Universities have lots of potential as settings and sources of characters for stories. Anybody who’s spent time in one and seen the range of fascinating people in academia will vouch for that point. And this week I wrote a guest post for fellow writer JH Mae on this subject…

Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university

Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university

All Good Wizards Go To College

Given how many authors have been through university, and how many geeky interests are fostered by social networks there, it’s hardly surprising that universities turn up in science fiction and fantasy. They’re a great source of characters, who then provide the drive for plot, but could we be doing more with them?

The Faculty

Let’s start with university staff, in particular the academics. I could write a whole other post on the staff who are missing from fiction but keep a university running – the cleaners, administrators, technicians, etc. But let’s focus on what we’ve got, and that’s academics.

Fictional academics seem to fall into two types, which are sometimes combined.

First there are the wild exaggerations, as seen in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Who doesn’t love the PE-teacher-esque hunting and shooting stereotype of Unseen University’s Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully? Or the quietly erratic Bursar? Or the over-enthusiastic Ponder Stibbons? These caricatures of scholarship and of attitudes to learning provide humour and conflict.

Then there are academics as experts. Where the exaggerated academics are prone to causing the problems, the expert academics provide solutions, and sometimes info-dumps. Between lectures and answering questions, they can give heroes and audiences the answers they need to face the big bad. And when the academics are the protagonists, as in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, their competence in their field makes them likeable, interesting and able to make a difference…


For the full article please hop over to JH Mae’s blog. If you come back on Tuesday then you can read a post from JH, on the subject of fiction and the weird. And if you’re after some academically inclined fantasy then my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus features an academic hunting knowledge in a most unusual library and is available through Amazon and Smashwords, still just 99c until the end of this weekend.

  1. skudssister says:

    Interesting. I quite enjoyed Connie Willis’ Domesday Book – in which a near future Oxford History department allows its students to research various time periods via time travel. The technology is there but the University itself is culturally stuck in the 1950s.

  2. I do think university fantasy fiction is an untapped goldmine. If I wrote down what happened to me at university, no one would believe it was the truth.

    The Unseen University is my favourite literary academic institution too.

    • Like you, I could turn my university experiences into something pretty fantastical, but that’s mostly because I joined the sort of societies that involved questing in the woods with foam weapons or hunting each other down with waterpistols. Switch in real spies or magic and I’ve got a novel made.

      Hm, now that I type it out that’s not the worst idea I’ve ever had…

      • It sounds pretty amazing, to be truthful. I am part of the Steampunk community … we still get to dress up and have Tea Duels.

        I had some quirky lecturers that I couldn’t have made up if I tried! Best of all, the really weird one has passed away, so no one is likely to recognise him if I adapt him for a character in a story.

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