Brandon Sanderson’s fans have come to expect big things with each new novel he releases. Like, literally big things: his latest, Oathbringer, the third volume of the Stormlight Archive, clocks in an an astounding 1,200 pages. More astounding: not a one of them is wasted.
Sanderson rose to popularity on the back of his admirable work completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series after Jordan’s passing in 2007, and has since become known as the premier American author of big, fat epic fantasy novels. Fans love the intricacy of his worlds; the casts of thousands that fill his pages; his layered, complex magic systems; and his plots, which twist and weave and leave you a little breathless.
I recent caught up with the author to chat about Oathbringer, the intersection of religion and fantasy, what it’s like to write epic fantasy in 2017, and what’s next for the Stormlight Archive.
“I feel like one of the big dangers for epic fantasy is growing so large you stop being able to tell a complete story in each volume,” Sanderson said, referencing the latest, largest volume in his already huge Stormlight Archive. However, he said, he has an advantage over forbears like Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin—he’s seen what they did, and where they went wrong.
“When [readers] have to wait on new installments, and they’re not each coming to a satisfying conclusion, there’s this sense of being lost at sea. Something feels off. At least, it felt off to me during those middle volumes of Robert Jordan’s series,” he said. While he doesn’t think it affected the overall quality of Wheel of Time, he saw it as a warning sign when he began work on his own ambitious multi-volume epic.
He asked himself: “Is there something you can do about that, having seen how it’s gone for authors in the past?”
Epic fantasy has a tendency to grow unsustainably from volume to volume, he said. “When you’re adding plot elements with each volume, and they’re always bigger than the last, the series can collapse under their own weight. When I was designing the Stormlight Archive, I gave myself a couple of pressure valves.”
Sanderson knew from the get-go the Stormlight Archive was going to be long—he never seriously toyed with a trilogy, like Jordan and Martin so famously did. He came up with a plan, full of those “pressure valves” to help him mitigate the issues of those other epic fantasy series. The Stormlight Archive is projected to be 10 volumes long (with additional short stories, novelettes, and novellas woven in along the way), but Sanderson split it into two shorter, five-volume series. “After the fifth book is done, [there’s] not going to be a reset button—I hate reset buttons—but we are going to take an in-world breather.”
Then, with the sixth book, readers will return to the world of Roshar at the beginning of a new arc that will connect heavily to the first.
“A big story is just a bunch of little stories connected in interesting ways.”
“A big story is just a bunch of little stories connected in interesting ways. When I write a Stormlight Archive book, I plot each book like I would plot a trilogy. So, between the covers of Oathbringer is an entire trilogy.”
In addition to the trilogy-within-a-novel, Sanderson also sprinkles in interludes of a handful of chapters featuring characters who aren’t generally connected with the novel’s overall plot. He considers these a “short story collection” within the larger novel. Each book is then “built up of the different sub-stories of the different characters, and they’re all building blocks that are becoming a bigger and bigger thing. What I love about epic fantasy is the knowledge that people will read and treat something like a trilogy as an entire single whole.”
Knowing people are going to read the whole thing back-to-back means authors can do things they couldn’t do otherwise. “This is why I forced Tor Books to publish these books as these big things, rather splitting them up (as, marketing-wise, I’m sure they would prefer),” he said.
Sanderson wrote the first draft of The Way of Kings (referred to now as “The Way of Kings Prime”) in 2002. He considers it a failure as a novel because it was made up of small pieces of many stories, but didn’t tell a complete story. “When I re-approached The Way of Kings for its 2010 release, I started over from scratch and said, ‘I’m only going to do one character’s backstory per book, and I’m going to let that backstory interweave with the overarching story of that book.'” He realized success for the series was allowing those stories—the backstory and the present story—to “play off each other, or mirror each other in interesting ways, giving each volume its own distinct identity.”
Though he writes some of the longest epic fantasies on the market, Sanderson admitted bigger is not always better.
“It can be better, but smaller can be better, too. It depends how you write.” Sanderson’s goal with the Stormlight Archive is to find a balance of the two, an intimate story within the larger narrative. In Oathbringer‘s case, it’s about Dalinar. “We’re finding out how he became the person he was at the start of The Way of Kings, following his journey in Oathbringer as he’s changing into someone else, and using those journeys to mirror each other.”
Oathbringer is distinctly a novel about change—about the breakdown in social hierarchy during times of war, and the upheaval of society, government, and religion. At the same time, it is also an examination of nationalism and xenophobia. These themes are particularly resonant in 2017. Has this changing socio-political atmosphere affected how Sanderson approaches these topics?
“I often say that fantasy isn’t a reflection of the past any more than science fiction is a reflection of the future.”
“I often say that fantasy isn’t a reflection of the past any more than science fiction is a reflection of the future,” he said. “In most cases, it’s a reflection of the now told through a [fantastical] lens. We’re using these high fantasy stories to explore how we see the world. These things have a deep and profound effect on me as a writer. At the same time, I’m of the school of thought that my primary goal is to tell a good story, and to make sure the characters feel real. The topics that I’m tackling have to be topics that are important to the characters.”
