The Eye of the World Review (2)

This is post number two where I critically examine Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World to analyse how Robert Jordan created the novel. (See post one).

Firstly, some important caveats:

  1. Robert Jordan was a professional, backed by a team of skillful professionals at Tor. I am an amateur; and all thoughts and opinions should be weighted accordingly.
  2. Our writing styles are different; that doesn’t mean one is better than the other – just different (see point 1).
  3. Our genres are different. Robert Jordan is very much EPIC fantasy (travelogue, heavy on description), whereas I’ve discovered my writing in comparison is more adventure fantasy, if that tag can be applied loosely. My writing has more pace and less depth.
  4. The Eye of the World was first published in 1990. That’s 26 years ago and standards and styles change over time. (e.g. Lord of the Rings beginning)
  5. This will contain vast amounts of spoilers; be warned.
  6. It is my opinion; feel free to agree or disagree. (I’m interested in hear how your opinion might differ).
  7. I’m not sure at what age group this book was initially targeted. By the age of the protagonists, I suspect perhaps Young Adult. I do not squeeze into that demographic by any means of contortion.
  8. I’ve read (most of) this series before (2-3 times). That means my perspective is polluted: I know what is going to happen, which is both good and bad. I will see things a first-time-through reader might miss, but I also can’t evaluate how much of a surprise or plot twist things are because I know they are coming.

Now, down to business; a review of Chapter 1.

Why the Prologue?

At the end of the first post I wrote that in this case a prologue was necessary. To explain why, I’m going to use a scientific method as rigorous as any North Korean election. Reading through the Prologue and Chapter 1, I’m going to assign an Interest-O-Meter score for each screen-full* of novel. The score will range from 0 to 10, with 10 being I must reread the entire book immediately; or something like that.(* Reading as an e-book, the page numbers will be screwy).

WOT-Interest1

As you can see, the first few pages of chapter 1 kept me interested, but then my interest dipped like a slalom-run. The prologue gave me a few vital pages of interest, which meant I had more goodwill built up to forgive the dip. If I’d had only 2 pages of interest, I might have decided the book wasn’t for me before the end of chapter 1.

Chapter 1: The Hook

Chapter 1 managed to build tension quite quickly. On the third paragraph it mentions that the protagonist (Rand al’Thor) is carrying a bow, arrow nocked and ready to draw. Carrying the bow is also causing him some difficulty, so this suggests that the bow is necessary. A weapon being necessary suggests action could be just around the corner. We see the danger in several ways: Rand and his father Tam are carrying weapons at the ready, each consciously watching a side of the road. Rand’s actions also match his thoughts.

The sense of menace is amplified by the description of the environment. It is supposed to be spring, but remains winter where bears and wolves attack men during the day. There is a definite feeling that something sinister is pervading nature. The mystery peaks when Rand sees a strange and evasive horseman staring at him and knows that the horsemen wants to harm him.

Note how we are quickly told from whose viewpoint we are looking at the world.

Characters

In chapter 1 we learn about the characters:

Rand al’Thor

“You have head on your shoulders when you choose to use it,” Bran said. He’ll follow you on the Village Council one day, Tam. Mark my words.”

  • Physical: Young, but well-built (matching Tam’s breadth of shoulder), grey eyes and reddish hair.
  • Relationships:
    • Doesn’t remember much about his mother (deceased).
    • A budding romance with Egwene al’Vere, the Mayor’s daughter. She makes him feel jittery.
    • From the way that Tam and Rand relate to one another (and Rand’s inner monologue) we know that the father and son have a close relationship.
  • Responsible and maturing – doesn’t shirk his chores, and is outgrowing pranks.

You can already see plot-possibilities forming. There is an emotional angle, with Rand not knowing his mother. There is a budding romance and Rand is not a debonair man, but a confused and inexperienced youth. There is much room for character development (and a love story).

Tam al’Thor (Rand’s father)

“He stumped down the road now impassively. Wolves and bears were all very well, his manner said, things that any man who kept sheep must be aware of, but they had best not try to stop Tam al’Thor getting to Emond’s Field.”

  • Physical: Strong (“thick chest”), older.
  • Character: Brave, trustworthy/responsible (would keep his word, even though there is danger in it),
  • There is some mystery around Tam. He has some unusual teachings and (somewhat inexplicably) is the best archer in the village.
  • Favoured by the single ladies, but remains a widower.

