Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Does Your Masquerade Pass Muster? (Thoughts For Modern Fantasy Stories)

How many times have you read a modern fantasy story where an entire supernatural world is kept completely in the shadows? Whether it's vampires in their ivory towers making secret deals with politicians, cabals of wizards waging war on werewolves, or eldritch beings whose stirrings send ripples through space and time, the general population doesn't know about these things. And most folks, if you tried to tell them, would look at you as if you were a crazy person.

Cynthia, James isn't a vampire. If he tried to bite your neck without consent, file a sexual harassment complaint with HR.
This approach does you two, major favors as a writer. The first is that it means you don't have to re-write any major world events or locations in important, noticeable ways. This means all you're doing is adding the underground stuff, and putting in secret, hidden places that only the denizens of the Night World know about. The second is that it gives your story an extra added thrill, because if this secret world is only known by a few people, then it could potentially be real.

That's a powerful shot, and it's one reason this kind of story is so popular. However, there is one thing that can make or break your story on pure suspension of disbelief... the strength of your masquerade.

How Does No One Know?

This is not a rhetorical question. If you are asking your readers to believe that an entire secret society of dark wonders walks among us, then you have to explain how no one has noticed them. And as the world marches ever onward into the age of satellite surveillance, smartphones, and instant video, this becomes more and more important.

There are a few things you can do to make your masquerade feel more believable, though, and to get your audience focused on your story rather than on the premise you're asking them to swallow to get to your story.

Right, right, no one knows it's the plague because of his mask. Anyway, back to the duke and his party...

#1: The Veil

The first (and in my experience most common) way to have a masquerade is to have a metaphorical or literal curtain of invisibility around the secret world, typically thought of as the Veil. For example, in the Vampire: The Masquerade setting the vampire community has a huge, proactive network meant to keep their existence secret. They own the cops, they own the judges, they own the newspapers, and if there is information they don't want released then it simply will not circulate. Not only that, but it is extremely difficult to collect evidence of a vampire, and what evidence there is looks more akin to shaky Bigfoot-capture footage than proof of nosferatu. So between the money, the power, and the community rules against breaking the secret, they hide themselves in the shadows. There are literally hundreds of these bloodsucking undead monsters all around the world, but their existence is covered up by lackeys, and the efforts of those looking to hide information, camouflage evidence as false, and to make vampires into a popular fiction that couldn't possibly exist.

Some setups go even further, though. In Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, for example, being a part of the secret world means that regular people simply stop registering your presence. You can maybe get their attention long enough to ask a question, but as soon as they look away they'll forget they ever even saw you. You exist as a member of the secret world, now, and by virtue of that membership are apart from the world of the mundane in a real, complete sense.

For those wondering, the second option is harder to do in a unique way, but is strangely easier to swallow since you can just say, "Because magic, that's why."

#2: Isolation

The second thing you can do (particularly if you want to avoid the above approach), is to make the supernatural elements of your secret world rare, and far away from prying eyes. I call this the horror movie approach, since it seems like immortal hockey-masked murderers, ghostly child predators, angry spirits, and demonic possessions would get a lot of attention... but because they're isolated, rare, or unusual, they just don't. Even in horror movies where there are secret societies, church divisions, or multiple generations of victims, it seems like no one in the general population ever lends credence to these stories.

Because it's easier to hide something when it's rare.

If you think about it, this is the key to a lot of cryptid beliefs. Even if you comb every inch of Loch Ness, or beat every push in the pine barrens, it's a lot more believable that one (or maybe a handful) of creatures could evade being discovered in such a big area. Hell, we're still finding isolated tribes of people in the rainforest, and we've been exploring that area for centuries!

One of the best examples of this in my opinion was the Clive Barker novella Cabal. In it a man is driven to hunt down the legends of a city of monsters beneath a necropolis in the middle of nowhere in Canada. A place called Midian. Beneath that necropolis we find the tribes of the moon, who are the monsters from all of our folklore. Hunted nearly to extinction, Midian is one of their last refuges. And we believe it, because their sheer isolation, combined with their relatively small numbers, means that they very well could have escaped notice for decades... or centuries.

This isn't limited to middle-of-nowhere settings like the Slaughter family's house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You can have isolation in urban environments as a subject of blight, or even as a result of money. Monsters could live behind the walls of the old, venerable mansion just as easily as in the concrete gutters of half-abandoned slums. The key is that no one goes there, so how would they know?

#3: The Cthulhu Effect

Those who know the truth are deemed to be mad, and it is only by calling clarity insanity that the world can keep its eyes closed to the threat of the Old Ones.

Or, put another way, convincing someone of the impossible takes a lot of doing. Especially because people do not like to be proven wrong. Even if you can show them facts that proves their beliefs about the world are incorrect, humans have the unique ability to look you dead in the face and say that those are lies, what I know is true.

There is evidence of this all around you. How many people believe the world is flat, even though you have photos from outer space proving the contrary? How many people refuse to consider that the world is billions of years old, insisting that a holy book written in the bronze age is more accurate than carbon dating? How many people totally believe that if you cut taxes on the rich that the money will trickle down to the poor, despite decades of research that state that simply is not what happens?

Now imagine telling a populace who is more than ready to disbelieve easily-proven facts like this that vampires are real. Or that fairies live in the woods. Or that no, really, you can totally do magic? Even if you have video of yourself casting a ritual and summoning a hellhound, the first 50 comments on the video are going to be FAKE! with a helping of, "what editor did you use for this? It's really smooth."

People are stupid, pigheaded, and don't typically react with open-minded clarity when events transpire that could make them re-think their whole worldview. And you can use that to explain how an entire werewolf pack goes undetected when they masquerade as homeless people, or how the popularity of stage magic was engineered to specifically cover up occult practices in a phenomenal act of sleight-of-hand. People don't want to believe that these things are real, and while some of them might, those who see the truth are more likely to be thought of as delusional, dangerous, or both, rather than as witnesses to the world's radical truths.

You Still Have To Explain All This, Though

While you can use all sorts of combinations of the above explanations, the important thing is for you to illustrate how your masquerade functions. If your protagonist gets definitive proof of a werewolf attack, show how the camera doesn't want to be recorded what it's being pointed at. The video is choppy, problematic, and seems to malfunction. Even though it's clear to one character, you should show how others regard it as faked, or how they think this belief in werewolves is a manifestation of the trauma the believer experienced.

And so on, and so forth.

It helps if you have a Professor Van Helsing character to help explain things to the newly exposed, but it's also important to remember that Van Helsing was sort of thought of as a quack with odd, old-world ideas until he managed to convince several thoroughly modern men that the woman they'd been courting had, indeed, become a vampire. And to do that he had to prove to them she was attacking children, and chase her back into her crypt.

Despite their belief, and their slaying of multiple vampires, in the world of Dracula the living dead didn't suddenly get unmasked to the public. They were known to our protagonists who remembered themselves in their ignorance. Who knew that they never would have believed it either, and who understood that it takes extreme circumstances to make someone step over the threshold to the other side of the Masquerade.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing entry. Hopefully you found it engaging, and it got some ideas going for you! If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To get updates on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me, you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or head to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular patron. Either way, there's some free books in it for you as a thank you!


  1. Replies
    1. Harry has 2 factors 1 groups actively making sure things stay hidden and the Buffy effect where ppl unwilling to accept the reality edit their own memories