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 it implies:

The usual purpose of a masquerade is to create a setting where we can believe that supernatural beings exist in a world nearly identical to our own without anyone else having noticed. By extension, it usually allows us to imagine that our own world might be more magical and mysterious than we believe. For example, the setup of Harry Potter allows us to imagine a world of magical people who live right under our very noses and escape our detection day after day.

However, the simple fact that all of these people remain in hiding implies that if they were to get into open conflict with ordinary humanity, they wouldn't stand a chance. Some authors just accept this as the case and roll with it. Others try to get around it with numerous justifications that really don't add up when you critically examine them. And this leads us to our first point in writing a believable masquerade...

Aim to keep it simple.

The bigger and more diverse your masqueraded elements are, the bigger your rationalizations have to get. The more you have to rationalize, the more you're likely to create even bigger problems.

For example, many stories and roleplaying games create vampires who are so numerous and so well-organized that they could easily overpower humanity and take over the world if they wanted to. This raises an important question: why don't they? Vampires certainly like to eat regularly, and if they were in control of everything they could make sure they were never short on blood again!

Sometimes the vampires actually are in charge, but keep themselves hidden anyway. This raises the question of why they bother. Even small cover-ups are hard work, and large ones tend to come apart at the seams eventually. "The humans would rise up against them if they knew!" is a common answer given, but the problem here is that the humans already know. Meddling in human politics requires interacting with them, especially ones with lots of power and influence, and it's not hard to imagine these people getting rebellious if the vampires start pushing them around more than they like. You might try to justify it by saying that the vampires have these particular humans brainwashed, but then you have to ask yourself how their families, friends, and other close associates never noticed their behavior was off and never started investigating why.

And then there's a problem with large, secret organizations in general: the bigger they get, the less stable they become. The more individuals you have in an organization, the more personalities and opinions there are, and the more likely it is they'll come into conflict with each other. 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.

Furthermore, the bigger the group is, the bigger its footprint becomes. They'll need buildings to operate and conduct their affairs in. They'll need people to construct and maintain those buildings. They'll need to order in numerous supplies from numerous suppliers. They'll need transport and long-distance communication. They'll also need people to collect and haul away their trash. All of this creates a bigger and bigger paper trail that becomes increasingly difficult to hide as time goes on. Additionally, it requires them to interact with more and more people who could possibly see something they aren't supposed to.

And then there's the fact that the bigger a group is, the bigger the odds are that someone who has become angry or disenchanted with it will expose it, whether for revenge or to bring its abuses to light. There's no reason to think these whistleblowers won't provide as much hard evidence as possible and name all the names they can.

Make no mistake - no group is so perfect that it never leaves any loose ends, ever. People always make mistakes now and then, and unforeseen complications can make it even harder to maintain secrecy.

"But what if they have magic to cover up their oopsie-doodles?" you might ask. "What if they can make people forget?" Well...

Memory wiping can't fix everything.

Some authors wave the possibility of exposure away by saying that their supernatural beings can just wipe people's memories and be done with it. But in reality, it would be nowhere near that simple.

In this day and age, people can film video and upload it to the Internet in a matter of moments. It would only be a matter of time before someone quietly took a video and uploaded it for people to analyze it and discuss. Some people might rationalize it as a hoax or a student film project, sure. But other people are going to believe and be on the lookout. Even people who merely saw things and slipped away without ever being spotted could get together on the Internet and swap stories. And if one of them - we'll call him Joe - suddenly has no recollection of the events he described earlier, and/or his videos/blog/forum 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. They're also going to start archiving and screencapping the kind of content that keeps vanishing like this, and they will find ways to hide it and keep it safe. And if Joe himself disappears, well...

Killing/making people vanish to uphold a masquerade doesn't work believably, either.

"Kill all the witnesses!" has been a pretty popular trope in some edgier fiction, but does it really hold up? Nah.

Witnesses can talk, sure, but bodies can send an even louder message. A guy who rambles on and on about evil aliens infiltrating the government but can provide no real evidence is easy enough to dismiss as a kooky conspiracy theorist. But if he suddenly dies or vanishes under suspicious circumstances, more people will begin to wonder whether there might be something to his wild stories after all. Now sure, one death or disappearance alone could be chalked up to coincidence by most people, but if this kind of thing keeps on happening, it's only going to look more and more suspicious.

