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I started The Eye of the World weeks ago, but only just finished it this weekend. A lot of people love it, I know, but to be honest I found it a bit of a slog. However! I am keenly aware that it was incredibly popular at the time of its original release (1990) and continues to be so today after the author’s death.

It’s one of those series people complain about all the time; that’s a sure sign of success. But why was it a success?

I want to talk about what I liked, what I disliked, and what qualities it has that I believe made it popular.

ObDisclaimer: Saying: “These are the qualities that made this book a best-seller” is not the same as saying: “These are the only qualities that make a best-seller.” This may seem obvious, but this is the internet. What interests me here is the way this book is similar to mainstream bestsellers by people like Patterson, Koontz, etc.

Spoilers, obviously.

Let’s do the shortest, easiest one first.

What I liked:

The writing wasn’t egregiously bad, I guess? The setting felt realish, and the book doesn’t stint on the amount of agriculture these societies are going to need.

Oh, and I like a good guy protagonist, especially ones that don’t act like life is cheap. That’s about it.

What I disliked:

The way the narrative jumped back and forth in time; every time I was relieved because the story had skipped ahead to an exciting scene, the next chapter would go back to fill in the skipped time.

Also, almost everything that I think makes the books popular.

Now that we have that out of the way…

The qualities that make this book incredibly popular:

Likeable protagonist.

Rand al’Thor isn’t the sole POV character, but he’s the main one and the book’s hero. Not only is he a good guy by instinct, he earns the Annoyingly Good Guy achievement badge by being over-protective of his not-girlfriend and being aw-garsh shy around winking farmgirls. One thing I’ve noticed about this sort of best-seller is that the protagonist Always Tries To Do The Right Thing.

Characters who are more than they seem.

Actually, of the eight major human characters, it turns out to be easier to list the ones who do NOT have some sort of secret history/powers/destiny. Here we go:

1. Moraine.
2. There’s only one.

The rest either have secret powers they never suspected, a royal heritage or a former royal appointment, or they’re ta’veren (more on that later. Maybe later books will reveal even more secret destinies, but I’ll never know.

Thinking about this aspect of the book, it almost comes across as a dare, as though Jordan was thinking “A Chosen One? How about a Chosen Three? Why not a Chosen Everyone?” It reminds me of those online conversations where writers, in a spirit of fun, exaggerate popular tropes until they suddenly realize they have something compelling on their hands.

As for Moraine, the only one who turns out to be exactly who she seems (again, maybe that changes in a later book but I don’t care) she’s a Peter Parker. No matter how good she is, no matter how many times she does the right thing or puts others before herself, she’s treated with contempt, suspicion and abuse. She even has to travel in secret.

Unfortunately, where Peter Parker responds to life with humor, Moraine is insufferably pious and serene. She never even really loses her temper, no matter how stupid people are to her.

The Dark Lard.

Things are so much simpler when evil is simply embodied in a single enemy (with scads of minions), aren’t they?

Familiar landscape.

We’re in fake-medieval land here, which is always a solid commercial choice. However, the monsters are original to this story, so while the reader can relate to the usual fantasy good guys (and understands the society they’re fighting to preserve) the villainous minions have a bit of mystery about them. See also: irredeemably evil non-human bad guys.

It doesn’t hurt that the protagonists are naive farmboys who need to have all the mysterious stuff explained to them (for the readers’ benefit, naturally).

Good-looking women.

Who’s hot? Chicks. All of them. Egwene, Moraine, the Darkfriend in the green dress, the flirty farm girl, Nynaeve, the Queen of Andor, the queen’s daughter… they’re all good-looking–except for the old ones of course, but you can totally tell they were hot back in the day.

Who’s ugly? Dudes. Actually, not just any dudes, but evil dudes. You’d think the locals would just wise up at some point and go through town expelling everyone who fails the Fuck/Marry/Kill game. Except that wouldn’t help with the female Darkfriends, because, you know, you can’t have ugly women.

More seriously, this may seem like a minor thing, but the more I read best-sellers the more I see it. It’s like Hollywood casting: you can have odd- or normal-looking men but odd- or average-looking women are a big no no.

