Let’s face it: most of us really want to attend a special school where they teach you magic spells. The only problem is that these schools all seem to be incredibly dangerous. Sometimes they’re filled with monsters, other times there’s an evil teacher out to get you, or maybe the teachers just don’t do anything in the face of magical bullying. But is there a better way? Can you craft a magic school that is both a positive learning environment and a good place for adventures? Listen and find out!
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is Chris, and joining us once again is special guest host, Fay Onyx. Hello!
Oren: Welcome to show again. So today we are doing an episode about magic schools and how wonderful and safe they are. I would send my kids to one right away. Like, you know, once I heard they were going to get detention in the murder forest. Right in there.
Fay: Yeah, and you know those teachers that have it out for individual kids, and those comically bad teachers that no one can stay awake in their class. These are my favorite memories of school. I’ll definitely want my children to experience it too.
Chris: I’ve already sent my kid. That’s why I don’t have a kid anymore. [laughs] It’s been interesting because over the years Mythcreants has talked a lot about Harry Potter, like a lot a lot, and we both praise it and criticize it. It’s been interesting to see the ups and downs in how much enthusiasm there is for defending Harry Potter. And lately, there’s been a little revival of Harry Potter defenders on the blog arguing that the school is is just fine because it’s supposed to be silly. It’s supposed to be a Wile E. Coyote-style setting, where all of the injuries are just dismissed and we don’t worry about that. And I think that it is possible to create that kind of setting, but the issue in Harry Potter is that as soon as Harry Potter is given detention in the Forbidden Forest and Rowling clearly wants us to take the threat to his life there seriously, that is meant to increase tension in the story and is used for story conflict. Or the idea of him dying during a Quidditch game is used for story conflict and to create a sense of threat – we can no longer consider anything that happens at this school to just be Wile E. Coyote-style silliness anymore, because the story relies on it not being interpreted that way. Which is a major conflict in the Harry Potter series in general, where we have things that are clearly not supposed to be taken seriously, but then at the same time for the story to work we have to take them seriously.
Fay: Absolutely. I mean, I love Harry Potter, but there is a little bit of cognitive dissonance in trying to enjoy some of the Wile E. Coyote-style humor and the like, but also have the stakes be serious.
Oren: And we’re at a difficult place for authors who want to write magic schools, simply because Harry Potter is so popular and so overwhelmingly known that people are just not inclined to cut you the same slack they might for a less well explored genre. We all know now, it’s been discussed constantly, how dangerous Hogwarts is, and we all know how bad teachers are, and that Snape’s awful, and that none of the other teachers ever stop him and it’s just the worst, right? This has been discussed to death. So if you have that in your story, people are just really alert for it and they will have a harder time letting it slide past just because it’s such a big thing right now.
Chris: I think you made a good point about this being a relatively new genre. There are some tropes like the masquerade, which is always used in urban fantasy, where supposedly magical beings are all around us, but all hiding in plain sight – there’s just no way to make that trope actually logical. It’s just infeasible for the most part. I mean, maybe there’s some way we haven’t found, but generally it’s just not feasible. But it’s not so bad because it’s so common across the genre that it’s a genre convention, and so for the most part readers are just trained to accept the masquerade, and usually the best you can do is just not point at it too hard – just don’t look too close, don’t dig into it. Just let people kind of forget about it. But the magic school genre is real new and those kinds of entrenched tropes aren’t quite as there.
Fay: Personally, I also get concerned about how much things like bullying and abusive behaviors get normalized, because bullying is a real problem that affects a lot of students, especially marginalized students. And having like every magic school have massive amounts of bullying and the teachers never do anything about it – I think it’s sending a toxic message that there’s nothing anyone can do about bullying and it’s just part of childhood. Because it should not be part of childhood.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. Schools can stop bullying, they absolutely can. I had a personal experience with bullying that eventually stopped because the school stopped it. They could have stopped it earlier, and afterwards the same bully went and bullied somebody else and they did not stop it. They have the power, so part of the issue with using bullying as a conflict in a setting where there is any kind of authority is that the authority should be handling bullying. Right now we have a problem with schools not taking responsibility, and we’re only reinforcing the idea that they shouldn’t have to take responsibility for creating a safe environment.
