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2012-04-30: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Harriet McDougal Rigney about her life. She's an amazing talent and person and it will take you less than an hour to agree.
2012-04-24: Some thoughts I had during JordanCon4 and the upcoming conclusion of "The Wheel of Time."
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Brandon, how do you feel your identity and upbringing as a Mormon has affected your work?
Elantris, for instance, centers around a magic system that has essentially been broken because something in the world has changed—a "new revelation" if you will. And then Mistborn has at its core a set of holy writings that have been altered by an evil force.
These things seem decidely Mormon to me, or at least informed from a Mormon perspective. Do you feel that is the case?
I don't set out to put anything specifically Mormon into my books, but who I am definitely influences what I write and how I write it. I'm always curious at the things people dig out of my writing—neither of the two points you mention above are things that I was conscious of, though they certainly do make interesting points now that you look at them.
My goal in storytelling is first and foremost to be true to the characters—their passions, beliefs, and goals. No matter what those are. I'm not trying to make a point consciously ever in my writing—though I do think that good stories should raise questions and make readers think.
Who I am as a person heavily influences what I write, and I draw from everything I can find—whether it be LDS, Buddhist, Islamic, or Atheist. It's all jumbled up there in that head of mine, and comes out in different characters who are seeking different things.
In other words, I'm not setting out to be like C.S. Lewis and write parables of belief. I'm trying more what Tolkien did (not, of course, meaning to compare myself favorably with the master) in that I tell story and setting first, and let theme and meaning take care of itself.
Fiction doesn't really exist—certainly doesn't have power—until it is read. You create the story in your head when you read it, and so your interpretations (and your pronunciations on the names) are completely valid in your telling of the story. The things you come up with may be things I noticed and did intentionally, they may be subconscious additions on my part, or they may simply be a result of your interaction with the text. But all three are valid.
Brandon, with you being a writer specialized in cool and unique magic systems, how was it to use and write with the magic system in Wheel of Time? Hard or easy? Did you have to come up with new weaves, or did Jordan already have unmentioned weaves written down somewhere? And how did it work for you to write channeling battles?
Well, the Wheel of Time magic system was one of those that inspired me to make magic systems the way I do. I've long loved the magic in Mr. Jordan's books, and think he does a very good job of walking the line between having it feel scientific and still feel wondrous. He does tend to go a little bit further toward wonder—as opposed to science—but that has a great number of advantages for his story.
In answer, I've come up with just a few new weaves, but mostly I wanted to use his weaves in new ways. I think there's a lot of room to explore the use of weaves and how people interact with the magic. Don't expect a LOT of this though. The focus is on the characters and the Last Battle at this point, but there were a few places where (mostly in throw-away, background moments) I was able to explore the magic a tad. I actually found it one of the easier things in the book, though I DID have to keep looking up how specific weaves were created. It gets confusing, particularly since men and women often do the weaves differently.
As for channeling battles...well, I can't really tell you if there are any of those in the book without giving anything away, now can I? So we'll have to RAFO that. ;)
How difficult was it to come up with new magic systems considering the wealth of fantasy out there with already established magic systems(that seems to just get re-used in different formats by various other authors)? Do you have more systems to be used in future novels? If so how do you go about envisioning them and creating the rules in the first place?
I've got a few very nifty ones reserved for the future. Don't worry; I'm not nearly out of ideas yet. And I'm constantly having new ones I don't have time to use.
There IS a lot of fantasy out there. And yet, I think there's a great deal of room left for exploration in magic. The frontiers of imagination are still rough-and-tumble, unexplored places, particularly in this genre. It seems that a lot of fantasy sticks very close to the same kinds of magic systems.
One of the things I've come to believe is that limitations are more important than powers in many cases. By not limiting themselves in what their characters can do, authors often don't have to really explore the extent of the powers they've created. If you are always handing your characters new powers, then they'll use the new and best—kind of like giving your teen a new car every year, rather than forcing them to test the limits of what that old junker will do. Often, those old cars will surprise you. Same thing for the magic. When you're constrained, as a writer, by the limits of the magic, it forces you to be more creative. And that can lead to better storytelling and a more fleshed out magic.
Now, don't take this as a condemnation of other books. As writers, we all choose different things to focus on in our stories, and we all try different things. Jordan's ability to use viewpoint, Martin's use of character, Pratchett's use of wit—these are things that far outshine anything I've been able to manage in my works so far.
But I do think that there is a great deal of unexplored ground still left to map out in some of these areas. (Specifically magic and setting.) A great magic system for me is one that has good limitations that force the characters to be creative, uses good visuals to make the scenes more engaging while written, and has ties to the culture of the world and the motivations of the viewpoint characters.
About research: What, if any, research for your novels have you done, and how did you do it?
The calling of a fiction writer, particularly a fantasy writer, is to know a little bit about a lot of things—just enough to be dangerous, so to speak. I tend to read survey books that talk about history—things that give overviews, such as the history of warfare, or the history of the sword, or navigation. That kind of thing. I would say I do a fair amount of research, but mostly it's an attempt to dump as much into my brain as possible for spawning stories and writing about things intelligently. For Mistborn, I researched canals, eunuchs, and London during the mid 1800's.
THIS APPLIES TO FANTASY
Before postmodern literature can start appearing in a genre (and therefore, before deconstructionists can start pointing out the irony inherent in that postmodern literature) you need to have a body of work with dominant themes and concepts. You need an audience familiar enough with those themes to recognize when they are being molded, changed, and built upon.
Fantasy (and the epic in particular) hit a postmodern stage with remarkable speed. Tolkien was so remarkably dominant, so genre-changing, that reactions to him began immediately. And, since so much of the audience was familiar with his tropes (to the point that they quickly became expected parts of the genre), it was easy to build upon his work and change it. You could also argue that the Campbellian monomyth (awareness of which was injected into the veins of pop culture by George Lucas) was so strong in sf/f that we were well prepared for our postmodern era to hit. Indeed, by the late '70s, the first major postmodern Tolkienesque fantasy epic had already begun. (In the form of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.)
During my early years writing, I mixed a lot with other aspiring fantasy novelists. A great number of us had grown up reading the Tolkien-reaction books. Brooks, Eddings, Williams, Jordan. You might call us of the rising generation Tolkien's grandchildren. (Some of you may have heard me call him, affectionately, "Grandpa Tolkien" when I talk about him, which is an affectation I think I got from a David Eddings interview I once read.) A lot of my generation of writers, then, were ready for the next stage of fantasy epics. The "new wave," so to speak.
During those years, I read and heard a lot of talk about "taking the next step" in fantasy. Or, "making the genre our own." It seems that everyone I talked to had their own spin on how they were going to revolutionize the genre with their brilliant twist on the fantasy epic. Unfortunately, a lot of us were a little unambitious in our twists. ("My elves are short, rather than tall!" or "I'm going to make orcs a noble warrior culture, not just a group of evil, thoughtless monsters!") Our hearts were good; our methods were problematic. I remember growing dissatisfied with this (specifically with my own writing, which was going through some of the same not-so-original originality problems), though I couldn't ever define quite why.
I think I have a better read on it now. It has to do with a particular explanation one writer gave when talking about his story. It went something like this: "Well, it starts out like every other 'farmboy saves the world' fantasy novel. You know, the plucky sidekick rogue, the gang of unlikely woodsmen who go on a quest to find the magic sword. But it's not going to end like that. I'm going to twist it about, make it my own! At the three-quarter mark, the book becomes something else entirely, and I'll play off all those expectations! The reader will realize it's not just another Tolkienesque fantasy. It's something new and original."
There's a problem in there. Can you spot it?
Here's the way I see it. That book is going to disappoint almost everyone. The crowd who is searching for something more innovative will pick up the book, read the beginning, and grow bored because of how familiar the book seems. They'll never get to the part where you're new and original because of how strongly the book is relying upon the thing it is (supposedly) denying. And yet, the people who pick up your book and like it for its resonant, classical feel have a strong probability of growing upset with the novel when it breaks so solidly out of its mold at the end. In a way, that breaks the promise of the first three-quarters of the book.
In short, you're either going to bore people with the bulk of the book or you're going to make them hate your ending.
That's a tough pill to swallow. I could be completely wrong about it; I frequently am. After all, I've often said that good writing defies expectations. (Or, more accurately, breaks your expectations while fulfilling them in ways you didn't know you wanted. You have to replace what they thought they wanted with something so much more awesome that they are surprised and thrilled at the same time.) But I think that the above scenario exposes one of the big problems with postmodern literature. Just as Jewel's music video is likely to turn off—because of the sexual imagery—people who might have agreed with its message, the above story seems likely to turn away the very people who would have appreciated it most.
THE WAY OF KINGS
The Mistborn books were successful. Many readers liked the idea of a world where the Dark Lord won, where prophecy and the hero were not what we expected them to be.
Because of how well it worked, however, I fell into something of a trap. When it came time to rewrite The Way of Kings, I floundered. I knew the story I wanted to tell, but I felt I needed to insert a major twist on the fantasy genre, along the lines of what I'd done in Mistborn. What would be my twist? What would be the postmodern aspect of this book? It literally kept me up nights. (Not hard to do, since I'm an insomniac, but still.)
Over time, I wrestled with this because a larger piece of me resisted doing the postmodern thing in Mistborn again. That piece of me began to ask some difficult questions. Did I want to be known as "The guy who writes postmodern fantasies"? There would be worse monikers to have. However, one of the major purposes of deconstructionism, is to point out the problem with self-referential material. There was a gimmick to the Mistborn books. It was a very useful one, since it allowed me to pitch the book in one sentence. "The hero failed; this is a thousand years later."