It’s tempting to say that this is just laziness or habit and that it doesn’t matter to the overall success of a book. I’m increasingly doubtful. I’ve begun to think of all these tiny creative choices as spices in a stew–one or two off notes and people walk away vaguely dissatisfied.

Pseudo-digression: Someone knowledgeable once said that the definition of a great movie is one that has three fantastic scenes and no bad ones. Another compared movie-making with being a mosaicist–you shoot all these brief shots, then assemble them into a piece of art. If just one thing is off about one of those shots, it lessens the whole.

A few poor choices don’t always ruin the whole–look at Princess Leia’s sometime-accent. On the other hand, at least one producer is convinced his movie failed because of a raincoat–one canary yellow raincoat worn by the main character in an important scene.

In the same way, books are full of small creative choices, and this sort of bestseller always, always aim for the most generically appealing options. Good guys who are extra extra good! Villains who are extra extra evil! Farmboys with a Secret Destiny!

And, of course, women who are easy on the eyes, even if it’s just your mind’s eye.

Quick pacing.

I should qualify: This is quick pacing for an epic fantasy of its time. Compared to urban fantasy or science fiction, it’s pretty mellow.

For me, that’s always the biggest drawback of epic fantasy. It’s not that the books are long; it’s that they’re soft. Long sections stint on the conflict, or the ongoing conflicts don’t change.

In The Eye of the World, there’s a certain level of conflict that never slacks–and that’s good, even if so much of it is meat-headed Peter-Parkering of Moraine.

The Author Weaves the Plot The Wheel Weaves The Pattern.

To address this one, let me turn to my close personal friend, the hyperlinked quote from another article:

But actually, it’s not always necessary for the author to put in an appearance himself, if only he can smuggle the Plot itself into the story disguised as one of the characters. Naturally, it tends not to look like most of the other characters, chiefly on account of its omnipresence and lack of physical body. It’ll call itself something like the Visualization of the Cosmic All, or Seldon’s Plan, or The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the Law, or the Light, or the Will of the Gods; or, in perhaps its most famous avatar, the Force. Credit for this justly celebrated interpretation of Star Wars belongs to Phil Palmer; I’d only like to point out the way it makes sudden and perfect sense of everything that happens in the film. “The time has come, young man, for you to learn about the Plot.” “Darth Vader is a servant of the dark side of the Plot.” When Ben Kenobi gets written out, he becomes one with the Plot and can speak inside the hero’s head. When a whole planet of good guys gets blown up, Ben senses “a great disturbance in the Plot.”

If this is beginning to sound like a silly little verbal game, think again. The reason you can play this sort of game in the first place is that the Force is one of those arbitrary, general-purpose, all-powerful plot devices that can be invoked whenever convenient to effect whatever happens to be necessary at the time. The only ends it serves within the logic of the story are those of the storyteller.

Holy crap, but this sort of thing (called The Pattern here) is all over the book like ugly on an ape. All. Over. It. Moraine explicitly states that the characters do things/experience things because they are caught up in The Pattern. It’s like they have no choice. What’s more, the Chosen Three are ta’veren, aka important figures in The Plot The Pattern, being driven to an important end and affecting the destinies of everyone around them.

Which is appealing? Somehow? I mean, yes, it allows characters to ignore logic and common sense (“Oh look! A random person wants to accompany us as we flee from monsters and killers! Order up some extra provisions and another horse, because The Plot The Pattern wants them along.”) And yes, obviously we’re reading a book, but do we need to put that artificiality explicitly into the setting?

This is something I’m still thinking about. I suspect it gives meaning and import to the characters’ actions. Rather than being Just Folks trying to do the right thing, the characters get a story-world Stamp of Importance. They’re guided by The Force. They’re directed by The Pattern. There’s no need to worry that they might accidentally take the wrong exit and miss the Big Fight Scene At The End.

I guess that’s reassuring on some level, the way a Prophecied Chosen One guarantees you’ll be reading the important parts of the story. Still, it’s not as though epic fantasy that lets the big world-changing events happen in the background while focusing on the character are thick on the ground. But there you go.


