The Wheel of Time Retrospective: TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT: Writing Process
Just a reminder, all. Steelheart—my new novel—is out right now! It hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in the Young Adult category. If you’re curious, you can read about the book here, and listen to a cool audio sample here.
For an explanation of my Wheel of Time retrospective, see the previous posts on the topic. Here’s post number five. Before we begin, it should be stated that this post will contain spoilers for the entire series, ending included. If you haven’t finished, you will want to do so before reading this post.
Towers of Midnight: Writing Process
Part of the reason I’d decided upon doing Rand/Egwene first was because I knew that this book—Perrin’s sequence in particular—was going to be the trickiest of the four major viewpoint sequences. Of the four leads, I felt Perrin was one of those who needed the most growth. In fact, he had as much to grow as Rand did—but in more subtle ways. Rand’s descent was a result of the multitude of forces pushing against him, bearing him down, threating to crush him. He was brought to the point where he was because his personality issues were magnified a hundred times over by the extreme circumstances of his life. He cracked while trying desperately to find the right thing to do.
Perrin was different. He had major hangups that he consistently refused to confront, and in many ways was the farthest of the main characters from where he needed to be. Rand’s transformation was more dramatic, but Perrin’s was just as necessary.
It should be noted that I felt, both from the notes and my own readings of the series, that Mat was basically where Robert Jordan wanted him to be. This remains true even after I re-looked at Mat and tried to fix my interpretation of him. That doesn’t mean that Mat is finished as a character, just that he was where Mr. Jordan wanted him for the Last Battle. Mat was going to have another series all his own after the main group of books, and some of his character progress was saved for those. (Note that those books are not going to be written.)
Egwene had a small amount of development left to do, but was mostly there. In The Gathering Storm, she faced the most critical challenges of her career, but Robert Jordan had brought her to the point where she needed to be in Knife of Dreams, and in the notes for A Memory of Light he had indicated specifically how she was to progress. It was mostly a matter of using the confrontations in the White Tower to manifest things she had already learned, and to show once and for all the person she had become.
As for the other characters, Elayne was where she needed to be, but Avi was not. (She had a great deal of growth left to her.) Nynaeve had reached the peak of her development, in my opinion, as had Min. At least this is my read on it, which is reflected in my interpretations of the various arcs of the characters.
Perrin is my favorite character in the series, and has been since I was a youth. Like many readers, I was frustrated by his choices through the later books, though the writer in me really appreciated Robert Jordan’s skillful guidance of the character. The problems Perrin confronted (sometimes poorly) highlighted his uncomfortable relationship with the wolves, his unwillingness to cut himself a break, and his ability to devote himself so utterly to one task that everything else vanished. (As a note, I feel this is one of the major things that made me empathize with Perrin for all those years. Of the main characters, he is the only artist. However, he’s an artist like me—a focused project builder. A craftsman.)
Though I wanted to be careful not to overdo the concept, one of my goals in these last few books was to bring back ideas and conflicts from the first books—creating parallels and emphasizing the cyclical nature of the Wheel of Time. Again, this was dangerous. I didn’t want these books to become a series of in-jokes, homages, and repetitions.
However, there are places where it was not only appropriate, but vital that we return to these themes. I felt one of those involved the Whitecloaks and Perrin, specifically the two Children of the Light he had killed during his clash with them in the very first book. This was a tricky sequence to plot. I wanted Perrin to manifest leadership in a way different from Rand or Egwene. Robert Jordan instructed that Perrin become a king, and I loved this plot arc for him—but in beginning it with the Whitecloaks, I threatened to leave Perrin weak and passive as a character. Of all the sequences in the books, I struggled with this one the most—mostly because of my own aspirations, goals, and dreams for what Perrin could become.
His plot is my favorite of the four for those reasons.
I had other goals for Perrin in this book. His experiences in the Wolf Dream needed to return, I felt, and push toward a final climax in the Last Hunt. This meant returning to a confrontation with Slayer, a mirrored character to Perrin with a dual nature. I wanted to highlight Perrin’s instinctive use of his powers, as a contrast to the thoughtful, learned use of power represented by Egwene. People have asked if I think Perrin is better at Tel’aran’rhiod than Egwene. I don’t think he is, the balefire-bending scene notwithstanding. They represent two sides of a coin, instinct and learning. In some cases Perrin will be more capable, and in others Egwene will shine.
The forging of Perrin’s hammer, the death of Hopper, and the wounding of Perrin in the leg (which is mythologically significant) were in my narrative plan for him from the get-go. However, weaving them all together involved a lot of head/wall-bashing. I wanted a significance to Perrin’s interactions with the Way of the Leaf as well, and to build a rapport between him and Galad—in my reads of the characters, I felt they would make for unlikely friends.
Of all the major plot sequences in the books, Perrin’s was the one where I had the most freedom—but also the most danger of straying too far from Robert Jordan’s vision for who the character should be. His instructions for Perrin focused almost entirely on the person Perrin would be after the Last Battle, with little or no direction on how to bring him there. Perrin was fully in my hands, and I wanted to take extra care to guide my favorite character toward the ending.
I will note, by the way, that Verin’s interaction with Egwene in The Gathering Storm was my biggest surprise from the notes. My second biggest was the Thom/Moiraine engagement. Robert Jordan wrote that scene, and I was surprised to read it. (As I said, though I loved and had read the books, there are plenty of fans who were bigger fans than myself—and to them, this was no surprise.) I didn’t pick up the subtle hints of a relationship between the two of them until my reread following my getting the notes.
Robert Jordan had written much of Mat’s plot, and left instructions on much of the rest. My challenge with Mat in this book, then, wasn’t to complete his arc—which was quite good. It was to do a better job with Mat than I had in the previous book.
In order to do Mat right, I went back to Robert Jordan’s writing. This time, I dissected Mat, looking at him as a craftsman. I saw a depth of internal narrative that was unlike anything I’d analyzed before. Of all the Wheel of Time characters, Mat is the least trustworthy narrator. What he thinks, feels, and does are sometimes three very different things. His narrative itself is filled with snark and beautifully clever lines, but a relative few of those actually leave his lips. The harder he tries to do something, often the worse it turns out for him. Mat’s at his best when he lets instinct lead, regardless of what his internal monologue says.
This makes him very tricky to write, and is why my initial gut instinct on how to do him was wrong. I think for a lot of Wheel of Time readers, Mat is the big surprise in the series. The sometimes snarky, but often grumpy sidekick from the first two books transforms into a unique blend of awesomeness I haven’t found in any other story.
I feel that my stab at writing Mat in Towers of Midnight is far better than it was in The Gathering Storm, though I’m not sure I got him right until A Memory of Light. I know some fans will disagree that I ever did get him right, but I am pleased with—and comfortable with—the Mat of these latter two books. Though, of course, having Robert Jordan’s more detailed instructions for Mat in these books does help.
To be continued.