I’m writing fantasy for the first time, specifically historical fantasy, and I was wondering if I should keep the magical and mundane worlds separate like in Harry Potter, or fully integrate them like in Sorcerer to the Crown.
What are the pros and cons of either choice? Do you have any recommendations for authors that do them well?
Thanks so much for your awesome platform, it’s a great resource for authors!
Hey there, thanks for writing in! Also, congrats for starting on fantasy for the first time. We’re glad to have you.
Your question is a fascinating one. As I believe Shakespeare once said, “To have a masquerade, or not to have masquerade, that is the question!”
For reference, a “masquerade” is whatever keeps the magical world secret from the mundane world. In Harry Potter, the masquerade is created by wizards who intentionally keep muggles unaware of magic. In Call of Cthulhu, the masquerade is that anyone who learns magic is quickly corrupted and consumed by it. In the Dresden Files, it’s hand waved by the main character saying, “People just don’t notice magic, which is weird, but I don’t have time to think about it because I have magic crimes to solve.” Some stories have a masquerade but don’t address it at all, like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the explanation for vampires being secret is a big shrug.
As you’ve already surmised, deciding whether or not to include a masquerade will have a major impact on your story. Let’s run through some of the pros and cons.
Having a Masquerade
- The mundane world can be preserved as it is in real life with little explanation of how it has changed.
- This allows you to make good use of locations your readers are familiar with or present authentic versions of locations that you’re very familiar with.
- A big part of the Dresden Files’ success lies in how well Butcher is able to describe Chicago, even to readers who don’t know it very well.
- You can naturally include comparisons between magical and mundane worlds.
- Buffy does this a lot, playing up the comedic value of magical creatures appearing in modern clubs and what have you.
- It’s easier to make magic seem wondrous, especially if you use a mundane-raised character like Harry Potter does.
- The wish-fulfillment element is stronger, as masquerade stories help readers feel like they could one day wake up to a Hogwarts letter.
- It’s easy to build in secrecy and paranoia elements, if that’s what you’re going for.
- This is a big draw of Mage: The Ascension, where mages are always on the lookout for agents of the Technocracy.
- Masquerades are really, really hard to explain. Even the best of them can’t usually hold up to much scrutiny, so you’ll either need a really good explanation or be able to hand wave it away.
- Even with a masquerade, there can still be questions of how history still turned out the way it did.
- In Dresden Files, one of the most powerful wizards around is a centuries-old Native American named Joseph. This raises the question of why Joseph and other native wizards didn’t use their magic to protect their people from European conquest, and the book doesn’t have an answer.
- Masquerade settings don’t have as many opportunities for cool worldbuilding.
Not Having a Masquerade
- You don’t have to explain the masquerade, which is really hard to explain!
Magic can be woven into existing historical elements to create exciting new ideas.
- Naomi Novik’s Temeraire and Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown are both really good at this. Novik builds a world where dragons play a role in all the major militaries, while Cho imagines how Georgian society would handle magic.
- You can show how magic changes historical events. History nerds, like me, love this.
- Novik constructs an alternate history of the Napoleonic wars, including a resurgent Inca Empire, based on how dragons would change the major battles. It is glorious.
- It’s often hard to explain how the world’s history matches real-world history at all.
- Temeraire starts to deviate from our history in the Napoleonic wars, but everything up to that point is the same even though the world is full of dragons.
- Likewise, much as I love Sorcerer to the Crown, it’s a bit hard to believe that the presence of magic hasn’t changed English history at all.
- You can avoid this issue by having magic arrive in your setting very recently, but that won’t work for a lot of stories.
The choice really comes down to what kind of story you want to tell. In most cases, if real-world history is going to be a big driver of your story, you should forgo a masquerade. That makes integrating the fantasy and historical plot elements much easier. On the other hand, if you only want to use history as a backdrop for magical adventure, then a masquerade lets you keep the world exactly as it is for your characters to play in.
Hope that’s helpful, and thanks for your kind words about the blog!