In the early ‘90s, I had two requirements for my fiction purchases.
They (nearly always) had to be fantasy, and they (always always) had to be heavy.
I was a fast reader without a lot of money, and I never seemed to be near an open library when I needed something new to read. (Besides which, I’d long-since learned that my tendency to keep library books well past their due dates sometimes resulted in them costing more than they would have if I’d just bought them in the first place. I’ve gotten better about that.) I bought used when I could, but for the most part, I gravitated toward fantasy epics available from the Waldenbooks in the Foothills Mall in Fort Collins, Colorado.
That was where I first met Robert Jordan.
This was not a case of love at first sight. How could it be, with Darryl K. Sweet’s notorious cover art? (I wasn’t the only one who hated “dwarf Moiraine on a pony”) But as the series grew, and I began to run out of really large books to read, I softened, and finally one day I agreed to take just one volume home.
I was hooked. I tore through Eye of the World and quickly moved on to The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn. The books were still coming out once a year at this point, so in between I’d re-read the previous novels and lurk on the various websites that were already springing up to discuss them.
To tell you how much the series meant to me, my very first tattoo (since covered by my very second tattoo) was an Avendesora leaf.
But then the publication schedule started slowing down. It was two years between Lord of Chaos and A Crown of Swords, and very little happened in A Crown of Swords. Another two years passed before The Path of Daggers, and by then there were seven books to be re-read before I started into the next one. When I heard from a friend that not much more happened in Path than had happened in Crown, I decided that I’d wait for the final book, then start over at the beginning.
I never expected it to take another 14 years.
When the news came out last year that Brandon Sanderson would finish the series in November 2011 (later pushed to March 2012), I got ready for the re-read. I started it in November, figuring I could read one book a month at that rate and be ready when A Memory of Light was released.
It was interesting to revisit books I’d read so long ago, not only because I’d forgotten so much, but also because I don’t read the same way I did then. In the interim, I started learning to read like a writer—and while I admire the way Jordan does some things, there are others I find almost painful. I also discovered that some fantasy tropes that didn’t faze me 20 years ago bug the shit out of me now.
Robert Jordan, like Stephen King, was very, very good at sketching out a character in a very few strokes.
“Easier to watch old Harriet Bennigan, who made Mrs. Perrine look like a spring chicken, bent over her walker in her bright red fall coat, out for her morning lurch,” King wrote in Insomnia. And, in the same book, he describes a neighborhood “where no house was complete without at least one Fisher-Price Big Wheel trike standing on the listless lawn, where girls were stepping dynamite at sixteen and all too often dull-eyed, fat-bottomed mothers of three at twenty-four.” (Because King’s places are characters, too.)
The comparison occurred me to when I reread The Fires of Heaven, which contains one of my favorite minor characters, a man named Pevin. (Whose fate I’m about to spoil, so quit reading if that bothers you.)
[Asmodean] no longer carried the crimson banner with its ancient symbol of Aes Sedai. That office fell to a Cairhienin refugee named Pevin, an expressionless fellow in a patched farmer’s coat of rough gray wool, on a brown mule that should have been put out to grass from pulling a cart some years back. A long scar, still red, ran up the side of his narrow face from jaw to thinning hair.
Pevin had lost his wife and sister to the famine, his brother and a son to the civil war… Fleeing toward Andor had cost him a second son at the hands of Andoran soldiers and a second brother to bandits, and returning had cost the last son, dead on a Shaido spear, and his daughter as well, carried off while Pevin was left for dead. The man rarely spoke, but as near as Rand could make out, his beliefs had winnowed down to a bare three. The Dragon had been reborn. The Last Battle was coming. And if he stayed close to Rand al’Thor, he would see his family avenged before the world was destroyed.
In a couple of paragraphs, Jordan tells you who Pevin is, what he looks like, where he came from, and where he’s going. He also tells you that the man’s expression never changes. But in case you missed that bit…
Pevin’s face never changed, though the bright banner whipping above him appeared a mockery in that place.
