he just starts drowning magical babies, I mean, you know, we have to forget it you guys”

Oren: “We just have to pretend, because otherwise the muggles would hurt us.”

Chris: I’ve told people I will make one exception to this “people could hurt us” rule. If the only magical people out there are all vampires who are not that strong- they’re Buffy the Vampire Slayer vampires, not True Blood vampires or Twilight vampires- and they all are evil, every single one of them, and are actually hurting humans, okay, they might try to cover up their existence because they’re murdering people, that could be a thing, and they’re all rich because they live a long time, and so they have time to accumulate wealth. As soon as you have someone like Louie from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, who has a conscience, that vampire is going to be like, “Hey humans, so, people are murdering you.”

Oren: Being Human had that problem. We find out that the entire vampire conspiracy is one chatty morgue technician away from being completely blown wide open. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief until you start pressing on it, and then it’s like, “Well, now I can’t. Now you made it weird.”

Chris: We’ve talked about bad explanations. I have some concepts for explanations that I do think actually work pretty well if you need something that stands up to scrutiny. It’s fairly niche because it’s just not a lot that I know of, but I’ve generally found that if you want something that will really stand up to scrutiny, you need a really powerful being that is more powerful than your mages, that is demanding the masquerade and imposing it. You can have a super powerful being that actually does want to hunt down mages, and preferably doesn’t even know they’re on earth, because otherwise, why would they hide the existence of magic altogether and not just hide who the mages are, or you can have a powerful godlike figure that for some reasons just really doesn’t want humans to have magic.

We had somebody ask on the site about Greek gods imposing a masquerade, which I thought was actually a surprisingly good idea because they’re known to be petty. So you could see a situation in which, “Oh, you stole fire from us. Well guess what? Now we are cursing humans to not have magic.”

Oren: Yeah, I believe Zeus would do that.

Wes: I just love the story of Athena and Arachne. The version I read when I was younger is that Arachne is at the spindle or weaving or whatever, and makes a really good thing, and she goes, “Huh, this turned out really nice, I bet even Athena would be jealous,” just pleased with her work, and Athena’s like, “Challenge!”, and then turns her into a spider.

Chris: Yeah, they’re real petty. The other thing is that we have some settings like Neverwhere, which have what I call “the automated forget me field”. It’s a natural effect of the universe that people just don’t remember magic when they see it. I think that works really well for Neverwhere partly because Neverwhere, again, has a separate, magical world, so it doesn’t have that much burden. I think that’s something that, if you look at all of the edge cases, for people seeing the effects of magic, for recording devices, you know, once you go all the way out there, if you look really hard at that stuff, it does start to feel kind of arbitrary, all of the rules you create to try to draw that line between magical and not magical and keep people from the discovering it. But if you have a powerful intelligence, that’s imposing these magical rules, then it almost can be arbitrary because somebody is doing it on purpose for the explicit reason that they want to separate people from magic. I think that is probably the best explanation that I’ve seen so far.

Oren: Having a laws of physics example, there’s the forget me field or there’s- Madoka Magica has the thing where regular humans just can’t see witches-

Chris: They look like natural disasters.

Oren: That’s actually fine, as long as you don’t press on it too hard. I’m willing to accept that one up to a certain extent, but after a while it does start to become questionable, if you base too much conflict on it. There’s a reason in my urban fantasy campaign I established that that’s how it worked early and then I didn’t make a big deal about it after that. I want to have vampires on motorcycles. I like that, it’s a cool trope, and I want them to do it in recognizable locations. I don’t have any illusions that my explanation for the masquerade is going to hold up under scrutiny so I don’t invite it.

Chris: Right, there’s not a lot of interaction with regular humans, there’s not time spent trying to maintain the secret or time spent trying to cover it up, again, the plot is not about those interactions between the non-magical people and the magical people.

Oren: Oh, I do want to briefly cover the whole “the government is covering it up” thing.

Wes: I was just thinking about Stranger Things.

