Tips from the Master: Exploring The Final Empire

One of the newer names making a big splash in the fantasy book realm is Brandon Sanderson. And while anyone who knows me well knows that I’ve been…. whelmed… by most of his books that I’ve read so far, one thing I will concede without argument: Sanderson is a master world builder.

So what are some things that this author does well when it comes to creating new worlds. Today, I’m going to focus on the Mistborn trilogy because that’s the series I’m most familiar with (fewer people seem to have read Steelheart, and I still haven’t finished that series, though it’s on my TBR).

The number one thing that Sanderson does well, possibly better than most other authors I’ve ever read, is that he focuses his world building on things that will most impact the plot and characters. This makes it easier for every aspect of the world-building that we see as readers to feel like it is essential to the plot and characters in some way, and keeps us from running into anything that seems superfluous. One good example is as follows: in Mistborn, he’s said he didn’t do much with linguistics/languages since everyone would be speaking the same language, while in another series, that was something he had to think about. So, clearly, Sanderson does a great job thinking about his story and outline and making educated decisions about where to spend his time and energy when it comes to world building. But the various cultures, the map, and the magic system all work together to pull you into the world and make it real.

Speaking of magic, another strength of Sanderson’s is his ability to come up with creative and logical magic systems that follow strict rules and are clearly explained. For example, in Mistborn, there are two main methods of magical use: Allomancers and Feruchemists. The Allomancers swallow powdered metal which they are then able to “burn” internally and use it to do certain things (different metal types allow them to do different things). Most Allomancers only have the ability to burn a single type of metal, but there are rare “Mistborn” who have the ability to use all fourteen types. The Ferochemists, on the other hand, can store a physical attribute inside a metal to use it later. They wear metal on their bodies or keep it in their pockets to use later, but if they use any of their magic to enhance their ability, they must spend an equal amount of time with that ability severely weakened. So if a feruchemist uses one of his “metalminds” to enhance his vision to twice his normal range for five minutes to see if an enemy is approaching, then he must spend five minutes later in the day with only half his normal vision.

These “hard” magic systems are intriguing and quite rare within the larger speculative fiction genre. Where many authors let magic happen simply because: magic! Sanderson makes the magic system integral to his world. There is no hand-waving in Sanderson’s stories. No “wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff” here, folks! The cultures, characters, and plots often utilize the magic system as a core component to tell the story. Not only is it integrated, but each of his magic systems are set with clear boundaries of what they can and cannot do. This attention to detail and almost mathematical precision allows very unique, unorthodox magic systems become something new and exciting for the reader to enjoy, while maintaining a level of control on magic and not letting it take over his stories.

A third thing that Sanderson excels at is creating different cultures within his worlds. And from what I’ve read and heard, he does a good job at not merely copying his own ideas from series to series or world to world. He creates completely new systems and cultures for each of his worlds and this adds a level of interest to his books that helps transport the reader into these new worlds. It also makes them feel larger than life and more realistic, more like our own world, which has multiple cultures and people groups that are often quite different from one another.

Mountain Segue

Have you read any of Sanderson’s books? Did you enjoy the world building? If you’re a fan, what is your favorite Sanderson book or series? Do you prefer a hard or soft magic system? What is your favorite fantasy culture you’ve ever encountered while reading?

Make sure you come back tomorrow, because we are going to explore one of my favorite fantasy realms: The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Have you read this series? Even if you haven’t, it’s an intriguing fantasy realm and has much to teach us about world building!

~ jenelle

18 Comments

Ally Morcom

My favorite Sanderson book was The Way of Kings. There were things lacking in Mistborn, mostly in the characters, I thought. That deficiency is gone in Way of Kings. I’d never seen someone tackle depression in a character in such a way that you actually didn’t realize they were depressed until it reached a critical mass and caused a crisis. It was amazingly realistic. And then he had someone on the autism spectrum in the Wax and Wayne series (also set in the Mistborn world, but later), and she just seemed extremely practical and a little odd, perhaps cold, at first.

I hadn’t really thought of the fact that he devotes his energy to the things that will affect the story, though. That’s actually incredibly helpful when it comes to my own world building!

