Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
In essence a Masquerade is a trope wherein magical, supernatural, or otherwise fantastical people are living under the noses of ordinary human beings without the ordinary folks being aware of it. For one reason or another, the supernaturals/superheros/whatever are required to keep their true identities concealed from - for lack of a better word - the muggles.
While there's nothing wrong with the trope in and of itself, it's frequently handled very poorly and clumsily, with flimsy reasons for everything - from why the humans don't catch on to the existence of the supernaturals, down to the very reasons for the Masquerade itself. So, this article looks at some of the ways Masquerades are handled badly - and offers ways to fix them up.
Credit for this article also goes to DML, who collaborated with me on it. :D
Table of Contents
- What a Masquerade is for - and what Masquerades imply
- Keep it simple.
- Forget memory-wiping as a fix-all.
- Killing/making people vanish to uphold a Masquerade doesn’t work believably, either.
- "Muggles just ignore everything that doesn’t fit their preconceptions" doesn’t cut it, either.
- Instead, try creating reasonable doubt by making the paranormal or magical the exception, rather than the rule.
- Don’t be afraid to desegregate the magical and the mundane.
- Some examples of Masquerades done well
What a Masquerade is for - and what Masquerades imply:
Generally, the purpose of a Masquerade is to allow readers to suspend their disbelief and imagine that the events in the story are taking or have taken place in the real world without catching the attention of the general populace. For example, the setup of the Harry Potter universe allows us to (temporarily) believe that a secret wizarding world exists right under our noses.
A Masquerade should not be used as an excuse for your characters to get away with doing whatever they want to do and/or all of the cool things you wish you could do, nor be used a license to cram whatever fantastic elements you fancy - whether you find them really cool or awesome - into a modern setting.
Masquerades also imply that your supernatural elements don’t stand a chance of taking on the muggles face-to-face and must therefore hide from them. Some settings (eg, White Wolf) try to dodge this and claim that the supernaturals really are in power and are running things behind the scenes, but this invariably raises more questions than it answers. Which leads us to our first point in writing a believable Masquerade...
Keep it simple.
The more complicated and diverse your masqueraded elements are, the bigger your rationalizations have to become. The more you have to rationalize, the more you’re likely to simply create even bigger plotholes.
For example, many works of fiction and certain roleplaying games set up vampires as uber-powerful and well-organized beings who could easily overpower humans and human technology. But this raises questions that are rarely, if ever satisfactorily answered: If vampires are so powerful, then why aren’t they ruling the world already? If they are in charge, why do they need to operate in secret? If it’s because can’t come out during the day, how do they work through intermediaries without these intermediaries realizing they can just blackmail the vampires for their own gain? If they are controlling these intermediaries through vampiric mind-control powers, wouldn’t someone eventually realize that the figures they’re controlling aren’t acting like themselves?
Another problem with large secret organizations that the larger any group gets, the less stable it becomes. Bigger groups mean more individuals, which mean more differences of opinions and clashes of personality - inevitably, the core group will splinter and factions will be formed. Faction A might think the core group was too soft and slow. Faction B might think that the core group was too harsh and moving too quickly. Faction C might be made up of people who think the core group’s mission is too flawed to be salvaged at all.
Also, the bigger a group is, the bigger the risk of exposure becomes, either from someone slipping up or deliberately blowing the group’s cover. Make no mistake - no group is so perfect that it never leaves any loose ends, ever. Even if your supernaturals explicitly have magic to cover up their oopsie-doodles - even that’s not going to cover their asses forever.
Forget memory-wiping as a fix-all.
Especially if your story is set in contemporary times! While memory-wiping could work in a few cases here and there, it can't be expected to fix everything forever - especially not in the age of the Internet. Inevitably, someone with half a brain would quietly film strange going-ons and upload them to the Internet, or simply post about them on a blog or message board. You’d eventually end up with several people who have the sense not to go making a huge ruckus about it offline sharing experiences and swapping stories. So, when Joe abruptly no longer remembers his strange experiences when his friends ask, and/or his videos/blog/forum posts mysteriously vanish without a trace, people are going to notice and ask questions - and what’s more, they’re going to take these incidents as evidence that what Joe talked about actually exists. And if Joe himself suddenly vanished, well...
Killing/making people vanish to uphold a Masquerade doesn’t work believably, either.