There are a lot of very good postmodern stories out there, and I love the Mistborn books. But my heart wasn't in doing that again. In order to write Mistborn the way I did, I also had to rely on the archetypes. My characters, for example, were very archetypal: The street urchin. The clever rogue who robs to do good. The idealistic young nobleman who wants to change the world. My plots were very archetypal as well: a heist story for the first book, a siege narrative for the second. I believe that a good book can use archetypes in new ways without being clichéd. (The Name of the Wind is an excellent example.)
In fact, it's probably impossible not to reflect archetypes in storytelling. I'm sure they're there in The Way of Kings. But I found in working on it that I didn't want to intentionally build a story where I relied upon reader expectations. Instead, I wanted to look for themes and character concepts that I haven't approached before, and that I haven't seen approached as often in the genre.
There's a distinction to be found. It's much like the difference in humor between parody and satire. (As I define them.) In the first, you are funny only if your audience understands what you are parodying. In the second, you are funny because you are innately funny. Early Pratchett is parody. Mid and late Pratchett is satire. (Not to mention brilliant.)
And this is why, in the end, I decided that I would not write The Way of Kings as a postmodern epic. (Not intentionally, at least.) Mistborn felt, in part, like a reflection. There were many original parts, but at its core it was a study of the genre, and—to succeed at its fullest—it needed an audience who understood the tropes I was twisting about. Instead of making its own lasting impression and improvement on the genre, it rested upon the work done by others.
In short, I feel that using that same process again would make it a crutch to me. There is nothing at all wrong with what Mistborn did. I'm very proud of it, and I think it took some important steps. But it's not what I want to be known for, not solely. I don't just want to reflect and study; I want to create. I want to write something that says, "Here is my addition, my tiny step forward, in the genre that I love."
To couch it in the terms of the Jewel video that started the essay, instead of creating a piece of art that screams, "Hey, look at those other pieces of art and hear my take on them," I wanted to create something that says, "Look at this piece of art. This is what I think art should be in this genre now." Part of me thinks that a video that was beautiful for its own sake, that didn't rely upon the follies of others, would do more toward undermining those follies than would a video that pointed them all out.
And so, I tossed aside my desire to confine The Way of Kings into a single, pithy sentence explaining the slant I was taking on the fantasy genre. I just wrote it as what it was.
I really enjoy your books, and I can only think of one question at the moment, perhaps I'll come back with more.
I suppose my question is about how you name your characters. I've been reading WoT and notice some similarities, for example Cenn, and Sarene, and Shalon (different spelling, but they probably sound the same). Is it purely by accident that you have characters with similar names, or is it a homage to a recent master of the fantasy genre? Or is it just that with RJ's 2000+ names, it's impossible to escape some overlap? :) So I guess I'm curious about how you name your characters in general (and even places. Urithiru is an awesome name.)
Thanks for your time, and your books!
I ended up with a lot of unconscious similarities in Kings as I was working on it for such an extended period of time. Cenn wasn't actually intentional. (At least, I don't think so; sometimes, it's hard to remember back to which names pop out intentionally and which do not.) The eyebrows of the Thaylens were, however, an intentional homage, as is the name of the mountains by where Szeth's people live.
There is going to be some overlap. Sarene is a great example of this; I'm pretty sure that one is just coincidence, though I'd lay odds on Cenn being an unconscious influence.
Some of the names in the book were constructed quite intentionally to fit linguistic paradigms of the setting. Urithiru, for example, is a palindrome—which are holy in the Alethi and Veden tongues. Some names, like Shallan, are intentionally one letter off of a holy word—as to not sound too arrogant. (Shallash would be the holy word; nobility will often change one letter to create a child's name to evoke the holy term, but not be blasphemous.)
With many, I just go for the right feel. I've worked these names over for years and years at this point. Dalinar's name has been set in place for a good ten years or so, but Kaladin used to be named Merin and Szeth used to be named Jek. (The first changed because I didn't like it; the second changed because the linguistics of the Shin people changed and I needed a name that better fit.)
My friend and I read Mistborn when we first heard you were going to take over on The Wheel of Time. We've been hooked ever since and you are definitely one of our top authors now.
The friend I spoke of grew up in a Mormon household, as did my wife, and both of them say that a lot of your work seems to borrow or at least use ideas from the Mormon idea of an afterlife as building blocks. Are those just similarities or is your world building influenced heavily by those ideas?
Most of what people are noticing isn't so much intentional as inevitable. Just like people see WWII influences in Tolkien (though he denied that there were such parallels) there are going to be LDS parallels in my books.
I don't seek to expunge them; they are part of who I am. If I'm reaching into mythology and history for my foundations, I'm going to dip into LDS sources more often than others. So tell your friend and wife that they're seeing real things, most likely—though it's not intentional allegory.
Oh boy. This is something I have talked about quite a bit from time to time. I wrote a whole essay on it here: http://www.brandonsanderson.com/article/22/
Recently, the New York Times had a review of Martin's A Dance with Dragons which declared that it was far better than the Lord of the Rings and that Tolkien was dead. Tolkien is the measuring stick that everyone uses. In some ways he shouldn't be, because the fantasy genre has so much potential beyond just being like what Tolkien did. And in other ways, fantasy as we know it today would not exist without Tolkien. He is a giant, and we all stand on his shoulders. In that respect, comparing everyone to Tolkien is not really fair.
He worries about repeating himself in writing and tries to vary his writing.
As research for his writing he has variously: bungee jumped to feel what like to fall off a building; gone to self-defense class; watched sword-fighting at Cons and of course read broadly.
I think it's always been part of the mix. Dune, which is one of those hybrid fantasy/science fiction books, is all about this, and is—I would say—the great example of this. It's the foundation for a lot of modern science fiction and fantasy. A fantastic book, and it deals with the idea of how commerce affects a fantasy and science fiction world.
So I don't think it's a new trend, necessarily, but what is a new trend in fantasy is digging into nonstandard (for the genre) types of plots. Moving away from the quest narrative and focusing more on political intrigue, or focusing on the effects of different fantastical elements on a world and its economy. Basically, George R. R. Martin is going this way too, and he's been doing this for 15 years so I can't say that it's a new trend. But it certainly is an exciting direction for the fantasy genre.
I go into books trying to present characters who are real. That said, some things in the real world that have influenced me are these questions of, what are you willing to sacrifice in the way of freedom in order to have security? I think that's a big theme recently in the Wheel of Time that Robert Jordan was dealing with, and that The Gathering Storm deals with a lot.
I was most fascinated with Egwene's progress as a leader through the entire series. And the things I was allowed to do because of what Jordan had done in Knife of Dreams and the set up in previous books, and then what was in the notes, was really exciting to me because she was able to come to encapsulate what a leader really is, I think. There are some great scenes in Gathering Storm that I got to be part of, where, you know, we've had Aes Sedai acting kind of as bullies, some of them. And we've had various people through various factions acting as bullies. And there has been this sense in the Wheel of Time that people believe that might makes right. And yet it doesn't, and the books imply that it doesn't. And Egwene is the first chance we've really got to see of someone with no might making an even better right.
Someone asked if it were hard to write Jasnah, an atheist character, for a devout Christian.
Brandon said he read a lot of atheist message boards for inspiration. Also, it sounded like he'd had the character in his head for a while, but hadn't found the right book to put it in—e.g. he said it would make no sense to put an atheist in a world where gods walk around (i.e. Warbreaker).
As I read the book (The Alloy of Law) I started to get a very strong vibe of western combined with a Sherlock Holmes rip-off. Then I realized I was being a whinging baby and decided that such a thing was awesome. (And not a rip-off really, and probably intended.) Did you have moments like that yourself or is that part of the normal creative process for a writer anyway?
When I write a book on a whim like this one, my influences (such as the ones you mention) tend to be more overt. I don't have the time to refine the influences and distill out the essence of the story and really, REALLY put my stamp on it. I didn't mind it here, since my goal was to just write a fun story, even more of a pulp type story.
I wanted to do something along the lines of what Lucas and Spielberg originally did with Indiana Jones--that is look at some of their powerful influences, then write an action-adventure story that played off what had come before. This was a dangerous road, since Mistborn had been about subverting tropes before. I wanted Mistborn to be more than that, however. I wanted to simplify for this series while expanding its scope, if that makes any sense.
What you talk about was actually my biggest worry for the book. I tried to prepare people, and tell them that this was more pulp, more fun than anything else. Part of my desire to do this was to let myself blow off some steam from other books, TWoK and the WoT, which are more serious and solemn. I worry a little about fantasy (particularly epic fantasy) becoming too self-important. Sometimes, it should be okay to just have a fun adventure story.
Anyway, in answer to your question, yes I thought about it and I do have moments like that. Often, they worry me, and so I set about refining out the influences. In this case, I didn't let myself worry as much.
What stories have influenced you in your writing other than Wheel of Time?
Other than Wheel of Time? A lot of stories have influenced me. I’m both a writer and scholar—I have a Masters in English. When you’re writing, you aren’t really thinking about those things that they talked about in college. But after the fact, sometimes you’ll sit down and say ‘hmmm, what are my influences?’ and pull out the whole English professor thing.