Oren: And this is when you get into a weird contradiction where in most cases the stories really want the magic school to seem like a cool place that you would want to go – because the magic school genre is built so much on wish fulfillment and, you know, dreaming that you’re going to get your letter to go to a special school where they teach you magic. So very few stories are willing to acknowledge that the things that the school is doing are actually bad, and make it an explicit part of the setting that this school is badly run. Because if they did that, then we might have to ask questions like, well, are the characters going to do anything about it? And if not, what circumstances have created this bad school, and do I even want to go there? So instead, they sort of try to have both. And to me at least that sends a message like, “Whatever, it doesn’t matter if your school is terribly run and underfunded, it was a great school and you loved it” and it’s like – nah, I didn’t.
Chris: Rowling in her effort to create conflict in her setting, also creates situations like some we have for Snape – who’s an abuser. He is emotionally abusive to his students and he does it to Harry, but in particular I think Neville is his favorite target and –
Fay: Hermione, too.
Chris: Yeah, Hermione too, for sure. And Rowling wants to use this for conflict, but also wants to pass it off as, “Oh, Snape is just being mean.” And that’s ignoring the kind of actual psychological damage that he would be doing to his students. Having those kinds of just like toxic interactions happen, when the school has the ability to stop them, is just like – what do we want to see in our genre? I don’t want to see that. I like this genre. It’s really tricky, but I’d like to see more Works in it, but I that’s not a trope that I want to see continued.
Fay: Yeah, and and that’s also why I really wanted to discuss this, because I’m so passionate about it. For my own podcast, I’m making an adventure that takes place in a magical school where I’m specifically going to not have bullying or unsafe learning environments. And so I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about, what are going to be the sorts of challenges that come to folks? What’s the ark that’s going to happen in between all of the fun exploration stuff? And I think one of the things you can do, which I’m doing, is bring in a lot of novelty. I mean that’s one of the best parts of a magic school setting, bring in novelty and have a way to continuously introduce new novelty. And I think Hogwarts was well designed for this in some senses, because there’s like rooms that just appear and stuff. So the idea that you can just introduce new classes as the students get older, and oh, here’s a new part of the school you didn’t know about – I think it’s one of the ways that Rowling introduces new novelty in each book.
Chris: Besides just expanding her world and bringing in new creatures Granted, the care of magical creatures really help with that. She brought in the thresles – or threstels –
Chris: Thestrals. Thest-rals.
Oren: That’s okay, you can’t pronounce them unless you’ve seen someone die.
Chris: Oh, no. Well, I guess that’s good for me. Yeah, so she kind of in general expands her world as the books go on. The Harry Potter books are definitely an excellent example for novelty. I think that that the tough thing about magic schools is that the conflict has to meet two requirements that are both challenging. One, it has to be acceptable for a school where loving parents would send their kids. Not like a school that is taking advantage – we’re assuming this is a wish fulfillment school, right, not a dystopian magic school. And then the second one is that there has to be some reasons why the teachers and other adults cannot deal with the problems. Unless you make the teachers the protagonists instead of the kids. But usually the wish-fulfillment aspect means that the protagonists are attending the school as students. Usually.
Oren: I have a story about this teacher who has to spend a lot of their personal income on class supplies and suddenly, it’s just too real.
Chris: Too real! Oh geez. Okay, so should we talk about what kind of conflicts we think work for magic schools?
Oren: Yeah, weird sporting events, from what I’ve learned. Just put them in a hedge maze or whatever and you’re good to go.
Chris: Oh gosh, sporting events are the worst. We had a podcast about this recently.
Oren: We did. I’ll go listen to that one instead.
Chris: Yeah, about games as plots and how they don’t work because they don’t inherently have stakes. I mean, I think competitions can work, but they’re lower stake conflicts by necessity, so they can’t really hold up the whole book. They can hold up maybe a chapter.
Fay: They’re more of a personal scale conflict. Along the lines of interpersonal conflict, it does not have to be bullying. It could also be just a lab partner who’s not doing their share of work and then ultimately you figure out why, and the person has a secret and oh, now you need to help them with their secret or something like that. But a personal scale, that is great for a chapter.
Chris: And obviously other things that are personal scales, you know, just struggling in school, could always have personal drama.
Fay: You could have rivals that are not bullies.
Chris: It’s true.
