Lessons from Wheel of Time: Things I Liked

I don’t remember precisely when I started reading these books, but it’s been, like, five years. I wanted a super-long, super-involved fantasy series, and I was initially hesitant to read them for absolutely no good reason. None. I can’t be the only one who just hears about something and immediately shuts down, right? Like, I’m in some mood when I first hear about it, or I’m hungry maybe, I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m just like, “Fleabag? Well, there’s no way I’m going to like that.”

(Spoiler alert: I did like that.)

And it gets worse when it’s something super popular. I don’t even have to mention I don’t want to watch/read it, I only mention that I haven’t, and whoever this other person is in this story goes off. “You haven’t watched Sisters of Solitude: Space Warriors? Oh. My. God. You’d love it! It’s won so many awards! It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d like! How have you not watched this yet?

And even if it is exactly the sort of thing I’d like, when someone comes at me with that kind of attitude my POS brain just shuts down even further.

So, I already had this bullshit ‘I already know I don’t like that’ attitude, and then I had my friend and my then-boyfriend on either side of me insisting I would love them and it was ridiculous that I didn’t want to and I’m being stubborn and stupid and for the love of Aisha read the fucking things already!

I did eventually give in and read them, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. And everybody else who reads them gets to write or make a video with all their hot takes, so I want to do one, too. I feel like I’ve spent the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert on something reading these things, so let me have this.

The Word Building

Look, if you’re going to write a multi-book fantasy epic, you better be prepared to do some serious development on whatever magical land you plan on moving your characters around in for…hold on, a second…over four million words (people who have not read the books are allowed to be shocked and surprised. Anyone who has read the books, go ahead and crack a beer. You deserve it). Good thing world building might be Robert Jordan’s biggest strength as a writer. Because he went hard.

Every single one of the kingdoms and countries he created comes with its own government, history, customs, fashion, physical traits, and even stereotypes from the other countries. The Carheinin nobility are constantly playing ‘The Game of Houses,’ sort of a like a supercharged Survivor situation where the stakes are actual human lives instead of a cash prize and your dignity, so everybody else in the world think of Carheinins as slippery fucks. One country has a weird way of talking, another likes braiding their hair and putting bells at the end of them (I cannot emphasize enough how much being in one of those cities surrounded by ting jingling bells would stress me the fuck out). The Sheinarans live directly next to The Dark One’s asshole and constantly have to deal with evil bullshit and thus think everyone south of them is a mega-pussy for not knowing how to rip a horn off a trolloc (for all intents and purposes this universe’s version of orcs) and stab it in its own eye.

These feel like real cultures having real interactions with each other. There is great depth to this world. I don’t know Robert Jordan’s methods, but it seems like he worked out a lot of the details before every writing a single word of the narrative.

Different Peoples, Different Understandings of their World

This is my favorite part of Jordan’s world building for these books, specifically because the opposite of it is a cheap, easy cop-out that many writers take.

The cheap way, when building your magical world, is giving everyone across the world the same understanding and knowledge of magic and its history. Wizards and kings and farmers and serving girls alike all know the full history of when Sir Charles Magicman stole magic from the Wizened Old Dirty God and gave it to the people on a sunny, beautiful day that suddenly turned to storms in the afternoon and there was a car crash on I-95 that slowed traffic down all the way through DC down to Fredericksburg and Sir Charles Magicman had to get out and walk so he was late getting to the Council of Ruling Fuckheads and they were all like, ‘we’re out of here!’ and left to get dinner so the only one left to receive the magical bounty from Sir Charles Magicman was the cleaning crew and thus a future of great magical nobility was born!

And so on.

This sucks because it’s not real. There isn’t a single thing in any reality that everybody on the entire planet a) knows every single detail about and b) has the same opinion on. Maybe a wizard or a king would have such detailed knowledge about that day, but why would a farmer? How does knowing that Sir Charles Magicman drove a 2010 Kia Sorento help with the crops? Who took their time to teach this farmer any of it, and what were their motives? It doesn’t make sense.