Oren: The government covering it up is a thing that can work under very specific circumstances for very short periods of time. In Stranger Things, as far as we know, in Hawkins, Indiana, that’s the first time that the government has ever accidentally punched through into another dimension. We don’t think anyone else has ever done that. It is believable that in the short term, the United States government would be able to keep that a secret. If they kept doing it for a long time, and if everyone started doing it, for example, if the Soviets started doing it and then the Soviet Union collapsed and a bunch of their military secrets were declassified, it would become harder and harder to believe. So Stranger Things works in a very specific set of time. Otherwise if you try to say like, “Well, the government is covering up UFOs,” it’s like, “Really, every government is doing that? What about the places that barely have governments? What about the places with governments that aren’t so security focused as the United States one is, are they all in on this? How did you solve the various problems of international diplomacy to get this giant overarching anti-UFO thing going?”

Chris: And again, why? Because governments haven’t tried to cover up electricity. They haven’t tried to cover up things that are harmful either because they need to regulate those things and it’s hard to regulate them when you’re covering them up and denying their existence.

Oren: And if it’s superheroes, okay, sure, maybe the first time superheroes appear, a government might try to keep them under wraps for a bit, but eventually the government’s going to want to use them, and you can’t use them if they’re secret, people are going to find out about them, and so the government would want that to happen on their terms, et cetera, et cetera.

Chris: It is really funny to think about Batman and his bat spotlight. The police are just completely collaborating with this guy. Why doesn’t he just tell them that he’s a local billionaire?

Wes: Because then he’s like, “Oh no, then they would ask me why I don’t just finance what they need.”

Oren: “I don’t want to get into the arguments about how I should donate all of my money to public infrastructure, okay? I want to punch street crime, I want to be really problematic about it.”

Wes: (in Batman voice) “I need my enemies to share my fears.”

Oren: Can I talk about an interesting alternative to the masquerade? So this is one that I almost never see, which, thinking about it is weird, but you can actually get a lot of the things that you would want from an urban fantasy setting of like, vampires on motorcycles, werewolves going to college, and mages with cell phones and stuff like that, if you set your story somewhere other than earth, so, effectively a second world urban fantasy, as opposed to second world high fantasy.

Chris: So we’re talking about Crescent City, right?

Oren: Yeah, we’re talking about Crescent City, because that’s actually the only story I can think of that did that. I’m sure there must be some others out there somewhere, but that’s the only one I know. At that point it’s easier to fudge the facts, that, yeah, this society basically looks like ours. It has a different history that just kind of happened to work out that way, as opposed to, in the real world, if you take the real world and introduce magic, it’s like, “Well, I’m pretty sure things would be different now.” We don’t know what the history of this Crescent City world is, whatever, it’s fine, it happened to result in vampire nightclubs. That’s what I wanted in the first place.

Chris: Crescent City, because it has such an urban fantasy aesthetic, everything from the character behavior to, for instance, attending nightclubs, all of those things that come from earth, feel natural in the setting, because it feels like an urban fantasy, but actually it’s not earth, and that story has no masquerade, and it works I think.

Wes: So I like how the takeaway is that nightclubs feel like earth, as long as there’s vampires.

Oren: “Look, I want to hear my vampires talking in internet speak, okay? I want them to lol and I want them to say everything is a boi and I want them to use tumblr speak.” That’s what I want, okay? And I can do all of that in my weird second world urban fantasy setting. And that’s actually something I originally suggested as a replacement for something like Shadowrun, a cyberpunk world that has a lot of world building problems because it’s like, “Oh yeah, in the real world, a bunch of religious beliefs were true, and also Tolkien elves.” Of course, because it was written by white people it’s very appropriative and does a lot of that nonsense, so my original thought was like, “Well, why not just have Middle Earth that advances to the tech level of skyscrapers and mega corporations, so that you can have your cyber punk with your elves?” And then later, after looking at this Crescent City book, it’s like, well, you could do that for urban fantasy too, not just for cyberpunk. I would advise more writers to consider it. I’m not saying it’s right for your story necessarily, but I do think that it is worth thinking about, and it would solve a lot of problems.

Chris: Well, I think that’s a great note to close on.

Oren: Well then I will go ahead and tell everyone that if anything that we said peaked their interest they can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Unless you’re going to argue with me that magic is real, I’m just not interested. I will not have that debate with you, but before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel- I wonder if he’s going to take that idea that I was just talking about, that’d be cool- and finally we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.

