Class is once again in session! Yes, that idiom was to be expected. Yes, you are fully allowed to cringe at me. Just as planned!
Today, I’ll be talking about a staple of fantastic settings and what we can learn from it: The SUPERSCHOOL! One highly popular example of a very involved setting.
Whether it’s an academy, the school, a magical order, or an alien police force, these are institutions built around the idea of collecting what we’d consider “special” and training it to perfection. From Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters to the Hogwarts School For Witchcraft And Wizardry, these have been a rich source for potential stories.
The main purpose of these, of course, is to teach superpowered individuals how to responsibly control and use their powers. Otherwise you’ll end up with all sorts of tragedy and collateral damage. Though the mission statement and end goals can vary, ultimately they’re about getting all that power in one place and getting it under control or awarded after rigorous training.
But what’s the deal with these schools? When’s something normal or not, and what’s the nuts and bolts behind it? What can we learn from barely competent teaching staff and poor hiring standards?
So, let’s look at the types of superschools out there. Once again, it’s not really about the specific types, but how they’re depicted. Sure, you can come up with any sort of superpower or bizarre scientific thing and then stick it in a teaching environment, and they tend to use a lot of the same tropes and plot conventions, but these are what you’ll see them as most often.
Just Another Day With Magical Girls
So this is when you basically have the school and, to varying extents, the world treat extraordinary things as completely ordinary. Where to them, things like magic, cyborgs, psychic powers, and mutants are all in a day’s work.
Here, the ‘school’ is a fact of life. Everything within its walls is bound to be considered normal, and it’s likely part of a universe where it’s widely accepted. Education in this sort of portrayal works exactly the way it does in reality: They are taking things the world already knows and recognises, and are cultivating it in young people for the future. Some settings might treat things differently, of course, by puzzling out implications of what society would look like if whatever special things they’re teaching were present from the start. But usually, it tends to be “everyday stuff but scaled to fantastic levels”.
As you might imagine, Harry Potter and the magical schools are a prime example of that. You can see that in how the wizarding world has its own society, evolving separately and alongside the regular world. And consequently, Physical Education classes, long the bane of many a student’s existence, gets a lot more interesting when you’re testing teleportation ranges and lift capacities of tons.
Now, there’s bound to be a lot of talk of symbolism, social commentary, or whatnot behind these, and some psychobabble about depicting the fantastic as the mundane. But at the end of the day, I’m going to be frank: This depiction is fun to write because you get to make fantastic ways of doing regular things. Or rather, using those fantastic things to do everyday things better. That was part of the visual appeal of old Hanna Barbera cartoons which stuck in our heads: Something as simple as utopian technologies (or just plain old DINOSAURS) getting rid of an everyday pain like traffic or dressing up.
It’s part of the big appeal of any fantastic world scaled to everyday life, and it’s something easier to wrap our heads around than a gigantic, epic quest. This tradition carries on into Harry Potter, where you’ve got multiple ways to deal with traffic, chores, and the like…each of which is incredibly likely to create a plot hole where some enterprising know-it-all will point out “Well, why didn’t they just do this thing?”
Within a story, if what we mere mortals would consider fantastic is the norm, that usually means there has to be a social or tangible escalating danger to catch everyone by surprise. Unless it’s very much an open-and-shut slice of life thing, expect superschools like these to be unaware of the upcoming social uprising or unleashed evil. Because you know, that sort of thing ALWAYS happens at the least convenient moment and just as an utter newbie is getting started. It’s the rules.
You’re Teaching Them WHAT?
But what about the schools where the subject matter is, in fact, as fantastic as what you’d expect? Where the public at large either doesn’t know it, or is as spooked as we would be? Well, that’s where things get a little less “everyday” and a lot more “not every day” and the plots get grander. Because hey, sometimes you just want to write your usual grand quest revolving around fantastic elements.
The alternative way a superschool is portrayed, as you would have deduced from me spelling it out for you in the opening, is as something decidedly NOT normal. And for that to qualify, it really boils down to only one thing: the fantastic thing inside the school is still fantastic to the outside world.
The fantastic things within the school are still handled by professionals, but it’s even more likely that the knowledge might even be fresh and even they don’t know the full scope of what they’re dealing with. Yes, even ancient hidden orders. ESPECIALLY ancient hidden orders because they’re the ones more likely to be dogmatic and incapable of innovating solutions when something goes wrong, leaving everything to a hotshot rookie able to innovate a solution with an outsider’s perspective. Usually because those idiots hired people of questionable loyalty and are surprised by their sudden yet inevitable betrayal.