Specifically in fantasy, there were three women who really influence me: Anne McCaffrey, Melanie Rawn and Barbara Hambly. These were the first authors I discovered in fantasy. I wasn’t a reader before I discovered fantasy, with Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. It just so happens that these three authors were the ones that my high school library had and the books were shelved next to each other because they all started with ‘Dragon’. That’s how I found fantasy, by going from Dragonsbane to Dragonflight to Dragon Prince.
Eventually I read everything these women had produced. I see a lot of influence. Melanie Rawn, for instance, had a very interesting rule-based magic system in her Sunrunner series, which I’ve always loved. Looking externally, it has had a deep influence on how I do magic. Anne McCaffrey’s method of doing sequels—you’ll notice when you read my books often I haven’t done any really truly continuous sequels. I finish a book and then, in the Mistborn series, there’s a period of a year in between, or in other sequels they’re about different characters: we’re jumping hundreds of years. That’s an Anne McCaffrey thing. Again I’m seeing this after the fact, looking externally, but I haven’t done, yet, any true sequels after the Robert Jordan method where we go right into the next book. I plan to do that with Way of Kings but I haven’t, yet. So those are certainly deep influences.
Someone came to me the other day and said, ‘Why are there always ballroom sequences in your books? You always have balls. You’ve got ninjas, you’ve got fighting and you’ve got these ballroom scenes.’ I realise it’s probably because I just really, really like things like classic Jane Austen novels, novels of manners. I have a deep love of that sort of thing and I end up incorporating it into my books. Now, granted, they’re separated by action sequences, but I’m very influenced. Another classic that has influenced me are Les Misérables. I am deeply influenced by Les Mis as my favourite classic.
You’re very philosophical in your writing. I’m currently reading Warbreaker: I’m finding a lot of philosophy is coming out there.
Yes. I was a philosophy minor in college.
Do you think that’s linked to Les Misérables?
I think so. Certainly I love that book, I’ve read it a number of times. What I love about Les Misérables is that Victor Hugo had this brilliant way of characterizing both heroes and villains so that they felt very, very real to you. Then there is this true heroism in the everyday things they did. More than, I think, epic fantasy has. We need to learn this better. Some of the true heroism is in the little heroisms. We deal with saving the world, and I love doing that—I write epic fantasy. But some of the most heroic moments in fiction and in real life are not about saving the world, they’re about the little sacrifices that people make. I think that those are, in some ways, a more true and more real and more honest way of telling stories. So I try to let myself be influenced by stories that do a good job at that.
Joss Whedon in Angel: Angel says something about nothing that we do has meaning, so the smallest thing that we do has the most incredible meaning because we’re not doing it for a reward. Is that kind of what you’re saying?
That’s something we have in common. I got into Firefly and then from that–
You got into Buffy and Angel?
I keep meaning to. My friends are all Buffy addicts, they say ‘you’ve got to watch this, you’ve got to watch this!’ and I say: ‘Where’s the tiiime?’ There’s something like six seasons of that and six seasons of Angel. But someday.
Seven seasons of Buffy, five of Angel.
You were a missionary in Seoul.
Has this cross-cultural experience influenced your writing?
Yeah, it has, quite a bit. One of the things you notice is that once you go live in a different culture, it opens your eyes to the different ways people can think, and how varied it is. Learning a new language and being immersed in it really opens your eyes to how language can affect thought and thought process.
Beyond that, growing up as a white male American, I never had to be the outsider. Living in a culture where suddenly you are, even though I was a privileged minority, not an underprivileged minority—I don’t know if there is a place you can go in the world where a white male American is an underprivileged minority—but just being a minority changes things. I think my writing grew much stronger.
I would suggest to every American, particularly, that this is an experience that would be very good for them. We Americans do tend to be a little bit turned inward. In Europe you have to experience dual cultures and things like that. I don’t know how it is in Australia, but in the States it’s pretty easy to forget the rest of the world. That’s a criticism that is levelled against the States quite reasonably. Going among another culture, serving the people there and forgetting yourself for a while, is just a wonderful experience. Absolutely wonderful.
On the origins of the Mistborn series and his writing process:
"I'm always searching for ideas that I can connect into a larger story. I feel that a book is more than just one idea. A good book is a collection of ideas, a good idea for each character, something that forms the core of their conflict. Some ideas come from the setting, or something that's going to drive the economy, something that's going to, for me, drive the magic [system]."
Brandon continued to explain his process by demonstrating how the Mistborn series came together. "I was watching the Harry Potter movies and I was thinking about The Lord of the Rings and while I like the idea of the hero's journey, I began thinking about how the dark lord in these stories gets the raw end of the deal. So I wanted to write a book where the dark lord wins. Although that's kind of a downer."
Brandon explained that he shelved that idea until he could figure out how to make a story where the villain wins not be so bleak. "It took me a little while to figure out what to with that idea. Then I was watching one of my favorite movies, Sneakers, and started thinking about how I hadn't seen an amazing heist story in fantasy ever. Little did I know Scott Lynch was going to release a great one only a year later!"
The two ideas combined, Brandon continued, "like atoms that combine to create a molecule that's something different." The magic system in Mistborn was the same way, according to the author. Allomancy and Feruchemy were magic that had been designed for different worlds but worked really well together with the story of Mistborn.
So Brandon set to work, filling out the gaps in the story by brainstorming along the way.
One audience member noted that Brandon has a pattern of having his characters working towards a goal only to have that goal turn out to be the incorrect one, which prompted the author to discuss how he thinks of plot twists. "To figure out a good plot twist you want the reader or viewer to be surprised that it happened and then, as it's happening, realize they should have seen it coming. You can't always pull that off but when you can they're really great and that's what I'm shooting for."
"I don't twist my plot just to twist it. My hope is that the more that is revealed, the more that you experience a hidden depth to the characters and their journeys. It's like life. Everyone you meet you make a snap judgment but then the more you get to know them the more depth they reveal. I want readers to experience that with my books. Part of why I like writing epic fantasies is because the story gives you the room to develop and explore that depth. Everything is about more than one thing."
You have made a distinction between "hard" (defined) and "soft" (undefined) approaches to the use of magic in fantasy novels and suggest you ere more on the harder side. Why is that?
One reason is that it's just what I enjoyed reading. Many of the magic systems earlier in fantasy's history were very soft. There were wonderful stories there, but I felt that that ground had been tread very well. It wasn't until the '90s that I read people who were doing harder magic systems, and I really liked them; they clicked with me.
I have a bit of science background. I started in college as a biochemistry major before jumping ship to English, where I found things a lot more fun. What interests me about fantasy is not necessarily doing whatever you want but changing a few laws of physics and exploring the ramifications upon the people and upon the world itself. That fascinated me; it interests me.
It's one that that fantasy can do that no other genre can. We ask the "What if?" and I like to explore that. I've made kind of a name for myself doing that. I'm certainly not the only one, but a hallmark of my style is that I build a system of magic that doesn't ignore the laws of physics. I'm not a physicist, so there are going to be some flaws, but it's fantasy. At the end of the day, it is fantasy; it's not physics with a different name on it. We're doing something fantastical, but I do try and consider the scientific ramifications and write a story that explores those.
Robert Jordan was a great man, and was the single greatest influence on my development as a writer. What I have done these last five years has been an attempt—a sometimes flawed but always earnest attempt—to show my appreciation. This entire genre owes him an enormous debt. My debt to him, and to Harriet, is greatest of all.
Mr. Jordan, may you rest in the Light. Everyone else, take a breath and get ready for the end. May you find his final words as satisfying to read as I did when I first picked them up five years ago. The very last scene is his, touched very little by me, as are significant chunks of the ending at large. I have achieved my goal in writing the books so that they pointed toward this ending he wrote, allowing us to include his words with as little alteration as possible.
Once again, thank you. May you always find water and shade.
Written July 30th, 2012
Posted August 1st, 2012
The culture and magic in his works, such as the epic fantasy The Way of Kings were inspired by Chinese numerology and the Confucian social order, Sanderson said in a recent interview with CNA.
"The concept of the relationships between leaders and followers, fathers and children were fascinating to me," said the 36-year-old American author who lived for three years in South Korea, where Confucianism is observed.
"It created a core order for a very organized culture," he said.
The Way of Kings, released in 2010 and the first in a scheduled 10-novel series titled "The Stormlight Archive," follows the story of three individuals from different strata of a society through a medieval feudal world thrashed by violent storms.
The author said he also drew heavily on the concept of numerology in Chinese culture to create his magic, because numbers in Chinese have diverse meanings.
"In English a one is a one but in Chinese each number and character has multiple meanings, so the idea of numerology as a superstition and almost as a science was very fascinating for me," said Sanderson, known for the complexity of his magic systems.
Calligraphy has also made it into Sanderson's novel.
At the end of The Way of Kings, one of the characters paints a calligraphic symbol on the ground then burns it.
"You paint it and set it on fire, and that is a prayer in this world," Sanderson said. "That is something I drew from the Chinese culture."
On every visit abroad, Sanderson said, he takes notes and tries to write down a story that inspired him, to be used as a "seed" for later stories.
For example, an exhibit of necklaces and armors made out of coins that he saw nine years ago in the Middle East inspired him to create "coin armors" for the characters in his new book A Memory of Light, which is scheduled to be launched in fall this year.
Thanks, Bob. You rock.
So what kind of prewriting did you do for A Memory of Light @BrandSanderson?
Lots of practicing character viewpoints. I also make a huge outline, which started on big sheets of butcher paper.