Witnesses can talk, but bodies can send a much louder message. A body or disappearance will typically prompt an investigation in any country with ubiquitous law enforcement (most people do have friends and family members who would notice their disappearance and would likely report it, after all), and will definitely attract the attention of friends, neighbors, co-workers, and people who work in or hang around places where the disappeared person frequented. A living witness to the paranormal can blather on all day about what xe allegedly saw, but with no real evidence to prove it, there’s no way to differentiate said witness from the countless kooks and conspiracy theorists out there. On the other hand, if that witness suddenly and conveniently turns up dead, people may very well start taking what that person had to say more seriously because xir death/disappearance might signify that something strange is indeed going on. There’s a very high probability that curiosity and intrigue will be generated around this person - which spells trouble for the group that was trying to silence xir in the first place. It’s one thing for someone to pass over and see something - eg, skim over a forum post in which the writer claims to have witnessed a man transforming into a wolf - but quite another to have people deliberately looking for something - eg, policemen looking for a killer/kidnapper, or believers keeping their eyes peeled for any potential evidence of werewolves or other stories of werewolves in an effort to find out just what’s going on.
"Muggles just ignore everything that doesn’t fit their preconceptions" doesn’t cut it, either.
Many stories handwave the muggles’ failure to catch on to the strange and unusual away by saying that regular people just ignore and rationalize away anything that doesn’t fit their worldview. Unfortunately, this is only true to a certain degree - while it’s easy to brush off a few strange incidents here and there and while some people can deny and rationalize things away for their entire lives, it becomes pretty hard for everyone to deny that something odd is going on when these incidents start happening on a semi-regular basis, and when their family, friends, and acquaintances have odd stories of their own to share.
If exsanguinated bodies with double puncture wounds in the neck start turning up... well, these cases are going to be kept on file, and new cases are going to be cross-referenced with old ones - and law enforcement is going to start noticing a pattern. They’ll also have those bites tested to see what’s been stuck into these people. And then they’re going to find traces of saliva. And sooner or later, those “outlandish” tales of bloodsucking vampires aren’t going to sound so outlandish after all...
Instead, try creating reasonable doubt by making the paranormal or magical the exception, rather than the rule.
When the majority of people claiming to be vampires, werewolves, fae, etc. are clearly impressionable and dissatisfied teenagers, and the majority of people claiming to have psychic powers are demonstrably frauds trying to fleece the gullible, and the majority of people claiming to have been terrorized by ghosts turn out to have been simply looking for their fifteen minutes of fame (and maybe a book deal), people are going to have good, believable reasons for doubting rumors of the strange and unusual.
Let the fakes, frauds, and false positives outnumber the cases of genuine strangeness. Let the vast majority of “ghost” photos be hoaxes, camera artifacts, or pareidolia. Let the bazillions of “UFO” videos on YouTube be cases of misidentified ordinary objects or fakes created by bored film students. Maybe the “haunted” house on the hill really isn’t haunted - maybe it’s just the wind rattling things around. Maybe Janet’s Mothman sighting really was a drug-induced hallucination.
And don’t forget, sometimes, something horrible, terrible, and appalling could happen for an entirely mundane reason; don’t forget we have a lot of brutality in the world as well that doesn’t require the aid of nor need to be blamed on imaginary monsters to make it scary and terrifying: maybe the sinking of the RMS Titanic wasn’t because a dark lord did it for the evilulz; maybe it was because the lookout couldn’t see the iceberg through the foggy seas and the light pollution from the ship, that the members of the crew were inexperienced and poorly trained, that the majority of the iceberg was not visible above the water, that the rivets that held the hull’s steel plates together poor quality and made brittle by the cold, and that the communications equipment was not functioning properly, leading to the message to get out of the way not being delivered until it was too late.
Maybe the Salem Witch Trails weren’t a deliberate attempt to stamp out an ancient order of goddess-worshipers, but were instead the unfortunate culmination of a variety of mundane factors, including class warfare and simple ignorance. Maybe the teenagers rumored to have been hunted down and abducted by aliens on their weekend canoe trip really just overestimated themselves and drowned in the rapids when their canoes capsized, their bodies carried away by the current.
Sometimes, having the cause of something turn out to be nothing more than human greed (no greed demons need apply!) or ignorance and prejudice can be far more terrifying than the cause being supernatural - because when you put the down the book or end the game session, the daemons and dark lords go away, but the bigots, psychopaths, and narcissists do not.
Don’t be afraid to desegregate the magical and the mundane.