Additionally, mysterious deaths and disappearances tend to prompt investigation in any place with functioning law enforcement. Most people have friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and even acquaintances who could file a report if something suspicious happened, and the discovery of a body is always grounds for an investigation.

Additionally, strings of mysterious deaths and disappearances tend to pique people's curiosities. You might have professionals who'd love to make a name for themselves or just give the bereaved a sense of closure after all these years, amateurs motivated by curiosity or the thrill of solving whatever has left the professionals baffled for so long, or something else along these lines. It's one thing if people casually hear or read someone talk about a strange incident now and then, but it's quite another if they're deliberately keeping their eyes open for that kind of thing.

"Muggles just ignore everything that doesn't fit their preconceptions" doesn't cut it, either.

This justification hilariously and pathetically oversimplifies humanity. Yes, there are some people who willfully ignore anything that doesn't fit how they'd like reality to work, but there's no shortage of people driven and motivated by burning curiosity to learn as much as they can about the world and what it's really like. Additionally, some people really want supernatural things to exist, and they'll stop at nothing to find proof.

Also, the human race's ability to ignore things and rationalize them away only goes so far. Sure, it's easy for most people to brush off a few relatively isolated incidents here and there, and a few individuals can deny and rationalize an incredible amount of things away for their entire lives. But it's pretty hard for everyone to keep denying that something unusual is going on when these incidents start happening on semi-regular basis, and when their own friends, family, and acquaintances have stories of their to share.

If exsanguinated bodies with double puncture wounds in the neck turn up on a semi-regular basis, these cases are going to be kept on file, and they are going to be cross-referenced with each other. Ultimately, law enforcement and amateurs who pay attention to these things are going to notice a pattern. The professionals will eventually have these bits tested to see what's been stuck into these people. And then they're going to find traces of saliva and see human tooth marks. And sooner or later, these "outlandish" stories of bloodsucking vampires won't seem so outlandish anymore.

Try making the paranormal or magical the exception, rather than the rule.

Many plotholes in masquerades are easily fixed by just reducing the number of supernaturals in the setting. Smaller groups leave smaller footprints and require fewer encounters with potential witnesses. Additionally, if the majority of people claiming to be werewolves, vampires, fae, etc. are obviously just bored and impressionable teens, the vast majority of people claiming to have supernatural powers turn out to be frauds trying to fleece the desperate and gullible, and the vast majority of people claiming they were terrorized by ghosts turn out to have been looking for some quick fame and cash, people are going to be pretty justified in doubting anything they hear.

This uncertainty and doubt protects the masquerade in other ways, too. You might have people who believe that some supernatural beings exist, but remain very skeptical about others. What's more, some of what they do believe in might actually be fake, which can damage their credibility in some people's eyes. People might also be reluctant to talk about their own experiences and beliefs for fear of being lumped in with the numerous kooks, frauds, and paranoiacs out there. Even merely mentioning that they believe in these things could get them dismissed as gullible, naive, or immature in many circles.

So consider letting the fakes, frauds, and false positives outnumber the cases of actual supernatural activity, while actual supernatural activity is fairly rare. Let the vast majority of alleged ghost photos turn out to be hoaxes, camera artifacts, or pareidolia. Let the countless "UFO" videos on YouTube turn out to be cases of misidentified ordinary objects, film student projects, or deliberate hoaxes. Maybe a bunch of those "haunted" houses aren't really haunted - maybe it really is just the wind after all. Maybe Janet's Mothman sighting was actually just a drug-induced hallucination after all.

Don't forget that horrible, terrible, appalling things can happen for completely mundane reasons. The real world has no end of callous brutality and gross negligence that doesn't need imaginary monsters to make it scary and terrifying. A good example of this is Unit 731: the atrocities that were committed are so terrible that adding supernatural elements would only serve to make it less disturbing.

So maybe, say, the RMS Titanic didn't sink because some dark lord did it for the evulz. Maybe it really did just come down to the lookout being unable to see the iceberg through the fog and the ship's own light pollution, the crew being inexperienced and poorly trained, the cheap rivets holding the ship's steel hull together turning brittle and cracking apart in the bitter cold, and malfunctioning communication equipment preventing a warning to get out of the way to reach them until it was too late. There are many, many good reasons things can and do go wrong in real life. There's no need to ignore them and pretend they don't exist in your own setting.