Is there anything specific process-wise you learned from completing WoT that you will apply to future projects?
I'm in awe of RJ's subtlety and hope to be able to transfer my understanding of that to my own works.
Did the ending of A Memory of Light influence the end of Emperor's Soul?
Not intentionally, but it's hard not to be influenced by projects like this.
For example, I wrote Rithmatist while developing the revision for The Way of Kings, and both ended up with a redhead artist.
Did the confrontation between Vin and Ruin in Hero of Ages influence the Rand v Dark One scenes?
Everything I do influences everything else, so I'd say yes—but in this case, I had RJ guiding me as a greater influence.
How does it feel now that the Wheel of Time is over?
Sad. Awesome, but sad.
Is it tough knowing you can't continue the story?
Yes, and no. I feel the ending is the right one. And I can imagine in my head what happens, so for me, that is enough.
When I first emailed you, Brandon, I indicated to you that my sons are readers. One out of three is not so much an avid reader, but they were captivated by the book that probably gave you a national name, and that was Elantris. And in there, there were themes of a Utopia, and then the opposite. What happens when Utopia crashes, or there's the fault line, there's a crack in it? And then we go to Mistborn, and with your permission to sum up kind of shortly, it was, some said, "A revolution of a new generation against someone in power, and yet they don't even understand the consequences of what they are beginning." So there are underlying themes that you are hitting as you move forward in your writing. Are these themes that you set out, you think, "This is something that is important to me as an author and I want to explore it?" Or does it evolve through the characters that you develop?
It's much more an evolution, the second one you mentioned. I'm not one of those who sits down and says, "I want to write a book about X." I don't go and inject any sort of philosophies or theories into my book. I sit down and say, "I want to write a book about this character. Well what's going to be important to this character? What's going to make them tick?" What makes them tick actually tends to be things that I am worried about, or I am concerned about, or I like to think about and so, the two do cross. You'll end up... In my fiction you will often find me exploring concepts and ideas that I am interested in, but that will be because my characters are interested in them.
How did reading The Wheel of Time inspire his magic systems?
The first influence was Robert Jordan's focus on human characters over fantastical ones. He felt that Jordan's concept of weaving was complex and interesting, as opposed to magic systems of authors such as David Eddings. With the Wheel of Time, the rules and restrictions on magic made characters more clever and interesting. He didn't want to modify the WoT magic system but he did explore two aspects of it using ideas he had as a teenager: the World of Dreams and gateways. He avoided adding new weaves because the series was coming to a close.
When Jordan died of a rare blood disease in 2007, he left copious notes for concluding his renowned Wheel of Time series to Harriet McDougal Rigney, his wife and editor. Rigney searched for an author to finish her husband’s work and chose Sanderson after reading a heartfelt eulogy to Jordan from Sanderson's blog as well as his first Mistborn book.
"The beautiful eulogy he wrote made me see the necessity of checking out his stuff," says Rigney. “Brandon's world—his characters and their situation—were all very clear to me. I saw that he could do it."
"Robert Jordan had this beautiful way of looking through someone's eyes, that when you were reading their viewpoint, you felt like you knew them," Sanderson says. "As an early writer, I would study that and say, 'How is he doing this?'"
Although he is now a six-time best-selling author known for creating relatable characters, vivid settings, and unique magic systems, Sanderson was not a bred-in-the-womb writer. Like many adolescent boys, he avoided reading. But when his eighth-grade teacher convinced him to pick a book off her shelf, he chose Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly—because of its cool dragon cover.
"It was like the story of my mom, except in a fantasy world with dragons, and that was just awesome," Sanderson says. "It had all the action and adventure, and it had all the relate-ability."
Sanderson went on to read every fantasy book in his high school.
Then Kiley had a question. She's very soft-spoken so I'm not sure I got it all down right.
So how much, either consciously or unconsciously, do the diary entries from the Lord Ruler reflect the Rand-type characters?
That's the pitch to myself for Mistborn, years ago: "What if Rand failed, and decided to take over the world instead?" basically. It's more than that, though; it's, you know" "What if Frodo kept the ring? What if the hero from the monomyth failed, and instead became the tyrant?" And so, I consciously evoked that.
So did you ever see in that through the end, so that Rand didn't go....like, this is really similar, ever?
Not specifically, but you know, I was basing the idea off of that, yeah.
It was like, "This could be Rand's diary," you know.
Do you see Robert Jordan’s characters coming out in your writing?
No. That may happen unconsciously, but my goal is not to have that happen, because I want to tell different stories. It would be like if Kelsier started coming out in Dalinar. It's just not something we want to have happen as a writer. We want everyone to be their own individual.
Having been so involved in these books over the last five years, and as an author with your own projects in the works, how hard is it to separate the heart and soul of Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time from your own stuff?
You know, this is something you just learn as a writer. To juggle projects. And writing is my passion, and I don't usually have trouble mixing up projects. Now that said, I do sometimes get influenced by certain projects, or end up repeating myself, and that's something you have to really watch out for as a writer. Where you've got to be careful not to let the same themes and ideas make you do the same thing over and over again. But that's a different question. Separating myself from the Wheel of Time was not as hard as you might think, because it's something I had to learn to do when I first started writing. Because the Wheel of Time was a dominant force in my writing from the beginning, I had to say let's write something that doesn't just copy the Wheel of Time. And I think every writer learns to separate themselves from their influences. Our first stories are usually derivative. And we learn over time, hey here's how to express my own voice. My first novel, the first one I finished, I went back to it years later, just a couple of years ago. I went back and I dug it out and looked at it. And it started with the wind scene, it started with an omniscient view of the wind blowing across something. I'm like, oh I've totally lifted that from RJ. But, you know, that's okay on your first novel. It's something you learn.
Having worked on this project after somebody else, how will this affect your future writing style?
Well, I think I gained a lot of insight, working on this project, and that has changed my writing style. I don't think that necessarily, the work on it normally has, because I, like I said, studied the Wheel of Time, and learned about managing influences early in my career. And yet, working on this, being able to see the things RJ did, and gaining a better admiration of some of the things that he managed to pull off. His level of subtlety and foreshadowing for example, really made me say wow, I can see what he's doing and I can see it even better, and it's challenged me to be a better writer. So, I think, as to be better at working with multiple viewpoints, lots of different characters.
I don't think it's necessary at all. The writer's own fascinations—whatever they are—can add to the writing experience. But yes, some philosophical ideas worked into my fiction. Plato's theory of the forms has always fascinated, and so the idea of a physical/cognitive/spiritual realm is certainly a product of this. Human perception of ideals has a lot to do with the cognitive realm, and a true ideal has a lot to do with the spiritual realm.
As for more examples, they're spread through my fiction. Spinoza is in there a lot, and Jung has a lot to do with the idea of spiritual connectivity (and how the Parshendi can all sing the same songs.)
Not completely sure where Spinoza comes in. I guess the shards are part of the natural world and have no personality without a human wielder.
Yes on Spinoza there, and also the idea of God being in everything, and everything of one substance. Unifying laws. Those sorts of things. (Less his determinism, though.)
All of the keeps in the Mistborn series are based on real structures I've visited. The mists are based on a trip to Idaho, were I drove through a fog bank at high speeds.
Warbreaker's setting was inspired, in part, by a visit to Hawaii.
Much of Roshar is inspired by tidal pools and coral reefs.
When you were working on this project did it all feel like you were cheating on your world? Maybe feel like you were cheating on a spouse?
[Laughs] That's an interesting way to put it. Not cheating on a spouse, but cheating on my hobbies. I was still able to release Way of Kings, which is my big capstone epic I'd been working on up until that point. I was still able to do a book in the Mistborn sequence. I had to put a lot aside, but it didn't feel like I was cheating because I view these characters as closely to my own as possible. Beyond that Jordan, even though I never knew him, was a mentor to me. His writing is what I studied when I was trying to figure out how to be an author. I picked up Wheel of Time and tried to figure out, how is he doing this? I wouldn't have said yes to anything else, but I said yes because it was Wheel of Time and I was so familiar and attached to these characters.
It's a really interesting thing. When I got to college, I decided I wanted to be a writer, and I started reading the books that I loved as a youth and studying them and trying to figure out how to do writing. Because . . . I love my professors, but writing teachers don't actually teach you how to write. I don't know if any of you guys have taken writing classes, but they're like well, let's explore your inner voice. And I'm like, you're telling me I have to hear voices? Well, I already do but they're not telling me how to write. How do I write? How do I make a character cool? And teachers aren't really big on teaching you how to make characters cool. They like to teach you how to develop your style.
And so I started reading books, and I was actually very very disappointed because some of authors that I read—I won't mention names—but some of authors I read as a youth did not hold up when I was an adult. And they were perfect for me at the age, but as I tried to inspect them as an adult writer trying to develop my style, I didn't find the depth that I wanted to dig into that I thought would teach me how to write. Robert Jordan still did. In fact, Robert Jordan was the one that I would dig into and find how much I'd missed. I constantly tell a story about as a 15 year old reading these books, you know, there's this character Moiraine who's just like always keeping the boys down and not letting them . . . She's always giving them orders, and I was always like, Moiraine, just leave them alone, they need to go off and do cool things! And then I read the books as an adult and I'm studying them and I'm like, you stupid kids, listen to Moiraine!
