Q&A

Should I Use a Masquerade?

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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!

-Anonymous

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

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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!

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Comments

  1. Bunny

    In my story, the magical world is building up sleeper camps in the human world, biding its time to stockpile and prepare before invading. When it invades, the masquerade will be lifted. The magical world is literally a different universe, and its contact with the human world has been very brief so far. Is this a good enough reason for including a masquerade? Does it hold up, or does it have other implications?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      In concept that sounds fairly plausible. The most important aspect is that you have a motivation for the Masquerade: staying secret in preparation for an invasion. It’s totally possible that a magical force would do everything it can to stay secret in that scenario. It also helps that they haven’t been in the magical world very long.

      Of course the specifics can still be important. If magical duels on mainstreet are common, it’ll still strain believability that no one noticed, but in the abstract I’d say you have a solid concept.

    • Dave L

      One good thing about this idea is that the masquerade will be brief. They won’t be in hiding hundreds or thousands of years

      I can believe a masquerade lasting a few months, or even a few years, easier than one lasting centuries

  2. crimson square

    Concerning pros and cons of masquerade –

    If you like webserials, Heretical Edge is really, really good at incorporating the masquerade into the plot.
    I’m going to try not to give spoilers, but part of that is that the way the masquerade is upheld is not the only application of that effect that happens, part of that is that the way the masquerade is upheld mean that the protagonists are the ones that want to break it, and that this feels in-character. Both the masquerade and other things powered by the same effect have consequences on the plot and characters, too.

    So the masquerade manages to be an actual plot-point, and will probably eventually be broken, which will make for more plot.
    – if that’s something that feels like an interesting plot or sub-plot to you, that might be another advantage?

  3. 3Comrades

    One I think did very well in this regard is Johnathan Strange and Mister Norrell. It blended both camps. Magic is known to have existed but lost power with a historical event.

    So people read and collect Magic books and people still talk about magic as if real (because it was a few hundred years ago) but when it comes back it is wondrous

  4. Saumya Kulp

    Can I recommend a book? Keeper of the Lost Cities. I don’t like it but I sort of do. I wondered what you’d think.

  5. Kim

    The Pax Arcana series by Elliott James has a good explanation for the masquerade. Fairies did it, a few centuries ago, created a world-wide spell that makes humans ignore magic unless it’s about to kill them. And they implanted a compulsion to uphold the masquerade in various groups, among them the Knights Templar. I enjoy the books.

  6. Michael Campbell

    I wonder if there are parallels in Sci Fi?
    In Quantum Leap, Al can be seen by; dogs, children and the mentally ill.
    Maybe magic slips through too bit only for people no one will believe.

    In X-files the smoking man and most other MIBs are busy keeping the truth from the public.
    Perhaps the local wizards guild has a “damage control team” who go in and clean up the mess by erasing memories???

  7. Bronze Dog

    How I plan to handle the Masquerade in my Changeling: The Lost Chronicle:

    A lot of people know there’s something going on, but they’re often afraid to talk about it. They risk being institutionalized, they might doubt their senses, and they might fear being made a target for the things going bump in the night. Tension on the player characters will be to avoid raising too much attention. They risk inspiring human Hunters, along with generally hiding from the Arcadian Wild Hunt. If they go too loud, the public starts talking more openly about the weirdness. If things get really wild, neighbors might start turning on each other, a la “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” Twilight Zone episode.

  8. Greg

    The question should answer itself when you begin to craft your plot and characters. A world where the supernatural is not hidden would be so different that it would have profound impact on the story and the main characters.

  9. Rose Embolism

    One thing to bear in mind about a “masquerade lasting for centuries”, is the last vampire panic in the US happened at the end of the 19th century, and the Highgate vampire panic happened in the 1960s and 1970s. (Leaving aside blood draining psychopaths like the Black Dahilia murder) The McMartin satanic panic was in the 1980s. In the current daytime witch hints are still common in Africa and India.

    So in that context, it’s useful to ask just what a “Masquerade” is for. It can’t be to keep people from believing in vampires and magic and werewolves. Is it to keep it from being “common knowledge” and to have supernatural beings become part of the community? Or just to keep the Government from taking public action?

    Mainly the Masquerade seems to exist to allow a large community of supernatural beings. If supernaturals are few enough, there might not need to be a formal masquerade-simple secrecy will work, and individual reports might naturally be dismissed as tabloid fodder, like the Beast of Bray Road or the Palmyra Seige.

  10. Porphyre

    “Even with a masquerade, there can still be questions of how history still turned out the way it did.”
    To me, this would count as a challenge, but not a real drawback. It gives way to re-imagine and rewrite human History from an occult perspective.
    The RPG Nephilim did it even better than the Old WoD (imho)

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