With SPECIAL special schools, plots are usually based less around a society OF the special thing, but a society AGAINST the special thing. It might not necessarily be an unfriendly relationship, but it’s seldom a close one. But the point is that rather than not paying much attention to how society would react (by virtue of it BEING society), this relationship is very much the center of attention. Or even if it’s not the MAIN quest (I mean, who cares about what the kingdom thinks when you have to close an extradimensional portal), it’s still important to framing the relationships, politics, and attitudes of the world (then you remember you’re still part of the kingdom).
To that end, although I placed it at the top for comical purposes, the X-Men are actually one of the biggest examples of this. They may not be the most mysterious or ‘strange’ to outsiders, especially considering that they live in a comic universe where New York bears the brunt of superpowered conflict and alien invasions, but they do represent the key ideas: The school is there to handle the fantastic, to make it normal for the special people, while outsiders who learn about it are suspicious or outright hostile, and that reaction is a major plot point.
For that matter, as long as it’s not literally present in the regular curriculum or education budget (Third Semester: Physics, Drama, Social Studies, Proper Incantations To Dispel Shuma-Gorath, Study Period, Home Economics…), there’s a good chance it’s being set up as something UNUSUAL in the world.
Why Do Our Tax Dollars Pay For These Again?
Of course, there IS a middle ground. An in-between spot that is part of the long and proud history of speculative fiction, of not just creating a world from scratch, but envisioning how OUR world would change if it had been different. If history had not been sent down an utterly different road, but if it had suddenly encountered a forest troll in the middle of the Cold War. Where the fantastic is apart from yet a part of history.
My Hero Academia occupies that spot. When the story starts, the superpowers we see are completely accepted as a fact of life and human evolution. However, this society arose from a completely normal one. The old world and its occupations are still around which is why you still have cops, accountants, and newscasters, and the world you see is basically “What if WE faced this new thing suddenly and had to restructure society around it.”
This is, in fact, equally prominent as far as techniques go, and finishes the triumvirate of how superschools are depicted. If there’s a fantasy setting with magic or a sci-fi setting with aliens, it’s highly likely that it went something like “So things went by without it for a long time, then it suddenly showed up, and happened enough times that people realised they had to figure out how to deal with it.” Hence wizard’s towers or having immigration bureaus for very literal illegal aliens.
Consider how heroes are treated like celebrities (even in a world where nearly everyone has powers) and have actual educational institutions and agencies working as public servants alongside the police. This sort of world-building would have been very different if it had simply been “From the very beginning there were always superpowers.”
However, in any of these variants, what they share is…
Looks Like Fresh Meat’s On The Menu!
…Yep. An audience surrogate. Someone who serves as the perspective character, who’s as normal as possible to frame the experience.
Yep. Whether it’s a fact of life, an utterly alien concept, or something the world is trying to get used to, most superschool stories feature a new student that’s as clueless as we are. Some of them might know nothing, or only as much as they can glean from their own news and rumours.
You can still find perspective characters who are very much used to the whole thing, of course. Usually with a great deal of thought put into how they’ll treat things (like, say, considering 7 to be old enough to witness your first beheading), where neither they nor those around them expect to be coddled or eased into things.
But for the most part, although the plots tend to evolve into something bigger, at their core they tend to start with discovery. Skilled authors will remain aware of what an audience does or doesn’t know, what they should learn over time, and how to deliver that information without being too wordy. Like I’m being right now.
Whether it’s a children’s book series about discovering friendship and learning through adventure, or a young adult epic launching into a grand quest, all fictional worlds are places for audiences to explore, discover, and enter. And superschools represent that ideal in its most concentrated, directed form. ESPECIALLY in the form of a new student, who’s there to not just justify wordy exposition for clueless plebeians, but to capture and relate to the sense of anxious wonder and curiosity the audience has.
And that should just about cover the types of portrayals and how we plug into them! With that, I’ll conclude with what that audience surrogate tells you about the setting: It is alive, and it is getting involved with the cast.
It’s easy enough to keep settings as mere backdrops or plot hooks. Vague names on a map and a bunch of descriptions to make it seem like you’re not just reading people doing things against a green screen, but nothing more next to the characters and their actions. That’s all fine and good; you build your story around those with the ability to do something about it, perhaps build them out of the setting’s foundations.
But in the superschool, you’re not just seeing an example of creative worldbuilding. You’re seeing that world in action and in contact with characters. Not every setting needs to be this involved, elsewise you’re just indulging in pointless padding of your world, but remember: It doesn’t just have to be the background.
Sometimes that background comes to life.
And is incredibly mad about deforestation.
And destroys Isengard.