There's this depth to Wheel of Time books that the various characters are all expressed on very different levels. And Moiraine has an entire story going on behind the scenes that you don't see because you don't see through her viewpoints. And there's a little subtlety and detail. I mean, maybe I'm dense, but I didn't get the whole thing with it being our world, and there . . . and who was it? Not Buzz Aldrin, um—
John Glenn being in the book referenced, and America and Russia and the Cold War being referenced in legend. I didn't get that stuff till I was in college, and I'm like how did it miss that? You know, it's like a smack to the face, right, the first time you realize that Egwene is Egwene al'Vere, which is Guinevere. And you know, I didn't get this as a kid, and building these things out and understanding them and seeing the depth of writing that he was capable of—the really wonderful sentences that evoke so much feeling, emotion, and description.
I started studying the Wheel of Time to learn how to write. It became my primary model, just on a prose level, of how to do this thing that no one could teach me how to do. I spent the next . . . I decided I wanted to be a writer—actually, I was serving mission for the LDS church in Korea. The reason is I . . . I really wanted to be a writer before then, but my mother convinced me that writers don't get scholarships, and that I should be a doctor instead. And so I actually applied to BYU—I grew up in Nebraska—to go be a chemistry major, because that got scholarships. And then I got into college and realized what they do to all those people who just said they want to be chemistry majors to get a scholarship, is they put them in a really hard chemistry class that other people don't have to take their freshman year to show you what chemistry is like.
And I then went to Korea and was so happy to be on a different continent from chemistry. I did not enjoy that freshman year, but I did spend a lot of that time writing. And I decided I missed writing so much, but I didn't miss chemistry, that I had made the wrong choice, and I decided to start writing a book on my days off during my missionary work, and I just started writing in a notebook. And I completely fell in love with the process. I'd known since a kid this is what I wanted to do, but that's the first time that it clicked for me, that what I loved to do should be my job, right? That I could spend eight hours working on a story and come out of it feeling awesome and have not missed that time at all. I get the same thing from a lot of my friends who are code monkeys. It kind of scratches the same itch—that you get into it, and you're creating something, and it's working, and it's clicking. And yes, it can be hard but you love it at the same time. That's what I wanted to do.
Over the course of the next eight years I wrote 13 novels, trying to break in. And I eventually sold Elantris, my sixth book. And I sold it to Tor books. And when I got an offer from Tor . . . It was funny, I called up my agent. He said, well, I want to take this and I want to shop it, because usually you can get a better offer if you have one offer from somebody. This is basic business philosophy, right? And you go to everyone else and say, well, we got this offer from this company, will you beat it? And I said no, you can't do that. And he's like, but we can get more money. And I said, Tor is Robert Jordan's publisher. [laughter] We're not going anywhere else. When you have an offer from the top you just take it, and I did. And he, to this . . . not to this day, because things have kind of changed in my career, but there were many years where he would say to me, you know, I still wish you'd let me taken that, I bet we could have, you know, got a bigger launch, and yada yada yada. And when I did start working on the Wheel of Time, I actually called him and I said, so do you still wish? And he's like ah, you know, ah . . .
Read them all. Loved them. The characters are extremely realistic. I'm jealous, really I am. I want to steal your ideas so badly (but won't of course).
As long as you don't copy+paste text, I don't think you should feel bad about "stealing" ideas. Stealing memes, stories, and characters is a time-honoured tradition, and even the stories in the Bible are in effect various tales that circulated all around the Near East, and were constantly enhanced, improved, and incorporated into larger epics. Some of my own stories are crazy crossovers/mash-ups of various characters, plot elements, ideas, concepts, and phrases from various sources: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, the Bastard Operator from Hell, the "Friends" television series, Buffy, Star Trek The-Next-Generation/Deep-Space-9, Dumas' The Three Musketeers, Illuminati and Elders of Zion conspiracy theories, the television show Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Sesame Street, the film The Princess Bride, the Jewish Bible and the Jewish "Midrash" (= "to study", "to investigate"), etc. etc.
If you look at the wikipedia entry for Milady de-Winter—who is featured in Dumas' The Three Musketeers (and is a truly formidable, resourceful, and awe-inspiring antagonist—and as a result a very attractive and captivating character), you can see that he borrowed her from characters by previous writers about this. Back in the 19th century, copyright only applied to texts, not to characters or concepts or worlds in the story, and I have decided to place all of my original things of those under CC-by.
I'm not saying you should do blatant plagiarism, but you should feel free to incorporate some of those in different variations in your stories. Ideas can not be copyrighted—only patented, and patents on such non-tangible things such as software, business practices, or on storylines or plots (see this Slashdot.org post titled "USPTO Issues Provisional Storyline Patent") are absurd and given the current United States patent regime, are hard to avoid, and you probably should not worry about them.
-- Shlomi Fish (a.k.a "Rindolf").
Shlomif is right. Every author is influenced by what they've read. Mistborn was deeply influenced by my love of heist movies, and you can trace where characters came from if you watch enough of them. Let yourself be inspired by what you read, just make sure to take your own spin on it.
Thanks for reading!
Wait wait, so it is a book [Steelheart] about a magical upper class and a lower class who rebels against them? But I already read Mistborn!
You know, I honestly worry about this a lot. Perhaps more than I should. I don't want to start repeating myself.
This was one of those "Write it by instinct" books. The idea was too awesome to ignore. Basically, it's the story of what happens if people in our world started getting superpowers, but only evil people got them. Story is about a group of people who fight back by assassinating people with superpowers by researching their weaknesses, then laying a trap and taking them out.
However, it DOES share similarities to Mistborn. Much as Warbreaker and Elantris share a worldbuilding premise. We shall see, after readers get it, if I'm repeating myself too much. It's hard when you've got an awesome story you want to tell, but also want each series to have its individual identity.
| what happens if people in our world started getting superpowers, but only evil people got them
Is that the case, or rather a more cynical approach to 'power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely'?
That very question is actually a plot point in the story.
Oh wow. The book's not even out, and I managed to spoil it...
Ha. No, you're not spoiling it. What I mean is, very early in the book, people ask the same question you did. Is the way they act caused by them having too much power, or is it because certain types of people got the powers in the first place. It's not a spoiler to ask the question.
The origin of this story has to do with me, driving along, and getting cut off in traffic. I thought to myself, "Buddy, you're glad I don't have superpowers, because I'd totally blow your car off the road right now."
My immediate reactions made me start thinking about what would actually happen if some people had those kinds of powers.
This sounds really cool and I look forward to reading it! One thing I wonder about though, is how you fit this into the shard multiverse? I'll be honest and admit I'm not totally up to speed on all your books and all the meta-lore, but as far as I knew you had a pre-set number of possible worlds, all created by some unique piece of shard from a larger whole, right?
So for this idea, did you happen to have a specific shard available that fit with the world, did you have an "undefined" shard you could use, or is this something separated entirely from the multiverse setting? Really curious about this as this whole concept as I know of it of the multiverse is really intriguing.
Anyway, thanks for being an awesome writer, from a fan!
So far, most of my deviation novels (Alcatraz, Steelheart, The Rithmatist) have not been part of the shared universe. Part of taking a 'breather' is letting my mind run free without continuity restrictions.
Often, good restrictions can make for a more impressive story, but sometimes you have to be able to do whatever occurs to you, even if it doesn't fit the shared cosmology. So, Steelheart is not a shard novel. I HAVE set apart plenty of places that are less defined that I can tell shard stories in, but this isn't one of them.
Just realized what Shardblades remind me of...
In my head, they remind me a lot of Keyblades from Kingdom Hearts. The blade appearing out of nowhere when you hold out your hand seems rather similar. They're also both highly coveted in their universes and for both types each blade is different from the next (I think). Just wanted to see if anyone else noticed this or if I'm just crazy and have had way too much time to think waiting for Words of Radiance.
Shardblades aren't inspired by keyblades specifically, though there is a core inspiration that might be shared by both myself and the creators. While I did play the first kingdom hearts game when it came out, the first draft of The Way of Kings was well under way when the game was released.
However, I did play all of the Final Fantasy games—I had the first on original Nintendo, so get off my lawn, you kids. The origin of Shardblades relates to fantasy games and art in general, and the concept of the stylized sword which is also horribly impractical.
In a lot of my writing, I react toward or against the fantasy archetypes of my youth in the 80s and 90s. When designing the Stormlight Archive, one of the things I asked myself was, "Can I make a situation where these oversized, over-stylized blades are actually practical? Why in the world would you need a weapon like that? And how do you actually use one?"
Making the blades summonable seemed one of the only ways that carrying one around would be reasonable.
I don't know if you know the history of The Rithmatist.
No, I don’t.
In 2007, before Harriet [McDougal] called me about the Wheel of Time, I was writing a book that wasn't working. It was called Liar of Partinel. You've never seen it. No one's ever seen it. It just happens to writers: once in a while you write a book and you know something deep is wrong with it, like it's fundamentally broken in some way. I was bored while writing it. This wasn't writer's block—that's something different. Across two months, every chapter I would go through the motions, but I wouldn't feel any passion to the chapters. Eventually, halfway through, I said, "I just can't do this anymore. I need something I'm excited about."
I sat down and started sketching. I don't do a lot of drawing. The last time I did some sketching that started a book was Elantris, where I did all the symbols for the Aons. I just started sketching, and I started imagining this story where people would duel with these chalk circles. You draw this chalk circle around yourself, and then you draw little beasties, little creatures that would crawl across the ground and attack your opponent's circle, and when your circle got breached that was the end of the thing. It's like a magical version of a tower defense game or something like StarCraft. I imagined these kids playing this game and thought, "Where do I go from this?"
