The Way of Kings Annotations

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Name The Way of Kings Annotations
Date Sept. 8, 2017
Entries 23
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#1 Copy

Brandon Sanderson


Welcome to the annotations, being written at long last.

Normally, I do annotations for a book while going over the copyedit. That all started to change in 2009 when my time got very short due to finishing the Wheel of Time novels. I also started handing the duty of "Go over the copyedit and see if they are changing anything I don't like" to Peter.

That left no chance for the TWOK annotations. I told myself I'd need to re-read the book before starting the sequel (Wheel of Time work was going to keep me from getting to it for a few years) so I'd do the annotations then.

Well, here I am, in late summer 2012. The Wheel of Time is done and I feel an urgent need to get the sequel to TWOK written. I'm sitting down to read it in depth as I tweak my outline, so I thought I'd try writing out some annotations for you all. We'll see if I manage to get through the entire thing.

As always, if you're reading the novel for the first time, I will try not to spoil anything coming up in the book. If I do have comments that spoil later surprises, I'll hide them using the spoiler function. If you're reading an annotation for a given chapter, I will assume you've read that chapter and everything leading up to it.

I'm not going to edit these annotations (no time) or do any revisions whatsoever. (Peter might do a proofread, but that's it.) So I'm going to make some mistakes, and the writing is going to be rough at places. Take this for what it is: me sitting down and having a conversation about the book, giving a behind-the-scenes look. Extra facts I throw out in the annotations can be considered canon, but understand that I'm writing quickly and might make mistakes.

Brandon Sanderson

August–November 2012

#2 Copy

Brandon Sanderson


The endpapers were one of the things that we weren't certain whether we'd get into the final book or not. Tor was iffy on paying for them, as they add a large expense to the novels. In the end, Tor stepped up because they believed in the project, for which I am very grateful.

These are one of the last things we finished, and it took several tries to get them right. I knew I wanted them to be in-world pieces of art–things that are supposed to have been created by artists living within the world of Roshar. The front endpapers are murals crafted from stone and gems fitted together, and the back endpapers are stained glass. But the tones and the exact look of the images took some time to get right. (For a while, the symbols of the various magics on the first one had gemstones overlaying them. That turned out to look bad on the page. Perhaps when Peter is putting this up, he can grab those old drafts and post them beneath here.)

The first one of these is the one I'll talk about the most, the design that outlines the magic for Roshar. (Well, some of the magic.) This design is one of the very first things I developed for the art of this book, way back in 2001. The "Double Eye," as the people in world would call it, is a connection of ten elements.

I avoid elemental magic systems. I feel they're overdone. However, one of the concepts of this world was to have a theology that believed in ten fundamental elements instead of the ordinary four or five. A focus would be on them, and on the ten fundamental forces—the interplay between the two being a major factor in the magic, the philosophy, and the cosmology of the world.

Well, that's what these twenty symbols represent, with each of the larger symbols being a Radiant element. The smaller symbols are the forces. You can draw a circle around one element and the two forces that connect to it, and you have one of the orders of Knights Radiant.

For example, top right is the symbol for air—with the symbols for pressure and gravitation connected to it. The Windrunners.  

Peter Ahlstrom

Indeed, there was a lot of swapping around at the last minute to get everything working right with the magic. This is actually why the Way of Kings audiobook gets the Ars Arcanum chart wrong—it was using a version that was messed up between rounds of changes.

#3 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

World Map

The world map for Roshar changed dramatically between various iterations of the book.

Work on this novel started when I was fifteen. Back then, most of the plots and characters were combined with another world of mine, called Yolen. (That's where the book Dragonsteel takes place.) Somewhere in my early 20s, after I had a whole lot more experience and knew (kind of) what I was doing, I realized that the plots I had going in this world didn't click well together, so I divided the books into two separate series.

I wrote Dragonsteel first, back in 1999 or 2000. (Although Dragonsteel was the third book I wrote in the cosmere—after White Sand and Elantris—it was meant to be the chronological origin of the sequence. Hoid was one of the main characters of that series. The first book even includes significant viewpoints from him.)

