There are a lot of common tropes in urban fantasy. One of the most popular is having the magical world, and those who live in it, keeping themselves hidden from the mundane world. One question I’ve heard asked is, why? Surely if someone with magical/miraculous powers would be welcomed by the world. The mundane world couldn’t possibly pose a real threat to these powerful people, and think of all they could accomplish! There are countless ways to answer: sometimes it’s answered in the work itself, or sometimes it’s obvious; plenty of people still have to hide who they are just because of who they love, for example. But, let’s explore some of the other reasons I’ve heard, and sometimes given.
- Suspension of disbelief:
Authors want their stories to feel believable. In stories about mystical creatures and people tossing around magic in our world, the fact we don’t ever see it needs to be explained. The easiest and most common method is to say it’s all a big secret. Sure, there are wizards/sorcerers/witches and all sorts of bizarre creatures, they’re just hiding. The “real” world exists just below the surface, and maybe we’d see it if we stumbled down the right alleyway on the right night. Of course, considering the tone of many urban fantasy stories, that might not end well for us. The problem is that this explanation is incomplete. It might clarify why you don’t see wizards hurling lightning and fire in the subway, it doesn’t explain why they’re hiding.
- People who are not-so-nice (super villains and douche-canoes):
In short, if it was known that some people could use magic, it’s exceedingly likely that someone without said abilities would want to use them for purposes less than legal or even kind. There’s a reason super heroes tend to hide their identity. Those who want the power they possess could, and likely would, do terrible things to get access to it, including hurting those you love. In comics it isn’t always portrayed well, often it comes off as condescending to the—almost always—female love interest who needs to be protected from her super-powered beau’s nemesis. But, there is a kernel of truth to this—not the female side, but the risk to loved ones. It’s why the first family has their own protection detail. It isn’t because they’re fragile things needing the defense of someone big and strong. It’s because there are those who would use them to make the president do what they want. For those without access to a security team, or some kind of constant protection detail, the risk to loved ones is something to consider.
- People who are normally nice, except…
People, even good people, can do really scary things when they’re scared: ask George Takei about that. In urban fantasy books the percentage of the population with magical abilities is usually very small. I can’t think of any where it’s over five percent of the population. If it suddenly became known, and accepted, that such a small group had amazing powers, it’s safe to say that some people would entirely lose their shit. If we go with five percent, that’s fifteen million people in the US alone. If they all worked together they might present a real threat, but how likely would that kind of cooperation be? Also, by sheer odds, not all of those people would be of the good, law abiding sort. Imagine magical crime sprees, or worse, magical terrorism. How do you think people would react? I’m not saying everyone would freak the hell out, maybe not even a majority, but it would be naïve to think a sizeable number wouldn’t demand something be done. Some, though they’d likely fall outside the “normally nice” demo, would even feel justified taking matters into their own hands. Humanity, sadly, doesn’t have such a good track record when it comes to those who are different; worse when we see them as a threat. Beyond those acting on their own, there would also be an outcry for our leaders to protect us, enough that said leaders would feel obligated to act.
- Douche canoes with power (The Government):
There’s no way some of the worse kind of people wouldn’t get magical abilities. Hell, plenty of urban fantasy stories have these people as the antagonist. When people started dying, the government would have to act; one of its primary purposes is protecting its citizens after all. In democratic nations, it’s possible (however unlikely) that the actions taken wouldn’t be in line with registration, or conscription, but there are a lot of places in the world which aren’t citizen friendly democracies/republics. Even in the best of nations, the reaction is unlikely to be kind and gentle,certainly not at first. For example, there would be some with magical talent who would want to join the military but there is almost no way some sort of conscription/draft wouldn’t be enacted. The argument of course would be that our enemies have supernatural soldiers, we need our own to defend against them! And with these abilities comes a moral obligation to use them for the public good, right? Add to that the near certainty that someone would want to weaponize magic in one way or another. Unfortunately, history is filled with nations, governments, and groups doing terrible things with the best of intentions.
- Life would become a massive pain in the ass:
Let’s assume all the above concerns are addressed. Steps are taken to ensure that the magically gifted are protected and their civil liberties aren’t brushed aside for the sake of the greater good. In such a utopia, there would still be more practical concerns. Like insurance for example. Don’t laugh, tossing around fire or lightning could lead to some serious property damage, aside from the person damage. This is particularly relevant when you think of how many stories involve characters having to learn to control (unsuccessfully at first) their newly found talents. What if you didn’t have offensive magics? What if you were, say, a safe and property friendly healer? Surely in that regard the populace would embrace such a person with open arms and celebrate all the good they could do. That’s actually a reasonable assumption (we’ll ignore any kind of malpractice insurance requirements). Assuming a healer was agreeable to using their powers to help others—I think most people would be—consider what their life would become. If their identity or home address were known (and it would), they’d almost certainly have an unending line of people beseeching them for help. Not bad people, but worse, good people: parents with sick children, or those who are just desperate with no other hope. It’d be hard for any decent person to turn them away, but at some point the healer would need to eat, sleep, or just earn money to pay the rent (if they didn’t charge for their services). Even if they did make money at it, it would take a very special person to not be weighed down by such demands on them.
I purposely skipped over the reaction from religious zealots of every stripe. Suffice to say some would see these magic wielding people as saints or angels, others as manifestations from Hell (or its equivalent). And obviously there are countless other reasons, but this gives you a general idea of what writers have to consider. It might seem like overthinking, or that authors just don’t like/trust people (for the record, I actually do like some people). But that’s what writers are supposed to do. We’re supposed to look at the world from the view of our characters and have them react accordingly. These concerns might seem overblown until you’re the one in the proverbial cross-hairs. When the result could be death, internment, or worse, even a remote possibility is one you need to consider very carefully. Would you take the risk if you were the wizard/witch in question?
I love this post! I get so annoyed at people who make comments like “If people could really do magic, why wouldn’t they rule the world?” and similar. And especially because these commenters never seem to be interested in honest discussion, but rather in arguing that I shouldn’t like what I read and write.
Thank you for writing this, Bishop!
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Thanks, Erin! It bothered me too when I saw that posted online. I saw a thread somewhere of people talking about how silly it was that everything was secret in the Potter-verse, but no one brought up the obvious problems. That’s part of what inspired this post. I for one consider several logical steps down the road when I write something. If others are able to suspend their disbelief, that’s great for them, but I know my limits and write to that.