[Outro music]

Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme, “The princess who saved herself” by Jonathan Coulton.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    “Can I talk about an interesting alternative to the masquerade? So this is one that I almost never see, which, thinking about it is weird, but you can actually get a lot of the things that you would want from an urban fantasy setting of like, vampires on motorcycles, werewolves going to college, and mages with cell phones and stuff like that, if you set your story somewhere other than earth, so, effectively a second world urban fantasy, as opposed to second world high fantasy.”

    This is what I do!

    Says Jeppsson, still not published. Right now, I’m reworking some things that I think could have been done better in book one, and I’m also thinking of finishing what turned out to be a trilogy before I make another go at getting published, since a fairly successful author and copy editor I know thought it might be a good idea…
    BUT: Albeit not published yet, I’ve had a lot of beta readers by now. And it’s THE WORLD I get the most praise for. It’s the thing everyone mentions, although people’s comments differ in other ways. Everyone is like oh, I really like this WORLD you made.

    It’s not actually another planet, but an alternate Earth. Urban fantasy-ish (since all three books take place mostly or solely in cities; also, since magic is so limited in what it can do, people had roughly the same incentives as in our own world to invent tech), but there’s no masquerade. For that reason, there are lots of differences from our world: it’s not just our world like it is with the addition of demons and people who kill them.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Excellent! We need more books using this premise.

    • Adam Reynolds

      This also sort of hit upon an idea I’ve been thinking about, that of a secondary world cyberpunk setting. I just don’t really have an idea about how exactly it should work and what the baseline for the fantasy part of the world is or was. I’ve also thought about doing this without much of a fantasy context a la Ace Combat, but that begs the question of what the point of that is.

      With respect to secondary world urban fantasy, The Legend of Korra is almost an example as well, if a bit behind tech wise.

  2. Lyrica

    My favorite masquerade is in Percy Jackson, where you have a magical force that prevent normal humans (and recording device) to realise something supernatural is going on.

    I really like this one because it works well (explain how no one knows about magic without plot holes), is coherent with the universe (granted if you already have Poseidon in a Hawaiian shirt and Ares on a motorcycle erasing people’s memories, it’s not hard to fit it in) and provides some conflict (did a monstrous chimera blew a hole in that monument ? No you’re mistaken, it was the protagonist who keep getting blamed for the destruction because monsters don’t exist).

  3. Camille

    I like your analysis, but there’s one factor I really think you underestimate when it comes to the Masquerade: the way it allows the reader to imagine that the world he lives in right now could be like that, which is really powerful for either horror or wish fulfillment.
    When the book describes eldritch horrors dwelling in caves just like the one in your country home and the inhabitants being none the wiser, it feels that much creepier because it could be you. When the protagonist is a child living in a neighbourhood just like the one you grew up in, and receives their letter of acceptance to Hogwarts, it feels that much better because it could be you (or could have been you, if you’re a little too old for high school).
    If you set your world in an alternate reality or other world where magic is known, you can have your vampires on motorcycles, but you lose that feeling of “it could be true” because you KNOW your world isn’t like that. And obviously you know it isn’t a urban fantasy with a Masquerade either, but… as improbable as it is, it COULD be…

    • E. H.

      Exactly. It’s like the modern equivalent of a fairly tale. In town everything is normal but go out in the woods and the Devil might pop up and offer to buy your soul or you might run into a werewolf. The strange and the mundane can be in the same story.

      • Bellis

        These are the best examples for “use a masquerade but don’t draw attention to it and don’t make us question the premise.” It’s perfectly fine to have a masquerade, and for some stories it is important to have it and not a second-world or divergent-history, but if there’s no really solid explanation for it, it’s better not to have the readers poke at it until it falls apart.

        This is why for me, the first couple of Harry Potter books worked much better worldbuilding-wise, because I was taken on a fun ride and I didn’t see a reason to question it. It made no sense, but that was fine! In later books, JKR wants us to take things more seriously and that just clashes with how things were set up. Which isn’t to say that serious books, like horror, can’t have a masquerade and still work, it would just have to be set up accordingly.