It’s a cyclical thing, he said. His concerns and worries reflect on what he choose to write about, and affect his characters. “It’s a product of what’s on my mind—but at the same time, it’s trying to tackle it through the lens of who these people are and what’s happening to them.”
“It’s not like I’m sitting down and saying, ‘What tropes need to be subverted?’ It’s more about what my instincts and passions decide need to be subverted.
Sanderson also believes this is affected by the general tropes and themes of contemporary epic fantasy (versus the books he grew up with in the ’80s and ’90s.) He likes to subvert them in ways that he finds relevant or interesting. “It’s not like I’m sitting down and saying, ‘What tropes need to be subverted?’ It’s more about what my instincts and passions decide need to be subverted. The masters of the past have done a great job, so where can I go that explores something new? Or something that’s already been explored, but through the eyes of somebody living in 2017?”
Religion plays a huge role in the Stormlight Archive, and also in Sanderson’s life. He’s a practicing Mormon, and spent two years in Seoul, Korea as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There’s this misconception—since Dungeons & Dragons was demonized by evangelical religious groups in the ’80s, and again with Harry Potter in the mid-2000s—that religion and fantasy don’t mix. But that’s simply not true, and Sanderson is a prime example.
“I’m trying to create a story first. The biggest effect my religion has on my writing is me wanting to say, ‘Okay, what annoys me about [what I see] when someone like myself [is portrayed] in a book?’
“The greatest compliment someone can give me is that when they read about one of my characters, who [may think] very differently than Brandon Sanderson, they say, ‘Wow! [Brandon] must be X, because he got this character right.’ That’s the best thing you can me as tell a writer. I think that’s part of the calling of a writer, to make sure that we’re doing that. We arrive at interesting questions, and interesting answers, by having people butt against each other who have different philosophies on life. Nothing changes unless there’s friction—unless there’s another option out there forcing you to look at it and actually consider it.”
Sanderson described what he considers to be the three main pillars of modern fantasy: epic fantasy in the mold of J.R.R. Tolkien; portal fantasy in the mold of C.S. Lewis (or Lewis Carroll before that); and the gritty movement spurred by the success of George R.R. Martin. Two of Sanderson’s pillars were popularized by authors who were deeply religious (Tolkien and Lewis).
“There’s this grand tradition of people who are religious looking at fantasy as a way to explore the world.”
“There’s this grand tradition of people who are religious looking at fantasy as a way to explore the world. For some reason, though, particularly in the ’80s, it became a thing that there was this antagonism.”
Sanderson is often asked how he got into fantasy while living in a deeply religious household and region. Was the push-back against Dungeons & Dragons not happening in Nebraska where he lived?
“It went through my hometown,” he admitted. But it was never something his parents were worried about. “I remember playing [it], and my mom coming down and checking on us, and then later on hearing someone say, ‘You let them play that game?’ She was like, ‘Um, yes? They’re sitting and interacting with one another. They’re actually, you know, being social. And there’s even a girl there!’ I had good parents, who were able to actually look at the thing and ask], ‘Is this damaging to my children? No! It’s actually really good for them.'”
As an adult, he looks back on that time and wonders if the pushback wasn’t part of the appeal. It was a safe counter cultural activity for kids like him. “I knew there wasn’t anything bad about it, but other people thought there was. I could be a bit of a rebel, a bad boy, but not actually go out and do crack.”
Fantasy has always had a strong, passionate intersection with religion. Modern fantasy was popularized “by people who were deeply religious, while at the same time, other deeply religious people think it is the worst thing to ever happen,” Sanderson said, contemplating the abyss that separates the two groups. “But that’s just how humankind is, right? You take any great thing, and someone else is going to tell you why it’s awful.”
Hostility and cultural divide is at the heart of Oathbringer. Sanderson digs into the conflicts between nations and cultures, even between races, but, one of the most unique and interesting aspects to his writing—in the Stormlight Archive, but also a lot of his other work—is that he doesn’t do so by visiting myriad nations. Despite their length, the Stormlight books are generally set in one location—whether that’s the Shattered Plains in The Way of Kings or Urithiru, the ancient home of the Knights Radiant, in Oathbringer.
“I read so many travelogues when I was younger,” he said. He wanted to try something different. “What I’m really interested in is different worlds colliding with one another. I really like how turning the setting into a character changes how a conflict plays out.”
“Back when I was in college, I [said], ‘We need to get rid of books with elves and dwarves!’ I’ve come around a lot since then.”
That’s not to say that travelogues don’t have a place in modern fantasy, he was quick to point out. “Back when I was in college, I [said], ‘We need to get rid of books with elves and dwarves!’ I’ve come around a lot since then. If people want to read and write books about elves and dwarves, I’m sure there are cool stories still to tell. Go for it!”