Mat(rim) Cauthon (Rand’s friend)

“Mat was something of a byword around the village. Few people had escaped his pranks. Now his name came up whenever a washline dropped the laundry in the first or a loose saddle girth deposited a farmer in the road. Mat did not even have to be anywhere around. His support might be worse than none.”

  • Physical: Wiry body, brown eyes
  • Cheeky, trouble-maker.

On Genders

Out of a brief moment or three of procrastination (or as I prefer to call it research), I had a look at what others wrote about the Eye of the World. It only served to confirm how subjective writing is. There were passionate views expressed from every end of the spectrum of love to hate.

One reviewer savaged Jordan saying that all of his women were the same temperament. While I can see where this reviewer was coming from it wasn’t something that I noticed while reading. In contrast, one point of admiration I have for Jordan’s world-building is how he has both men and women in positions of power.

In fact, the whole foundation of the magic system is that men and women together are stronger than apart. This cosmic-level balance is foundational to the world, exemplified down to the lowest level in the village of Two Rivers. Both men and women have their place (and both think they control the other). The Mayor is male and is surrounded by the male-only Village Council. The local mystic (Wisdom) is female. I’m not sure exactly, but I think she is on the Women’s Circle (female-only). Jordan, treats both genders with equal value and importance.


Side note: At some point during my novel Vengeance Will Come I noticed that it was largely devoid of females. There was the leading lady, the wife of a secondary character, one hench-woman and a Queen. Literally four females. Two of those I would characterize as strong, and two who faded into the background. The story was already set and I couldn’t fathom changing a main character at this point so I flipped the genders of some of the minor characters. Though not balanced perfectly, now there are women doing heroic or plot-pushing parts.

Perhaps as the pendulum swings, the follow-up parallel novella The Rebel Queen has two leading females and the males take more supporting roles. In fact, the entire society written about in The Rebel Queen is a matriarchal society where the value of females, especially Mothers, is superior to the males.


Character Naming

Having strange character names is a hallmark of fantasy novels, no doubt designed to subtly remind the reader they are in a construction or another world. As you might know ‘Wendy’ was a name invented for the Peter Pan story.

Decades ago I had read through several of the Wheel of Time books and was discussing them with a friend when I discovered I was pronouncing the character’s names wrong. What my brain had read wasn’t as it was written on the page. I had read Nynavene instead of Nynaeve and Ewgene instead of Egwene. When reading now, if I come across a name that is too difficult, it actually turns me off the story. My rule of thumb is that names should be:

  1. Easily pronounceable
  2. Sufficiently different to other characters to avoid confusion. (Sauron and Saruman anyone?)
  3. The more a character is mentioned, the more important this is.
  4. Bonus points if the name infers the nature of the person.

Jordan does have a cast of multiple dozens in the Wheel of Time series. There are a lot of characters who get their own viewpoint. If one can differentiate between the characters note that all of the really main characters have easy names: Rand, Mat, Perrin.

One thing I noticed was that many of the names resembled one another (e.g. al’Meara, al’Thor, al’Vere), as you would expect in a closed community.

There are several main characters mentioned, but not yet met are Perrin Aybara, Nynaeve al’Meara and Egwene al’Vere. And a host of minor characters (some who I think are never mentioned again): Cenn Buie, Wit Congar, Daise Congar, Bran al’Vere (Mayor), Brandelwyn al’Vere, Dav Cauthon, Elam Dowtry.

Plot

After the encounter with the scary horseman we must endure un-related talk about how Tam is an eligible bachelor, the preparations for the Village celebrations and how an old grumpy man don’t like the Village Wisdom.

Then the plot starts to crystalise as Rand and Mat both have seen the horseman.

Rand took a deep breath. As much to remind himself as for any other reason, he said by rote, “The Dark One and all the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time. The hand of the Creator shelters the world, and the Light shines on us all.”

…and then the action de-rails and the reader must grind through more non-plot-pushing talk of what the Village celebrations might hold.

I did write some notes about the inane trivia that Jordan adds, but I’ve decided to spare you from it.

Writing Excuses: Q and A

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 18 ‘Q&A session’. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

 Question: How do you create distinct voices for characters so they don’t all sound the same?

  • The voice/perspective of the character should be a product of their environment, upbringing, occupation, experience etc. How they perceive the world and what they see will be different to other characters. E.g. a receptionist might see a ‘tool’ on the cabinet, while a mechanic will see the same tool and know it’s exact name, approximate value, function, limitations and capabilities.
  • They will be interested in or ask questions that reflect their viewpoints or knowledge.
  • Try to get across who they are without explicitly telling the reader.