I started outlining The Way of Kings fairly soon after. That original map I imagined as a continent with three prongs facing downward, with a connection at the top. There was the Alethi prong in the center, Shinovar to the west, and a long prong with Natanatan on the east.

Over the years, my worldbuilding skills grew. And part of that growth was realizing that the map I'd designed didn't work well for the story I wanted to tell. I wanted something better, and I changed designs.

I gave Isaac the outline of this world that became Roshar. (Based on an iteration of a Julia set, though for a while I played around with making the whole continent a cymatic shape.) That didn't happen for Mistborn, where I basically just told him, "Make the world map as you wish, with these guidelines." Mistborn, I knew, was going to happen basically in a couple of cities.

The Way of Kings was going to be huge, and I wanted scope for the project. That meant a big, epic map. I'm very pleased with Isaac's work here. Do note that this is a southern hemisphere continent, with the equator up north.

#4 Copy

Brandon Sanderson


In classic Sanderson fashion, the beginning of this book was the part to see the biggest edits. I usually start a novel, write from beginning to end, then go back and play heavily with my beginning to better match the tone of the book.

Here, one of my big decisions was to choose between two prologues I had written out. One was with the Heralds, and set the stage for a much larger story—I liked the epic feel it gave, and the melancholy tone it set. The other was Szeth's attack on Kholinar. This was a great action sequence that set up some of the plots for the novel in a very good way, but had a steep learning curve.

I was very tempted to use both, which was what I eventually did. This wasn't an easy decision, however, as this book was already going to start with a very steep learning curve. Prelude→prologue→Cenn→Kaladin→Shallan would mean five thick chapters at the start of the book without any repeating settings or viewpoint characters.

This can sink a novel quickly. As it stands, this is the most difficult thing about The Way of Kingsas a novel. Many readers will feel at sea for a great deal of Part One because of the challenging worldbuilding, the narrative structure, and the fact that Kaladin's life just plain sucks.

It seems that my instincts were right. People who don't like the book often are losing interest in the middle of Part One. When I decided to use the prelude and the prologue together, I figured I was all in on the plan of a thick epic fantasy with a challenging learning curve. That decision doesn't seem to have destroyed my writing career yet.

#5 Copy

Brandon Sanderson


Szeth uses magic

In Mistborn, by intention, I saved any big action sequences with the magic until the characters and setting had been established. This was intentional.

I did the opposite in The Way of Kings.

There are a couple of reasons for this. I spoke on the learning curve of this book; I felt it was best to just be straightforward with what I was doing. This book would be steep, and you'd see it in the first few scenes. Better to be straightforward with what you are.

At the same time, I felt that readers would put up with more from me. Fantasy readers can handle a steep learning curve, and tend to celebrate books that have a lot of meaty worldbuilding. I feel from my own experience as a reader, however, that I am wary of giving much effort to a book by a new author. Learning a new world takes work, and if an author is going to demand that kind of work from me, I want big payoff.

My hope is that I've earned my right to put out a book with this involved a setting. I've proven that I can tell a good story, and that it's worth the effort to get into one of my books and worlds. The Way of Kings is the most challenging book I've written; the payoff will be equal to that challenge. (I hope.)

#6 Copy

Brandon Sanderson


I'll be referencing the original draft of The Way of Kings (AKA Way of Kings Prime), written in 2002, as I feel it will probably be fun for readers to see how the book evolved over time. Every other book of mine you've read was conceived and executed over a relatively short period. The Way of Kings is different—it had a lot of evolving to do before hitting the state it's in now.

One of those evolutions was the magic. Mistborn had one of my best magic systems to date. In Way of Kings Prime (written before Mistborn) we only had two types of magic: Shardblades and Soulcasting. Shardblades were great, but not really magic. Soulcasting didn't work so well. [Assistant Peter's note: There was also something called Windrunning, but it was completely different from the version we know now.]

Mistborn really upped the ante in terms of magic in my books, and I wanted The Way of Kings to have a more dynamic, interesting magic system. That is one factor in why I waited so long to release it.

