(or: My Teachers Were Right All Along)
My husband has read (rather, heard) the epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan, more than once, and spoken highly of it each time. This year I finally decided to listen to his recommendations. I began reading Eye of the World, the first novel in the series, on February 9, 2019. Now, in June, I have just finished reading The Path of Daggers, book eight.
There are fourteen books in this series, plus one prequel and two companion books. That’s a lot of story, and I’m just a little past the half-way mark. At this rate, it will take me all year to read this one series, which is why I waited so long to start it.
Let me be clear from the outset. I regret nothing. I am truly enjoying the story, and have dived so far into it that I am able to relate real-world events and incidents to WoT story trivia with my hubby, which amuses him no end.
Still, there are details I can’t help but notice while reading this massive story, things that fly in the face of all I’ve been taught in my fiction classes about what a writer should never do. WoT’s narrative reinforces oh so many of those lessons clearly and exhaustively, providing vibrant examples of why those “rules” are in place by breaking every single one with wild abandon.
Here are my top four Wheel of Time take-aways as a writer:
1. Rule: Don’t use too many named characters, and keep every name unique.
WoT has 2,782 distinct named characters, many of which have VERY similar names, like Lara/Laras/Laran/Leane/Lian/Liandran/Lidan or Siuan/Shiaine/Sierin/Serinia/Serenia. Granted, some are minor players and show up in only one or a handful of scenes. Still, the names have gotten to be so confusing to me that I’ve stopped paying attention to them. I skip over the name entirely unless the character is a primary protagonist (of which there are five or six). If I get too confused (which happens a lot), I ask Hubenstein to help me clarify who this character is and where they fit in the story.
I know WoT is sweeping, epic fantasy, but sheesh.
2. Rule: Don’t have too many POVs. One is best. Four is maximum, and even that is pushing it.
WoT has 148 unique POVs. I get the appeal of doing this. Did it myself in an earlier version of my WIP. It’s really hard, sometimes, to tell a piece of the story the protagonist (or the antagonist for that matter) would have no way of knowing. Plugging in another POV from an already named character, or adding a new one to give a fresh POV, is tempting.
My advice? Don’t do it.
Even after eight books, I still find it difficult at times, especially given the already present confusion of names, to place who is speaking, why I’m seeing this through their eyes, and how their POV fits into the story’s framework.
3. Rule: Keep your narrative within the wordcount guidelines for your genre and your audience.
Originally planned as a six-book series, the main WoT series comprises fourteen volumes. Together, the series wordcount comes in at nearly 4,500,000 words. That’s an average of more than 320,000 words per book, almost three times the “industry expectation” for fantasy books today. True, the first book in this series was published in the 90s, and standards do change. Still, WoT is more than four times longer than the Harry Potter books put together, and almost ten times longer than the four main books in The Lord of the Rings.
Even as caught as I get in the story itself, I am pulled out of it time and again by things like overabundant description or unnecessary details, shifting of feet or shuffling of papers or straightening of skirts, and navel-gazing by the characters, much of which is repetitive or redundant and none of which moves the story forward.
4. Rule: Write to a target audience.
I have said it numerous times in discussions with Hubby that in many ways WoT feels, to me, like a Young Adult story. All five of the main characters who start out in the first book are young, 16 or so. By book eight (where I am now), they are maybe 18 or 20. That alone makes me think WoT should have been targeted to young adults. In addition, through the course of the story these same young characters are thrust into mature roles (one becomes queen; another assumes leadership of an army) in ways that seem highly unlikely. It’s fantasy. I get that. But such an element—young characters finding themselves in positions of authority and responsibility—feels like a key YA feature to me.
In addition, there is a lot of frustration on the part of female characters about behavior by the males, and vice versa, with many exclamations like “Men!” or “Women!” in moments of tension when characters didn’t agree on a course of action, or what have you. I don’t mean just a time or two. I mean repeated scenes where this sort of interaction takes place. And the elder characters generally resort to punishments—of young characters as well as older ones—like switching, or “spanking someone’s bottom” when one person annoys another. Maybe it’s just me, but that in particular stands out as a YA detail.
In other ways, though, the narrative is distinctly adult in nature. Between the violence, political intrigue, subplots, and scheming, I find it difficult to believe a young reader (say early teens) would understand much of what’s happening. The plot is so intricate and multi-layered even I don’t understand what’s happening sometimes.
To be fair, at the time Jordan began writing WoT, YA hadn’t yet been cemented as a true readership category. I think that now, if he took this manuscript to an agent, they would tell him to pick one or the other.
All those take-aways, though, are technicalities that another reader—say, one who isn’t a writer—may not even notice. I reiterate that this story is well worth the read, if you have the time to make the commitment, or if you can do as the Hubenstein did—listen to it in the car or train on your commute or while busy with other assorted tasks. (Even with my hearing aids, I can’t really do that.) Jordan’s worlds are extraordinary in their detail and texture, the people who inhabit them believable and (in most cases) relatable. Character development feels appropriate to the situations in which these young protagonists find themselves. The plot is thick, deeply involved, and unpredictable. The fact that WoT has legions of dedicated readers, that there are whole websites devoted to the story, and that Amazon Prime has bought the movie rights and plans to begin filming this fall for the Wheel of Time television series speaks volumes (more than fourteen) about the quality of the story overall. So WoT is no slacker as a riveting read.
I suppose it’s because I’ve been studying how to make my own work publishable in today’s market that these things jump off the page as lessons in what not to do. I wonder if people who work in video or who study to become filmmakers have the same problem with watching movies?
Have you read this series? Share your opinion here. I want to know what you thought!
Haven’t yet read it? Want to know more? Look it up online, but beware! You will come across spoilers in those many and varied archives.
(With gratitude to Ariel Burgess for her kind permission to use the portrait of Rand Al’Thor, main protagonist in The Wheel of Time. Check out Ariel’s other amazing work at her site, https://www.artistarielburgess.com/wheel-of-time.)