4 Jun 2012, 7:50am
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Components of a popular book: An examination of THE EYE OF THE WORLD

I started The Eye of the World weeks ago, but only just finished it this weekend. A lot of people love it, I know, but to be honest I found it a bit of a slog. However! I am keenly aware that it was incredibly popular at the time of its original release (1990) and continues to be so today after the author’s death.

It’s one of those series people complain about all the time; that’s a sure sign of success. But why was it a success?

I want to talk about what I liked, what I disliked, and what qualities it has that I believe made it popular.

ObDisclaimer: Saying: “These are the qualities that made this book a best-seller” is not the same as saying: “These are the only qualities that make a best-seller.” This may seem obvious, but this is the internet. What interests me here is the way this book is similar to mainstream bestsellers by people like Patterson, Koontz, etc.

Spoilers, obviously.

Let’s do the shortest, easiest one first.

What I liked:

The writing wasn’t egregiously bad, I guess? The setting felt realish, and the book doesn’t stint on the amount of agriculture these societies are going to need.

Oh, and I like a good guy protagonist, especially ones that don’t act like life is cheap. That’s about it.

What I disliked:

The way the narrative jumped back and forth in time; every time I was relieved because the story had skipped ahead to an exciting scene, the next chapter would go back to fill in the skipped time.

Also, almost everything that I think makes the books popular.

Now that we have that out of the way…

The qualities that make this book incredibly popular:

Likeable protagonist.

Rand al’Thor isn’t the sole POV character, but he’s the main one and the book’s hero. Not only is he a good guy by instinct, he earns the Annoyingly Good Guy achievement badge by being over-protective of his not-girlfriend and being aw-garsh shy around winking farmgirls. One thing I’ve noticed about this sort of best-seller is that the protagonist Always Tries To Do The Right Thing.

Characters who are more than they seem.

Actually, of the eight major human characters, it turns out to be easier to list the ones who do NOT have some sort of secret history/powers/destiny. Here we go:

1. Moraine.
2. There’s only one.

The rest either have secret powers they never suspected, a royal heritage or a former royal appointment, or they’re ta’veren (more on that later. Maybe later books will reveal even more secret destinies, but I’ll never know.

Thinking about this aspect of the book, it almost comes across as a dare, as though Jordan was thinking “A Chosen One? How about a Chosen Three? Why not a Chosen Everyone?” It reminds me of those online conversations where writers, in a spirit of fun, exaggerate popular tropes until they suddenly realize they have something compelling on their hands.

As for Moraine, the only one who turns out to be exactly who she seems (again, maybe that changes in a later book but I don’t care) she’s a Peter Parker. No matter how good she is, no matter how many times she does the right thing or puts others before herself, she’s treated with contempt, suspicion and abuse. She even has to travel in secret.

Unfortunately, where Peter Parker responds to life with humor, Moraine is insufferably pious and serene. She never even really loses her temper, no matter how stupid people are to her.

The Dark Lard.

Things are so much simpler when evil is simply embodied in a single enemy (with scads of minions), aren’t they?

Familiar landscape.

We’re in fake-medieval land here, which is always a solid commercial choice. However, the monsters are original to this story, so while the reader can relate to the usual fantasy good guys (and understands the society they’re fighting to preserve) the villainous minions have a bit of mystery about them. See also: irredeemably evil non-human bad guys.

It doesn’t hurt that the protagonists are naive farmboys who need to have all the mysterious stuff explained to them (for the readers’ benefit, naturally).

Good-looking women.

Who’s hot? Chicks. All of them. Egwene, Moraine, the Darkfriend in the green dress, the flirty farm girl, Nynaeve, the Queen of Andor, the queen’s daughter… they’re all good-looking–except for the old ones of course, but you can totally tell they were hot back in the day.

Who’s ugly? Dudes. Actually, not just any dudes, but evil dudes. You’d think the locals would just wise up at some point and go through town expelling everyone who fails the Fuck/Marry/Kill game. Except that wouldn’t help with the female Darkfriends, because, you know, you can’t have ugly women.

More seriously, this may seem like a minor thing, but the more I read best-sellers the more I see it. It’s like Hollywood casting: you can have odd- or normal-looking men but odd- or average-looking women are a big no no.