I finally worked out Lashings while on tour for The Well of Ascension. (That was the tour I went on following the call from Harriet, asking if I was interested in finishing The Wheel of Time.) What I liked about the Lashings system was the visual power and the means of manipulating gravity and pressure in interesting visual and creative ways. I had already built into the sensibilities of the world the idea that there were ten fundamental forces I had based on the idea of fundamental forces in our world's physics. It all fit together nicely.

Anyway, Szeth (named Jek in the first version of the book) was a more ordinary assassin in the original. He didn't have powers beyond being a really, really good killer.

#7 Copy

Brandon Sanderson


Obviously, there are a lot of things embedded in this scene for later books. I've noted frequently that with Mistborn, I got the luxury of writing the whole series before releasing it. I don't have that chance with Stormlight. I had to make sure all of my foreshadowing was placed and ready for later use.

I worry that so much of it is obvious, yet also confusingly so. The sphere that Gavilar give Szeth is barely mentioned in the book, for example.

No, I'm not going to tell you what it is.

#8 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter One

This was a controversial chapter for my writing group and my editor, and was wrapped up in the whole learning curve argument. It was suggested several times that if this chapter were from Kaladin's viewpoint, the book wouldn't feel quite so overwhelming at the start. After all, Chapters One and Two would then be from the same viewpoint and would give a stronger clue to readers.

I resisted. I had already accepted that this was going to be a challenging book for readers. That's not an excuse to ignore advice, but at the same time, I decided I was committed to the long-term with this book. That meant doing things at the start that might seem unusual for the purpose of later payoff.

This is an excellent example of that. If I'd done this scene through Kaladin's eyes, I don't think it would have been as powerful. Kaladin is on top of things here, in control. I didn't want the first chapter to feel that in control. I wanted the sense of chaos worry and uncertainty.

Beyond that, I wanted to introduce Kaladin as a contrast to all of that. A solid force for order, a natural leader, and an all-around awesome guy. Doing that from within someone's viewpoint is tough unless they're on the arrogant side, like Kelsier. It can work in that kind of viewpoint, but not in Kaladin's.

Finally, I am always looking to play with the tropes of fantasy where I can. I feel that if I'd been writing this as a youth, I'd have made someone like Cenn the hero. (Indeed, in the original draft of The Way of Kings from 2002, Kaladin was much more like Cenn is now.) Opening with a young man thrust into war, then having him get killed seemed like a good way to sweep the pieces off the table and say, "No, what you expect to happen isn't going to happen in this book."

This also let me set up for a future chapter, where I could flashback to Kaladin's view of these events. As narrative structure was something I wanted to play with in this book, that appealed to me.

#9 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter Two

Here we finally get to the book's main character, though I suspect that most readers won't catch that he is the one until we've come back to him at time or two.

Discounting Shallan, who was not in Way of Kings Prime, Kaladin is the one who went through the biggest evolution over the years. Dalinar has been Dalinar from day one. Adolin, Jasnah, Renarin, and Taln all solidified into themselves while I was writing Prime. Even Sadeas (under a different name) is basically the same person now as he was ten years ago.

Kaladin, though… Well, I had some growing to do as a writer before I could write him. He started in my concepts as a very generic fantasy "farmboy" protagonist. In Prime, there was nothing really original or interesting about him other than his situation. This is the danger for that style of protagonist; I feel that the best characters are interesting aside from their role.

For all my love of the Harry Potter books (and I do think they're quite excellent), Harry is a blank slate at the start. He's not interesting—the situations he's in are interesting. It isn't until later books, where he gets things to care about (like his godfather) that he starts to be defined as a character.

Kaladin was the same way. It's odd how writers are sometimes better at giving personalities to their side characters than they are at giving them to their main characters.

#10 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter Three


I chose to use Shallan as my other main character in Part One, rather than Dalinar, because I felt her sequence better offset Kaladin's. He was going to some very dark places, and her sequence is a little lighter.

She is the only "new" main character in this book. Kaladin (under a different name) was in Way of Kings Prime, and Dalinar was there virtually unchanged from how he is now. The character in Shallan's place, however, never panned out. That left me with work to do in order to replace Jasnah's ward.