It was one of these purely creative experiences where I was just drawing and making notes at the side and coming up with things in order to not have to do this other book, which I found so boring. Over the course of a month, instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing, I wrote The Rithmatist. It's one of those books that just flowed out of me. It just came out like it is, basically, right now. We've done revisions and so on, of course, but the revisions are all minor.
It's hard to even explain why it happened, but it came from those sketches. I just started drawing.
When I finished The Rithmatist, Harriet called me [to ask Sanderson to complete the Wheel of Time series]. I was really relieved that I didn't have to go back to that book that I didn't like anymore. I turned my attention toward the Wheel of Time.
I love The Rithmatist. Great system of magic. You do these unique systems of magic, and yet you say all your worlds are related.
Yes, they are all related, but I didn't connect The Rithmatist to that.
Because The Rithmatist has connections to Earth, and I don't want the Earth books—anything on Earth—to be related to the big system of everything else, because it adds too much. Does that make sense? It adds too much baggage.
So The Rithmatist is its own contained world. I wanted to play with Earth history. I just wanted to do wacky things. The JoSeun Empire, which is the old name of one of the Korean dynasties, has conquered Europe at various points, and so European food is very Asian influenced. You'll eat spaghetti with chop sticks, and things like that.
I'm not trying to do true alternate history. True alternate history is when people say, "What if this arrow had hit this guy in this battle and instead . . . ?" That's not what I'm doing. What I'm doing is alternate world, where we're reimagining everything and just letting it be fun.
I've shrunk the planet. It's much smaller. You can take a train to Europe. The United States are a bunch of islands instead, and people duel with chalk, and my hometown in Nebraska is the source of all evil in the world, with a magical tower the monsters come out of.
By the way, all the Rithmatic defenses are named after friends of mine from Nebraska, or people I knew, or things from Nebraska history. There's something called the Osborne Defense. Well, if you're from Nebraska, you know that Tom Osborne was the great coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers for many years. All the defenses are named after things like that, just for fun.
How about your parrot?
Parrot. Didn't you have a parrot in there?
I did. Well, it's a cockatiel. He's called Beaker, because he sounds like the Muppet. All sorts of random things from my life. Like Professor Layton, the math teacher, is a good friend of mine who was the best man at my wedding and who is a math teacher in real life. You know, you can do fun stuff like that in a book set in our world that's not our world, things that you just can't do in something like The Way of Kings where you want it to be a little more serious and epic. It has to take itself seriously. You've got to maintain continuity. Oftentimes, when I'm escaping from something like that, I write something like The Rithmatist, which I don't need to be quite as serious with. In some ways, it's a release valve from writing the big epics. They're my true love, but there are things you can do in a book like The Rithmatist that you just can't do in The Way of Kings.
Great answer. I have to be honest, Brandon. I'm not a big fan of superhero fiction—but Steelheart blew me away. I described it as a "mind-blowing" experience. Do you recall where the original seed of inspiration for this novel, and series, came from?
That's very cool to hear! Approaching this book was in some ways very difficult for me because I have read superhero prose, and it usually doesn't work. I came to it with some trepidation, asking myself, "Is this really something you want to try?" A lot of the superhero tropes from comic books work very well in their medium and then don't translate well to prose. So for my model I actually went to the recent superhero films. Great movies like The Dark Knight or The Avengers have been keeping some of the tropes that work really well narratively. Tropes that feel like they're too much part of tradition—like putting Wolverine in yellow spandex—work wonderfully in the comics. I love them there! But they don't translate really well to another medium.
I think part of the problem with superhero fiction is that it tries to be too meta. It tries very hard to poke fun at these tropes, trying to carry them over into fiction, and it ends up just being kind of a mess. But the genre has translated wonderfully well to film through adaptation. So when I approached Steelheart, I actually didn't tell myself, "I'm writing a superhero book." In fact, I've stayed very far away from that mentally and said, "I am writing an action-adventure suspense-thriller." I use some of the seeds from stories that I've loved to read, but really, Steelheart is an action thriller. I used that guide more than I used the superhero guide. I felt that adaption would be stronger for what I was doing. Comic books have done amazing things, but I felt this was what was right for this book.
As for the original seed that made me want to write this story, I was on book tour, driving a rental car up the East Coast when someone aggressively cut me off in traffic. I got very annoyed at this person, which is not something I normally do. I'm usually pretty easygoing, but this time I thought to myself, "Well, random person, it's a good thing I don't have super powers—because if I did, I'd totally blow your car off the road." Then I thought: "That's horrifying that I would even think of doing that to a random stranger!" Any time that I get horrified like that makes me realize that there's a story there somewhere. So I spent the rest of the drive thinking about what would really happen if I had super powers. Would I go out and be a hero, or would I just start doing whatever I wanted to? Would it be a good thing or a bad thing?
How did you become interested in being a writer?
My start as a writer can be traced back to when I was fourteen years old. I was not a very distinguished student, so to speak: Bs and Cs in all my classes. I really didn't have any direction, either; there was nothing I really loved to do. I was also what they call a "reluctant reader". My reading skills were not fantastic, so when I tried reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, it was just completely over my head, and I assumed that all fantasy novels were boring. It was a teacher who handed me the very first fantasy novel I ever really finished reading. The book was called Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly, and it had this gorgeous Michael Whelan cover on it which immediately caught my eye. I read the book and absolutely fell in love with it. I became an avid reader, mostly of fantasy novels, over the next couple of years. Soon I began to think, "You know, somebody out there is making a living at this, and it seems like it's something that I would really enjoy doing." That's when I found some purpose and direction.
There were certain influences in my life, my mother primarily, who convinced me that being a writer was hard to do, and she was right. It's one of these jobs where not everybody who tries it actually makes it. She convinced me to go into chemistry during college because I had done well in the sciences all throughout high school, thinking I could write in my spare time and have a real, solid job. It wasn't terrible advice; I'm just not sure it was the right advice for me at that time. I served a mission and during that time I was very, very pleased to be on another continent, away from chemistry. I really missed writing, though, because I'd been doing it for fun all through that freshman year before I left. I actually started my first novel when I was fifteen, but it didn't go anywhere. It was rather derivative and all those things that you expect from the majority of novels written by guys in high school. Knowing I could actually produce something, though, gave me some encouragement. Of course I didn't show it to anybody. I hid it behind the painting in my room because I didn't want anyone to see the pages I'd printed out and make fun of me.
When I got back from my mission, I thought, "You know what? I'm going to give it a try." It sounds kind of stupid, but like I said, there are people that get to do this for a living, and I decided that I was never going to be happy unless I gave it a shot. So I changed my major to English because I assumed that's what you did if you wanted to be a writer. I've since learned that that's not the only way to go about it, but it did work for me. It gave me a much better grounding in the classics. I was able to take some creative writing classes too, as a part of my required credits. I got a job working the graveyard shift at a hotel, which was great for my writing because I was there most weeknights from 11 pm until 7 am, and the only requirements that they put me to were, "Just don't fall asleep. Do whatever you want, just don't fall asleep. We need you awake in case there's an emergency or if anyone comes in." I ended up spending a lot of my time working on novels during those early morning hours, and that's how I was able to pay for school, attend it full-time, and still have time for writing. I did that for about five years until I eventually decided that I would go back for a master's degree. It was sort of a way to delay having to make the inevitable decision of what I was really going to do with my life. My backup career then became working as an English professor, partially because I do enjoy teaching, and I enjoy scholarship on the academic level. My parents were worried about me, though. They were afraid that I was going to end up begging for beans on the side of the road, or whatever it is that starving artists do. At least being able to tell them that I was getting a master's degree was helpful. It was also nice to be part of a community of writers and to be able to see what other people were creating.
Your books don't have overtly Mormon characters in them, but they do contain many recognizable Mormon elements—especially in book three of the Mistborn trilogy, The Hero of Ages. How do you feel that your faith has influenced your writing?
Being an author, the story is what is most important to me. Theme and message are really secondary. I don't go into a book saying, "I'm going to write a book about this." In other words, I don't want to preach with my books. What I want to do is have compelling, realistic characters who care about different things. Some care about religion, others don't. By writing compelling characters who care about issues, I realize that what the characters care about tends to be influenced by what I care about. As for my faith, it is what primarily influences me because it makes me interested in certain topics. For instance, religion does tend to be a theme in my books. Yet if you read Elantris, my first published work, the religious figure was the primary antagonist. People have asked me, "Brandon, you're religious—why are you painting religion so poorly in this book?" And my answer for them is that I'm not painting religion poorly. The misuse of religion is one of the things that scares me the most in life. Someone who is taking faith and twisting it and manipulating it is doing one of the most purely evil things that someone can do, in my opinion.
With the Mistborn books, I wasn't ever trying to be overtly LDS. Yet my values shape who I am and what I determine to be important. I then end up having characters who deal with these same things, and I think there are a lot of LDS things going on. But of course I think there are a lot of Buddhist things going on as well. I served my mission in Korea and have a lot of respect for the Buddhist religion. Because of that, I think some elements of Buddhism show up in my writing. Not because I set out to say, "Okay, I'm going to use Buddhism here," but because it seems to happen when I'm developing a character who cares about something. That's one of the tricks about being a writer.
