Magic school stories are incredibly popular – and also really hard to get right. To this day, Harry Potter is still the best example of the genre I’ve seen, despite its many problems. So what’s up with this seeming contradiction? Why do both storytellers and audiences love magic school stories so much even though they come bundled with pitfalls? And what are those pitfalls, anyway? To answer all those questions, I’ll take you through the most prominent pros and cons of magic schools, so you can decide if this genre is right for your story.
1. Pro: Wish Fulfillment Is Through the Roof
Wish-fulfillment stories are those where characters experience things that the audience fantasizes about experiencing for themselves. Normally, wish fulfillment only applies to certain subsections of the audience, as individual tastes and values have a big impact. A story about helping Ruth Bader Ginsburg write a legal brief is serious wish fulfillment for some,* not so much for others.
But magic school stories have incredibly broad appeal when it comes to wish fulfillment. Nothing is ever 100%, but the Venn diagram of people who desperately want to attend a school of spells and sorcery and people who read speculative fiction is almost a perfect circle. Nearly all of us fantasize about getting our Hogwarts letter, whether we just want to attend classes or would rather campaign to reform the school’s abysmal safety precautions.
If you’ll allow me a moment of pure speculation, I suspect this is because school is such a commonly shared experience. Kids currently in school dream of learning cool magic instead of boring algebra. Meanwhile, adults often look back on school with great nostalgia, a carefree time before we had to deal with the stresses of grown-up life. Even for people whose school-experience memories are less than pleasant, there’s strong appeal in reimagining those grueling years as a time of magic and adventure.
This shared understanding makes it easy for audiences to think this story could happen to them one day. Oh, sure, in this book it’s Harry staying up all night in the Restricted Section, but he’s just a normal kid – surely it could be you next time!
2. Pro: It’s Easy to Add Novelty
Novelty is super important for a successful story. In fact, it’s one of the four critical elements that make stories popular! Audiences love cool laser guns and big scary monsters, especially if those things are presented in a way they haven’t seen before. The problem with novelty is that it fades, and eventually you reach a point where it’s harder to find a reason for injecting more.
Magic school stories have a big advantage here because the heroes are all students, explicitly at the school to learn about new things. Every time they go to class, you have a built-in justification for introducing something cool and new. Last term they learned about magical animals, but the audience has had their fill of unicorns, so now it’s time for a course about fairies!
This works best with protagonists who weren’t raised in the magical world. They didn’t know unicorns and fairies were real, and the audience can vicariously experience their wonder. You may recognize this from reading about a certain boy who lived. However, the extra novelty is still available even if the protagonist was raised by wizard parents. You just have to play up all the things they still don’t know or the things they had the wrong impression about. After all, most of us were raised in the real world, and yet we still managed to learn new things at school.
With this structure, you can keep adding new novelty even late in the story, ensuring the audience stays hooked. In fact, the main drawback is that you might get carried away and keep adding novelty when you really should be escalating the action, or you might just add more novelty than your story can support. That’s how you end up with worlds overflowing with cool magic items that no one ever uses.
3. Pro: There’s a Structure to Explain Magic
Explaining how magic works is one of the trickiest jobs in speculative fiction. Too much information gives the audience an exposition overdose, and then they’ll forget most of it anyway. Too little information leaves the audience confused and scratching their heads when they should be most excited. Hitting the sweet spot between the two extremes is no easy feat.
Fortunately, the same structure that allows extra novelty means magic school stories are in a great place to explain how magic works. That’s primarily what the characters are there to learn, after all. In a magic school, you rarely have the issue where the characters must awkwardly explain something they already know for the audience’s benefit. Instead, the audience learns along with the protagonist themself.
This allows you to set up a very simple and effective formula: The characters spend a few chapters struggling to master a new spell, going through a series of try-fail cycles, and then they use the spell to solve a major problem. Boom. You’ve taught the audience about magic and then shown why it mattered. Instant satisfaction.
The tricky part is designing a magic system robust enough that it can provide material for an entire school curriculum while staying interesting. A lot of stories try to do this by introducing an endless number of spells, but that’s a losing proposition, because the more spells you add, the greater the chance of unintentionally creating an over-powered combo. Instead, it’s usually better to introduce a limited number of effects and then have the characters learn to use those effects in different ways.
4. Con: There’s No Time to Learn Mundane Subjects
Now we’re onto the drawbacks of the magic school genre. While some of them are well known, others are more subtle, and the subtlest of all is a tiny little worldbuilding problem where magical students have no time to learn the basic foundation of knowledge most Americans take for granted.