Shallan grew out of my desire to have an artist character to do the sketches in the book. Those were things I'd wanted to do forever, but hadn't had the means to accomplish when writing the first version of the book. I now had the contacts and resources to do these drawings, like from the sketchbook of a natural historian such as Darwin.

One of the things that interests me about scientists in earlier eras is how broad their knowledge base was. You really could just be a "scientist" and that would mean that you had studied everything. Now, we need to specialize more, and our foundations seem to be less and less generalized. A physicist may not pay attention to sociology at all.

Classical scholars were different. You were expected to know languages, natural science, physical science, and theology all as if they were really one study. Shallan is my stab at writing someone like this.

#11 Copy

Brandon Sanderson


The City of Bells is a true city-state. They have no real authority beyond the city itself, and they trade for everything they need. There aren't Kharbranthian farmers, for example. If commerce were to fail, the city would flat-out collapse.

They do have their own language, as hinted at in this chapter, but it's very similar to Alethi and Veden. I consider the three languages to really be dialects of Alethi, and learning one is more about learning new pronunciations as it is about learning new words. (Though there are some differences in vocabulary.) I would put them even slightly closer than Spanish and Portuguese in our world.

The city origins are a little less proud than they'd tell you. Kharbranth was a pirate town, a harbor for the less savory during the early days of navigation on Roshar. As the decades passed, however, it grew into a true city. To this day, however, its leaders acknowledge that they're not a world power—and might never be. They use games of politics, trade, and information to play Jah Keved, Alethkar, and Thaylenah against one another.

#12 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

This chapter in particular was a challenge to write. My experience with Sazed in The Hero of Ages warned me that a character deep in depression can be a difficult and dangerous thing to write. Depression is a serious challenge for real people—and therefore also for characters. Additionally, it pushes a character not to act.

Inactive characters are boring, and though I wanted to start Kaladin in a difficult place, I didn't want him to be inactive. So how did I go about making scenes of a depressed fallen hero locked in a cage interesting and active? The final result might not seem like much in the scope of the entire novel, but these chapters are some of the ones I'm the most proud of. I feel I get Kaladin and his character across solidly while having him actually do things—try to save the other slave, rip up the map, etc.

Syl, obviously, is a big part of why these scenes work. She is so different from the rest of what's happening, and she has such stark progress as a character, that I think she "saves" these chapters.

You might be interested to know, then, that she was actually developed for a completely different book in the cosmere. I often speak about how books come together when different ideas work better together than they ever did separate. Kaladin and Syl are an excellent example of this. He didn't work in The Way of Kings Prime, and her book just wasn't going anywhere. Put them together, and magic happened. (Literally and figuratively.)

#13 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter Five

One of the problems with The Way of Kings Prime was it had too many characters competing for the limelight. It lacked focus. One could argue that the published The Way of Kings is kind of all over the place itself—indeed, a lot of the plot threads don't connect until the end. (And then only in some limited ways.)

In the published book, I feel it works. Yes, the book is expansive, but we really only have two locations for our plot: the Shattered Plains and Kharbranth. In Prime, Jasnah and Taln both had major sections of the plot, in addition to Kaladin, Dalinar, Szeth, and the character Shallan replaced. It was just too much, and the thing never pulled together.

Fixing this was one of my main goals for revising the book. I started The Way of Kings over from scratch during 2009, between writing The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight. I knew I needed a tighter narrative.

At the end, I moved Jasnah and Taln out of the book for the most part. They will have stories later in the series, but for this book, Jasnah isn't a viewpoint character.

I'll dig into Soulcasting at another time.

#15 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter Six

Bridge Four

I've spoken before on my creative process. I build books out of good ideas, often developed in isolation until I find the right place for them. (Allomancy and Feruchemy were originally developed separately, for separate books.) When a book doesn't work, the ideas get broken apart and bounce around in my head some more until I find another place to try them out.

Bridge Four—and the plateau runs—were originally part of Dragonsteel. Dalinar was too, so that's not all that surprising, I guess. However, Bridge Four is unique here in that when I decided to move them from Dragonsteel to The Way of Kings, I had already completed both books and felt pretty good about them. They are both important sequences in the Adonalsium Saga, and lifting Bridge Four from Dragonsteel meant taking away its most dynamic, powerful plot structure.

