Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lessons Learned From The Wheel Of Time

If you follow this blog you may have wondered why there was an unannounced hiatus this summer. The truth is I decided to read The Wheel Of Time from start to finish, and if you're not familiar with the series it's fourteen books and each one is a door-stopper. Honestly, I think a short book in the series would be 700 pages long. Between reading that and my own writing The Left Hand of Dorkness got the short end of the stick. Sorry.

So to make up for it I've decided to share with you all the lessons I learned as a writer from the reading the series. Fair warming, there may be SPOILERS.

Still here? Okay, let's do this.

As I said, The Wheel Of Time is a massive series with multiple viewpoint characters. It's also a story with a definite ending laid out from the very beginning. The "main character" (I'll explain the quotes in a moment) Rand al'Thor is destined to fight the Last Battle against The Dark One. It's all there in the manual, or rather the epic glossary necessary at the end of each book if the reader has a hope in hell of keeping things straight.

It was also started and mostly written by Robert Jordan and finished off by Brandon Sanderson, both writers of epic fiction (at least in length).

Having the end goal stated early on is both a good and bad thing. It's good in that it gives the reader a goal to get to, so what when the series begins to lag (boy does it do that - more later on this as well) a dedicated reader can make it through knowing he or she has an epic battle to look forward to later on. It also allows the writer, or writers in The Wheel Of Time's case, a chance to setup expectations and then subvert them.

This is the series' greatest accomplishment. Going into the Last Battle we know what has to happen, Rand has to defeat the Dark One and lock him back up in his prison outside of creation in order for the Wheel of Time to keep on spinning, and that every prophecy indicates this will require him to die. What we don't know is how he will do this, or if what the prophecies say about him dying is really true. As I said, this allows Sanderson, working from Jordan's notes, to twist around the reader's expectations and show them what the entire series was all about.

Subversion is an important lesson every writer needs to learn, especially genre writers. A lot of the tropes we rely upon are well worn, some even threadbare. There are times to play them straight, times to subvert them, and times to fake out a subversion. It all depends upon the story you want to tell. The Wheel Of Time manages to accomplish all three by showing the price being The Chosen One takes on Rand, and how ultimately he has to both accept and refute his role, how he has to remain true to himself instead of becoming just the tool of destiny.

The way this all plays out is extremely satisfying, especially after the terrible lull in the middle of the series.

And that is the next thing to discuss. As I said earlier, both Jordan and Sanderson are writers of fiction that is epic in both length and scope. I think it takes both of them ten thousands words just to say hello in most of their stories. This isn't a bad thing at all, if the readers interest can be maintained, and both authors have the ability to do this.

The first Wheel book, The Eye Of The World, starts with a prime example. It takes over six chapters to introduce the main characters and get them out of their home village. Six! However, there's plenty that actually does happen in those chapters. They could almost stand on their own as a story of a young man and his friends discovering that the myths they always thought were nonsense were actually true.

This pattern continues on a greater level with most of the books in the series. The first few are nearly completely self contained, especially the first. In fact, a little bit of editing and The Eye Of The World could become the one and only book in the series.

It's only later in the series that this pattern breaks. The worst offender is Crossroads Of Twilight, the tenth book in the series. The majority of that book is reactions to the end of the last book, namely where Rand cleansed the source of magic available to male magic users of a taint that was causing them to go mad. It's a huge moment and with the way magic works in Wheel it's blatantly obvious to every magic user across a continent what's going on. Yes, there are other things that happen in Crossroads, but the majority of it is reaction shots and if there was ever a book that you could skip in this series that's it.

This is another important lesson for writers, especially those of us who want to write epic fantasy. Every book in your series should be self-contained to certain degree. Yes, events from previous books should influence the next in the series, otherwise how can you have character development, but no book should consist mainly of reaction shots while moving a few minor plot-lines along. At the point of Crossroads I will fully admit I was hate-reading just to get through to the end of the series.

The next lesson The Wheel Of Time imparts is to keep your characters and plot-lines well trimmed. When I called Rand al'Thor the main character I had to qualify that statement because there are easily three main characters in the series if not eight. Hell, even the minor characters could become the hero of their own stories. The Wheel Of Time is overflowing and abundant with characters, and the viewpoints to go along with that.

Now having multiple viewpoint characters isn't a bad thing, just look at The Song Of Ice And Fire (Game of Thrones for you HBO fanatics) by George R.R. Martin, but it there needs to be a limit. As Wheel progresses the number of minor characters who get a viewpoint scene becomes ridiculous, to the point they start to overshadow the main characters.

In some of the books in the series we barely see Rand at all. Sometimes this is a good thing and builds suspense, especially in the third book where we know where he had to go and what he had to do so the focus can be on other characters who are pursuing him or dealing with their own issues. The problem is when the focus is on too minor of characters for too long it starts to become a slog to read through.

In any series there are going to be characters each reader likes and dislikes. For me the worst offender was Elayne, a princess and future queen. To be honest, I found most of her scenes trite and expected and oh so boring. There is very little I find interesting in her story, and to be honest she's a grating character most of the times we see her. In my opinion most of her scenes could be dropped with very little loss.

The lesson here isn't that annoying characters should be dropped or that they shouldn't have viewpoints, it's that there needs to be a balance in how much visible time they get. Every writer has their pet characters, and I believe Elayne was one for Jordan. My reasoning for this is that as soon as Sanderson took over the series we saw a lot less of her (thank goodness).

In summary, let me say that I really did enjoy The Wheel Of Time. For all it's flaws and excessive length it does pay off in the end with a series of emotional moment/payoffs. For anyone who wants to write epic fantasy it is a must read. It's also a good read for anyone who wants to understand the writer's voice, because the contrast between Jordan and Sanderson is noticeable, even though the latter was attempting to channel the former while finishing the series.

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