Robert Jordan is here to show these lazy assholes how it’s done. Nobody – and I mean nobody – in the Wheel of Time series has the same understanding and opinion on the world or its magic as anybody else. The Aes Sedai, the primary magic users in the books, probably have the best picture of the world’s history through their collection of books and journals, but it’s not complete. The main characters are constantly unearthing shit that the Aes Sedai either thought were legends or straight up didn’t know.

At the same time, there are people in this same world who don’t even believe the Aes Sedai are real. It’s a pre-industrial age society where you can be born, live, and die in the same five square miles of land and only meet a few people from outside that square, so of course there are going to be people who only ever hear rumors of women wielding magic and think it’s a big stinky pile of horse plops.

Remember the Sheinarans? Constantly fighting back the trollocs? The rest of the world doesn’t even believe they exist, because they’ve never seen them and Twitter isn’t a thing. Ninety percent of the world thinks trollocs are a myth. For Sheinarans, they’re a Tuesday.

It adds such depth to the world. Such realism. Writers, there’s your hot tip: once you have established the history and rules of your world, make sure nobody knows any more than 75% of it at any time.

The Magic System

First, really briefly, let’s go into the difference between a hard magic system and a soft magic system:

A hard magic system has a strict set of established rules on how magic is created and used in the universe. Brandon Sanderson (who incidentally finished the WoT books after Robert Jordan passed) seems to do this effortlessly in his Mistborn and Stormlight Archive series.

A soft magic system does not have any strict rules on magic use, just vibes. Think Lord of the Rings or even Star Wars, where magic is present but no one is giving a lecture on the specs.

Also, before anyone asks: the Harry Potter series would be a mixture of the two. There’s no explanation for where the magic comes from or why people can use it, but there are rules on how it’s used.

The magic system in WoT is a hard system, and, far more important for readability, not a complicated one. The reader learns where the magic comes from, who can use it, and how it’s used. Once the rules are set in place, they are not broken. They are expanded upon, but it’s a major part of the plot and makes sense in the context of the already set rules. The only thing that is not given a definite answer is why some people can use magic when most others can’t, but it’s addressed in the plot as ‘no one fucking knows’ and that’s good enough for me!

There are some things about the magic system I don’t like, but we’ll get into that in future articles.

Feminism? In My High Fantasy?

Robert Jordan didn’t create female characters. He created characters who were also women. And he created a lot of them. Not only did he create literally hundreds of characters to fill this entire continent he created, he also created a magic system only women can tap into. Thus all of the Aes Sedai are women. And we meet dozens of them.

Sad as it is, we’re only just now (and only sort of) leaving an era where simply having more than one or two female characters is progress (some (most?) of my favorite books and movies from the 20th century do not pass the Bechdel Test).

I think worse than writing something with no female characters (and I do recognize that there will be some plots that naturally consist of all men) is writing something with only one female character. Then you run into the problem of tokenism and its dangerous side effect: This is How All (blank) Are. Even if you don’t mean to, if you write something that has an all-male cast with one female character, every bit of characterization you give to that female character could be read as how you see all women.

How do you counteract this? You could go the Robert Jordan way, and write in hundreds of female characters, all of them vastly different. Some of the women he writes are kind. Some are evil. Some are not evil, but they do objectively suck as human beings. Some women are smart, some are dumb. Some are conniving, some are honest to a fault. It’s almost like all these female characters are all their own person and not part of some hivemind that still won’t go out with you.

Is Wheel of Time Worth Your Time?

Do you have literal years to spend on a book series?

Also, if you’re a writer looking to write anything similar to WoT. A long series. A unique world. A large cast of characters. A fresh magic system. There is something to learn about each of these from Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s fourteen book epic.


Other Wheel of Time Posts:


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