Recently at New York Comic Con 2022, famed prose author Brandon Sanderson participated in an hour-long Q&A where people could ask him absolutely anything that they wanted his life and work. What emerged was an enormously insightful and useful conversation about being a writer today.
In no particular order, here are five tips for writers from Brandon Sanderson.
Write your characters not to an archetype, but a motivation
Asked how it is that he can write so many characters and yet each of them feels three-dimensional and fully realized, Sanderson admitted that he struggled in his early work to achieve that kind of depth. But what he learned in the process of writing those early novels was to “stop writing people to an archetype and start writing them to a motivation.” So, for instance, instead of saying “this character is a wise mentor therefore they will do the wise mentor things,” he would give them a backstory that drives them: “this character lost their previous protégé, they delved too far and their previous protégé mimicked them and got themselves killed and so they are extra-hesitant now to ever do that again. That’s the difference between having a motivation and an archetype.”
“I started to ask myself, if a character weren’t involved with the plot, what would they be doing, what would their life be like. Ask yourself, what are the things they want most, what do they fear most, why can’t they have what they want most. These sort of things become driving forces for a character.”
How to tell whether your work is too long or not
When someone tells an author their work is too long, it can mean one of two things, Sanderson says. Here’s the more concerning one: “Your beta readers are reading it, and it’s moving at a sluggish pace, they just aren’t feeling it. Or sometimes you add a plot cycle in that feels like a distraction from the main plot line. This happens a lot.”
Sanderson suggests two ways to fix that problem: “A) Try to trim every chapter by 10-20% without actually cutting any scenes and see how that goes. B) Watch for extraneous plot elements or extraneous info dumps, like where you go for three chapters to an extraneous casino planet and no one understands why you’re there.” [There was much laughter at this Last Jedi reference.]
Sanderson notes, “I have a lot of respect for Rian Johnson, he was doing a lot of new and different new things with Star Wars, which is difficult to do. I have run into almost the exact same things in my books, where the beta readers are saying, ‘Why are we on this side quest? You have to remember, if readers don’t understand why this side quest is happening, particularly if the characters have indicated that they don’t want to be there, for instance if you have them saying, ‘My plot arc is I have to find my friend Rey and help her,’ and the story says, ‘No, you’re going to go do this other thing,’ it’s going to be implanted in the reader’s brain…[that] the whole thing is spinning wheels to get back to a main storyline. That’s another version of slowness.”
Here’s the other thing that 'Your book is too long' means, says Sanderson: “It’s too long by what the market economics say a book should be, which is generally 50000 word for a middle grade, 70-90000 words for a YA, 80-10000 words for a science fiction, around 120 thousand words for an epic fantasy going up to 150. And yours might be 200.”
Dealing with this problem is much more about what you the writer want: “If you’ve done the other things, if you are confident in the pacing of your story, then you can say ‘Well, I am an exception to this rule with this story. And I am just going to believe in my story, because at this point this is the pacing I want.’”
But Sanderson encourages writers to definitely try cutting, too. “I think almost every writer can benefit from cutting 10-20% of every chapter, forcing yourself. You’ll start to find the passive voice, you’ll start to find where you repeat yourself, you’ll start to find where you go off on a tangent and you’re like, this isn’t relevant. It’ll teach you so much.”
Worldbuilding and avoiding the lore dump
One way to think of world building, Sanderson says, is like “a giant iceberg:” there’s the stuff you see, the customs and rules of the culture; but beneath all that is so much more that the writer has in place, the foundations that everything is built upon.
But realistically, he says, “you can never build a whole world. Tolkien tried, it took him 20 years and there are still holes. There are very few holes, but there is still stuff he didn’t get to.”
So he suggests instead that rather than try to build a whole world and then fit the characters within it, writers build everything out from the characters. “Focus on what is relevant to your characters and plot the most. What are your characters passionate about? Say you have a character who is very informed about field medicine. Well then, you need to know the tech level of medicine and things like that much more in depth than say, a story where you might have natural healing where it doesn’t really matter.”
“So I ask myself what does the character need,” says Sanderson. And when it comes to revealing new information, he does that through the eyes of the characters. “If you want to worldbuild something, make a character passionate about it and relevant to their storyline. And try to keep it to bare descriptions of how they see the world. Leave it at that, and then it tells us as much about the characters as about the world.” That’s the real key, he says: you want to reveal information in such a way that you “tell us as much about the character as you do about the world.”
The thing to be avoided above all, says Sanderson, is the info dump, the “death knell” of story. “The info dump is when you deviate from character and plot to give us setting elements,” he explains. “You have to do this to some extent with every book. You need this context and this large world, so you need to be feeding people these little pieces that they need. But if you’re slowing down the narrative for it, you’re going to lose the readers.” Genre is important here, he points out: “They’ll take more in epic fantasy than in middle grade contemporary.” But even so, he insists, when it comes to laying out a world you want to have a tight grip on the reins. “You want to control that and use it.”
Villains and their weaknesses
Should a good villain have one specific Achilles heel, or can they have multiple weaknesses? The answer, says Sanderson, is “It depends: it depends on what role the villain is fulfilling in the narrative. It’s really good for Sauron to have one weakness, which is he is so focused on these giant armies that he doesn’t pay any attention to the hobbits, because who would? That’s a good weakness for this giant, powerful villain. And that’s really all we need to be about Sauron.”
But when it comes to another villain in the story, says Sanderson, the situation is completely different: “It’s good for Gollum to have a multitude of different weaknesses, because we’re going to be spending a lot of time with him, and he represents in the narrative who Frodo could become.”
The hand of the writer must be invisible
Hearing someone complain about the narrative for the new Obi-Wan Kenobi TV series, Sanderson admitted that he hadn’t seen the series yet himself. But he wondered if the issue people were having didn’t come back to the fact that the parameters of the narrative were too obvious and constrained: You can’t kill Obi-Wan, because he’s got to make it to Episode IV. “Any time the hand of the author or creator is visible to you, it kind of ruins the story a little bit,” Sanderson says, “unless it’s something like Deadpool.”
When you come up against a moment where Obi-Wan should be killed and he isn’t, Sanderson explains, “What it’s saying in your brain is I can no longer suspend my disbelief and enjoy Obi-Wan being in danger, because now I’ve been reminded that he can’t.” And suddenly the stakes of the story are gone. “And if the stakes are gone,” says Sanderson, “I see all the magic going away.”
We’re capable of suspending our disbelief to such a tremendous degree, Sanderson points out. “The fact we can go to stage play and imagine all of these weird things means we’re capable of a ton, as long as the author doesn’t expose their hand too much narratively.” So the issue in a situation like Obi-Wan isn’t an overly-critical audience, it’s the writing. And the solution, he suggests, is “coming up with a variety of reasons [why Obi-Wan survives], or maybe not writing yourself into a corner where Vader should have killed him again and again.”
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