Whoever managed to put hand to anyone’s boot or stirrup, even Pevin’s, wore joy on their faces…
Pevin, with the crimson banner hanging limply from its staff, and no more expression surrounded by Aiel than at any other time.
You might also have noticed that Pevin carries a banner? I’m not sure, but it might be red.
Pevin came down past Bael to stand behind Rand’s shoulder with the banner, his narrow, scarred face absolutely blank. “Does the whole palace know about this, then?” Rand asked.
“I heard,” Pevin said. His jaw worked, chewing for more words. Rand had found him a replacement for his patched country coat, good red wool, and the man had had Dragons embroidered on it, one climbing either side of his chest. “That you were going. Somewhere.” That seemed to exhaust his store.
“Chewing for more words,” by the way, is a brilliant line.
Pevin looked no more perturbed by what he saw than the Aiel chief, which was to say, not at all.
Aiel, if you didn’t know, are always calm, too. Unless they’re veiled for battle. Then they might crack a smile, but you wouldn’t know, since you can’t see their faces behind the veils. They like to tell jokes, too.
Pevin would carry that banner wherever Rand went, even the Pit of Doom, and never blink.
Yes, we gathered.
[Rand] took in the plaza again, and his joy faded. Nothing could extinguish it, but the bodies lying in heaps where the Aiel had made their stand lessened it. Too many were not big enough to be men. There was Lamelle, veil gone and half her throat as well; she would never make him soup again. Pevin, both hands clutching the wrist-thick shaft of the Trolloc spear through his chest and the first expression on his face Rand had ever seen. Surprise.
“That’s perfect,” I thought when I read it again. And for a character like Pevin, who’s introduced on page 739 and dies on page 954, it is. The problem, as anyone who’s read even a couple of the books knows, is that this is Jordan’s approach to all of his characters. Rand is tall. The Aiel are fierce. Nynaeve yanks on her dark, waist-length braid when she’s angry, which is always. Elayne tips her chin up haughtily and puts her nose in the air. Lan is stoic. Moiraine is short. Oh, and Mat? Mat’s a gambler who likes pretty girls and whose bottom Nynaeve often paddled, not so many years ago. Sometimes, he hears dice rattling inside his head.
Jay Bushman might have read the books.
All of which brings me to Lawrence Block, and his advice on character building (from Telling Lies for Fun and Profit).
It’s not uncommon for writers to do a lot of labeling and mistake it for originality of characterization. “I’m starting a detective series,” a hopeful writer said to me not long ago, “and I think I’ve got something really original. My character never gets out of bed before noon, and he makes it a rule always to wear one piece of red clothing, and the only thing he ever drinks is white creme de menthe on the rocks. He has a pet rhesus monkey named Bitsy and a parrot named Sam. What do you think?”
What I think is that the speaker has not a character but a collection of character tags. It might work to have a character with any of all of these labels in his garments. Matter of fact, I wrote the above paragraph thinking of a detective character of the late David Alexander’s who lived upstairs of a 42nd Street flea circus, always wore a loud vest, drank only Irish whiskey and never took a drink before four o’clock or refused one after that hour. That character, however, was not the mere sum of these attributes. It is not the quirks that make an enduring character but the essential personality which the quirks highlight. How that character views the world, how acts and reacts, is of much greater importance than what he had for breakfast.
And that’s the problem with Jordan’s character building, throughout the books. Too often, his characters — even his main characters — are collections of labels, hanging from an empty frame. As a result, I find myself reading for story and plot, rather than for character. When the story slows down, or gets mired in details of hairstyles and politics and clothing, I get impatient — which is a terrible thing to be when you’re less than halfway through a series that runs to four million words or more.
Note: This post originally appeared, in two parts, on my now-defunct blog Art of the Odd, in April and July 2011. It has been cross-posted to Medium.