Speculative fiction storytellers will go a long way to make fantastical situations feel plausible. Sure, they will never be perfectly plausible because magic isn’t real, but it’s still no good if our audience is wondering why the hero won’t use teleportation during our tense climax. We can make most fantasy conventions feel plausible with a little extra thought and planning, but there’s one nut that’s hell to crack: the masquerade.
For those unfamiliar with the term, this is the trope wherein all magic wielders and magical creatures remain a secret, unknown to most of the world. Since the masquerade is a cornerstone of urban fantasy, its implausibility is a huge problem. To make this a little better, let’s go over why the masquerade is so important, why it’s a nightmare to explain, and, yes, we even cover a couple explanations that I think can stand up to the rigorous examination that some stories need.
Why We Need the Masquerade
Despite its misleading name, urban fantasy actually distinguishes itself by adding magic to the world we currently live in. This not only delivers relatable wish-fulfillment scenarios to the audience, but it also doesn’t require as much worldbuilding from the storyteller. While that makes the genre very attractive, it comes with an inherent contradiction: the world has to be the same, but… not the same. The existence of magic would naturally alter every part of our world from the beginning of time, so urban fantasy storytellers need a reason why it hasn’t done that.
We do have one way to explain this without the masquerade: magic is brand new. Everyone wakes up tomorrow and finds there’s a rift in reality that’s leaking magic into the world. While this is a great explanation for some stories, it goes against the traditions of fantasy. The whole genre is based on our misguided nostalgia for the past, so many of us want our magic to be ancient and mysterious. That’s a big reason why most storytellers prefer to say that magic has always been around, but we just don’t know about it.
Plus, the masquerade is great fun. Storytellers get to take the mundane world and imagine what’s hiding out of sight. Audiences get the wish-fulfillment of seeing a character pulled out of their everyday life and into a place of magic. And making characters hide their true natures from others is an alluring source of conflict, so alluring that storytellers keep using it even when it makes no sense whatsoever.
Suffice to say, the masquerade is going to be widely used by storytellers for a long time.
Why the Masquerade Is So Implausible
Now we’re onto the tough part. The masquerade requires a huge number of people to all keep an enormous secret. Even worse, every one of those secret keepers has a huge incentive to divulge: money. Don’t tell me your hero wouldn’t like a crisp million for hiring out their magic powers. If they don’t want a million bucks, they don’t have enough problems to be a good fantasy protagonist. Trade them in for someone else.*
In the era of internet and cell phones, even one person blabbing means game over. Sure, others might not believe them if the magic seems weak and coincidental, but the vast majority of fantasy stories don’t depict magic that way. It’s usually big, flashy, measurable, and provable. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be powerful enough to impact the story or near as much fun.
The reasons that storytellers give for the masquerade are simply no match for this reality. You cannot convince every person in a society to go against their own interests, and very few incentives for keeping the secret would be strong enough to balance out the power and protection that money provides.
On the bright side, the commonness of the masquerade trope does give it some defense against implausibility. Urban fantasy audiences are so used to it, they’re unlikely to ask questions when it’s introduced. However, this defense breaks down in a couple common scenarios. First, when the story features big magical conflicts in full sight of regular people, it becomes impossible to believe that magic is still a secret. Second, when the protagonist makes sacrifices to protect the masquerade, the audience will wonder why the hero can’t just tell everyone the truth.
So the more you are planning on using those kinds of conflicts in your story, the more important it is to have an explanation that works. This explanation needs two components: why and how. After noodling it over, I’ve managed to come up with two robust possibilities in each category.
Why a Society Might Create a Masquerade
Regardless of how it’s accomplished, you’ll need a reason why an entire society of sapient beings has chosen to go to great pains to maintain their secret. They’re not only hiding their powers individually, but also hiding the very existence of magic. Otherwise, spellcasters might be anonymous, but normal people would still know magic is real.
Because maintaining this secret is so far from the society’s self-interest, I’ve found that justifying it requires an outside being that is even more powerful.
Hiding From a Super Powerful and Vicious Force
Something wants to murder all the magic workers and magical creatures, and it’s so powerful, it can easily defeat an entire magical society. Ideally, it’s from somewhere other than Earth/our realm, and it doesn’t know that lots of magic wielders/creatures are here. This way, people have a reason to hide the existence of magic altogether. If the big scary thing finds out that magic is more than an aberration on Earth, it will arrive in greater numbers and go to greater lengths to hunt everyone down.
Again, this thing has to be ridiculously powerful, because the magic workers in a typical fantasy story are no pushovers. Many storytellers suggest that normal humans would hurt spellcasters, but that’s as implausible as the masquerade itself. We have a whole article on why regular people could not and would not persecute mages.
I do have one exception to this “the threat can’t be humans” rule, but it’s so niche it’s all but useless. If your non-humans are very few in number, and their magic isn’t that powerful, and they’re all preying on humans, okay. Basically, your world just has vampires – but not Twilight or True Blood vampires, because those are too powerful. You can have Buffy the Vampire Slayer vampires that are much more discreet and rarely sire more vampires. They also have to be rich, or they’ll have trouble with the how component of the masquerade.
This is a poor solution for most stories. You’ll probably want additional magical creatures that have no reason to hide, and it means all your magic wielders are serial killers. Oh, and please don’t use this for an oppression analogy. Marginalized people are not serial killers, and creating a parallel where they are is gross in the extreme. Looking at you, True Blood.
A Non-Interference Mandate From a Higher Authority
Instead of a powerful threat, there’s a powerful authority demanding that regular humans not be sullied by the likes of magic. The higher being must have a great interest in humans and in controlling their development, and again, it can’t be humans themselves. Humans would leap at the chance to receive magical cures or other magical favors. The authority would probably be a god-like figure, though storytelling will be easier if it isn’t completely benevolent.