Fay: It does sometimes happen. There’s actually an example of this that I thought worked pretty well, where there was some antagonism, but it wasn’t a full-on bullying style rivalry. It’s from Little Witch Academia, which is an anime that’s on Netflix. There’s the main character who’s really, really struggling in school, that’s a personal level conflict, the grades conflict. So she’s struggling, and she has a lot of social embarrassments happen because of her struggles, but she’s also working really hard. So you have again those personal level stakes: the personal embarrassments, the desire to prove herself. And then you have this rival, who’s the perfect student who knows all of these things and she’s from a privileged background. And they’re kind of reflections of each other when you start digging into their back stories more, but the rivalry is not about an antagonism, the other characters almost too good to be this person’s rival. But the main character, Akko, kind of sees her as a rival in some way, and the plot kind of sets them up to be rivals, but they’re not, really. I thought it worked really well because the characters weren’t just immediately like, “Oh, I see us as rivals.” It was more that aspects of the setting were setting them up to be rivals, and the scenarios they were in were creating that dynamic and the gap in privilege.
Chris: I do remember these characters and I had a post on how to get your audience to hate a hero. So, how do you how do you get people to hate a character that doesn’t actually have very many flaws, or maybe maybe milder flaws? And one of those techniques is basically cultivating jealousy for a character. Usually this is a character that has it easy, they are exceeding the protagonist in abilities, basically outshine the protagonist, but you also see that they don’t have to work as hard as the protagonist does. And when you have that situation, it’s not too hard to cultivate that kind of rivalry that comes from the jealousy of having to deal with this rival who just has it easy. And it’s quite possible I didn’t watch far enough that when we dig father into her backstory we find out she did not have it that easy –
Fay: That is exactly the case.
Chris: Right, but at first – and that’s a great way also to get the audience more on this character’s side later and bring the characters closer together – but when we first look, we can develop a rivalry that creates some conflict that the audience can get invested in, just because they resent the character that is too perfect.
Oren: Yeah, the problem with that though is that Diane is great and Akko needs to get out of her way. Just let Diana solve the problem guys.
Chris: Akko has some likability issues.
Oren: Those are another thing entirely.
Chris: Those are for another podcast.
Fay: Yeah, the rivalry worked. There is the fact that Akko’s main successes with magic were never actually on screen. So we see her struggle and then off-screen she finally gets to do the spell right and we never see it!
Chris: That’s show – I think you’re totally right about the rivalry being a good part of that show, but it does have some other execution problems – the payoff, we never got to see the payoff of all her struggles…
Oren: But in general you can absolutely have a rivalry that’s not bullying, like if two kids just don’t like each other for some reason. Frankly, I would actually say that Harry and Malfoy are the same way. I don’t think Malfoy is Harry’s bully. Malfoy is a bully, he does bully kids, but not Harry. They’re rivals, because Harry is on his level.
Chris: Yeah … I mean don’t get me wrong. In general, I agree that they’re more rival than Malfoy being a bully, and the reason why is because their power levels are even, because Harry has as much power as Malfoy does. Bullying is a thing that happens from a person who is more powerful to a less powerful person. There are some instances though where Malfoy gets the whole school to gang up against Harry in an incredibly public shaming, abusive manner. So at that point that starts to feel a little bit different. But again, there are seven books – there’s a lot of material. I want to mention my favorite idea for how to have conflict in a magic school setting: It’s just to have magic be inherently dangerous. The idea being that it’s dangerous when somebody who is inexperienced wields magic, but it’s even more dangerous at home, because at home there isn’t experienced faculty monitoring the situation. And magic is of course very important, it would be in any setting. And it’s so essential that it is worth the risk to train in it, even though it’s dangerous. I actually compare this to hospitals, because a hospital is a place where somebody goes when they’re sick, and they go there because the hospital has lots of tools for helping somebody get better that they don’t have at home. But because lots of sick people go there, hospitals sometimes do have pathogens that get around, right, just because there are sick people there. So you can also have a school setting where there’s lots of people who are not trained well wielding magic, and that has some inherent dangers that are just impossible to control. It’s still better than learning at home.
Fay: Or if it’s a safety thing, as in if someone has magic, they’re gonna use it unconsciously until they are trained to use it consciously.
Chris: Or something weird, depending on your magic system, maybe wild magic starts to build up until monsters form out of it or something. You know, it’s magic, you can do creative things with it! But you can make magic inherently dangerous in a way that adds conflict to your school. Whereas in Harry Potter, there’s a little bit of that, but it’s all played for laughs, so it’s not really useful for conflict.
Fay: Right, and I think another thing that you just brought up that is really helpful is the school needs to be a safer environment than the external possibilities. The school is safer place to learn magic than at home if you have a more dangerous magical world. Maybe there’s monsters that are attracted to untrained mages or whatever – if there’s some sort of danger that is there that the school is sheltering students from, maybe it’s an imperfect shelter, but it’s better than anything else we’ve come up with so far.