        • E. H.

          Makes sense. In the first Harry Potter books I got the feeling that the wizards just didn’t particularly *care* about the rest of the world’s affairs and wanted to be left alone to do their own thing.

          Of course this leads to a lot of ethical problems given that it means they’d ignore injustice and suffering.

  4. Star of Hope

    Ugh Merlin, the only reason they kept everything going was because of that secret. Without it the show’s premise falls a part and somehow the Show cannot work, which also makes it very static and idiotic.

    Everyone wanted to see Arthur see Merlin for he is and have full episodes them working as equals.

    If you want to masquerade something, make it not the premise of the show and have the final episode reveal it.

  5. E. H.

    I think Anne Rice does a good job with a masquerade at least in the first few vampire novels. It’s more of a code of silence.

    Vampires are quite rare compared to modern urban fantasy. They differ in their morality and level of concern for humans but are unlikely to sacrifice themselves by spilling the beans and causing a global vampire hunt that would destroy them and their vampire friends and loved ones.

    They are careful to dispose of bodies and the standards of such disposal become stricter over time. For example in the old days a person with their throat ripped out thrown in a ditch and left to decompose would be assumed to be the victim of a knife fight. With modern forensics this wouldn’t work.

    Vampire society enforces these rules and punishes anyone who calls attention to vampires. I see this as different from a world with purely evil vampires as one could argue that they’re doing what they must to survive. Only a few are thoroughly evil. Attempting to live only on animal blood is extremely unpleasant for them.

    They could argue that they’re no worse than human meat eaters (I respect the view that eating animal products is immoral but it is far more common today than in the 70s and 80s when Rice’s vampires were created and would have been almost unheard of in the Western world during the time periods her vampires themselves are from).

  6. Sam Beringer

    I liked Mage: the Awakening’s masquerade because it was written in as a law of the universe thanks to evil bad guy shenanigans. Normal people (sleepers) can’t witness blatant acts of magic (making something grow legs as opposed as opposed to upping your chances of winning a poker games) without invoking paradox, which is generally bad. The only issue is how it works, in that it’s because the person watching is basically going “this can’t actually be happening.” I know people tend to rationalize things, but I feel like most would still fall into the Seth Gecko school of thought and believe what their eyes see.

    As for masquerade ideas, a story I’m working on has the premise that most supernatural beings live elsewhere because being in our world is extremely uncomfortable for them outside of certain occasions like All Hallows’ Eve (and even then their power is greatly diminished). The ones that do live here are much lower on the power scale, low and subtle enough that their abilities can go without notice (one character is a literal kitchen witch whose cooking has an extra zing that enhances it, like making a chocolate dessert that increases libido). So even if someone witnesses it and even records it, it doesn’t look remarkable enough to garner attention.

    • Rose Embolism

      One of the other things about Mage the Ascension is that one of the major groups of mages devotes a lot of time and effort to keeping both magic and the supernatural hidden, to maintain that level of paradox. It helps that supernaturals are rare, but they still have to devote time making fake werewolf videos, finding psychopaths to blame vampire killings on, and so on. Which weirdly, is protecting the supernaturals they want gone.

  7. Gwen

    The only other masquerade I can think of that may work is pact based. The only way to have magic powers at all is to make a pact with something and part of the requirements would be silence and keeping it hidden.

    Vampires turn back to corpses after having what appears as a heart attack or something similar.

    Werewolves either stay as big dogs or lose any ability to prove what they said, normal human.

    Mages lose all magic powers, forever.

    And all of them are unable to reveal themselves to anyone not in the know. So a werewolf goes to change in the middle of the woods and can’t…so someone who is not allowed to know must be watching.

    It makes normal humans more dangerous, and someone hiding who they are from their loved ones more understandable.

    Perhaps some humans are born to evade this rule, who end up being prey or potential recruits depending on the entity.