One of my main goals is that any time I put a character in whose beliefs are different from mine, I want to make sure that I'm making them realistic, that I'm painting their ideas and philosophies as accurately as possible. I think it's important for all authors to make their characters actually feel real and not just portray them as talking heads who are there to learn a lesson. Another author, Robert Jordan, once said that he loved it when his books made people ask questions, but that he didn't want to give them the answers—he believed that they should come up with their own. That's what I try to do, too.
You mentioned that one of your most popular series is the Mistborn trilogy. How did those books come about?
The evolution of a novel is such a complicated, complex, and strange creative process that it's hard to step people through it. I don't think even I can fully comprehend it. But by the time I was writing the Mistborn books, I was in a different situation with my career. I'd sold Elantris by that point and the publisher was saying, "We want something else from you." Rather than taking one of the thirteen books that I'd written before, I wanted to write something new. I wanted to give people my newest and best work. At that point I had time to sit down and ask myself, "What do I want to be the hallmark of my career? What am I going to add to the genre?" I want to write fantasy that takes steps forward and lets me take the genre in some interesting direction. At first I wanted to play with some of the stereotypes of the genre. That's a dangerous thing, though, because, as any deconstructionalist will tell you, when you start playing with stereotypes, you start relying on something that you want to undermine, and that puts you on shaky ground. I was in danger of just becoming another cliché. A lot of times when people want to twist something in a new way, they don't twist it enough and end up becoming part of the cliché that they were trying to redefine. But I really did want to try this and went forward with it anyway.
A lot of fantasy relies heavily on the Campbellian Monomyth. This is the idea focusing on the hero's journey. Since the early days of fantasy, it's been a big part of the storytelling, and in my opinion it's become a little bit overused. The hero's journey is important as a description of what works in our minds as people—why we tell the stories we do. But when you take the hero's journey and say, "I'm going to make this a checklist of things I need to do to write a great fantasy novel," your story goes stale. You start to mimic rather than create. Because I'd seen a lot of that, I felt that one of the things I really wanted to do was to try to turn the hero's journey on its head. I had been looking at the Lord of the Rings movies and the Lord of the Rings books and the Harry Potter books, and I felt that because of their popularity and success, a lot of people were going to be using this paradigm even more—the unknown protagonist with a heart of gold and some noble heritage who goes on a quest to defeat the dark lord. So I thought to myself, "What if the dark lord won? What if Frodo got to the end in Lord of the Rings and Sauron said, 'Thanks for bringing my ring back. I really was looking for it,' and then killed him and took over the world? What if book seven of Harry Potter was Voldemort defeating Harry and winning?" I didn't feel that this story had ever really been approached in the way I was imagining it, and it became one idea that bounced around in my head for quite a while.
Another idea I had revolved around my love of the classic heist genre. Whether it's Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery or the movies Ocean's Eleven and The Italian Job, there are these great stories that deal with a gang of specialists who are trying to pull off the ultimate heist. This is the kind of feat which requires them to all work together and use their talents. I hadn't ever read a fantasy book that dealt with that idea in a way that satisfied me or that really felt like it got it down. So that bounced in my head for a while as well.
One more of the ideas for the Mistborn series happened when I was driving home to see my mom. She lives in Idaho Falls, and after passing Tremonton on the I-15, I just went through this fog bank driving at seventy miles an hour. Even though my car was actually driving into the fog, it looked like the mist was moving around me instead of me moving through it. It was just this great image that I wrote down in my notebook years before I ended up writing Mistborn.
After a while, all these different ideas, like atoms, were bouncing around in my head and eventually started to run together to form molecules (the molecules being the story). Keep in mind, a good book is more than just one good idea. A good book is twelve or thirteen or fourteen great ideas that all play off of each other in ways that create even better ideas. There were my two original ideas—a gang of thieves in a fantasy world, and a story where the dark lord won—that ended up coming together and becoming the same story. Suddenly I had a world where the prophecies were wrong, the hero had failed, and a thousand years later a gang of thieves says, "Well, let's try this our way. Let's rob the dark lord silly and drive his armies away from him. Let's try to overthrow the empire." These are all the seeds of things that make bigger ideas.
After I outlined the book, it turned out to be quite bit longer than I expected, and I then began working through those parts that weren't fully developed yet, changing some things. I ended up downplaying the heist story in the final version of the book, despite the fact that it was a heist novel in one of my original concepts. But as I was writing it, I felt that if I was going to make it into a trilogy, I needed the story to have more of an epic scope. The heist was still there, and still the important part of the book, but it kind of became the setting for other, bigger things in the story, such as the epic coming-of-age of one of the characters, the interactions between the characters, and dealing with the rise and fall of the empire. But that happens in the process of writing. Sometimes the things that inspire you to begin a story in the first place eventually end up being the ones that are holding it back. Allomancy, the magic system in the book, was a separate idea that came about through these revisions.
I wrote the books in the trilogy straight through. I had the third one rough drafted by the time the first one had to be in its final form so that I could keep everything consistent and working together the way I wanted it to. I didn't want it to feel like I was just making it up as I went along, which I feel is one of the strengths of the series. I don't know if I'll ever be able to have that opportunity again in a series, but it certainly worked well for the Mistborn books.
What are you currently reading and how is it affecting what you write?
I just finished a friend's book, which is as of yet unpublished. It's different enough that I am not worried about influence worming its way into Words of Radiance—but reading Promise of Blood (which is what I read just before) did make me want to go write more Alloy of Law era Mistborn stories.
Not sure if this question has already been posted. Which author would you say has influenced your writing the most? From deciding to be an author to making you write like you do. You are my favorite author right now and therefore what made you decide to start and to have the style of writing that I so love.
It's really hard to judge the MOST influential. Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly was the book that got me into fantasy, and the Dragonriders of Pern books kept me there. My favorite classic is Les Miserables. Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, and Melanie Rawn were very influential on me during my early years as a writer.
My style came as a mix of many of the things I was reading, as a reaction against some elements—and toward others. Brent Weeks, I've noticed, has a very similar style to my own, particularly in his Lightbringer books. I believe we're both products of the same era and books.
Did you read any Steven Brust? He's got a recurring character who cameos in every book, and a repeated number with great mystical significance (17, not 16). And, of course, lots of snarky conversations.
I don't read as much Brust as I should, but what I have read has been excellent.
Why are the Epics, the people with the power, all evil?
So the idea for this story came when I was driving along on the freeway and someone cut me off in traffic, and my immediate instinct was, "You're lucky I don't have any superpowers because I'd blow your car up right now." This is what happens when you're a fantasy writer, right? You have weird instinctual reactions like that. I was very frightened, though, because I'm like, "Wow, I can't believe that's inside of me." It's probably a good thing that I don't have superpowers because I don't know that I could be trusted not to blow people off of the road when they cut in front of me. And that led me down the natural progression to what would happen if people really have superpowers. Would people be good with them, or would they not? And if my first instinct is to use them in this sort of awful way, what happens if everyone starts abusing these powers?
And that led me down the road to the story of, the idea of, there being no heroes—there being a story about a common man with no powers, trying to assassinate a very powerful superpowered individual. It's weird talking about this in the terms of superheroes, though, because as I was writing the book, my focus was on sort of an action-adventure feel—definitely using some of the superhero tropes, and the comic book tropes. But I have found that in the fiction I've read, it's better to do kind of a strong adaptation–kind of like movies do. I like how movies have adapted comic books and kind of made them their own, and turned them into their own action-adventure genre. And that was what I was kind of using as a model for this. And so yeah, I wanted to tell the story of this kid—I say kid, he's eighteen—this young man, who wants to bring down the emperor of Chicago, and doesn't have any powers himself, but thinks he might know what Steelheart—that character's—the emperor's weakness is.
"I cheated a little bit in Legion and based each personality off an actor." He pointed out that his favorite personality was JC, who was based on [Adam] Baldwin from Firefly. He also related that Ivy was based on Gwyneth Paltrow. The fan commented that he envisioned Brandon having a folder on each personality, which Brandon confirmed.
When asked how he approaches writing a novella as opposed to an epic, Brandon reiterated that he was an "architect" style writer, and viewed novella writing as an opportunity to practice his pre-writing skills and his "discovery writing."
All right. Who are you a fan of, maybe one who has inspired you? In what way?
Well, the obvious answer is Robert Jordan who's been a big inspiration to me through my life. But I would say some of the most inspiring works I've read are the works of Victor Hugo. I love his abilities to characterize real people with all of their scratches and their flaws, but they are still heroic at heart. This is the sort of thing that I really love to read.
So when you come to events like this and you sit on the panels, do you do it more so the fans can understand you more as a writer or do you do it to help out young aspiring writers and try to give them some tips and tricks?
You know, it's a little bit of both. When I was young—I was 17—I went to my first convention and Katherine Kurtz was there and she sat down with me. And I was just a young, teenage, aspiring writer, and she talked to me for a good half hour on the business, how to write, and other advice. I've remembered that ever since, and I thought if I ever get in this position where I can do the same thing, I want to be available.
Becoming a writer, so much of it is solitary. You have to spend all this time sitting, writing on your own, and practicing that when you can actually connect with someone who has gone there before, it can mean more than basically anything else in your writing career—save just practicing. So I like to be available.
I'm at this place in my career where my fans support me. They read the books and that makes it possible for me to do what I do, and I want to be available for them. I use the metaphor that—I guess it's more of a simile—you're like the people in the 19th century. If you wanted to be an artist you had to find a wealthy patron to take care of you. And my wealthy patron is the fandom, right? I exist with them supporting me actively. I mean these sci-fi and fantasy fans are well connected. They can all go pirate the books—they all know how to. But instead they buy them and support me. So I want to be available.
