Readers never forget a captivating magical school.
Since the success of Harry Potter, there has been considerable attention to magical schools. Notable examples include The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and Vita Nostra by Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko. Even A Song of Ice And Fire, famed for its warfare and royal courts, had ‘magical schools’: Braavos, the Venice-like Island in Essos, boasted the Faceless Men. Bran Stark also studied under the three-Eyed Raven. Another curious addition comes from R. F Kuang’s The Poppy War, where the poor orphan Rin must study at a military academy.
This is all of course, no surprise. Fantasy literature has always celebrated the pursuit, and dangers, of knowledge. This may partially explain the success of magical schools. Not everyone had a great experience in secondary school. Magical schools, therefore, promise a better relationship between the reader and their own educational endeavours.
In this article, you’ll learn ten valuable tips in crafting your own magical schools. These tips partially take inspiration from the European Middle Ages due to its significance in both fantasy literature and in our modern era. Whilst most examples come from Harry Potter, I encourage you to consider other magical schools in literature and film.
Tip One: A Student Point of View
Students make for terrific protagonists in magical school settings.
It’s best to write about magical schools from the perspective of a learner. This allows the reader to learn about the magic, and the wider world, alongside the point-of-view character. However, this doesn’t mean the character has to be a complete beginner, like Harry Potter in the Philosopher’s Stone. Some of the most unique magical school settings have protagonists already acquainted with supernatural forces. Think Bran and Arya Stark, who already know about magic before embarking on their education. From a writing perspective, having characters familiar with magic or aspects about it may help with pacing. However, readers experience joy in the protagonist’s journey, too. Those writing magical schools must strike the ideal balance.
Tip Two: Use The Forbidden
Magical schools usually have a dichotomy of knowledge. There is ‘common’ knowledge and the forbidden. An excellent example comes from Harry Potter where the Dark Arts compliments the core curriculum. There are also the ‘blurred lines’ in the Wizarding World, where certain potions and spells are neither fully dark or good, as seen in the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts library. This mirrors the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe, where conceptions about ‘natural’ and ‘demonic’ magic shaped attitudes towards the unknown.
Of course, some magical schools may only teach light or dark magic. In the case of the Faceless Men in Braavos, the magic used is clearly dark and mischievous. Forbidden or esoteric magic can also establish a sense of mystery and danger. In the fifth Harry Potter book, our heroes must travel through the Department of Mysteries, with its foreboding and ethereal atmosphere. So often, forbidden magic is mysterious as questions remain unanswered throughout most of the story.
Tip Three: Consider Animal Imagery
Animals are bewitching. Because of this, animals can make powerful motifs, characters and plot points within a magical school setting.
Interestingly, medieval astrology used animal imagery in various manuscripts. Many of the twelve horoscopes take cues from animals, such as a Scorpio. This is also true in the Chinese zodiac which emphasises both fantastical (dragons) and real animals (rabbits). Historically, it wasn’t uncommon for animals to be used in ritualistic sacrifice (the Norse), in war (cats were used for deceptive purposes by the Achaemenid Empire against Egypt), as symbols (Occultists in Tsarist Russia) and of course, transport, spreading disease and cuisine.
There’s an obvious link between animals, magic and knowledge, which writers are well-equipped to take advantage of. Harry Potter shines as a wonderful and obvious example. Across the seven books and three Fantastic Beasts films, readers are delighted by traditional animals (cats and rats), mythological creatures (dragons, phoenixes and werewolves) as well as inventions by J.K Rowling, whether the Niffler or a Dementor.
Tip Four: Worldbuild Histories
Fantasy is a genre rich in history, frequently with old lores and deep worldbuilding. This is no surprise – fantasy authors, such as George RR Martin, took inspiration from antiquity and medieval history. Because of this, I suggest immersing yourself into history while developing an understanding of how other authors incorporate historical ideas and motifs. It also helps to give your magical school a unique backstory, too. Readers love this!
The most obvious example, again, is Harry Potter. I loved learning about Hogwarts and its brilliant lore. J.K Rowling displayed excellent skill by combining medieval history with fantasy. From towns such as Hogsmeade to the Quidditich World Cup, there are many opportunities to engage with the Wizarding World’s splendid history.
