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The fantastic Mr. Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson, the “young fantasy master” (as his publisher’spromotional material dubs him), was until quite recently somewhat of amajor nobody.

Brandon Sanderson, the “young fantasy master” (as his publisher’s promotional material dubs him), was until quite recently somewhat of a major nobody.

Just a short time later, he’s taken the reins of the most epic of epic fantasies, the “Wheel of Time” series; released a trilogy and a stand-alone novel; and has even gotten started on a massively epic series of his own with “The Way of Kings.”

You might say he’s a bit of a workaholic. “It’s been a lot of long hours,” says Sanderson.

In 2002, at the age of 27, he had written 13 unpublished novels. “I had been feeling a little discouraged for some time about my writing career,” Sanderson explains. “No one was buying my books; I worried that I’d just never be able to make it.”

But he persevered. “I just decided I was going to write the biggest, baddest, coolest book I could come up with,” he said. “That’s when a Tor editor called me and said ‘Hey, I want to buy this book.’”

Apparently, some epic fantasies do come true

On The Wheel of Time:

Sanderson credits publisher Tor’s selection of him to finish the
Wheel of Time series as helping to lift him above the murky waters of
relative obscurity. “The WOT project hit me like a ton of bricks,” he

“It completely changed the course of my life and my career.”

“Working on WOT forced me to stretch as an author, learn as an
author, and grow in ways I’d never had to before. It was the hardest
book I’d ever written, juggling all those viewpoints. It was marvelous
and fantastic and horribly hard at the same time.”

“I’m hoping it’ll convince the readers that I’m worth taking a
chance on. Because a book this big, you’re dedicating a lot of
resources; if you get to the end and it stunk, you’ve wasted a lot of

On the delicate balance of art and prose:

“The Way of Kings” — book one in what Sanderson has planned as a
10-book series called the “Stormlight Archives” — is stocked with a
heavier-than-usual collection of maps and other assorted illustrations.

Sanderson explains:

“I wanted to try to do a little bit of a multi-genre approach; I wanted
to have an illustrated epic fantasy, but the focus was not on
illustrating the characters and events; I didn’t want to make a graphic
novel. I wanted to make a novel in which there is a visual component
that enhances what the novel is. And so I included all this art, which
is what we call ephemera — pieces of art from the world that are
important to the story and to the characters, so that when you see them
it’s something that was actually taken from in-world and transposed.

“You know, the map has become almost a cliché in fantasy; we always
have a map in our books. But if you look back at the king or the
progenitor of epic fantasy, Tolkein, his very first map — it wasn’t
just there to be a map. It was a map that was a replication of one that
had been in the books. And you could see what they were carrying
around. So it wasn’t divorced of context, it was an actual thing from
that world, another remnant. And that’s what I wanted to get back to.
There’s something like 8 maps in this book, and each of them is a
different style, each a different type of map that would actually be
from-world, used by different people for different purposes. To try and
give an expanded sense for this.

“One of my favorite books of all time is Watchman — watchman does
this brilliant thing where, though it’s a graphic novel, at the end
every issue, there’s some piece of ephemera that’s written word, prose,
with very few visuals — a page from someone’s autobiography, or
letters, to give an enhanced sense that the world is real. That’s long
been an inspiration of mine, and when I approached this project I
wanted to try and do something on the flip side. So most of these
pieces of art actually have embedded in them sort of hints and clues
about what’s happening in the future of the series. There’s a lot of
importance hidden in there that I’ve been planning for a long time.

“We talked about that learning curve that fantasy has, and I wanted
to try and help with that. If you can see some of these interesting
creatures, there are some times when a picture is better than a
thousand words. And when you’re describing some new world and some new
creature, if you can just see it — it works.

On the epic fantasy genre

Sanderson understands the limitations of the genre. “An epic
fantasy,” he explains, “is a big thing to ask of readers to trust you
enough to do something this big.”

