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.