Oren: One method that works fairly well once is creating a scenario in which the teachers or other guardians are somehow taken out of the picture. You want to be careful, this needs to be credible because the standards for that are pretty high since it’s a magic school trope where it’s like, “Oh, we have all these brilliantly trained, badass teachers who just don’t happen to be here right now.”. There is definitely a high standard, but you can do it, you can figure out reasons for why that would happen – but you can basically only do that once. If that happens a second time it’s just going to seem really contrived. If you’ve got one book set in a magical story that could be your climax. You can have something like a slow danger building in the background and due to very unusual circumstances the teachers aren’t around to deal with it and so the main character has to deal with it. But if you try to do that a second time, well guess what: Those aren’t unusual circumstances anymore. You already did that.
Chris: Right, and then you have to ask questions as to why the school hasn’t created a plan for this type of thing.
Fay: I do think that Harry Potter did this fairly well in terms of really mixing up why teachers aren’t solving things. Some of the reasons aren’t good. But some of them are, like in one example, we have the traitorous teacher who’s a dangerous person coming in from outside masquerading as someone who was supposed to be there. So why don’t the teachers solve it? Well, one treacherous teacher is pretending to solve it but is actually causing the problems. So you have an active agent. And then in a different book you have a scenario where the students leave the school for the climax, so now they’re not being protected by the teachers because they have literally gone off and isolated themselves from the teachers. And there’s definitely the question of, if the kids constantly are breaking rules to get in trouble then well, what are the teachers doing about that? But we have some of the time that these students are breaking the rules, this one time someone from outside came in, so I think part of solution there is to mix it up with a bunch of different options.
Chris: I think recklessness can work. I mean, it can get repetitive just like having the teachers suddenly go away. I do think that you could have a situation where you explain why your protagonist is unusually reckless on an ongoing basis, and it has to be that they’re desperate. Maybe there’s a conflict outside in the world that is really really important to them that they are desperate to help with, and they don’t want to wait to learn things the proper way, and they have an ongoing motivation. Now the teachers are going to start getting more and more savvy about trying to keep that student safe, but you could set up an ongoing situation – but you would need a really compelling reason. Obviously Rowling just sets up that Harry Potter is just a rule breaker, and it becomes one of his personality attributes that he does that all the time, but he does it partly because the teachers never seem to be investigating things that are clearly happening.
Oren: So here’s the thing, you can absolutely come up with different explanations of why all of the safeguards in the school just happen to fail this time, but I would argue that in most cases, even if you come up with different credible explanations, once you do that trope more than once you’re going to be in trouble. Even if you have a different explanation the second time and it’s just as credible as the first one, I just think it’s going to start to feel contrived to the readers. Because to a lot of readers it’s not really so much an issue of, does this explanation hold up to precise scrutiny, but really more of a feeling that this just keeps happening.
Chris: I think that what we’re trying to avoid is the transporter issue in Star Trek, where it feels like every time they the crew gets in a conflict where there’s a couple people trapped on a planet or somewhere else they’re like, “Oh, you know, tachyon particles – can’t transport”, you know. And they’ll have different reasons why they can’t transport, but it does, after too much buildup, feel like they are constantly groping for reasons why the transporter doesn’t work and that these transporters are just surprisingly bad at their job. But at the same time, depending on how much it feels varied from each other – I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible to isolate students from the teachers more than once per book. If you have the teachers happen to not be there more than once per book just by coincidence – switching it up does help, is what I’m saying.
Fay: I think also depends on the stakes for your story. Are you going for a more low stakes, high on novelties story, where most of the enjoyment comes from the novelty of the setting and we’re going to mostly focus on personal level conflicts? Or medium level stakes, where maybe there’s a fight for control over the school with teachers opposing each other or outside forces trying to influence the school. Or do we have a more epic thing where maybe there’s a Chosen One secretly going to the school where we now have outside influences trying to come in and do stuff at the school. And I think a lot of it comes with slowly ramping it up: A lot of times at first no one knows there’s a problem, especially for outside influences coming in. The students notice some very minor mysteries, but they’re not big things, and that’s kind of continuously switching it up.
Chris: Right, but I think how much you switch it up matters. It might be better for instance, if the teachers are not here the first time, the second time the teachers are here but everybody is overwhelmed. I feel like once per book you can get away with a big attack on the school. Maybe less than once per book to be perfectly honest. Like the Death Eaters attacking at Hogwarts where the teachers are there, but they’re overwhelmed, they can’t fight it all back. Again, this has to be safer for the students than being at home or they’ll get sent home. So if the school feels like it’s a constant magnet for external attacks …
Fay: I kind of like the idea of initially no one knowing about it, and then in the climax of the first thing the threat reveals itself, and it’s so immediate that the teachers don’t have a chance to get to the students before everything goes down. And then new protections are put in place, and now we’re going to do something totally different for a bit.