But Sanderson is more fascinated by the nooks and crannies of the intricate worlds of epic fantasy. He’d rather dig deep than travel wide. “I’ll read these travelogues and think, ‘That’s a really interesting setting. What if you had to live there? Let’s dig into that.'”
The Stormlight Archive is set on Roshar, a planet besieged by “highstorms” with the power to batter society to rubble. Roshar is unusually hostile, and was actually inspired by science fiction. Sanderson believes “fantasy as a genre would be served by having a few more science fiction setting principles applied to its worlds.”
“Granted,” he added, “whatever an author wants to write and do a good job with, I think, is valuable to the genre.”
Meanwhile, he’s more interested in taking a “science fictional” approach to worldbuilding, exploring alien ecologies and figuring out how they might play out.
“Fantasy works backward: take something that’s impossible, make it feel plausible.”
To Sanderson, the biggest difference in worldbuilding for science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction takes what we have and tries to extrapolate what’s plausible. “Obviously not all science fiction tries to do this, but it’s an easy rule of thumb: take what we have, extrapolate the plausible. Fantasy works backward: take something that’s impossible, make it feel plausible.”
So, Sanderson wondered, what would happen if you took that science fiction approach but started from a place of fantasy. That’s just the question he’s looking to answer in the Stormlight Archive. “The genre could be served by a little more of this sense of wonder to the way the environment looks, rather than just taking for granted it’s going to take place in a world that feels vaguely familiar.”
The Stormlight Archive is part of the Cosmere, a vast interconnected series of books (containing, but not exclusive to, the Stormlight Archive, Mistborn, Warbreaker, and the Hugo Award-winning novella The Emperor’s Soul). At the end of the Stormlight Archive’s second volume, Words of Radiance, Sanderson fans were surprised to see the emergence of Nightblood, an awakened sword that was first introduced in Warbreaker. The ultimate easter egg for those invested fans. Is this the start of a new trend? Are we going to see more obvious crossovers between the Cosmere books?
“The short answer is, yes,” Sanderson admitted.
The long answer, however, is a bit more complicated. He was inspired to create the Cosmere by reading comic books during the ’90s. “It was really cool when you got to see [comic book characters] cross over between different series, and really frustrating when an editor would say, ‘If you want to know this story that we’re dangling in front of you, you have to read this whole other thing.’ So, I wanted to try to tell the grander story—the bigger epic happening behind the scenes—without feeling like I’m laughing at readers who aren’t in the know.”
When he set out to write the Cosmere books, he drew a line in the sand: “I want to make sure that I am not making enjoying any given series require reading of another series.”
He also revealed the relationship between the Stormlight Archives and Warbreaker is “very special,” and different than that between the other Cosmere books. Warbreaker was initially written as a prequel to the first draft of “The Way of Kings Prime.” He became fascinated with the character of Vasher (Kaladin’s swordmaster in “The Way of Kings Prime”), and wrote Warbreaker as a prequel—only for the Stormlight Archive to end up getting rewritten and published afterwards.
Over time, you’ll see more of these connections, because Sanderson feels he’s at the point now where he can start bringing in outside elements without feeling like he’s laughing at his more casual readers.
But, he stressed, he’s not trying to recreate The Avengers.
“What I’m trying to build is something a little more like Star Trek—where you have different cultures and different planets who all have their own interesting stories.”
“People do ask this, because that’s the big shared world thing that’s gotten really cool in recent memory. What I’m trying to build is something a little more like Star Trek—where you have different cultures and different planets who all have their own interesting stories. Over time you get to see the influence of those different cultures as they butt against each other. It’s not really a ‘gather the heroes’ type of story; it’s more of a ‘here’s an evolving universe where you can see the different places influencing one another.'”
Sanderson is fascinated by the trend toward globalism in our world, and it has a big impact on how he approaches building the Cosmere. “[There’s] this idea nations are no longer distinct entities, but are so interconnected with other cultures that it becomes really strange to talk about what national identity means anymore. It’s a different thing than it used to be. If you live in Germany right now, your national identity is very different with the EU [than it was in the past] because you have this different layer.”
Oathbringer is the latest entry in the Stormlight Archive, but it’s not the last. So, what’s next?
“I finished Oathbringer in June. I’m giving myself until December of next year to work on other things.”
“I finished Oathbringer in June,” he said, “so, I’m giving myself until December of next year to work on other things.” He splits his time 50/50 between the Stormlight Archives (which take about 18-20 months to write) and his other projects.
“I’ve finished the third Legion story,” he continued. “Those are my bizarre little detective stories.” Now, he’s working on a followup to his YA Steelheart series. After that, Sanderson will move on to the fourth volume in his “Mistborn Era 2” series, which takes place a few hundred years after the original Mistborn trilogy.
“Right about then, I should be ready to dive back into the Stormlight Archive.”
And so, back to Roshar.