Consider: There are only so many hours in the day, and if the characters spend most of them learning levitation and pyromancy, when are they going to study literature or history, let alone algebra? It doesn’t seem like Principal Archmage is likely to give them time off to do math homework.
That might not seem like a big deal at first, but it means that students at a magic school have little understanding of language, mathematics, or history. That’s bound to give them a very different perspective on the world than most audiences, which makes it harder to relate to them.
Solving this problem is tricky. One option is to have the characters split their time between magical and mundane subjects, but that still leaves the characters with an incomplete education, just not as severely. Every hour spent learning magic is an hour taken out of the school day – unless the magic is some kind of after-school elective, which isn’t what most stories are going for.
Another option is to work the magic into more traditional lessons. Perhaps the characters need to learn basic math in order to calculate the more advanced thaumaturgic equations, and they must learn sentence structure so they get their incantations right. This version is more seamless, but requires a very specific type of magic system.
5. Con: Classic School Tropes Fall Apart
Remember how one of the main advantages of magic schools is how familiar they are? That extends into classic school tropes like the unpopular nerd and the bullying jock, which you see in just about every magic school story ever written. People respond to these tropes, even if they never experienced them in real life, because they’re so common in stories about school.
However, the dynamics that make those tropes work simply don’t exist in most magic schools. For example, let’s take the unpopular nerd. The idea here is that a student who spends all their time on book learning will have reduced social status because they haven’t been building relationships or getting good at prestigious activities like sports. Maybe there’s even some resentment because the student is a teacher’s favorite.* All the knowledge they have might be useful later in life, but it isn’t now.
A magic school breaks that dynamic. All the nerd’s knowledge is suddenly useful because it lets them do magic. In a world where studying gives you the ability to conjure fireballs rather than recite passages from Moby-Dick, being a bookworm would be a mark of prestige.
Other tropes are similarly affected. It’s hard to believe that bullies would be the muscular jocks in a world where magic quickly outmodes physical strength in a confrontation. Similarly, characters are a lot less likely to skip their homework when it teaches them how to astrally project or shapeshift. That kind of immediately useful ability is simply far more engaging than real-life homework, which is at best something that will enrich our lives in the long run and at worst just busywork.
Fixing this problem requires carefully examining the tropes in question and deciding if you want to embrace the difference or try to make your setting more like real school. It probably makes more sense for your magic school to be a place where extensive studying is socially rewarded, but that’ll make it less recognizable to audiences. If you want that familiarity, you’ll need to modify the premise so it still fits. Perhaps your magic system is extremely physical, like Avatar’s bending, and so reading in the library for hours doesn’t count as practice.
6. Con: Students Shouldn’t Be Solving Problems
By far the most serious drawback of magic schools is that, almost by definition, the protagonist is surrounded by people far more capable than they are, be they teachers or older students. This makes it extremely difficult to justify why the protagonist should ever be the one dealing with dangerous threats.
You see this type of problem in any story about kids, but it is multiplied tenfold in magic schools. Schools are supposed to be places of safety. Even if that’s not always true in real life, audiences will expect it to be true in fiction. Teachers have a responsibility for their student’s safety; no way will they let the hero out of class early to duel the villain. And if the hero can’t solve the problem, they aren’t really the hero of this story.
Fixing this problem at the structural level is extremely difficult, so most storytellers try to solve it by arranging circumstances just right so the hero is forced to confront a dangerous problem despite the school’s safeguards. This can work, but audience standards are extremely high, so you’ll need an airtight explanation. Even if you manage that, it’s only something you can do once. The second or third time it happens, the story will be contrived no matter how well you explain it.
It’s also possible to craft a magic school that just isn’t concerned with student safety. Maybe the teachers are inscrutable knowledge spirits who care little for the affairs of mortals. The spirits are bound by an ancient contract to pass on knowledge of the craft, but they won’t lift a hand to stop the villain from turning their students into ensorcelled thralls.
This kind of setup makes it far easier to explain the protagonist’s thrilling heroics, but it’s also likely to damage the wish fulfillment that’s such a big draw for magic school stories in the first place. Once you make the school an ostensibly dangerous place to be, you can’t count on the audience wanting to be there.
There’s no universally right answer for solving this problem. How you do it will depend on what’s right for your story. That’s often the case when writing a magic school story; the same elements that make people love it also create problems. It’s a challenge, but if you’re aware of the potential hazards going in, you can decide what balance of beloved elements and storytelling practicality is right for you.
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