Obviously, this isn’t the only way to write a best-seller. A Game of Thrones came out only six years later and makes an interesting contrast. Still, painfully likable good guys, physically appealing characters, unambiguously evil evil-guys, a quick pace, a narrative that makes it clear these are the important players in the story–

Mirrored from Twenty Palaces. You can comment here or there.


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 4th, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure Watt-Evens has never seen a trope he didn't try to subvert. Nice choice for contrast.
Jun. 4th, 2012 03:33 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed that book.
Jun. 5th, 2012 01:51 pm (UTC)
Heh. I just reread Misenchanted Sword, With A Single Spell, The Blood of a Dragon, and The Spell of the Black Dagger.

Time to buy more Ethshar books. ;)
Jun. 5th, 2012 01:59 pm (UTC)
You know LWE is writing a new one right now, posting chapters on his website as they're written/paid for?
Jun. 4th, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)
Is "The Dark Lard" a typo? I almost hope it isn't, because that is hilarious.
Jun. 4th, 2012 03:32 pm (UTC)
"Dark Lard" is not a typo, I assure you.
Jun. 4th, 2012 03:51 pm (UTC)
I laughed my ass off at it.
Jun. 4th, 2012 03:50 pm (UTC)
And now having read the rest of your comments...

I'm given to understand that the pacing of the books falls off considerably. I don't know if it's on the page-by-page level, but the primary description I hear from people is "the characters run around the landscape and the plot doesn't go anywhere" for the later books in the series.

(That seems to be a common issue for successful large fantasy series. At some point the characters wander around and stuff happens to them, but none of it ever moves the plot forward. I think it's that old "I didn't have time to write a shorter version" thing.)

I love your "Peter Parker" character thing. And I confess to a weakness for this sort of character.

I HATE HATE HATE prophecy/pattern/force crap in books. As soon as one shows up, the author better subvert it or explain it. An example that works: the Harry/Voldemort thing. It's explained by baby-Harry being saved from Voldemort by his mother's love, and in the process some magical thing happens that binds them to each other. The connection between them has a concrete (in the world's terms) cause, not some generalized mystical shit linking them Just Because. There was no prophecy about Lily Potter creating a savior, and Harry isn't a savior so much as a crack in Voldemort's armor that Dumbledore knows how to exploit.

(Random observation: LJ's spellchecker recognizes "Voldemort" and "Dumbledore.")
Jun. 4th, 2012 04:07 pm (UTC)
My favourite description for WoT's "the characters run around the landscape and the plot doesn't go anywhere" is that they're the Zeno's Paradox of books: Each new book writes halfway towards the ending.
Jun. 4th, 2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
I like the Peter Parker style hero, too. It's a powerful thing.

And keeping the conflict going in a multi-book series can be tough, especially when some of the conflict is between "teammates". You bring on a new person the heroes have to travel with, there's conflict between them, and eventually that conflict has to be resolved.

Or it isn't resolved, and it continues on and on to an infuriating degree. Or you have to introduce someone new to create a different conflict (the "Farscape Maneuver"). Or you write about a loner. Or...

Yeah. It ain't easy.

As for the prophecy/Force/Pattern thing, I agree that it sucks. It's also endlessly popular. "You are the Chosen One!" Occasionally I get a bug to write something where it's the Ron Weasley who's actually the Chosen One, but no one wants to tell him because they want the bad guys aiming their wands elsewhere.
Jun. 4th, 2012 07:59 pm (UTC)
The question is whether a series is a bunch of standalone, but interconnected books (mystery series and urban fantasy often follow this pattern), or if it's a single long story divided up into book-length parts.

WoT and SoIaF are both of the latter sort. I get annoyed when that sort of series gets bogged down--if you knew where you were going, why are you having so much trouble getting there? (I've not completed such a series, so I acknowledge it might be a lot different in practice than theory.)

An interesting thing about Harry Potter was that JKR had planned it to a 7-book series because that's how many years of school had to be covered--to go longer would break the pattern she wanted to establish. Alas, that didn't prevent the last three or four books from getting bogtastic, especially book 7, which literally has the characters fumbling around in the woods for half the book. If she had the option of an open-ended "however many books it takes" series, I suspect books 5/6/7 would have been two books each, with 6a, 6b, and 7a all just marking time. (Or perhaps she wouldn't have felt the need to fill in months of the academic calendar, and the books might have been shorter. We'll never know.)