  8. Kenneth Mackay

    Kate Locke’s ‘The Immortal Empire’ trilogy is another example of how to combine ‘modern’ tech with supernatural abilities. It’s set in an alternative present where, in the Victorian era, a mutant strain of Yersina Pestis turned some of its victims (including Queen Victoria, who, at the start of the first book, has been reigning for 175 years) into vampires, others into werewolves and the most heavily affected into goblins, who occupy what used to be the London Underground. Half-vampires, the result of breeding between vampire aristocrats and human courtesans are employed as servants and bodyguards. Because the immortal undead are somewhat set in their ways, technology is a little behind our world, and looks more like its Victorian predecessors – steam-powered motorbikes share the streets with horse-drawn carriages, mobile phones have rotary dials, sound systems use compact cylinders instead of compact discs, and so on.
    And yes, there are nightclubs!

    • Rose Embolism

      That’s not dissimilar to Poul Anderson’s “Operation Chaos”, where sometime around the beginning of the 20th century they figured out how to “degauss iron”, allowing magic and magical creatures to come back into the world.

      The thing is, though it’s partially satirical, Anderson did meticulous worldbuilding in his novel, and showed that the world WOULD be different. As in, for a start, the participants in the W.W. II equivalent were completely different. It’s not just a case of “We’ll have the supernatural out in the open, and nothing will change”, which is worldbuilding so bad it makes my teeth grind. .

    • LeeEsq

      Steam-powered motorbikes? The air pollution in this world must be horrible.

      • Kenneth Mackay

        I can’t remember if it’s mentioned in the books, but I’d imagine London would still have its ‘pea-souper’ fogs.

        • LeeEsq

          I’d figure that Vampire rulers would encourage environmental laws and clean living if only so their food source doesn’t taste that bad. Humans eating properly are probably a lot better for vampires than humans on a subpar diet and contending with a lot of pollution.

  9. LeeEsq

    The masquerade never made sense because it involves creatures or magic users both being simultaneously stronger than ordinary humans, meaning we aren’t a threat even with a nuke generally, and weak enough to fear our numbers. That means we are a threat. Generally, powerful people aren’t shy about showing or displaying their power. You might have a few people here and there that will but not in general. So if you had vampires, werewolves, and mages than chances are they are going to want to flex what they can do and make it sure that we ordinary people know who is in charge.

    • Cay Reet

      I could see that ‘staying behind the curtains’ for vampires – to a degree at least. It’s much easier to prey on humans when they’re not aware of the danger. Werewolves, mages, of fairies have no reason, though. They’re not generally hunting humans (for werewolves, humans make little sense as prey, there’s animals with much more meat out there).

      • Rose Embolism

        Well that gets back into the actual folklore of werewolves and faeries, where they were definitely predators on humanity (this isn’t getting into the ambiguous nature of “household” faeries, of course). I mean, nobody was going “Oh that Beast of Gévaudan, let’s make friends with it.” You can definitely have excellent exceptions like “How to be a Werewolf” (Where the main horror of werewolves is dealing with small-town style politics), but for the most part if you have werewolves that aren’t a threat to people, are you really writing werewolves?

        And faeries…if your interaction with a group of beings is “They steal our children, kidnap women to be nursemaids to THEIR children, and occasionally kill or curse people just because it’s amusing”, then why would you allow them to have their forests or faerie mounds? And the magical people in folklore are just about as bad (I mean considering that persecution of people believed to be witches continues to this day…).

        Again, the most logical outcome of a “Supernaturals are out in the open” scenario is either the supernaturals are extinct, or it rapidly diverges from anything approaching our world. If you want a world that is basically ours in the details, a scenario is necessary.

        • Cay Reet

          Well, the fae folk are seen as both negative and positive. Sometimes, a meeting with them can have a good outcome for the human – fairies and other members of the fae can be very helpful, if approached the right way. Other times, of course, they use humans for their own needs or play dangerous and deadly pranks on them.

          As far as werewolves are concerned – in a lot of stories about werewolves, they’re rather a danger for the herds than for the humans. The Beast (which certainly wasn’t a werewolf, although it may not have been a regular wolf, either) has killed humans, but mostly those who guarded the herds of sheep or cows – much better food. Werewolves might clash with humans in rural areas over lifestock, but they would hardly make humans their only prey.

  10. Adam J Thaxton

    The Spider stuff is a second world with modernish things.