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jenelle

I haven’t read Way of Kings yet, I’m sure I’ll get around to it someday, though I keep hearing people with similar tastes to mine say that it could have been a good 100-200 pages shorter without losing anything, so that’s got me a little hesitant.

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Jennifer Guyer

I haven’t really thought about Sanderson as new to the scene since he’s been writing prolifically for 25 years, but I guess that’s new. Anyway, I love Sanderson and have tried to create a hard magic system in my own books but instead of metals, fragrances. But I still like soft magic too. I wonder if it would have been easier to use soft magic.

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jenelle

I didn’t realize he’d been writing that long! :-O

Of course, I grew up reading all the fantasy authors of the 70s-80s and never even heard of Sanderson until his name got big when he finished the Wheel of Time books. I mean, I do realize he was around before that… but he was still kind of up-and-coming at that point and didn’t really explode in popularity until somewhere around 2015. Which is why I think of him as “new.” I wasn’t one of the “people who knew him back when.” LOL

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Chris Morcom

I’ve always loved Sanderson’s worlds…and he does Sci-Fi now, too (with the Skyward series). One of the biggest things I like about how he worldbuilds is that when he adds something to the world, the next thing he seems to ask is “Okay…so how does this impact everything else in the world?”

In the first Mistborn Trilogy, the impact of Allomancy and, especially, Feruchemy was fairly minimal–because they were largely kept secret from the masses and their use reserved to the nobility. But then you get into the Wax and Wayne series (as Ally said, set in the same world, just in the future).

You have Mistings who can mess with your emotions (Soothing/Rioting), so–you get “Soothing Parlors” where you can go visit and have all of your stressful feelings suppressed for a while–paired with counselors, it can help you deal with trauma and whatnot by reducing the emotions attached to it to a manageable level while you process. Then, of course, use of Soothing/Rioting is illegal in politics–and people figured out that wearing Aluminum on your head blocks the effects of Soothing/Rioting (so yes, canonically, Tin Foil Hats are effective in Scadriel)

You get Mistings who can use Pewter to make themselves supernaturally strong and tough…talk about top-tier physical laborers! Mistings who can use Steel to push ferrous metal away from themselves–so they get used as couriers since they can launch themselves through the air by pushing off of things.

In a lot of built out fantasy worlds, magic often feels tacked on. Like…”this is basically Medieval Europe…but also there are wizards.” Apart from having a “Court Magician” and “monsters” or whatever, magic has a basically null-impact on the rest of the setting.

Another world that does a good job of this is the D&D setting of Eberron–where magic has been industrialized. One feature is that anyone with the mind for it and willing to put in the time/effort/resources can get enough magic training to be a “magewright” (basically someone who went to Wizard School just long enough to learn a few handy tricks), such as an innkeeper who can magically reheat food and chill drinks, a carpenter who can repair damaged goods with a few words and gestures, a guide who can flawlessly predict the weather, a blacksmith who can manipulate fire and water for very precise forging and quenching (even letting them quench things that wouldn’t fit in a trough), and so on.

That’s a big thing I enjoy seeing in fantasy settings–because it shows that the author thought through the actual impact of the extra things they were adding to their world.

(Minor quibble… “Mistings” are allomancers that can use 1 metal. “Mistborn” are allomancers who can use all metals)

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jenelle

I figured you’d enjoy discussing stuff on this post :)

Ah… you’re right. I read the Mistborn trilogy about 6 years ago, now, so I had to pull a lot of my info from the vague recesses of my memory (which is harder when I’m trying to remember details from a book I didn’t actually like that much… this post was extremely difficult for me to write!) and what I could find online. My online source failed me. #facepalm

I have fixed the error.

Eberron sounds intriguing. I’ve heard you talk about that before. That’s the world with the war-forged, right?

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Chris Morcom

Yep, Eberron is the world with the Warforged. It also includes things like a literal mile-tall-city traversed with flying carriages, a train that runs on a curtain of lightning instead of tracks, and all sorts of fun things where magic has been integrated into the mundane.

Just as an example…a village may all go in together and purchase a Cleansing Fountain. It’s about the right size to go in a village square, looks like a decorative water fountain with no water running through it…and anything you place inside of it is subjected to the ‘Clean’ effect of the Prestidigitation cantrip. So…need to do laundry? Just go drop the entire basket in the Cleansing Fountain, give it a few seconds, and everything is clean. Did your child go rolling in the mud? Just drop them in the fountain and give it a few seconds.