When I think about portraying a character’s voice I automatically think of Sian from the Wheel of Time series (Robert Jordan). Sian is one of most powerful elected figureheads in an important faction in the story world. But before she was that, she was a girl from a fishing village. Most of her jokes, curses and insights are all flavoured with salt… which is my eloquent way of saying that they come from her background and speak to her past.

  • Dan Willis (guest podcaster) writes the backstory of the characters; this helps get their voice. This helps you break away from unicharacter conglomerates.
  • Brandon Sanderson uses a practice technique of trying to write a scene with only dialogue and tries to differentiate the characters using that. (No narration, no dialogue tags).
  • When you know the characters you know what they will say and how they will say it. Know your characters really well.
  • The words they use will be different. E.g. a scholar is going to use bigger words etc. (bit of an old trick… can be a weak method).

One way that I approached this was to write a series of ‘biographer’s interviews’ with the characters. In this fictional piece I asked the characters about their background and how they felt about other characters. I used this to tease out their personalities and viewpoints, and understand the dynamics between the characters. The interviewee was not always forthcoming with answers, which revealed which kind of topics they would be touchy about in-story. (Full disclosure: I began to do this for The Rebel Queen but never completed it because I had already written most of the story before I started the interviews. It helped and is a useful technique I will use again… only earlier next time).

  • Sometimes you may realise that your characters are speaking in another character’s voice. You need to fix that by changing the lines, or having the other character speak them.

I am trying to get in the habit of having another window open on the computer, or using sticky notes to remind me who I am writing. If my scene is from a certain character’s point of view then I try to remind myself how they are currently feeling about other characters/plot developments and what they are trying to achieve.

Undoubtedly this is something that takes time to get good at.

Question: What do you do when you’re having a hard time finishing the story?

  • A lot of people have a hard time finishing the story. They get 3/4 of the way through and then think ‘this is horrible’. (Neil Gaiman shares a story where his agent tells him that Neil has complained about every book he has ever written and to “Get back to work and finish it.”

Oh boy, do I know that feeling. I go back and read my own post on Overcoming Writer’s Block and try and work through it. (Next time I write something from scratch I am going to track my own motivation… I think it will be informative).

  • If you’re a discovery writer you won’t know your ending and you’ll probably have to throw out a few endings.
  • Make yourself excited about what you’re writing now (and don’t get distracted by the other ideas). Remind yourself why your current book is cool.
  • Outlining can help.

Question: What to do when you’re bogged down in the middle (i.e. act 2 in a 3-act format)

  • Act 2 often begins with the character solving the problem from act 1, and then discovers a plot twist which makes things worse or a redirection of problem.
  • Often when you are bogged down the characters are too close to solving the problem. Or things haven’t got unexpectedly worse for them yet.
  • If you’re having trouble in the middle it may be there’s not enough going to keep you interested. When you’re bored your readers are going to be bored. What conflicts can you add?
  • Try-fail cycles: Fail the first 2 times. Act 2 is a good place for the first fail cycle. Make it a plausible/solid solution that fails – not a throwaway (pretend that this is the climax to the story and surprise the reader when it fails).

For better or for worse, I’ve kind of turned this on its head in The Rebel Queen. The protagonist isn’t actually the one who is pushing the story along, it’s the actions of the antagonist. The antagonist is like the rapids that are trying to crush the protagonist who is riding in the small boat. So the try-fail cycle is actually referring to the actions of the antagonist. We’ll see how it turns out.

  • Three disaster structure: First disaster between first and second act, second disaster in the dead-centre of the second act, third disaster at the start of the third act. (Metaphorically blow something up right in the middle of the second act).
  • Don’t be too formulaic. They are general frameworks to be used, not patterns to be followed with religious-like fervour.

Question: Trouble naming the characters

  • Sources: spam emails, phone book, anagram inanimate object
  • Language flavour from an atlas: Find a country and then look at common baby names, place names. That helps you find patterns of sounds and makes them consistent across your story world.
  • Don’t agonise over it too much, just get on with it.
  • Mentions an essay by Orson Scott Card

I normally have an ethnic idea in my head and then use google to find names with meanings which reflect the identities of the characters. Other times I just plain make up names that sound cool in my head.

I don’t allow the names of non-major characters bother me much. I have to find something for them to be called as I’m writing it, but I’ve also done plenty of ‘Find and Replace All’ when I decide that a name needs to be changed partway through the writing process.