How To Write Magical Schools In Urban Fantasy

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Written by JJ Barnes

Urban fantasy is a genre where fantasy creations, such as witches and monsters, exist within our normal mundane world. Sometimes these magical creatures are known about, such as in The Nevers, and other times they’re kept hidden, such as in Harry Potter. When you’re writing urban fantasy, it’s likely that your fantasy characters will need a private space within their urban community. This often takes the form of magical schools or other training facilities. I’ll explore things you need to consider when creating that environment.

What Are Magical Schools?

We naturally form communities with those who are similar to us. We get strength, support and encouragement from those in similar circumstances to ourselves. The people who like badminton join the badminton club, the people who have small babies join the baby group. So, therefore, it makes sense that the people with magical powers will congregate together.

Magical schools make the perfect environment for a magical community to meet. In Harry Potter, Hogwarts is where the magical children meet in safety. They are protected from the outside world, and can learn and train with their powers inside. Magic takes work, and powers need developing. A school provides the perfect environment to do just that.

Magical Schools in The Nevers
Magical Schools in The Nevers

Similarly, in The Nevers, Amalia True’s orphanage serves the same purpose. Whilst not a magical school nor home to just children, it provides a safe space. The touched within the orphanage can practice their powers in a secure environment, and learn about one another and their world.

Why Do Your Characters Need Magical Schools?

Urban fantasy gives you all the fantastical elements of a high fantasy world, within the familiar confines of our own world. You don’t have to create a world of history and new lore that your audience will need to learn about, so it’s easier to avoid info dumps. You just write within our world, and give them one little space that is theirs. It’s less pressure on you the writer, and it’s easier for your audience to consume.

If your characters are hiding their powers from the outside world, they need somewhere to be free. A community where they can be themselves, use their powers and share their experiences. Somewhere exclusive just to them where nobody who might threaten their safety or privacy can enter.

This private space functions both for your characters to have somewhere, and for your story. In terms of your story, it allows you to tell stories using their magical powers and being fantastical, without having to develop an entire high fantasy world. You can write a tale of giants, witches, demons, ghosts. You can create potions and spells and enchanted creations. But in a limited space, using our familiar lores.

If your characters aren’t hiding their powers, they still need space where they can act on their magic together. A space for stories to grow and characters to interact without the outside influence of non-magical people intruding.

Examples Of Different Styles Of Magical School

Magical Schools in Nature-Girl Vs Worst Nightmare
Magical Schools in Nature-Girl Vs Worst Nightmare

The Magical Schools can take the form of a literal school. In Harry Potter, it’s Hogwarts. In Nature-Girl Vs Worst Nightmare, it’s Miss Sparkle’s Academy. These are places children of the magical world are educated in a familiar way to our own schools, but with a focus on magic. When you’re creating an urban fantasy for children, a school is a perfect place for those conflicts to play out.

However, they don’t always have to be schools. Adults similar need spaces to work together and grow their powers. Train and decide what to do, and how they want to use them. In The X-Men, the X-Mansion acts both as a place for mutant children to learn, but also somewhere for adult mutants to work. In Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit, a similar workspace is created in Adamantine Power. A place where adults work, train, study and deal with adult issues of magic and power.

However, you can take the idea of Magical Schools into a new style completely. In Jurassic Park, Islar Nublar is, essentially, a magical school. It’s a place where the dinosaurs are created and the scientists are kept away from the outside world to work safely within the confines of that space.

Magical Schools in Harry Potter
Magical Schools in Harry Potter

How To Create A Magical School For Your Story

The first thing to consider when creating any style of magical school environment, is what your characters need. What would they use that space for? Where would they naturally congregate?

If you’re writing a story of children, a school is perfect. Your audience will be familiar with the concept of going to a school to learn, and the space offers natural conflict. Some children will be bullies, some children will be scared. There will be natural alliances, natural enemies. A school is riddled with opportunities for conflict even without magic. A literal school also offers a natural time-lock in the fact a school year is limited in time. If you make your story the length of a school year, such as in Harry Potter, you can build the high stakes of your story as the end of school approaches.

How To Create A Version Of Magical Schools For Adults

Magical Schools in Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven
Magical Schools in Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven

If you’re writing a story for adults, what are their powers? Do they need to fight and train? Are they political and looking to use their brains to create change? How are others with powers recruited, and what is required to join? Are they in a literal building, or is the safe space made up of the people and can be moved? In Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven, their space is within the coven of witches. It’s limited. They are a coven and nobody else can join because of the power structure in that world.

Then work out the power structure. Communities naturally follow a leader, and this is especially true if they’re training or studying or working. At Adamantine Power, it’s Keren Archer, at the X-Men it’s Professor X, at Hogwards it’s Dumbledore. Somebody leads the action, makes the decisions. There can be conflict over leadership, and your Protagonist is unlikely to be that leader. But the leader exists and directs the characters in their behaviours.

Magical Schools And The People Who Know About Them

How the non-magical people respond to your magical characters in an urban fantasy will impact what their magical school does. If the outside world is aware of them, your story can be more complicated.

Are the outsiders scared of your magical community? If they’re scared, such as in The Nevers, you’ll need to make sure they’re protected. Scared people react violently, and your magical people could be threatened. How does the leader of your community keep the people inside safe? What steps are taken to make sure the space is secure? Are the people inside trying to enact vengeance on those who have attacked them, or are they trying to create political change to make their people more accepted by society?

Do the magical community consider themselves heroes, and want to protect the non-magical people? In The Avengers, the magical community (whether man-made or innate) congregate at Stark’s facility, train and learn as with any Magical School. But their goal is to do good in the world and save lives. This creates a two tier system within the world; the heroes and the non-heroes. The are revered, feared and resented in different ways by different people.

Are the outsiders in awe of them? Are they powerful wizards that the people of the surrounding world aspire to and admire? Or, do they outsiders see them as weird and want them kept away from normal society because they’re freaks? How does this impact the people inside and what they do?

Magical Schools Kept Secret

When your magical schools are secret from the world, your stories will be easier to tell. You’re limiting your conflict, primarily, to the people within that isolated community, so other than a nod to keeping them hidden, most of your story can ignore the rest of the world. Make sure you acknowledge what is hidden and why, and what steps are taken to maintain that secrecy.

Magical Schools in Jurassic Park
Magical Schools in Jurassic Park

Create a fantasy world within the confines of our own world. Gravity is gravity, shops work in the same way. What is the political system that your magical schools obeys the laws of, and how to the magical community keep hidden when not in attendance at the magical school you’re writing about?

Of course, there are always opportunities for having the conflict of your story be a reveal of their existence and the fall out. Islar Nublar is kept hidden in Jurassic Park, isolated and secret. It’s the reveal to the non-residents from outside that community that creates the story of that world.

I Like Magical Schools

Personally, I really like writing within a structured and exclusive society with it’s own rules and it’s own micro-culture. It is entertaining to see people who are powerful working and learning together and I enjoy developing those relationships. I am drawn to the urban fantasy genre in general, both in my own writing and in my experience as the audience for those stories. Whether it’s a literal school, or just an exclusive group of people, I find that set up very appealing.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

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