On Wizard’s First Rule

In catching up on the fantasy genre, I wanted to read popular books that were considered good, and popular books that were considered bad. So now I’m reading Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind, the first in the Sword of Truth series, which for some reason is often seen as the “rival” to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Goodkind is a very devisive writer. People seem to either love him or hate him, which I suppose, is exactly the reception that Robert Jordan gets. Usually people like one or the other, but rarely both.

I have to admit that I started Wizard’s First Rule expecting it to be bad. And, to be honest, the first 18 chapters supported this preconception. But if you make it to chapter 19, the book suddenly becomes pretty compelling. At that point, Goodkind starts building suspense very well, and he is able to communicate a lot of emotional resonance.

For my purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether the book is good or bad. As an aspiring writer trying to learn from established writers, I’m just analyzing the writing, character, setting, and plot. Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Goodkind so far.

Realism is important to an adult audience. I want to be a writer that pays at least some attention to details. Goodkind has said Sword of Truth isn’t really in the fantasy genre, and now I think I understand why. It’s really more of a fairy tale or soap opera than a typical epic fantasy. But I think adult fantasy audiences today require a little more realism. Not necessarily a historical fiction level of realism, but enough to let the reader know that the author has at least given some thought to how a person with medieval technology might light a candle in their tent at night while it’s raining too much to build a fire (see Wizard’s First Rule Chapter 15, p. 150).

Character flaws are vitally important. I want my characters to have flaws. This is pretty self-evident, but Sword of Truth really illustrates the point. In the first eighteen chapters, none of the characters have any flaws. They are all polite, kind to one another, friendly, eager to help, etc. None of them are missing an arm (okay, one is missing a foot), or scarred by their childhood, or tempted by drink, or afraid of spiders, or addicted to crystal meth, or anything like that. The biggest character flaw in Richard is that he’s afraid of getting too angry. (This is not to say the characters don’t have secrets; they have plenty of those.) Addendum: The reader should know the character flaws early in the story. As it turns out, Kahlan has an epic, tragic flaw which is pretty mind-blowing when you get to it, and makes you wonder how a person could possibly live with such a crushing weight on their soul, but you have to wait until Chapter 34 to fully get it.

Magic should have a cost and consequences. I want my magic-users to suffer for their art. Magic is “mysterious” in Sword of Truth in the sense that there is no logical, scientific explanation for it, which is my preference, but it goes too far into the all-powerful fairy tale snap-your-fingers-and-stuff-happens magic. That is, when Zedd the wizard magically holds up a bridge so it doesn’t collapse while they cross, seemingly with just a thought, one has to wonder why the wizard doesn’t use that levitation ability to do other more practical things, like float around so he doesn’t need a horse, or keep all his belongings suspended in the air around him instead of putting them in a backpack, or hell, frickin’ pick up his whole house and carry it with him.

Characters should act like normal humans. I want my characters to behave like ordinary people, not melodramatic stage actors. Most of the characters in Sword of Truth suffer from severe bipolar disorder which manifests as violent mood swings and dramatic outbursts. For example, when a character is irritated by something in a conversation, he might jump to his feet and get angry, or pound his fist on the table at odd moments. I’ve never known a person to “jump to his feet” in reaction to a conversation. It just doesn’t ring true.

Strong emotion loses its impact when overdone. I think that when the characters laugh or cry at the drop of a hat, the emotional impact of what they’re saying or doing starts to diminish over time. Richard and Kahlan certainly have reason to be crying all the time, but when it’s a constant, steady stream, chapter after chapter, it makes the characters seem a bit unstable.

One other amusing observation: All writers and especially new writers tend to repeat a phrase a lot (myself included). Wizard’s First Rule is apparently Goodkind’s debut book, and he is no exception to the rule. The most-repeated phrase so far is: “without emotion” or some variation thereof. “He showed no emotion” or “he betrayed no hint of emotion” or “he said without emotion.” Search for the word “emotion” and it comes up quite a lot.

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