The audience should have some idea of why the higher being doesn’t want humans to be influenced by magic. Perhaps the god knows that if the masquerade is lifted, magic workers will end up controlling regular people. In stories using religious or divine magic, preserving free will is also a good explanation. The TV show The Good Place uses this to great effect when the characters end up back on Earth with knowledge of the afterlife. To get to heaven, people have to do good things without knowing they’ll be rewarded once they die, so if the characters tell anyone about the afterlife, that person is doomed to hell.
While a god-like figure also explains why your spellcasters would care about the authority’s wishes, what’s most important is that it’s powerful enough to impose its will on everyone. It may tell all the magic workers, “Or else!” or it may use its magic more directly to enforce the masquerade.
Will Natural Laws Work Instead of Intention?
It’s worth exploring this, because it clarifies some distinctions between different story scenarios and what they require. By “natural laws,” I mean the world has some generalized magic-like effect that hides magic from a non-magical society, without anyone actively trying to hide it. A great example is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in which residents of the titular Neverwhere have a “don’t notice me” field around them that feels like a natural effect of the universe. However, this works because Neverwhere is a separate place, and magic is cloistered away there.
In stories where the masquerade is really needed, there’s a lot of intermixing between the magic and non-magic portions of the universe. Vampires have day jobs and witches put protection spells on regular homes. At that point, an automated effect that somehow manages to tease out the magic stuff from the non-magic stuff feels contrived. For instance, if someone receives a mortal wound and then it’s suddenly healed, they’ll need an explanation, and an automated “don’t notice me” field wouldn’t plausibly construct an elaborate cover-up. At that point, it feels more believable for something to be intentionally concealing the existence of magic.
If you do have all of your spellcasters and magic creatures off in another realm with occasional doorways to this one, that makes explanations significantly easier. At that point, it’s plausible that a magical society would have their own non-interference policy or that natural laws could maintain the secret.
How a Society Could Maintain a Masquerade
Once you know why the whole society would stay secret, you still have the question of how. Again, it only takes one person willing to provide evidence, and the jig is up. With lots of people over hundreds of years, someone will let it slip. That means that society needs a way of not only dissuading everyone from telling but also covering things up when someone inevitably does.
A Powerful, Dedicated Organization
This is the Harry Potter method of enforcement. In the Harry Potter books, there’s a wizard government with a whole department dedicated to concealing magic and punishing wizards who make that difficult. If someone casts a spell in front of muggles, the wizard will get a fine and some government workers will show up to erase the muggle’s memory.
Enforcement doesn’t have to be done so openly. Maybe agents of the powerful authority wait in the shadows, watching for anyone who would dare use magic on humans. If someone does, they disappear. Again, enforcers will need a way to repair damage that’s already been done, but it could simply be the removal of the divulging individual, some well-placed bribes, and a cover story. The point is that enforcers are powerful and able to respond when the rules are violated.
If you’d like lots of conflicts where the protagonist struggles to avoid telling their loved ones about magic, this method is ideal. That’s because violation of the rules is possible, but it comes with consequences. It’s no good to tell your date about magic if some assholes will show up and drag him away. The authorities can also warn your protagonist against telling or make them jump through hoops for a special permit that would allow them to divulge.
Widespread Masquerade Magic
For enforcement that’s more mysterious and unbending, the world can have a universal magical effect that’s designed to prevent non-magical people from learning about magic. Since it has to cover up leaks, the ideal effect is something that makes people forget about magic shortly after they encounter it. It could be combined with other effects as necessary. Maybe elves look like humans to the non-magical, or casting magic in front of normal humans causes damage to the caster. Because the effect has been intentionally designed, it can do whatever you need without feeling implausible.
However, magic of that kind would be ridiculously powerful. If the higher authority has not created this effect themself, you’ll want to come up with some other reason why the society can’t do magic that powerful again. Maybe it required every mage working together at a time when mages had twice their current numbers. If you introduce a big outside threat to your setting, you don’t want your magic wielders to defend themselves that easily.
This kind of widespread magic is the best option if you want magic to occasionally spill over into the public. If a dragon is going to destroy several buildings and you still want people to not know dragons exist the next day, you’ll need something that tampers with their memories en masse.
When and How to Use Handwavium Instead
The explanations I’ve offered probably won’t work for every story using the masquerade. If you can’t offer reasoning that will stand up to scrutiny, the next best thing is to handwave it away. This means you’ll state the existence of the masquerade in simple terms, move onto something else, and don’t call attention to the masquerade again. If you do this, your readers may all accept the masquerade just because they’re so used to it.
A great example of handwavium is in the Dresden Files. The masquerade exists there, but protagonist Harry Dresden makes no effort to maintain the masquerade and suffers no consequences for violating it. In fact, he even has an advertisement in the paper telling people he’s a wizard for hire. Someone will be like, “Haha, you’re not really a wizard are you?” and he’ll respond with something like, “You wanna hire me or not?” Because the masquerade never influences Dresden’s choices, the story doesn’t invite readers to scrutinize whether the reasoning is sound.
However, if you want your protagonist to lie to their loved ones, this won’t cover you well. In that case, the best you can do is look for situation-specific reasons why the hero can’t divulge. For instance, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy could have been hiding that’s she’s a slayer from her mother because her mother would try to stop it, since slaying is obviously dangerous. However, this is a tall order, so there’s high risk that your situational explanation will feel contrived.
Occasionally tropes are worth using even if we can’t explain them well. So it is with the masquerade. However, the closer you get to a plausible explanation, the less distracted your audience will be when it becomes important to the story.
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