You often talked about the influence that Robert Jordan had on you as a writer, so how do you feel about now being the same influence that RJ was to new young writers?
This is just amazing to me. I became a writer in the first place because reading the fantasy books that I love had such a profound effect on me emotionally that I said, "I have to learn how to do this. I have to." Now being able to talk to people and realize its working and inspiring another generation—and you know, people react against or toward me in the same way I'd react against or toward the things that came before —that's cool. You're part of something—part of something big. Part of this genre I love. It makes me really excited.
Where did you get the idea of a world ravaged by fierce storms?
The original seed of an idea was the storm of Jupiter, this massive persistent storm. Of course, that's a gas giant. The physics are very different. But I remember one day staring at a picture of Jupiter and thinking about a storm that circled the world that was massively powerful. That was one of those seeds that stuck in my brain. This sort of thing happened over months and years until that seed grew and developed and mixed with other things I was thinking of, and the result was Roshar.
The use of spren are a brilliant idea, what was the inspiration for these creatures?
In part, they stem from the underlying cosmology and overarching rules, the dictates of the magic systems of my shared universe. I was looking for a manifestation of that in Roshar. I also was searching for something that would give Roshar a different feel from things that I'd done before. I wanted this book and this series—and everything about it—to feel different from fantasy worlds in the past. I wanted it to be fantastical, but I wanted it to be unique. I wanted something that could consistently remind the reader, "Oh, I'm in a different place. Wow. Their emotions manifest visibly when they feel them strongly. This place is bizarre." That was one of the main inspirations. Looking in our world, one inspiration is certainly the Eastern concept in Shinto mythology of everything having a soul, every rock and river and tree having something living inside of it that is a manifestation of it. Since I was working with the idea of Platonic realms and the like, I spun that off into the spren.
1. With Steelheart every superhero I've worshipped as a kid, was pretty much blown to bits and replaced with the scariest bunch of "supers" I've ever seen. How did you come up with the idea to take superheroes (and even today's, not even close to epic level, villains) and make them so amazingly evil?
I was on book tour, driving a rental car up through West Virginia when someone aggressively cut me off in traffic. I got very annoyed at this person, which is not something I normally do. I'm usually pretty easygoing, but this time I thought to myself, "Well, random person, it's a good thing I don't have super powers—because if I did, I'd totally blow your car off the road." Then I thought: "That's horrifying that I would even think of doing that to a random stranger!"
Any time that I get horrified like that makes me realize that there's a story there somewhere. So I spent the rest of the drive thinking about what would really happen if I had super powers. Would I go out and be a hero, or would I just start doing whatever I wanted to? Would it be a good thing or a bad thing?
2. Newcago was a HUGE surprise for me. I expected to see Chicago, but roughed up in a dystopian way. Instead you took a major city we all know, and made it completely new and interactive. The catacombs, in particular were really interesting to me. Did you base Newcago's catacombs off of a "real" place?
Newcago's catacombs were actually based more off of mid-eighties cyberpunk stories where you've often got this sort of techie underground, and I love that visual. I intentionally didn't want to take Steelheart in a dystopian direction, even though it technically is a dystopia. I just feel that the whole "wasted world" dystopia has been done so well by so many writers that I wanted to have something that felt new and different.
When I gave Steelheart this sort of Midas power to turn Chicago into metal, I thought it would be cool to have these catacombs dug underneath it because the visual was so different and cool. The catacombs I've visited in various cities are, of course, awesome, but really I'm looking back at those cyberpunk books.
Generosity and fame
Sanderson doesn't just create worlds in fiction; he also helps others create their own fictional worlds. With his friends Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler, Sanderson puts out the weekly (and Hugo Award-winning) Writing Excuses podcast. He also teaches one creative writing class at Brigham Young University each year.
In 1994, when Sanderson was a senior in High School in Nebraska, he went to a local science fiction fan convention called Andromeda One.
"The guest of honor was Katherine Kurtz, a great writer," he said. "She sat down with me when she heard I wanted to be a writer and she talked with me for about an hour on what to do."
Later, after Sanderson served a mission in Korea for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he took a class on science fiction and fantasy offered at BYU from author Dave Wolverton (who also writes as David Farland).
"Dave took a 'pay cut' to teach us," Sanderson said. "It was something he did to help us. Both of those situations were so incredibly helpful to me and so wonderfully useful that I basically got published because of things like this—authors spending their time. ... These chances I got were so useful to me that I think I would be remiss if I didn't do it myself."
But as successful as Sanderson has been, he tries to keep that success in perspective. Although huge lines and crowds will, if past events are any indication, gather for his book launch at midnight on March 4 at BYU Bookstore in Provo, fame isn't a motivator.
"Fortunately, writers don't get that famous; even famous writers don't get that famous," he said. "Like if you were to walk out on that street and say, 'Hey guys, Brandon Sanderson is in this room,' I can guarantee that nobody would care. There might be one person who might say, 'Hey, I've heard of that guy. Didn't he write those books?' Nobody would care. ... And so it is very easy to keep well-grounded as a writer."
1. People he knows (Sarene is based on a friend, etc; also includes character conflicts).
2. Cinema, especially when it does something poorly and he wants to do it better.
3. Video games may be an influence, unsure.
Hope I'm still in time! In London, I forgot to ask: why do you so often include some sort of religious government in so many of your worlds? Is it something that comes from looking at how history developed on Earth, or do you think your religious faith influences the way you write/worldbuild? Thank you very much!
There are a lot of reasons. One is because it happened that way so often in our world. Another is my fascination with religion, and wanting to explore what people do with it. The biggest one, however, is related to how I worldbuild. I like things to be very interconnected, as I think that's how real life is. So, when I build a religion, I ask myself what its political ties are, as well as its relationship with things like the magic, economics, and gender roles of the culture.
I'm blown away by all the different types of people you portray in The Stormlight Archive (different cultures, social classes, genders, varying levels of...morality). What kinds of things help you create such diverse casts of characters? I'm imagining that you have a secret encyclopedia somewhere that helps you keep all your cultures and customs straight!
I do, actually, have a secret encyclopedia. It's a wiki on my computer, filled with information. That helps me keep things straight. However, specific inspirations are often in the people I meet. I do spend a fair amount of time looking through the internet for blogs/forums populated by people who think very differently from myself. This helps me create realistic portrayals.
What was your inspiration for Kaladin? Do you plan any European signings—we will be trilled to have you here!
I was just there last week! :) (In spain and the UK.)
Kaladin was inspired originally by reading about surgeons in the middle ages.
My wife is curious about where your inspiration comes from when coming up with names of people, places, magic systems, etc. what would you say?
They come from all over! Inspiration is a tough thing to pin down. I've had casual meetings, long-time friends, movies I loved, movies I hated, passing something interesting on the freeway, visits to museums, and basically anything else give me an idea. I'm generally looking for some kind of interesting conflict.
Hi Brandon. Firstly I would like to say thank you for coming to Manchester last week. I really enjoyed the readings and book signing. I am currently reading The Way of Kings and my question is Do you get inspiration for the settings in your books from anywhere?
Settings are often inspired by something I've seen in our world, then taken to the extreme. The storm on Roshar, the mists on Scadrial...even Elantris was based on my readings about leper colonies.
I was especially intrigued by Alcatraz's super power. I have to ask, was the super power of being able to break anything based on your own kids?
I didn't have kids when I wrote Alcatraz versus The Evil Librarians. It's more based on my mother who was really not that great with electronics and seems to be able to mess things up in a really bizarre and interesting way a lot of the time. Though, being late to things, which is Grandpa Smedry's super power, he’s magically late to appointments. That's based on me. I'm pretty good at being late.
I appreciate the time you take to communicate with your fans and your prolific and consistently excellent work.
1. In honor of Sir Tery Pratchett's passing, which of his works has most impacted you as a writer?
2. What has been your favorite Magic draft format?
3. At what point did you first realize that you had fans scouring your works for hints of the Cosmere?
4. Can an Awakened form a nahel bond with a spren on Roshar?
5. Are spren bound to Roshar or can they travel to other worlds? Could they do so if they were bound to someone that traveled to other worlds?
6. Will we eventually see a collection of short stories from various worlds in the Cosmere like Shadows for Silence and Sixth of Dust?
1. I'd say The Truth, which was the first Pratchett that really got its hooks into me. Something about newspapers, the quest for what was true, and the themes of writing.
2. If cube counts, cube. If not, triple ROE followed closely by Innistrad. (Have set cubes of both, now.) Shards block was fun too, as was original Ravnica.
3. Right around Mistborn Three's release--while I was working on Warbreaker, I think--where people started to realize this "Hoid" thing was relevant.
4. Depends on the spren!
5. RAFO. Excellent question, though.
6. Yes, you will. Tor is trying to pin me down on one as we speak, actually, but I'm not sure when I can promise one. (I'd want a collection to have at least one new story, original to it.)
Yes, I smile inwardly as I say that, because I know that--indeed--I don't use a lot of dragons. I do like reading about them, but I haven't found myself eager to put them into my works. I think it's because I've read so many excellent dragon books, I figure, that area of fantasy is being covered by others--and I should try different things.
That said, Dragonsteel has dragons, and so you will eventually see them there. I don't know that I'll do them before.