Tip Five: Use Generational Dynamics
Magical schools typically use generational dynamics due to the teachers being older than the students. This was shown in Vita Nostra And Oldtown in A Song of Ice and Fire. This offers, of course, many opportunities from themes about knowledge and wisdom to plot points concerning the conflicts between generations. The students’ parents can also offer this. Perhaps the protagonists parents possess a secret past which causes conflict. Another example comes from teachers; these guardians of knowledge can offer peculiar perils to our protagonist.
The opportunities are endless!
Tip Six: Get Visual With Geography
Magical schools typically have interesting geography – think the Faceless Men in Braavos, the awesome town in Essos (A Song of Ice and Fire). Another personal favourite from ASOIAF are the maesters in Oldtown (The Reach, governed by House Hightower) who familiarise themselves with history, science, medicine, ancient texts and politics. This is complimented by the urban layout of Oldtown, which brims with markets, septs, towers, schools, foliage and inns. In the fourth book, A Feast For Crows, we follow Samwell Tarly’s journey where he encounters a mysterious alchemist.
Geography has always been crucial to fantasy literature as readers are drawn to imaginative and distinctive worlds. There are opportunities to add mystery, too. However, writers should give special consideration to both the built and natural landscapes dominating the story. My suggestion is to look at Renaissance to modern paintings for inspiration. A medieval map can also conjure ideas.
Tip Seven: Know The Importance of Language
Languages offer an exciting opportunity for the fantasy writer. By incorporating foreign / fictional languages into your story, you certainly add a ‘cool’ factor to the narrative. Harry Potter, whilst not having a made-up language, used Latin, Aramaic and Ancient Greek for awesome affect.
Languages can take multiple roles in magical schools. Beyond names for spells, languages can indicate place names, certain religions and traditions, culture and geography. Imagine being a student at the University of Paris, where you encounter manuscripts in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Middle High German and more. Our education system is built on linguistic diversity and it’s no surprise that J.K Rowling and George R.R Martin have recognised this in their own works.
In Star Wars, a science fantasy saga, there are a diverse range of fictional languages. I’m quite fond of Sith and Ewokese because they mirror languages in our own world, from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to Biblical Hebrew and Old Norse. This is also shown in the script for Galactic Basic Standard (Aurebesh) which indicates inspiration from East Asia. Likewise, Frank Herbert’s Dune took cues from Arabic and Persian while crafting the cultures of Arrakis. Of course, no discussion on fictional languages is complete without mentioning Tolkien, who transformed Germanic philology into Elvish.
Tip Eight: Add Burdens And Trials
Magical schools must test their students; both inside and outside the classroom. Whether it is Arya Stark running through a street with a cat nearby, Harry Potter unlocking potion secrets or Luke Skywalker mastering the force with Yoda, it’s imperative for students to put their lessons into practice. Writers can do this in numerous ways. For one, it’s important to dedicate time to the learning process, where students can learn without heavy stakes. This was shown in Season Six of Game of Thrones, where Arya overcomes her cruel teacher by putting her lessons into practice. However, Arya also maintains her identity, rebuking the label of “no one”, proving that students are not always destined to become like the masters who rule over them.
Tip Nine: Consider The Reason Why
Ask yourself these questions: Why is this character learning magic? Why is magic being taught? Writers must develop a succinct understanding in the motivations behind characters, whether teachers or students. In addition, consider why certain teachers act the way they do. This was certainly a highlight of the Harry Potter series, as Severus Snape engaged readers through his well-developed backstory. Even minor characters, such as Professor Quirrel, were interesting enough to carry certain plot points. Subjects deserve attention, too. It’s well worth your time to consider why certain subjects are taught where others are not.
During the High Middle Ages, the ‘Liberal Arts’ consisted of seven core elements: grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, geometry, arithmetic and astronomy. Underpinned by intellectual movements such as scholasticism, the Liberal Arts eventually built the Humanities as we understand them today. School subjects are usually studied for a greater purpose: employment, becoming a competent adult, developing a cultural appreciation, defending oneself, patriotism and more.
Tip Ten: Think Community
Magical schools usually indicate a community of sorts. This consists of students and teachers, but also non-teaching staff, shop-owners, mayors and politicians as well as parents. I quite liked Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley from the Wizarding World! A Song of Ice and Fire provides this, too. The taverns in Oldtown brim with secrets and speculation. Communities are a fantastic chance for writers to get creative, consider character dynamics and to insert tension. This can occur both inside and outside the classroom. I left this tip last because it’s important to enforce the need for well-written characters and relationships.
Are you writing about a magical school? Do you have any suggestions for fellow writers? Please share below!