Meeting with Brandon Sander, October 9, 2015.
Brandon Sanderson is one of the finest worldbuilders around, especially in terms of magic systems. Thanks to rigorous application of his eponymous Laws of Magic, he has succeeded in formalizing what can be termed as the fantasy equivalent of “hard” scifi. The emphasis on using magic to cleverly resolve problems also makes him a master plotter: The “Sanderson Avalanche” is an actual term his fans use to describe the cascade of shocking reveals and jolting about-turns that characterize the seatgripping finales of his novels. He writes at a prodigious pace, churning out one to two fantasy book a year, with no apparent impact on quality. Fans have semi-seriously inquired as to whether he is a robot. As well as writing doorstoppers like the books in the Stormlight Chronicles series, he is also an adept writer of short stories: The Emperor’s Soul is perhaps the single most perfect fantasy short story I have ever read.
That said, there are also lingering weaknesses in his work. This is something of a pet peeve, but excellent worldbuilder that he is, many of the customs and traditions in his worlds fail to make evolutionary sense. It is easy to see why the Night’s Watch has such harsh discipline, being composed of the dregs of society, or to appreciate why male channelers are feared and systemically hunted down, because otherwise they go crazy and blow up a nuke on your village. But why exactly do Mistborn peasants fear to venture into the mists? Why is it shameful for men to be literate in A Way of Kings? If he ever gave answers to these questions, I do not recall them.
A more serious failing is that many of his characters are rather two-dimensional. I could not even remember the name of the lead heroine of Mistborn a couple of years after reading it, whereas I suspect even many second tier characters from GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fair will remain with readers indefinitely. People say he can write up some good dialog and humor, as in the casual banter between Wax and Wayne in Alloy of Law and the recently released Shadows of Self (the top photo is of Sanderson and me at a signing of this book). I agree with that assessment, to an extent. But to be quite frank, a lot of his dialog can also sound rather forced. A particularly jarring example is Wayne’s hat obsession. You can almost feel the author inserting it here, here, and here in order to keep ticking the regular comedic relief checkbox.
In particular, I find his portrayal of women to be deeply lacking. Apart from superficial aspects like dress or cosmetics, many of them behave in ways difficult to distinguish from that of men. I find Sanderson to be weaker here than even Robert Jordan, which is really saying something considering the criticisms leveled against the latter on this account. But Jordan’s women at least acted like women – not like medieval European women, to be sure, but like modern American women – but they were still recognizably female in tic and mannerism, whereas Sanderson’s women tend to be more like comic book “gurl power” superheroines. To someone like GRRM there can be no comparison at all. I suspect to an extent this is a weakness borne of Sanderson’s very genteel and “proper” approach to human relationships motivated by his Mormon faith. He has admitted he has a “boy scout” mentality on such issues and was in fact unwilling to read beyond the first book of ASOIAF on account of its grit and cynicism (and one daresays, realism). Such a mentality is best suited for writing the more optimistic kinds of scifi. If however you write medieval-tinged fantasies and crapsack world dystopias, especially if they revolve around the more criminal elements of society, that is a no starter.
(Aside: It is also just a bit ironic that as a Mormon conservative, Sanderson seems to be more overtly concerned with Social Justice in his books than G.R.R. Martin, who is an avowed liberal in real life but writes about it with a light, deft hand that is characteristic of Orwellian prose; there is nothing in Sanderson’s works that even begins to approach the majesty of Septon Meribald’s speech on the horrors of war. Nor, of course, is he any sort of Orson Scott Card in this respect.)
Like most people, I discovered Brandon Sanderson when he was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think it had the potential to be a truly epic fantasy, but unfortunately – for lack of discipline, or a desire to spin up an extra buck – the whole thing degenerated into such a mess by about Book 8 that it was hard to see how it could possible be salvaged. Sanderson at any rate made a sterling effort at it, even if in my opinion it ended up completely flopping by the final book in the series, A Memory of Light. It was full of internal internal inconsistencies and deus ex machina galore. Nonetheless, it was obvious that the primarily fault lay with Robert Jordan; I doubt he could have done any better than Sanderson even had he lived to finish it. I was sufficiently impressed by Sanderson’s rescue attempt to check out his other work. I was likewise impressed by the bold overthrowing of established fantasy convention in Mistborn, and that is how I ended up adding him to the small roster of fantasy writers whose books I buy and read more or less regularly.
Apart from writing an absurd number of words per day and tending to a growing family, Sanderson also finds time to teach Creative Writing classes at Brigham Young University. You can access the lectures here: http://www.writeaboutdragons.com/brandon_w2012/ In my opinion, this is the best resource bar none for Creative Writing 101, and Sanderson must be credited with not only fulfilling his “civic duty” by teaching at a local college but also making his lectures freely available online. Importantly, he makes reference to his own work, including his own weaknesses as a writer. Confirming my own impressions, he confirms his primary weakness as characterization.
Arguably, writing lessons coming from Sanderson are more useful than those coming from Stephen King, or GRRM were he to ever teach them. That is because writers like King or GRRM are so brilliant, most of all at characterization – the most important element of creative writing by far – that I cannot even begin to conceive of ever coming anywhere close to matching them. In contrast, I can just about envisage converging with Sanderson, in some alternate universe where I make it my life’s mission to do so. Sanderson is not particularly brilliant (relative to the best of the best) but he does have a well-developed process which, married to his formidable work ethic, allows him to release pageturner after 4.7-star bestselling pageturner, year after year.
And that is highly inspirational.
Brandon Sanderson giving a lecture at Kepler’s Books bookshop.
At the Shadows of Self signing, Brandon Sanderson gave a heavily Social Justice-themed introductory lecture. He compared the traditional Chinese guardianship of literacy with the supposedly unwelcome attitudes of sci-fi and gaming circles to minorities such as women. Personally, I find that comparison highly questionable on both ends. There were plenty (for a Malthusian society) itinerant tutors and monasteries who imparted literacy in medieval China in return for coin or service, and the state exam system was the closest thing the world had to a meritocratic system of government. (The actual system of characters was another thing, sure, but its staying power was more likely due to a QWERTY effect or even sociobiological reasons than to any conscious desire to entrench an elite. Note that Korea’s Sejong the Great introduced an alphabetic system in the 15th century, but it took until the 20th century for it to truly catch on). As for the other half of the argument, well, this isn’t the place to go on a Yiannopoulosian rant. Suffice to say many gaming and I suspect scifi/fantasy communities are pretty beta and fall over themselves in cringeworthy ways to please and cater to female members (though of course that’s not the same thing as making women well disposed to them!).
Fortunately, that somewhat ideologically-tinged lecture didn’t last long, and soon the format moved to that of a Q&A session with the audience. For the most part, the questions involved the more technical aspects of creative writing. Little of it was truly new to me (since I had watched his lectures), but it was good to be reminded of them, especially coming as it did three weeks before Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month, held every November, and I strongly recommend folks check it out.
My own question was possibly (hopefully) one Sanderson doesn’t get asked too often. I had noticed that his concept of the cosmere – the general idea of there being multiple connected worlds, and virtuous men and women becoming Gods in those various worlds and universes – seems remarkably similar to Mormon eschatology. So I asked to what extent Mormonism influenced his worldbuilding. The answer was fairly predictable and reasonable: He said that while he did not consciously borrow from Mormonism, obviously its core ideas and concepts were rather intrinsic to his identity and worldview, so it was inevitable that it would seep through to some extent into his creative work.