  11. Bellis

    I too hate the explanation that most people just don’t want to see magic or that they rationalise it away even when they witness it. Often it is implied or outright stated that the protagonist (and by extension the reader) is special for being willing to believe in magic. And that makes just as little sense as trying to convince your fantasy audience that humans wouldn’t want to believe in magic. Just because I like reading fantasy books doesn’t mean I am more or less likely to believe in magic in a nonfiction context than the next person. I happen to like science in the real world (also in fiction btw) and fantasy in a fiction context.

    • LeeEsq

      When ever I see this mass arbitrary skepticism in media, I get the urge to start screaming at the characters to stop being so dense. Sean of the Dead really pissed me off because of this. The cluelessness was supposed to be the joke but a found it infuriating that Sean’s mom never really quite understood what was going on.

      • E. H.

        I hate arbitrary skepticism in more serious works unless they do something unusually intetesting with it but to me SOTD worked as a satire of careless people ignoring relevant current events until it’s too late.

      • roseembolism

        Honestly, after the last couple years I think Shaun of the Dead didn’t go far enough. There would be a whole bunch of people charging out to get bitten by zombies, then saying “See? it’s nothing. Not even as bad as the flu.” And then half of the rest would see no reason that zombies should entail changing any behavior, especially if it hurts business.

        • E. H.

          A show that unpleasantly reminds me of what’s going on now is the Strain. Vampires are in the process of taking over the world and not only is there the selfish desire of people not to make changes for the common good but there’s active misinformation being constantly put out by a well-connected billionaire who is working for them. Think Renfield with power.

        • Bellis

          As depressing as this line of thought is, it makes more sense to draw parallels with the real world behaviour of people, and how they are influenced by various factors (Who would benefit, who would do the influencing, who would be vulnerable to it, who would fight the fake news and how?) than proclaiming that “people just don’t want to see the truth” because that’s too simplistic. Even just mentioning these complexities would be a step up, you wouldn’t have to go into details.

          While not wanting to believe in grim realities is a strong motive which can easily be combined with money/power interests to suppress information, it still wouldn’t explain a full-on masquerade. There would still be a significant number of people who would face the grim reality, because there are strong motivations for that as well, including having a fighting chance to survive it.

          If the magic/supernatural elements aren’t grim, it’s even more difficult to explain why people wouldn’t want to believe. Yes, some people are unimaginative party poopers who hate fun and some people just don’t accept changes to their worldview, not even good ones, but those kinds of people are in the minority. I can see groups forming around rejecting the use of magic, but outright denying its existance when it actually exists? I know some people who refuse to buy a smartphone, but I don’t know anyone who says smartphones don’t exist.

          I don’t see even well-funded misinformation campaigns being able to supress all knowledge about cool magic or magical beings, even though they could make things more difficult for the protagonists. What if (as a B plot) instead of having to lie to their mom about why they couldn’t get their homework done, they had to deal with red tape around how to finance and regulate useful applications of magic? In a similar way that in the real world, solutions to climate change exist, but aren’t being implemented fully.

  12. roseembolism

    Sorry for the long post, but this is a much more enjoyable topic to spend time on then checking political Twitter every ten minutes.

    I think my perspective must be radically different, because to me saying a Masquerade is the unbelievable thing in urban fantasy just strikes me as grasping the stick at the wrong end. As in “Vampires, werewolves and mages and all that? No problem! A conspiracy that conceals the existence of said supernaturals? IMPOSSIBLE!” Really, is a masquerade any more unbelievable than how high fantasy always has faux medieval Europe cultures?

    So. I’d still say without a masquerade one gets a world that is fundamentally different from ours (Say, the Chrestomanci series or Operation Chaos), or in some sort of war situation (Has anyone done an 80s style “War on Magic?” setting? If not, they should). Given how humans respond to predatory species, and Others in general in the real world, I find it hard to believe in a world with vampires and werewolves openly mingling in nightclubs. (This is where I point out that in the U.S., the last suspected vampire panic was in the 19th century, and the last witch trial was in the 1980s. Yes, that’s right. Only 30 years ago.)