There’s also nothing to say that the supernatural acts in the story can’t have entirely mundane motives behind them. Not everything has to be the fault of some daemon whose only purpose is to create evil in the world. Maybe the fire mage that burns down houses isn’t doing it to harvest the souls of the victims; maybe he’s secretly running a scam and cashing out on the insurance - and he didn’t account for people being in there and they became collateral damage when their houses burned down. The fairy who tricks people into signing deals with the proverbial devil and leaving them in unpayable debts might just be doing it to take their money because xe lost xir own money in a bad investment. Who knows? (Such motives aren’t too hard to sympathize with under the right circumstances, which could be used to create some interesting tensions.) Furthermore, mixing up the magical and the mundane makes the magical elements seem like an organic part of the setting, rather than something just tacked on at random and/or at the author’s whims.
There’s also nothing to say that supernaturals can’t take advantage of modern technology, either. After all, if you’re a witch/wizard/mage/sorcerer/whatever trying to stay undercover, it makes much more sense to keep your spells and lore on a thumb drive that you can stuff into your pocket at a moment’s notice than in shelf upon shelf of heavy old books that would require hours to pack up and move. Plus, you’d have the added benefit of being able to take advantage of features such as CTRL+F and searching within files to find what you’re looking for in a matter of minutes.
Furthermore, forget the dated mannerisms. Throw away the period attire. Dispense with all the peculiarities associated with being supernatural; showing your supernatural characters as being able to live and mingle with muggles, use their technology and adopt their ways will definitely show them to be more competent at hiding without needing to tell your audience that they are. It doesn’t even have to restrict itself to the use of muggle weaponry like guns, either; a slasher cannibal with something as rudimentary as a laptop and a prepaid no-contract internet connection could use social media sites to find people announcing their summer getaways to isolated cottages. On the same note, what’s stopping a thousand-year old vampire from getting his or her blood by using internet chatrooms to build rapport with unsuspecting victims prior to luring them to their doom? There’s no reason a vampire that would’ve been around since long before Charles Babbage sketched out a complicated mechanical adding machine couldn’t learn how to operate a PC. Both are perfect examples of supernatural characters reconciling their supernatural nature with muggle technology, and haven’t even touched guns.
Some examples of Masquerades done well:
Frankenstein: The original horror novel Frankenstein is an example of a Masquerade being totally believable and not insulting to its audience. There wasn’t any need for any supernatural rationalizations or any amount of organized deception to explain why the world at large - with the exception of a very few people - knew of Doctor Frankenstein’s Monster’s existence. Even if telecommunications had been around in the days when the story was written, few people would have believed Doctor Frankenstein - without his monster there to prove it - if he had told them he had somehow miraculously managed to create life from dead bodies using chemicals and a current of electricity.
It’s also important to note that Doctor Frankenstein’s monster didn’t kill people because he was fundamentally evil by arbitrary (or his author’s) designation, or because he was compelled to by otherworldly forces, or even because he needed to eat people. The monster killed people because he was shunned and ostracised by humanity even though he desperately wanted to be human and be accepted as human. His exile from humanity made him lonely and angry, which lead to him initially lashing out. When Doctor Frankenstein refused to solve his problems by creating him a companion to ease his loneliness, his monster’s motives turned from merely discharging his anger to getting revenge on the person he believed caused it all.
Let Me In: Although Let Me In is a remake of a movie adaption of a much earlier novel Let The Right One In, it’s a prime example of how to go about using subtlety, pacing and keeping supernatural elements intimate and constrained to a select few characters in order to maintain their clandestineness. The Masquerade in Let Me In is not presented in a way that insults its audience’s intelligence, nor does it need to rely on complicated backstories, in-universe justifications, rationalizations, or other forms of literary gymnastics in order to make it believable and mesh with the rest of the mundane elements in the story. The characters were shown to have had to work hard - from constantly being on the move - to evade authorities after only a few deaths attracted the attentions of the police, even though a number of these deaths weren’t apparently (or in some cases, even) the work of a vampire.
Also, check out:
Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups
So You Wanna Mix Science And Magic?
Keeping Magic From Taking Over Your Story
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Magical & Supernatural Tropes To Reconsider (And Tips To Build Up Your Magical/Supernatural Settings!)
Alexis Feynman's Guide To Writing Better Vampire Fiction
Common Werewolf Tropes You Should Think Twice Before Using
Tips For Writing Better Immortal & Long-Lived Characters
Common Plotholes In Vampire Fiction
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
On Writing & Roleplaying Mysterious Characters
External Resources/Works Referenced:
New York Times, September 16, 1993: New Idea on Titanic Sinking Faults Steel as Main Culprit
Titanic Historical Society, Inc. - Titanic's "Brittle" Steel?
Titanic Archive - Ship History
Computer History Museum - The Babbage Engine
Possible Causes Of The Salem Witch Hunts
Discovery Education - Salem Witch Trials