That decision was not easy to make. The problem is, both books were fundamentally flawed. Oh, they were both good, they just weren't great—and I felt I needed to be doing great in this point of my career. (Hopefully during every point of it.) The Way of Kings had an awesome setting and some great characters, but no focal plot sequence that really punched someone in the gut. Dragonsteel had wonderful ideas, but they never really came together.

In the end, I took the best part of the book that otherwise didn't work and put it into the book that needed a little extra oomph. The moment of decision came when Ben McSweeney, who was doing concept art on the book, sent me a concept he'd done that looked shockingly like the Shattered Plains. (Which, remember, were not even on that planet at that point.) I realized that they would fit the worldbuilding of The Way of Kings better than they ever did Dragonsteel, and that I could put greatshell monsters in them.

So, I ripped apart a book I love to make a (hopefully) better book. Rock came along to Roshar for the ride (he was an original member of Bridge Four in Dragonsteel). I added Teft, who had been left languishing for a decade or so after Mythwalker became Warbreaker and he didn't make the jump. Bridge Four seemed like a great home for him.

[Assistant Peter's note: Teft is mostly the same character as Hine from Mythwalker, but also has a character aspect from Voko in that book.]

#16 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter Seven

I've taken some visual art classes. I'm terrible at drawing—as you would expect from someone without a lot of experience—but I felt it would be important to know how visual art works and how artists think. Listening to the professors talk was in many ways more useful than the practice itself, though I did enjoy the drawing as well.

(As a side note, my final project for an art class in 2002—a basic drawing class—was a landscape of Roshar with rockbuds and the like. I took a stab at doing my own concept art, and bad though it was, it did help me start to visualize the world.)

How Shallan thinks here is really a blend of how I think as a writer and how I've heard visual artists think of their process. I'm drawing heavily on my own experience, and because of that blend, I suspect that to many artists her process will sound odd.

#17 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter Eight

Shallan Rejected Again

I do wonder at reader reaction to these Shallan sequences. Some in the writing group found these scenes too long. They figured it was inevitable that Shallan would end up as Jasnah's ward, and so spending several chapters with Shallan working overtime to secure the position wasn't interesting to them.

I admit this is a potential problem with the sequence. However, I felt it important to show both Shallan's determination and Jasnah's character with these sequences. I needed to show Shallan working very hard for what she wanted. It also gave me several opportunities to show the contrasting timidity/insolence that makes up how I view Shallan as a character.

#18 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Shallan berates the book merchant

The timid nature is a result of the problems in her past (see book two's flashbacks). I see the moments of flaring passion as being far more “her.”

Shallan's father has an infamous temper; it's buried deep within her as well. If she'd been allowed to grow up more naturally, without the oppressive darkness that her family suffered, she would have turned out as a very different person. Still, the person she could become is buried inside her. In my mind, this is one of the big connections between her as a character and Kaladin. It is also part of why both attract a certain type of spren…

#19 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Yalb the Sailor

This chapter is Yalb's time to shine. One of the things I love about The Wheel of Time is Robert Jordan's use of side characters who sometimes pop in, steal the show, then vanish. I love how they show up now and then in the text.

I'm not sure I can do the same thing here. Robert Jordan had worldbuilding reasons why small characters would get tied to the main characters and keep appearing in their lives again and again. I don't have those reasons.

Still, writing Yalb, I wanted him to really pop off the page even though he's only in the book for a few pages in these early scenes. I intend for him to return. In another type of story, he'd be one of the main characters.

#20 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter Nine

Kaladin in Bridge Four

This chapter is probably the most depressing thing I've ever written.

Writing a depressed character, someone in this bad a situation, is risky. It goes against almost every writing rule out there. A character like this can't be active, and there is basically no progress to the story. (I talked a little about this in the chapter 4 annotations for both The Way of Kings and The Hero of Ages.)

