Peeling back the Greasepaint

So I was harassing… er… asking my friends for assistance with topics for this post and got a request for advice on building a new character into an existing world, specifically an urban fantasy world where there are mostly-clueless humans more or less side by side with fantasy being with “phenomenal cosmetic powers”.

Now aside from this being possibly the most awesome auto-correct in the history of well… ever, it actually works as a metaphor for the discovery of hidden depths in a character (a combination of “hiding in the glitter and the greasepaint” and “what lies beneath”) as well as fodder for the question of whether the assault mascara should be regulated.

For this post I’m not going to touch the assault mascara or the baton rouge and deadly implications of powdering one’s nose. You folks can play with that in the comments or write your own damn stories from the plot bunnies it triggers. I’m going to talk about the whole technical side of introducing a hidden world through a character with no prior connection (at least known connections: the demands of Narrativium are such that a novel where the character actually isn’t in some way linked to the hidden world is vanishingly rare, and when it does happen, the character is someone extraordinary in his or her own right. Larry Correia’s combat accountant comes to mind).

So. On the one side of the story-building framework, we have the hidden world of supernatural critters who may or may not be immortal and who are certainly more a lot of things than your average human. Their perspective is likely to be different enough from human norms to be difficult if not completely alien depending on the world-building.

On the other, we have the protagonist who is if not actually human, then believes herself to be human and has a human perspective. How should these two elements be brought together?

Well, first, it helps to make sure the protagonist has something in his background that will allow him to if not adapt to the knowledge of the hidden world, at least interact with it in some fashion without his sanity kissing him goodbye for the duration. A military background can be helpful for the focus on duty. So can the combat accountant thing (although I don’t recommend this, since you’ll be accused of copying Larry Correia’s work, and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, you do want to be something a bit more distinct than yet another rip-off of bestselling formula X). I’ve seen steadfast skepticism work, too, where the character refuses to accept that this is anything other than human-with-eccentricity until committed to the course of events in some way.

Regardless, a strong character with a history of being able to do things and work through problems without collapsing in a whimpering heap will make it a whole lot easier for your protagonist to protag. And “strong” here does not mean either “musclebound hulk who spends hours working out daily” or “female with unrealistic upper-body-strength and ass-kicking skills”. It means “able to adjust to weirdness beyond human ken without running screaming into the scenery”. Some biting-the-scenery moments in the initial adjustment stage are permissible if done well.

With that in place, there are two major ways to bring the two together. One is to smack your protagonist with the hidden world early on and let them deal. Cedar Sanderson and Larry Correia both do this at the start of their respective urban fantasy series. The other – which is a lot less common, and I can’t recall any examples right now – is to have the protagonist uncover parts of the hidden world and go looking to solve the mystery.

Either way, the protagonist needs to actually protag and not just let events happen to her. She needs to take what action seems reasonable and try to resolve the problem the hidden world presents. Everything else should cascade from the consequences of her attempts (which of course will make things worse until near the end).

Another helpful technique is to show the more human side of hidden world friendlies in interactions, so that readers gain something to work with at more or less the same rate as the protagonist. The less human aspects can be revealed as the plot unfolds, especially if the protagonist is a hidden-worlder who either doesn’t know or is in denial: they will need to learn/make use of their non-human abilities, but they won’t be able to do so cleanly at first no matter how much power they actually have: no matter what the ability is, it will require some degree of training and practice.

Beyond that… Let the characters and the plot interact, and have fun. You can always clean things up in the edit phase.


  1. So how does the protagonist discover the hidden world if it’s, well, Hidden? The solution to that problem is one of the required elements of all stories in this genre.

    The silly one that just came to me is the emerging problem with immortals and modern record keeping. Generating fake identities, and the resulting tax complications can become a full-time occupation, and then, it leaves a paper trail. So what happens when a determined bureaucrat stumbles across some irregularities and tries to sort them out?

    1. That’s where my suspension of disbelief hits a pretty tall wall, one that some authors scale but others don’t. It’s really hard to hide stuff like a magic world on the modern scale. Cell Phones, internet boards … it’s hard to account for all the holes that can occur keeping something like that secret.

      I’m not saying I don’t give those stories their due suspension of disbelief, but there are ones that manage to clear the wall of details they have to account for and ones that don’t. The more extravagant the fantastic world and the real world become, the harder it would be to keep them separate from one another even with magic.

      It’s still a fun genre, but some stretch the limits of my disbelief pretty hard.

    2. If memory serves for correctly, that very issue (Generating fake identities) becomes a issue in the original Highlander movie: as in, that’s how he was found out.

    3. With millions of “undocumented workers” in the country, I don’t think documentation is as big a problem as you do. It’s an issue if you want to be important, but if you just want to slide through life in the background, it must be fairly easy.

      What does one really need ID for, anyway? Taxes? Get paid in cash (checks count). Alcohol? Don’t buy it (brew it or trade for it or don’t drink it). Voting? I’d rather be immortal than vote. Driving? Only if you get pulled over. Banking? Plenty of people without bank accounts. Renting, probably, but what landlord is going to recognize a fake ID (unless you’re really unlucky and he just moved “here” from whatever foreign state you chose to forge)?