It’s tempting to say that this is just laziness or habit and that it doesn’t matter to the overall success of a book. I’m increasingly doubtful. I’ve begun to think of all these tiny creative choices as spices in a stew–one or two off notes and people walk away vaguely dissatisfied.

Pseudo-digression: Someone knowledgeable once said that the definition of a great movie is one that has three fantastic scenes and no bad ones. Another compared movie-making with being a mosaicist–you shoot all these brief shots, then assemble them into a piece of art. If just one thing is off about one of those shots, it lessens the whole.

A few poor choices don’t always ruin the whole–look at Princess Leia’s sometime-accent. On the other hand, at least one producer is convinced his movie failed because of a raincoat–one canary yellow raincoat worn by the main character in an important scene.

In the same way, books are full of small creative choices, and this sort of bestseller always, always aim for the most generically appealing options. Good guys who are extra extra good! Villains who are extra extra evil! Farmboys with a Secret Destiny!

And, of course, women who are easy on the eyes, even if it’s just your mind’s eye.

Quick pacing.

I should qualify: This is quick pacing for an epic fantasy of its time. Compared to urban fantasy or science fiction, it’s pretty mellow.

For me, that’s always the biggest drawback of epic fantasy. It’s not that the books are long; it’s that they’re soft. Long sections stint on the conflict, or the ongoing conflicts don’t change.

In The Eye of the World, there’s a certain level of conflict that never slacks–and that’s good, even if so much of it is meat-headed Peter-Parkering of Moraine.

The Author Weaves the Plot The Wheel Weaves The Pattern.

To address this one, let me turn to my close personal friend, the hyperlinked quote from another article:

But actually, it’s not always necessary for the author to put in an appearance himself, if only he can smuggle the Plot itself into the story disguised as one of the characters. Naturally, it tends not to look like most of the other characters, chiefly on account of its omnipresence and lack of physical body. It’ll call itself something like the Visualization of the Cosmic All, or Seldon’s Plan, or The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the Law, or the Light, or the Will of the Gods; or, in perhaps its most famous avatar, the Force. Credit for this justly celebrated interpretation of Star Wars belongs to Phil Palmer; I’d only like to point out the way it makes sudden and perfect sense of everything that happens in the film. “The time has come, young man, for you to learn about the Plot.” “Darth Vader is a servant of the dark side of the Plot.” When Ben Kenobi gets written out, he becomes one with the Plot and can speak inside the hero’s head. When a whole planet of good guys gets blown up, Ben senses “a great disturbance in the Plot.”

If this is beginning to sound like a silly little verbal game, think again. The reason you can play this sort of game in the first place is that the Force is one of those arbitrary, general-purpose, all-powerful plot devices that can be invoked whenever convenient to effect whatever happens to be necessary at the time. The only ends it serves within the logic of the story are those of the storyteller.

Holy crap, but this sort of thing (called The Pattern here) is all over the book like ugly on an ape. All. Over. It. Moraine explicitly states that the characters do things/experience things because they are caught up in The Pattern. It’s like they have no choice. What’s more, the Chosen Three are ta’veren, aka important figures in The Plot The Pattern, being driven to an important end and affecting the destinies of everyone around them.

Which is appealing? Somehow? I mean, yes, it allows characters to ignore logic and common sense (“Oh look! A random person wants to accompany us as we flee from monsters and killers! Order up some extra provisions and another horse, because The Plot The Pattern wants them along.”) And yes, obviously we’re reading a book, but do we need to put that artificiality explicitly into the setting?

This is something I’m still thinking about. I suspect it gives meaning and import to the characters’ actions. Rather than being Just Folks trying to do the right thing, the characters get a story-world Stamp of Importance. They’re guided by The Force. They’re directed by The Pattern. There’s no need to worry that they might accidentally take the wrong exit and miss the Big Fight Scene At The End.

I guess that’s reassuring on some level, the way a Prophecied Chosen One guarantees you’ll be reading the important parts of the story. Still, it’s not as though epic fantasy that lets the big world-changing events happen in the background while focusing on the character are thick on the ground. But there you go.

Anyway.

Obviously, this isn’t the only way to write a best-seller. A Game of Thrones came out only six years later and makes an interesting contrast. Still, painfully likable good guys, physically appealing characters, unambiguously evil evil-guys, a quick pace, a narrative that makes it clear these are the important players in the story–

 
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