Which shows that even with the constraint of a set number of books, the bog-down phase of a long series might still be impossible (or at least very hard) to resist. This brings me back to my "the authors are being rushed and can't take the time to write tighter" theory.

Jun. 5th, 2012 04:47 am (UTC)
Confession time: The stand alone epic fantasy I was writing will no longer stand alone. It turns out to be pretty tough to judge 100K worth of epic plot events.

It's disappointing and dispiriting, but I'm hoping it turns out okay, publishing-wise.
Jun. 5th, 2012 03:46 pm (UTC)
Can I point and chuckle at you? ;-)

The operative word there is "epic." Epic is inherently big.

This is why I like court intrigue fantasy. It can be epically big (and I rather like that), but it doesn't have to be.

It's also a matter of what you do to your characters, the choices a writer makes. I love to hold up Nine Princes in Amber as an example of a book with piles and piles of stuff happening, yet it's only about 70K words. Granted, it doesn't stand alone, but it wouldn't take much rewriting to make it so. With one or two different choices toward the end, Zelazny could easily have ended the story in one book. (It would be a different story, but it would still be a complete and satisfying story.)
Jun. 5th, 2012 06:30 pm (UTC)
Chuckle away! I invite chuckling through my life choices. :)

Nine Princes in Amber is on my Beloved Teen Books That I Dare Not Revisit. Maybe I should risk it, though.
Jun. 5th, 2012 08:41 pm (UTC)
Why would you dare not revisit?

I reread it every couple of years. It's held up fine for me. (I can't tell if I'm wearing Happy Memory Glasses, though. Also, I'm a colossal Amber nerd.)
Jun. 5th, 2012 09:18 pm (UTC)
I liked the Thomas Covenant books when I was a kid, too.
Jun. 4th, 2012 09:04 pm (UTC)
And in the male het gaze as limit to worldview, and you're on ice.
Jun. 4th, 2012 09:18 pm (UTC)
Indeed. "Good looking women" is only one facet of that whole mishegoss.
Jun. 5th, 2012 04:12 am (UTC)
Yeah, sadly that's a pretty safe choice.
Jun. 5th, 2012 12:15 am (UTC)
I run a dice-and-paper Star Wars game, and one thing my players may eventually discover is the true nature of the “will of the Force”: the Force just wants to see shit happen. To those sensitive to the Force, it guides them to where they need to be in order to throw down with something that presents a serious danger to them. But it’s entirely neutral about who’s supposed to win— it’s all about the magnitude of the confrontation.

If you haven’t played Knights of the Old Republic, Jolee Bindo has a great talk about destiny.
Jun. 5th, 2012 04:15 am (UTC)
That's not a bad idea: Destiny as a fandom wank regular.
Jun. 6th, 2012 12:50 am (UTC)
I've been a pretty big fan of the Wheel of Time (more so 15 years ago, but I still appreciate it now), but I will admit most of your criticisms are fair. I noticed the thing about all the characters being good looking even when I was reading it as a 16 year-old.

On the other hand, I think it's extremely hard to evaluate the Wheel of Time as a series just from reading The Eye of the World. I feel like the nature of the story changes more from the first volume to the later ones more than any other fantasy series I can think of. The Eye of the World, as you point out, is a pretty cliche quest fantasy, and the beginning especially (not counting the prologue) is explicitly derivative of The Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, the scale of the series as a whole is dramatically larger, and a lot of the stuff that makes the story interesting hasn't been glimpsed yet, or has only been hinted at in the first book.

On the other hand, the epic scale does mean that the plot eventually got bogged down - but the first 6 books remain some of the most enjoyable I've ever read. He also did a lot less jumping back and forth in time after the first book, although there's even more jumping back and forth between characters as the cast gets larger.
Jun. 6th, 2012 04:55 am (UTC)
Huh. My reply didn't post. Trying again.

We all love flawed books; it's always a question of what flaws we can accept and what we can't. Despite what those reddit commenters said, I would never condescend to people who like WoT. I've written my share of stories about magic swords. :)
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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