Likewise, maybe the Salem witch trials weren't part of some sinister attempt at stamping out an ancient order of goddess-worshipers. Maybe they really were simply the result of mundane factors such as xenophobia and racism, class conflict, and simple ignorance. Maybe some teenagers rumored to have been hunted down and abducted by aliens on a weekend camping trip underestimated the danger of the rapids and drowned when their canoes capsized. Maybe their bodies were lost because they were swept away by the current.

If anything, letting the cause turn to be nothing more than simple human greed, apathy, carelessness, ignorance, or prejudice can be even more terrifying than making it supernatural. There are two reasons for this: one is that the dark lords and demons disappear the moment we put the book down or leave the game session, but the human predators, the bullies with too much power, the bigoted and corrupt leaders, and the malignantly apathetic are still out there. The other is that it's a stark reminder that this is who we could be if we aren't very, very careful.

Consider mixing the magical with the mundane.

There's rarely any reason why supernatural actions can't have mundane motivations. Not everything needs to be the fault of some demon whose only purpose is to create chaos and evil for its own sake. Maybe a fire mage who burned down a bunch of homes didn't do it to harvest the souls of the victims, but was actually running an insurance fraud scam - he just didn't count on people being inside the home when he burned it down. Maybe the fae who tricks people into signing deals with the proverbial devil and leaving them with unpayable debts is broke because of a bad investment. Who knows? Heck, motives like these could even make your supernatural beings sympathetic under the right circumstances, which could be used to create some pretty interesting tensions. Additionally, mixing up the magical with the mundane makes the magic feel more like an organic part of the setting, rather than something just tacked on at random.

There's also no real reason why more supernatural beings can't take advantage of modern technology, either. After all, if you're a mage trying to stay undercover, it makes a lot more sense to keep your spells and lore on a thumb drive you can stuff into your pocket than in hundreds of heavy books that would take hours to pack up and move. (Plus you'd be able to CTRL+F and search within files to find whatever spells you need in a matter of minutes!)

Also, how about ditching the dated mannerisms, period clothing, and whatnot? Showing that your supernatural beings can mingle among the muggles, adapt to their ways, and take advantage of new technologies shows us that they're intelligent and fully capable of keeping up with the rest of us indefinitely. If a slasher cannibal with a laptop and a prepaid no-contract Internet connection could find people announcing their vacations to isolated cottages for the summer, why couldn't a vampire use chatrooms to meet potential meals? There's no reason to think a vampire who's been around since the days before Charles Babbage sketched out a complicated mechanical adding machine couldn't learn how to operate a PC.

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.

Kitty Norville: The majority of this series actually deals with a world post-masquerade. The Kitty Norville series, written by Carrie Vaughn, showed how easy it is for muggle attentions to suddenly be roused, and in the era of telecommunications, how one question, broadcast carelessly over the airwaves, could cause even organized deception with supernatural powers to suddenly become undone. In addition to showing how easy it is for a masquerade to become undone, the series focuses on how a post-masquerade modern world could play out, and life for both supernatural and mundane people people afterward.

More things to know and do

Do your math. Too many masquerades lose plausibility when their authors make them far too big and complicated to avoid exposing themselves. Where & How Writers Need To Do The Math can help you out with this.

Know why and how people actually keep things under wraps. Too many masquerade scenarios have the supernatural beings keeping things hidden from the mundanes for reasons that don't make sense, or using any number of methods that just wouldn't work. Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups and Things Writers Need To Know About Security & Concealment can help you out.

Don't lose track of the regular people. Many writers get so focused on their supernatural beings that they fail to account for what the ordinary people couldn't help but notice and think. Here's the thing: If a vampire goes around leaving behind as many (if not more!) bodies than a serial killer, people would behave and respond as if a serial killer was on the lose. Points To Remember When Worldbuilding, How To Write People On Large Scales, and How To Make The Nameless, Faceless, & Minor Characters In Your Story Feel Human To You can help you out here.

If your supernaturals are supposed to be manipulating humanity, know how that kind of thing actually works. Check out Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is and Writing Characters Who Work Behind The Scenes & From The Shadows for information.

Also, check out:

Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know
Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using
Tips For Writing & Maintaining A Horror Atmosphere
On Writing & Roleplaying Mysterious Characters

So You Wanna Mix Science And Magic?
Keeping Magic From Taking Over Your Story
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
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

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

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