There are also things like forges powered by a bound fire elemental, streetlights with an Everlasting Flame, magical ‘chillers’ that can make anything nice and cold in only a few seconds (but won’t make a person cold), clothing that can transform between multiple different outfits or have illusions woven into them, or giant scrying systems that function basically like a movie theater.

Then you have other magical effects being industrialized…like a continent-spanning communication network, an organization that specializes in magically taming and training supernatural creatures, and a banking guild that uses dimensional magic to allow remote access to a vault you rented.

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Sarah Pennington

You did a good job hitting on the big things that Sanderson does really well with Scadriel and in general. I’m going to add to your last point that he does an amazing job making sure that those distinct cultures and worlds still fit together in a cohesive whole. (Also, his work on magic systems is great because it all has to be founded on one concept expressed and utilized in different ways.)

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jenelle

Thanks! I was a little worried, because I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a Sanderson expert. But I couldn’t leave him out of a world building discussion!

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A. M. Reynwood

The only Sanderson book I’ve read so far is The Way of Kings, because my brother said it was fantastic. He was right, I’ve never met a fantasy quite like it, and he’s an inspiration for worldbuilding. But this focus on Mistborn has gotten me intrigued! I haven’t read a lot of books with this ‘hard’ magic stuff, and it sounds cool.

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jenelle

I really enjoyed the first Mistborn book. Unfortunately, spoilers happen at the end which kind of destroyed the rest of the trilogy for me… I kept hoping it would be undone and it wasn’t.

I am curious to read Way of Kings someday. We have it on audio book, which might be the only way I can actually tackle it. I used to zip through enormous books super fast, but that was back before I had 4 hobbits and limited reading time. :) But if I can listen to it while doing dishes and folding laundry…. *nods*

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Christine

I have been meaning to read the Mistborn books for AGES and still haven’t. IT’S GONNA HAPPEN ONE DAY. IT IS. Actually, I’ve never read any Sanderson. *shakes head in shame* I do own a copy of Steelheart though, so maybe ONE DAY I’ll get around to reading it. XD

But wow! This post was fascinating. His magic system sounds soooo unique! It is always nice when there’s some sort of method and purpose to magic instead of just…being there, with next to no rules or explanations. That’s actually something I need to work on myself. So this post was wonderfully helpful, and already has my brain going with ideas!

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jenelle

Yay! I’m glad it was helpful!

I MUCH preferred Steelheart to Mistborn, just sayin. Though I haven’t finished the Steelheart trilogy yet… because I read the first book before the rest were out and then… life happened. I am going to the library today, though…. hmmmmmm.

Yeah, Sanderson’s theory of “hard magic” has challenged me as I’ve looked at worlds beyond Tellurae Aquaous. I still tend to prefer “soft” magic systems, myself, but I’ve learned that it is helpful to have a few rules and boundaries figured out, if only to help add some realism to the story, and make sure that my characters can’t just solve problems with hand-waving. To some degree, it’s like the difference between Superman and Batman… which I’ll get into more later on in this series when we’re focusing on specific pieces of world building. But some people love the “Superman” style magic, where the sky is the limit and our hero is OP (except for a very specific Achille’s Heel), while others prefer the “Batman” style magic, where everything is thought out and there are relatable limits.

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Katrina Dehart

I haven’t read these books yet. Very interesting article. I’m learning new things!

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sjeckert

So far, I’ve only read the Stormlight Archives books, but I was absolutely blown away by his worldbuilding. It’s so rich and unique! I don’t know that I’ll ever get into the Wheel of Time books, but I think there’s a good reason people respect what he says about fantasy writing. Thanks for talking about this, it’s interesting stuff!

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jenelle

Well, Wheel of Time was only finished by Sanderson, who went through Robert Jordan’s 2,000+ pages of notes and manuscripts and helped edit them into the final three books after he died. So he can’t really take credit for building THAT world :)

But I can understand why Jordan’s wife chose him to be the one to take on that massive task. He did a great job with it, and stayed very true to Jordan’s “voice” and style.

He definitely has some good advice and wisdom to impart when it comes to world building. I appreciate the passion he has for the subject.

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