Chris: At that point you would have probably have to have a reason why the kids recklessly go and pursue it.
Fay: Right. One thing that I wanted to mention – it’s not something you can keep doing but would be a really useful element to bring in – is the magical natural disaster. For example, I grew up in California and we had earthquake drills, and there is a real threat of earthquakes to schools in California. And there’s preparations, there’s plans, but that doesn’t mean that if a really bad earthquake hits that you’re not necessarily going to have certain localized situations where people get cut off. I think in The Worst Witch they had a pretty decent example of this in the Mists of Time, which is this equivalent of a weather event where magical mists come in and if anyone goes out into them, they’ll be transported to a different time period, and probably get trapped in that time period. And there’s an organized response for the faculty get all the students inside the school and count them. But there’s this period of time where the mists are coming in but they’re not here yet, and someone’s familiar goes missing. So there’s a strong pull for a small group of students to go and try to find the familiar before the Mists of Time roll in, and of course, as you might expect they don’t find the familiar before the danger happens.
Chris: In that situation there’s a question of, how much are the faculty supervising the students to make sure they are in the safe bunker they’re supposed to be in.
Oren: Yeah, I mean if your plan to protect students doesn’t account for students acting irrationally, that’s not a real plan.
Chris: If you remember schools going on a field trip, they are so on the ball about counting everyone all the time to make sure that they have everybody, that’s just what a responsible school does. So it’s not that you can’t have students doing reckless things that somehow get out under the faculty’s nose, but again, probably not that often. A lot of times you’ve got a student that is being deliberately reckless.
Fay: In that case they did count the students. But you know, the student was there and then the next time they counted …
Chris: Right. Part of this is a matter of, how many staff does the school have. Because if we’re assuming that this is a responsible school with a safe environment, it should be staffed with enough people to watch the students. If you make your main character unusually reckless … but there would probably be some other students that would do that. One of the things about the Harry Potter setting is that we know that Harry is not alone in subverting the rules, right? We have the Weasley twins for instance. And so at the very least you could say that Hogwarts is dangerously understaffed, because in the first book, they send them back to their houses for safety when the troll shows up, but Hermione and Ron and Harry aren’t there and the teachers don’t notice.
Fay: Yeah, the not noticing is a problem.
Oren: It made more sense when we assumed that Hogwarts had like, several thousand students and then we found out that no, each house has about 30 people in it.
Chris: Oh my gosh, it’s so small.
Oren: We are kind of running out of time, but there is one more thing that I think is worth mentioning as a reasonable source of conflict that doesn’t rely on making the school less dangerous, which is the difficulty of learning magic itself. You have to have a fairly robust magic system, which is another problem with magic schools. But if you have that, then using the difficulty of learning magic is a great way of generating conflict, especially if you’re going with the trope of the kid from the non-magic family going to magic school. At that point you can explain why this kid is behind, without making the school seem terrible: The school is trying to help them, but they still have a lot to of catching up to do. So even a well-run school is going to have trouble just bringing you up to speed immediately.
Fay: Although I have to say it’s really important that the school actually tries to do something to help students who don’t come from magical families integrate into the school and learn basic cultural things and norms, rather than just abandon those students to be bullied and teased because they don’t know cultural norms and basic things they need to know.
Oren: Or just leave them in weird situations where they could die because they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. It’s like, “Whoops, I didn’t know that that’s like the magical trash compactor. I shouldn’t have gone in here – my bad.”
Fay: Realistically speaking, there is so much to learn. I do think The Worst Witch managed to get themselves a small amount of leeway on that, as every student at the school has magic, it is hereditary, and no one has any idea why the main character has magic since her mom doesn’t. Now I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of hereditary-only magic personally …
Oren: It has some very messed up implications.
Fay: It does have some very messed up implications. But because of that, there was more explanation for why there wasn’t structural help for the main character when it came to helping her understand cultural norms, because she’s the only one. So there could be a different, less messed up, reason why someone is the only one that needs a certain type of help – and now it would be important that someone actually tried to get them that help – but it would make more sense that that help might have gaps in it, like “I just forgot that you would need to know this.”
Oren: Well, I think that is a good note to end the podcast on since we are over our time. Thank you Fay for discussing this with us. For those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons, first is Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We will talk to you next week.
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