    Now I’m imagining werewolves and vampires treated like wolves- hunted to near extinction, and then kept on very limited ranges, probably with big orange collars and ear tags, and you cant even change shape without some tourist taking pictures that will end up as glossy prints on a calendar…

    Anyway, thinking of the alternatives:

    The second world that just happens to resemble the modern world strikes me as kicking the can down the road- if our world with a public supernatural shouldn’t look the same, then why should a second world be that way? Why would a secondary world even have nightclubs and taxis like ours? (I know, I know, it’s the same reason that Game of Thrones looks like medieval Europe even though the continents and climate are completely different. It’s a sort of handwaving that usually makes my teeth grind).

    The “You need a really powerful being that is more powerful than your mages, that is demanding the masquerade and imposing it.” idea runs into the “Why not tell the parents?” problem: if the Powers that Be are powerful enough and intelligent enough to force magic and the supernatural to be secret, then shouldn’t they be powerful enough to deal with the problem facing the protagonist? Why aren’t THEY the protagonist?

    So of the imperfect options, if there’s to be a masquerade, I personally the conspiracy maintained by the supernaturals the best, a leaky one that’s only kept things together for a century or so. It allows for a human face to the masquerade, human scale problems and characters, and gives the potential for stories to be about about stopping a masquerade breach. the other versions lack the tension that all the spinning dishes could come crashing down- unless our protagonist does something.

    Aaand, it just occurred to me what I described above IS a version of the “You need a really powerful being that is more powerful than your mages,” concept, except it’s a powerful being in the form of an organization, with all the limitations and possibilities for interpersonal conflict that entails. You could even make an Urban Fantasy story be about dealing with internal bureaucracy politics, though I can’t imagine that people would do two separate series about say, dysfuctional British supernatural agencies…

    • Cay Reet

      One big problem for me with the masquerade is that we wouldn’t have the urban world Urban Fantasy uses IF there were magic (werewolves, vampires, mages, fae, you pick it). The mere existence of other humanoid people would have led to a different socialisation for humans. If there is an outside ‘other’ (such as werewolves etc), chances of xenophobia inside the human society would be far, far lower. The xenophobia we humans have would be directed at non-human people. The existence of magic would have influenced the way technology develops, either alongside magic (technical means which augment magic or make certain aspects of magic useable for non-mages) or against magic (so non-mages have a sporting chance to protect themselves from mages). We might have something similar to our world, but there would be severe differences.

      And humans would know they’re not alone. With a healthy population of some kind of non-human sentient species, it would have come out long before any kind of big government with a big governmental organisation would have been a thing. I mean, look at our world: do you really think all governments on our planet would cooperate to keep the existence of werewolves, vampires, fae etc. a secret? Werewolves make excellent fighters, so the next time a country goes to war, they’d draft the werewolves. Mages can turn the tide of the battle with spells, scrying, or other techniques – which government wouldn’t make use of them? And that would leak. And once that leaks, it’s out in the world and the world will change. If werewolves et al. are a relatively new thing, it could still be hidden and the story could be about how it leaks, but if it has been going on for, say, a century or more, it would have had an influence on the world and things would be different, too different to still use the same urban setting we have in real life.

      Yes, using European middle ages isn’t the optimal way to build a high-fantasy world, either – it would be great if we had worldbuilding from a different historical period more often. Keep in mind, though, that the first highly-popular fantasy writers were all European or of European heritage and they saw Medieval Europe as the last time when people really believed in magic (before the era of Enlightenment when people scoffed at all those folktales of werewolves, vampires, fae etc.). That was an easy point to start for them.

    • Prince Infidel

      When & where was this witch trial in the 80s? Can’t find anything with Dr Google.

      I don’t know if the existence of the supernatural automatically means humanity will try to exterminate it. If they prey on us, compete with us, or are perceived as doing either, then yeah. But real world witches would be an invaluable resource that everyone with power or the desire for power would want on their side. A war on magic only makes sense if the mages are somehow both separate & uniformly opposed to humanity.

    • LeeEsq

      Given that werewolves and vampires are going to pose a real big actual threat to humans if they existed, it makes sense for humans to go all after them. So using them as analogy for persecution, when they tend to be a real actual menace seems kind of wrong-headed. Same with mages. Bog standard human morality combined with magic powers is not going to be a happy recipe for an equal society. Magic would need to be either low level or like learned skill rather than an innate ability to get something like a liberal democracy.