“What we do in epic fantasies is, you know we create a world, and
we’re trying to give a real sense of immersion. And because of that, a
lot of epic fantasy, you know, at the beginning, it’s a lot of work to
learn; all the new names, all the new places, the cultures, the
history, the religions and all these things. It has what we call a
steep learning curve; and that’s both the coolest thing about the
genre, and also the thing that perhaps keeps some people from reading
the genre. It’s a lot of work to get into one of these, and by the time
you get done reading one of them you essentially become an expert in
this word.

“One of the things you have to remember in fantasy is, yes, we’re
trying for immersion — yes we want to try and have a sense of depth and
realism to the world. But characters come first. And if it isn’t a good
story, no amount of excellent world building is going to make it worth
reading, in my opinion; a great magic system is only as interesting as
the people who are using it and trying to figure out how it works. We
have to be really careful not to lose sight of that. We love the world
building — it’s what makes fantasy unique — but, at the same time, it
has to be an add-upon.

“I feel that fantasy done right can do all the great things that
other genres can do; it can have a romance as great as any romance
story; there are authors out there who right with as much literary
styling as the great literary fiction writers; you can have mystery as
great as any mystery; you can do all of that in a fantasy and then have
on top of it the sense of other-worldly wonder. But it has to be on top
of rather than instead of.

On mapping it out

Sanderson spent some 15 years planning out the first book in his Stormlight Archive series: “The Way Of Kings has an interesting history, because I wrote the book
— the first version of it — in 2002, when I was unpublished. … WOK is
special in that I spent quite a long time planning before I wrote it
the first time. And then I spent years thinking of what had gone right
and what had gone wrong, and what I’d change. And then I spent a great
deal of planning again, when I was given the chance to publish it. I
actually rewrote it from scratch; I didn’t use the old book I had
written; I actually started at the beginning and wrote through it
again. Having written it once before, it was very helpful in writing it.

“When I started I had around 200,000-300,000 words of world-building
already written out when I started this latest time. And then I
expanded on it – I actually use a personal wiki; its got 100s of
entries, names and concepts and history and worlds, that are all
interconnected. Most of the other books I give myself three or 4 months
to plan and then I write it. And this has had years and years and
years. That can be both good and bad. Hopefully that enhances the story.

“But I essentially, one of the things I’d been very uncertain about
in the original, I felt there was a character who’d made a decision
early in the book, that they’d made the wrong decision, they’d taken
the easy decision, the expected decision. And essentially the book that
I ended up writing, that’s being published, is what happens when the
characters takes the opposite decision, the hard decision, the decision
that people didn’t expect.

What this book has, therefore, is it’s got years and years and
years. Before I finished it in 2002, I planned it for 18 months, and
before then I’d been thinking on it for years. Some of these ideas go
back 15 years.


“How I get the names and how I devise them: It really depends on the
book I’m working on. I’m shooting for a number of things; the first of
course is there’s a certain feel that you want for a name; and I can’t
quantify that or describe it other than as a writer I’m just looking
for it to feel right. Beyond that, I do want the name to be meaningful
in the world and the setting. For instance, in TWOK we have a couple of
different naming paradigms. One of the big ones though is that in the
world symmetry is holy; the idea of things that are symmetrical and
whatnot; they have these rooms that are symmetrical; holy names are
going to be the same forward and back, palindromes. And it’s kind of
become tradition that you don’t name someone exactly a palindrome,
because a palindrome is a holy word; and so the name of God, or the
names of holy cities, or holy concepts, will be pure palindromes, and
the names of people will be one letter off. So you look at a character
like Shallan — which, in their language, “Sh” is one letter — the
middle is a palindrome, but they have one different letter on the end.
So that it’s one letter off from being pure, so its kind of a, you’ve
got a holy name, a pure name, and yet it’s not too presumptuous. And
then you work different cultures and things; like even within the same
culture you’ll often have; I try to work into that and build it
correctly some of the names aren’t palindromic; some of the names are
based on the meaning in older versions of the language and things like

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