THE WAY OF KINGS
The Mistborn books were successful. Many readers liked the idea of a world where the Dark Lord won, where prophecy and the hero were not what we expected them to be.
Because of how well it worked, however, I fell into something of a trap. When it came time to rewrite The Way of Kings, I floundered. I knew the story I wanted to tell, but I felt I needed to insert a major twist on the fantasy genre, along the lines of what I’d done in Mistborn. What would be my twist? What would be the postmodern aspect of this book? It literally kept me up nights. (Not hard to do, since I’m an insomniac, but still.)
Over time, I wrestled with this because a larger piece of me resisted doing the postmodern thing in Mistborn again. That piece of me began to ask some difficult questions. Did I want to be known as “The guy who writes postmodern fantasies”? There would be worse monikers to have. However, one of the major purposes of deconstructionism, is to point out the problem with self-referential material. There was a gimmick to the Mistborn books. It was a very useful one, since it allowed me to pitch the book in one sentence. “The hero failed; this is a thousand years later.”
There are a lot of very good postmodern stories out there, and I love the Mistborn books. But my heart wasn’t in doing that again. In order to write Mistborn the way I did, I also had to rely on the archetypes. My characters, for example, were very archetypal: The street urchin. The clever rogue who robs to do good. The idealistic young nobleman who wants to change the world. My plots were very archetypal as well: a heist story for the first book, a siege narrative for the second. I believe that a good book can use archetypes in new ways without being clichéd. (The Name of the Wind is an excellent example.)
In fact, it’s probably impossible not to reflect archetypes in storytelling. I’m sure they’re there in The Way of Kings. But I found in working on it that I didn’t want to intentionally build a story where I relied upon reader expectations. Instead, I wanted to look for themes and character concepts that I haven’t approached before, and that I haven’t seen approached as often in the genre.
There’s a distinction to be found. It’s much like the difference in humor between parody and satire. (As I define them.) In the first, you are funny only if your audience understands what you are parodying. In the second, you are funny because you are innately funny. Early Pratchett is parody. Mid and late Pratchett is satire. (Not to mention brilliant.)
And this is why, in the end, I decided that I would not write The Way of Kings as a postmodern epic. (Not intentionally, at least.) Mistborn felt, in part, like a reflection. There were many original parts, but at its core it was a study of the genre, and—to succeed at its fullest—it needed an audience who understood the tropes I was twisting about. Instead of making its own lasting impression and improvement on the genre, it rested upon the work done by others.
In short, I feel that using that same process again would make it a crutch to me. There is nothing at all wrong with what Mistborn did. I’m very proud of it, and I think it took some important steps. But it’s not what I want to be known for, not solely. I don’t just want to reflect and study; I want to create. I want to write something that says, “Here is my addition, my tiny step forward, in the genre that I love.”
To couch it in the terms of the Jewel video that started the essay, instead of creating a piece of art that screams, “Hey, look at those other pieces of art and hear my take on them,” I wanted to create something that says, “Look at this piece of art. This is what I think art should be in this genre now.” Part of me thinks that a video that was beautiful for its own sake, that didn’t rely upon the follies of others, would do more toward undermining those follies than would a video that pointed them all out.
And so, I tossed aside my desire to confine The Way of Kings into a single, pithy sentence explaining the slant I was taking on the fantasy genre. I just wrote it as what it was.