  13. Kenneth Mackay

    The last witch trial in Britain was in the 1940s, and it wasn’t because the authorities believed in witchcraft; the law was used to silence a spiritualist who was suspected of leaking information about the plans for the D-day landings.
    I haven’t heard about one in America in the 1980s. Details please!

    • A Perspiring Writer

      I did a bit of research on the subject, and while I couldn’t find anything about witch TRIALS, I found something about a metaphorical witch HUNT*. Maybe that’s what the original commenter was talking about?

      *Granted, the information is skewed toward the U.S. (seeing as that’s where I live), so there definitely could have been witch trials in the 1980’s somewhere else**.

      **Of course, the original comment specifies ‘the U.S.’, so I have no idea.

  14. Silverware

    I’m always surprised to see that secondary world urban fantasies are rare. Because in visual novel circles that’s a pretty common premise (We just want to date supernatural creatures in a cafe setting, okay?). Two of my stories are like that.

  15. Kenneth Mackay

    One of the odder ‘masquerades’ I’ve come across is Eric Garcia’s ‘Casual Rex’ a pulp detective story, except that the hard-boiled detective is actually a dinosaur in a human suit – dinosaurs (much smaller than the fossils they’ve planted to throw paleontologists off the scent) not having become extinct, just gone into hiding by disguising themselves as humans!

  16. Erynus

    In my story there is no masquerade for various reasons. First, when the MC discovers magic there a handful of wizards in the world. Any and all magic manifestations previous to that point were labeled as random occurences or distorted experiments that couldn’t being replicated (like cold fusion). Then for a while, my MC learned and experimented with magic, that is a personal skill.
    I mean you can have magical objects, but it is the wizard who powers them and make them work, so any actual magic interaction can be seen as a trick.
    In fact there is a kind of masquerade as most of the wizards are secret operatives, so they are hidden for the general public, but not unknown to everyone. Like radar on second world war, germans knew the british have detected planes “somehow”.
    Then, because of an event, there is a boom of magic, and it can’t be denied, but the reasoning of magic vs para-science difers from people to people. there are some things someone will call magical and other would say it’s science or a fake.
    By the time it would be studied enough, it would become science.

  17. Erynus

    Vampires on motorbikes….Will they reflect on the rearview?

    • Cay Reet

      Depends. Some theories say that vampires can’t see themselves in old mirrors, because the glass has been steamed with silver to create the reflective surface and vampires don’t do well with silver. In that case, a modern mirror should present no problems.

  18. diane

    Neil Gaiman handles this well be interlacing the ‘magic’ with a real philosophical/ethical issues his audience already accepts: ie the
    homeless are invisible to most is true. He establishes this link in the first paragraph (but I don’t have to tell you). He is a writer who puts the work in; you can see him ‘thinking’ when deconstructing his stuff. I would argue that Nerverwhere does not merely call on the ‘automated forget-me field’ but works hard to NOT do that (or not being easily accused of it). The protagonist, once in contact with the Underground People, is barely seen and easily forgotten while NOT doing ‘magic’—he was just trying to go to work, get money out of the bank, etc. Of course, not being seen or remembered IS the magic(!) but this is the difference between a master writer and someone who uses the explanation: ‘people don’t see it because they don’t believe in it.’ There’s too much cool stuff and plotty stuff going on for me to roll my eyes. Gaiman is a good example of using your reader’s belief system to do the work. Also, a good example of ‘show me don’t tell me’.
    Pratchett uses ‘the discomfort’ we have about Death to make it credible that no one notices he is a 7 foot skeleton (except children of course!)—even though we’re all fine with God is a Turtle, imps inside cameras getting pissed off because they are out of magenta, vampires who replace a blood addiction with a caffeinated one, etc. Also, Pratchett was a master of subversion and lampshading and this is one of them. These are choices that also allow for great humor—now I can watch Death try to make small talk in an old lady’s house while overwhelmed with her knickknacks instead of her, like, running away hysterically.

    Do we talk enough about writing and humor…?

    Great podcast.

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