Sometimes I'll read the writing of new authors in my class who will try to use depression as a character flaw. They've heard instructors—perhaps myself—talk about how internal conflicts can create a really strong character. They also know that depression is something real and difficult to deal with in life, so they figure it will make a good demon for the main character to overcome.

The trap is that if the author is truly good at writing depression, then nothing actually happens in the story. It can be wonderfully authentic and at the same time wonderfully boring to read.

This chapter is kind of the culmination of me breaking rules in the beginning of The Way of Kings. I think this chapter makes the story incredibly more powerful—but the chapter itself is like a kick to the face to read. Slow, depressing. I assume this is probably the biggest place where—if people are going to stop reading—they put down the book and never pick it back up.

As I've said before, The Way of Kings is the book where I decided to break many rules to create something I felt was awesome. Great risk, and hopefully great reward.

#21 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Syl Leaves

I hated sending Syl away from Kaladin here, but it had to happen—in part because of how much it hurt to send her away. She's basically the only light left in these scenes with Kaladin in Bridge Four.

Syl wasn't in the original draft of Kings. I developed her over the years between 2003 and 2009; there was a time when the four winds from mythology would be active and alive on Roshar, and she was one of those. Eventually, the spren developed as a concept. They grew out of the greater worldbuilding and magic system rules for the cosmere. (The connected universe of my epic books.)

At that point, she became a sentient spren—one of many that would be in the books. Still, she was very special. I do worry about the Tinkerbell vibe that she gives off to some people. I tried hard to distance her from that. No wings, the constant shape changing, that sort of thing.

Her innocence and childlike nature is an important foil and balance to the darkness in Kaladin's life. Then she leaves, and all innocence is gone from him.

#22 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter 10

Kal helps his father work on a young girl's hand

For years I had been wanting to do a full-blown flashback-sequence book. Flashbacks (or non-linear storytelling) can be a powerful narrative device, but they're also dangerous. They can make a book harder to get into (nothing new for this book) and can create frustration in readers who want to be progressing the story and not dwelling in the past.

The payoff, in my estimation, is a stronger piece of art. For example, as Kaladin is slowly being destroyed in the bridges we can show a flashback for contrast. The juxtaposition between the naive Kal wanting to go to war and the harsh realities of the Kaladin from years later suffering in war might be a little heavy-handed, but I feel that if the reader is on board with the character, this will be powerful instead of boring.

I often talk about how books grow out of separate ideas that buzz around in my head. One of those ideas was to create a character who was a surgeon in a fantasy world. A person who believed in science during an era where it was slowly seeping through the educated, but who had to fight against the ignorance around him.

Back when Kaladin was called Merin, he didn't work well as a character. He was too much the standard "farmboy who becomes a nobleman" from fantasy genre cliché. I struggled for years with different concepts for him, and it was when I combined him with the idea for this surgeon that things really started rolling. It's interesting, then, that he didn't actually become that surgeon character. In the final draft of the book, that character became his father—not a main character as I'd always intended—and Kaladin became the son of the character I'd developed in my head to take a lead role.

#23 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter 11

And now comes the redemption chapter.

This is the sort of thing that I write books to do. It's the sort of chapter that I really hope to be able to pull off. That may seem strange to some of you, as it's not the climatic ending or the like—but it's the turning point of the story. Probably the most important one in the book.

I've said before that I feel Epic Fantasy is about return on investment. We often demand a lot of readers in terms of worldbuilding. There's a lot to catch up on and follow in a book like this. The goal, then, is to be able to deliver powerful scenes that make use of the investment.

The reward for the early chapters is this chapter. It lays a foundation for the entire book. I've brought Kaladin as low as I could bring him, and now we get to experience the scramble upward.

Perhaps I think about these things too much. However, this was exactly what was missing from Prime when I wrote it. I was baffled, at the time, as to why the book just didn't work. It had all of the elements of a good epicw, and yet the book felt hollow somehow. There were fun adventures to be had, but no real impact. What it needed was this sequence, which has a lot of motion (and hopefully heart) to it.

This chapter makes the book for me.

Event details
Name The Way of Kings Annotations
Date Sept. 8, 2017
Entries 23
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