      1. For that matter: most government departments don’t actually talk to each other much. With a good tan and the right story, some social service agency will help you get a legit driver’s license in any of several states, which is plenty of ID for most of the other stuff. Repeat every 15 years in a different state, as you start to look too young for the birthdate on the license. Until/unless some government authority-type has reason to spend time investigating you, you’re unlikely to be identified.

    4. If you’re immortal, you could plan it in advance. Establish a fake “descendants” you could take the identity of when your old identity “dies”.

      1. Certainly. I’ve seen this with some vampire fiction: the old identity “dies”, usually in a way that’s not going to leave an observable corpse (shipwrecks were popular for that) and a “distant relative” who happened to look rather a lot like their great-aunt or whatever would inherit and move in.

    5. The how depends on a number of things, but it’s entirely do-able. Few in number; live on the fringes of society or be one of the bureaucrats. Many in number? Infiltrate society and network like crazy.

      Played around with some, but unfortunately nothing gelled.

      1. Ideas can be like that. I’ve had things that I fiddled about with in many different ways but never went anywhere, and others that took off. Sometimes combining different ideas that can be fitted into the same world can make things work.

        1. I use telepathic compulsions on Social Security people, for stealing the IDs of recently deceased people with the right profiles, for my Multidimensional travelers in need of documentation. And always pay your taxes. Governments worry more about money than people with shallow roots.

    6. Read L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Prospero’s Daughter trilogy: Prospero Lost, Prospero In Hell, and Prospero Regained, to see some of the complications.

  2. The first example that leapt to mind was Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. The protag discovers there’s this whole ‘nuther world going on literally just over the horizon, and the how and why of it are a huge mystery even while she’s living in it and being forced to adjust to it.

  3. Schumacher Inc. has legal staff for that. The boss pre-dates William the Conqueror. They’re known for their forward thinking and long term investment. Elves make bank as stock brokers. /ducks and runs.

    1. Hehe. It makes at least as much sense as vampires in the IRS. After all, the IRS doesn’t want payment in *blood*. They’re far more likely to employ trolls.

  4. It’s not quite the story type Kate is talking about but I enjoyed Michael Scott Rohan’s Spiral series.

    The set-up is that Earth is the “Core” with the “Spiral” surround It.

    In the Spiral, you can find places of legend (both good & bad). If man has made stories about something, you’ll likely find it in the Spiral. In one book the characters found Skull Island, fortunately without King Kong but one of the character was apparently in danger of becoming the new King of Skull Island. [Wink]

    People living in the Core often don’t realize that the Spiral exists but slip into it and beings from the Spiral can slip into the Core.

    Most people from the Core who encounter the Spiral (and return home) quickly forget about it and/or find mundane explanations for what they encountered.

    While beings from the Spiral can enter the Core, those who witness them will often view them in mundane terms at the time or find mundane explanations for what they saw.

    For that matter, it is possible for a person from the Core to live a full-life (actually much longer lives than normal) in the Spiral but can return to his original time/place apparently unchanged and to then completely forget about the Spiral.

    Others have entered the Spiral to live there permanently and have become much more than they were in the Core.

    A good navigator in the Core can become a supernaturally good one, one who could find anybody/anything they are seeking with the Spiral and within the Core (past or present).

        1. heck, I ended up with a were-lion preacher in Chicago thanks to Peter Grant’s blog last week. not what I planned on spending my weekend writing. *glares muse-ward*

  5. I think Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is a good example of ordinary guy stumbling over they mystery (literally, in fact, stumbling over Door) , then finding more and more as he tries to solve the mystery and figure out who Door is.

    1. Great book. Cool TV series too, if you can forgive it looking a bit like late-era Classic Who.

  6. Barbara Hambly’s written a few “normal people hauled off to fantasy worlds” stories. And that’s how Andre Norton’s Witch World series started.

    The uncanny in our world . . . Dean Koontz. R.A. MacAvoy’s _Tea with the Black Dragon_ is a nice example.

  7. Genre is a tool kit. Having a secret martial arts society is common in certain genres of martial arts fantasy. If you can believe that a guy learning a few things from a dying man is now obligated to get a bloody revenge, the secrecy obligations aren’t that much more of a stretch.

    It looks like I have a protagonist who becomes a visitor to two different secret worlds. One is the world defined by close interaction with habitual criminals. His motivation is revenge, and overwhelming rage. The second world is sort of an underworld inhabited by restless shades of the lawful dead. I’ve been struggling to tie him to it, and I think I’ve figured out how.

    1. Exactly. It’s always a good thing to know the tropes of your genre. Just make sure you leave warnings and designate search parties before you go diving into TV Tropes.

  8. Hmm. Close to some of this, I think, is Wen Spencer’s Tinker.

    Yes, she’s in the middle of the magic bit – but she treats it as simple practical and non-weird engineering until she’s transformed and really dragged into the whole “elf world” and Asian legendary bad guys bit.

  9. In the Repairman Jack series, Jack is already living outside the usual legal norms of society. It’s his “fix-it jobs” that take him into a secret war involving supernatural forces.

      1. Jack fixes situations. His “fix-it jobs” usually involve breaking laws and limbs.

  10. Their perspective is likely to be different enough from human norms to be difficult if not completely alien depending on the world-building.

    Forget “normals” and “phenomenal cosmic power”… this is advice to remember for writing any “stranger in a strange land” scenario.

    (No, Japan (for example) isn’t the US with funny writing, they are different and they do things differently)

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